Ruby Ridge is an area in the hills of Northern Idaho about 40 miles from the Canadian border. It is famous for only one thing, an eleven-day siege that started on August 21, 1992 and ended the lives of three people. It's interesting to see how media events turn to history. It's not every day federal officers lay siege to someone's home. So when the press heard of this cordon at the residence of Randy Weaver that involved four hundred federal agents, they wanted headlines.
This impressive force was made up of the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), U.S. Marshals Service, the Idaho National Guard, and the Idaho State Police. Their adversaries, a family of six (including an infant) and their houseguest. Randy Weaver must have been a pretty bad dude to have such a force descend upon his home and family.
He did live in Northern Idaho, an area known to have active white supremacist groups and gun-toting militia. A Secret Service investigation found he was acquainted with members of the Aryan Nation. They investigated him in 1985 because he was accused of making threats regarding President Reagan. He was also accused of having a "stockpile" of weapons and access to explosives and "an unlimited amount of ammunition." He revealed that he had spent three years in the army. They also found he was a fundamentalist Christian. Weaver, at the request of his wife Vicki, had moved his family away from "the sins of the world" as they waited for the second coming of Christ, and the Armageddon that would follow.
So this is why they stormed his house? He was a right-wing-gun-toting-president-killing-racist-fundamentalist mercenary? No, but this is what the press started to report. It was really the only information the officials could release, as all the information pertaining to the actual events of the siege were part of an open investigation. He actually seemed quite friendly when the Secret Service interviewed him. Weaver explained there was a lot of talk about him and his family, but it was just that, talk. He never booby trapped his driveway, burned any churches, or said he wanted to kill Reagan (actually he voted for him twice) as had been alleged. He only had 15 guns all of them legal. He told them that federal authorities were welcome on his property "in spite of stories that had circulated about him and his family." Weaver had no criminal record and after this investigation, he was deemed so little of a threat, the ATF tried to recruit him.
The Weavers' way of life is a bit hard to understand; still they had every right to live it the way they preferred. Randy was not employed, though he did provide for his family. They would hunt every day. They farmed a garden. They made their own clothing. Other than a diesel generator they turned on from time to time, they lived very similarly to the way people did at the end of the 1800s. They were fundamentalist Christian and racist but preferred to be left alone with their beliefs, considering themselves separatists.
Weaver was approached several times by undercover ATF informant Kenneth Fadeley. Fadeley, who was trying to infiltrate violent militia and racist groups in Northern Idaho and Montana, was paid by the ATF for information that led to convictions. Fadeley, on several occasions asked if Weaver would saw the barrels off of a few shotguns for him. After some persistence, in October of 1989, Weaver complied and sold him two sawed-off shotguns. Six months later, the ATF approached Weaver with a deal. Either he turned informant or he would be prosecuted for the gun charge.
Not wanting to be a "snitch" he refused and was consequently arrested. The ATF's attitude towards Weaver suddenly changed, as they felt "it would be too dangerous to the arresting agents and to the Weaver children" to arrest him at home. They set up an undercover arrest and even though both Weaver and his wife Vicki were armed at the time he was brought in without incident. He was arraigned. Apparently, the judge didn't feel Weaver was that much of a danger and released him on $10,000 bond. When he did not make his court date, the sitting judge issued a bench warrant for his arrest. On March 14, 1991 a federal grand jury indicted Weaver for failure to appear.
Federal authorities had some tough decisions to make regarding his arrest. They could leave the man alone in his mountain cabin and arrest him if he ever came to town. They could "spy" on him and wait for an opportunity to arrest him on or near his property. Or they would storm the house and hope for the best. This was the first of some very difficult decisions. Personally, I would have opted to leave the man alone. He was not much of a danger to society. Later in court, it would come out that the ATF informant had entrapped him into selling the guns, and that he had never sold guns prior to or after this incident. It had been over a year and a half since he committed the crime and the only real reason they were seeking an arrest was because he refused to work as an informant.
The ATF chose to observe him and try to work out the best way to make an arrest. Because the ATF was not equipped for such a task they asked for help from the Marshals Service's Special Operations Group (SOG), a specially trained tactical paramilitary unit. After reviewing the case Henry Hudson, acting Director of the US Marshals, asked that the warrant be dismissed. However, US Attorney Maurice Ellsworth rejected this request and compelled him to continue as planned. After a series of reconnaissance flyovers and the placement of several observational video cameras, the six marshals began shadowing and observing, dressed in head-to-toe camouflage and armed considerably well.
