Idaho's tragedy at Ruby Ridge

History Corner

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On Aug. 21, 1992, gunshots echoed through the woods at Ruby Ridge, a few miles southwest of Bonners Ferry. The shootout was between deputy U.S. marshals and the Randy and Vicki Weaver family that lived in a cabin in the woods to home-school their kids and escape what they believed was a corrupted world, while waiting for the apocalypse.

When the shooting stopped, Weaver's 14-year-old son Sammy and his dog Striker were dead - Sammy shot in the back by Deputy U.S. Marshal William Francis Degan. The next day, Randy Weaver was wounded and his wife Vicki also dead. So too was Deputy Degan.

It was one of the ugliest events in recent Idaho history.

Weaver, 44, was a former factory worker in Iowa and a U.S. Army Green Beret. Wishing to start a new life away from civilization, the Weavers moved to North Idaho in 1983 and bought 20 acres in the Selkirk Mountains forest and started building their cabin home, plus a guest cabin, to quietly raise their two children. But despite the remote location, they couldn't avoid trouble.

In a business dispute with neighbor Terry Kinnison, Weaver won a resulting lawsuit. In retaliation, Kinnison sent letters to the FBI, Secret Service and county sheriff claiming that Weaver was threatening to kill the President, the Pope and Idaho Gov. John V. Evans. He also claimed Weaver had a large cache of weapons, and was a member of the racist Aryan Nation, operating an hour's drive south in Hayden.

The libelous attacks brought in law enforcement authorities, triggering the tragic events that followed.

Unsurprisingly, the feds and local law enforcement jumped on the accusations immediately. The Weavers spent hours meeting with authorities, denying all of it.

They denied the threats, the weapons charge and membership in the Aryan Nation. Investigators, however, discovered that he did associate with Frank Kumnick, who knew members of the Aryans.

The trail of events that led to the Ruby Ridge shootout started in July 1986, when Kumnick invited Weaver to a meeting of the Aryan Nation and introduced him to Kenneth Fadeley, a member who was a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) informant. They met several times over the next three years.

Then in 1989, the ATF accused Weaver of selling Fadeley two sawed-off shotguns, with barrels shorter than allowed by law. Weaver said the agents sawed them off shorter, not him. The ATF then tried to recruit him as an informant to avoid prosecution, but Weaver refused. The agency retaliated by filing false charges accusing him of being a bank robber with criminal convictions. That December, a federal grand jury indicted him for making and possessing - but not for selling - illegal weapons.

Weaver was known for his distrust of government and events were confirming he had reason to.

He was arrested and told his trial would start on Feb. 19, 1991. Then began a series of bureaucratic paperwork and court scheduling snafus, plus an inability to communicate with Weaver was leading the family inexorably to Aug. 21, 1992. A warrant for his arrest was issued and the marshals called to bring him in.

Weaver wouldn't make that easy, holing up in his cabin and the matter dragged on for over a year. He believed there was a conspiracy against him, and threatened to resist with force any attempt to arrest him. The conflicting signals he was receiving from government agencies convinced him he could not get a fair trial. When vehicles approached, the Weavers would be armed and in the surrounding woods until they determined the visitor.

At first, authorities were able to communicate with him through intermediaries but then that stopped. The Marshals Service planned an attack, setting up surveillance cameras, with armed agents hiding in the woods.

Then on April 18, Geraldo Rivera reporting for the "Now It Can Be Told" TV show flew over the property in a helicopter, and Weaver was later accused of shooting at it. There was no evidence of this, and even Richard Weiss the helicopter pilot repeatedly denied it. That didn't stop Marshals Service's Wayne "Duke" Smith and FBI's Richard Rogers from using the alleged shooting as a justification for issuing rules of engagement (ROE) instructions to their agents.

U.S. Attorney Ron Howen joined in the accusations, despite the lack of proof.

Agents were told to use military rules of engagement, different to FBI standard deadly force policy. Later, several snipers testified that they considered those orders to be a green light to "shoot on sight."

Matters remained tense for the next four months, with neither side giving an inch. Then on Aug. 21, the feds made their move. Like a final scene in a military action movie, marshals dressed in camouflage, with night-vision goggles and M16 rifles moved in to set up an observation post near the cabin.

They threw two rocks at the cabin to test the pet dogs' reaction. Thinking it was possibly game to shoot because they were running out of meat, Weaver's friend Kevin Harris, 24, and 14-year-old son Samuel Weaver along with their dog Striker came out to investigate.

The marshals pulled back about 500 yards westward to a Y in the trail and hid. Soon, Sammy, Harris and Striker came along, while Randy Weaver took a separate trail. The rest of the family stayed home.

At the Y, they encountered the marshals and the shootout erupted. Harris returned fire and killed Deputy U.S. Marshal Degan. It's unclear who fired first, but Deputy Art Roderick shot and killed Striker and Sammy was shot in the back and killed while retreating.

A total of 19 rounds were fired in the battle at the Y. Later, Randy and Vicki returned to retrieve their son's body and placed it in the guest cabin.

The following day, as Randy, 16-year-old daughter Sara and Harris were visiting Sammy's body, Randy was shot in the back by FBI sniper Lon Horiuchi, but survived - the bullet passing through his right armpit. Though wounded, Weaver along with Sara and Harris ran back toward the main cabin. Vicki was standing by the door holding her 10-month-old baby Elisheba. Horiuchi then fired a second bullet, which passed through Vicki's head, killing her and then hitting Harris in the chest.

The standoff lasted another 12 days, with hundreds of federal agents surrounding the cabin. Finally the Weavers surrendered.

Randy Weaver was acquitted of all charges except for failing to appear in court, and was sentenced to 18 months in prison and fined $10,000. Harris was acquitted of all charges.

Public outrage broke out across the nation over the violent actions at Ruby Ridge by the federal law enforcement agencies.

When the long legal process ended, Randy Weaver was awarded $100,000 and his three daughters $1 million each. The Weavers returned to Iowa, and Harris filed a civil suit and won $380,000.

FBI sniper Horiuchi was charged with manslaughter but never stood trial.

The Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Government Information held hearing from Sept. 6-Oct. 19, 1995. At the hearings, FBI Director Louis Freeh admitted that, "law enforcement overreacted at Ruby Ridge," calling the federal actions as "synonymous with the exaggerated application of federal law enforcement." Fourteen FBI agents received minor punishment (Eight months later, the same government agencies plus others - and including some of the same personnel at Ruby Ridge - were at Waco, Texas, in another shootout, though facing an entirely different situation).

In 1993, Kevin Harris was indicted for first-degree murder in the death of Deputy Marshal Degan but acquitted, the court declaring that he was acting in self-defense. Four years later - just before the statute of limitations ran out - a zealous Boundary County prosecutor filed a murder charge against him, but the charge was tossed out on grounds of double-jeopardy, having already been acquitted in the earlier trial.

Randy Weaver and daughter Sara had their say about the tragedy, writing a paperback book, The Federal Siege at Ruby Ridge.

This sad episode of Idaho history was about a family that wanted to be left alone but were thrust back into a world they sought to escape by a vindictive neighbor and zealous government agents who wouldn't follow the rules.

Syd Albright is a writer/journalist/biographer living in Post Falls. Contact him at silverflix@roadrunner.com.

The negotiators...

One report says, "Many of the people used by the marshals as third party go-betweens on the Weaver case - Bill and Judy Grider, Alan Jeppeson, Richard Butler - were evaluated by the marshals as more radical than the Weavers themselves." Butler, co-inventor of the tubeless tire, was leader of the white supremacist Aryan Nation.

Celebrities part of the story...

Two well-known personalities were part of this saga: Bo Gritz who ran as vice president with U.S. presidential candidate David Duke, formerly Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, helped negotiate an end to the standoff. Trial Lawyer Hall of Famer Gary Spence was Weaver's defense attorney, attacking the government's witnesses and evidence without offering a defense. He never lost a criminal case either as a prosecutor or a defense attorney.

Government shenanigans...

Weaver Trial Report: FBI tampered with evidence, and crime scene photos given to the defense were phony reenactments, and though the prosecutor knew this, he failed to inform the defense.

Responding to court demands to appear...

A letter signed by the Weaver family-Randy, Vicki, Samuel, Sara and Rachel-stated: "We, the Weaver family, have been shown by our Savior and King, Yahshua the Messiah of Saxon Israel, that we are to stay separated on this mountain and not leave. We will obey our lawgiver and King ... You are servants of lawlessness and you enforce lawlessness. You are on the side of the One World Beastly Government ... Repent for the Kingdom (government) of Yahweh is near at hand ... Choose this day whom you will serve ... Whether we live or whether we die, we will not obey your lawless government."

Waiting for the Messiah...

Vicki Weaver's religious beliefs were influenced by Hal Lindsey's book The Late Great Planet Earth, interpreting Biblical accounts of "the end times," predicting nuclear holocaust and Armageddon, just before the return of Christ. The Weavers chose the Idaho mountains to wait for that event.

Visiting vehicles checked...

Suspicious of all visitors to their mountain cabin, the Weavers took up armed positions around the cabin until the visitor was recognized.

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