The plan they came up with was interesting. It proposed the US Marshals could "surreptitiously buy a plot of land north of the Weaver property and that two deputy marshals, posing as husband and wife, would visit and develop the property, and that eventually an opportunity would arise to arrest Weaver out of the presence of other family members." However, "the plan...was delayed for three months pending the confirmation of Henry Hudson as the Marshals Service Director." The SOG kept active in the area, and on the morning of August 21, 1992 they moved dangerously close to the house.
It was deemed too dangerous to try to take the house by force, either lethal or non-lethal. The SOG had observed that everyone in the Weaver house was armed. This wasn't abnormal, as they hunted everyday, but they were also actively defending their property. They would do hourly patrols of the property. Their paranoia had reached a pinnacle after Randy's arrest.
The Weavers had dogs and sensing the agents they began to bark. One of the dogs started to run towards the marshals. Wondering what the dog was interested in, Weaver's fourteen-year-old son Sammy and Kevin Harris, a twenty-five-year-old friend who had been living with the Weavers, pursued. The marshals turned and ran farther into the woods. Deputy Marshal Larry Cooper "told the others that it was 'bullshit' for them to continue running and that he did not want to 'run down the trail and get shot in the back.' He urged them to take up defensive positions."
Still unsure what they were chasing, they watched as gunfire came from the woods and struck the dog. Startled and frightened Sammy shot randomly in the direction from which the bullets came, then turned and ran back towards the house. Cooper shot Sammy in the arm and he fell to the ground. Sammy brought himself to his feet and Cooper shot him in the back. Harris, watching all this, went prone and took aim. He fired one shot and struck Deputy Marshal William Degan in the chest. This was over relatively quickly, despite what the marshals claimed in reports, to the press or to the 911 operators.
Both Sammy and Degan died with minutes. The SOG never identified themselves as US Marshals nor did they try to resolve Sammy's random spray of bullets with any sort of non violent means as had been instructed in their planning ("US Marshals, hold your fire" might have done some good). For all the Weavers knew, there were masked men with guns who had just killed a dog and a family member.
Harris retreated back to the house with Sammy's body, leaving it near a shed in the yard. The SOG units dragged the body of their slain team member as they fell back to their operations post. Forty-five minutes later Deputy Marshal David Hunt called 911 and told them that the SOG was still under fire and that Degan was pinned down. Throughout the rest of August 21, the Weavers stayed inside the house, conducting no patrols. The SOG units stayed in observation range and waited for their backup to arrive. That day, amongst other bad information about the incident, the press reported that Degan was pinned down for nearly 8 hours before he was killed. The world, including the agents that were to participate in the siege, was given this first glimpse at these bloodthirsty fundamentalist-Christian anarchist cop killers.
The force that came the next day included nine members of the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team (HRT). When they were briefed they were told this would "be no long siege," and the family was to "be taken down hard and fast." They were also briefed on the rules of engagement (ROE). Agent Dale Monroe commented, "We had a green light to use deadly force against an armed adult male," regardless of whether or not he was acting in a threatening manner. Agent Edward Wenger added, "My understanding of the ROE was that if I saw an armed adult outside the residence, I was to use deadly force against that individual." This was very abnormal. Usually the rules of engagement never allow for such broad discretion from snipers, unless they are dealing with a particularly dangerous person who they have no hope of taking alive.
The day went by without incident. The Weavers stayed inside the house. The force of federal agents in the cordon grew in numbers every hour. Yet there were no shots fired. In the afternoon, posing no threat to the federal agents, Weaver, accompanied by his oldest child Sara and Kevin Harris, left the house to see to the body of Sammy. While crossing the yard to the shed, Weaver was struck by a bullet from HRT sniper Lon Horiuchi. Realizing they were not safe, the threesome turned and ran back to the house. As they entered the house, Horiuchi took another shot, supposedly aimed at Harris, which struck Vicki Weaver in the head and killed her instantly. The bullet passed through Vicki and struck Harris, wounding him.
A half hour later the FBI informed the family (via a loudspeaker) that they were serving warrants for the arrest of Randy Weaver and Kevin Harris and asked that they enter into negotiations. They used a robot, which was equipped with telephone and a shotgun. Randy refused negotiations, believing they may try to shoot him with the robot's gun. The next day, using Armored Personnel Carriers, agents removed the body of Sammy Weaver and demolished the shed and other structures around the property. They again tried to start negotiations. There was no response. The Weavers did not know what to do. They laid on the floor of the house, believing that if they became visible again, they would be killed. Although, both Weaver and Harris were wounded and needed medical attention they were too petrified to give themselves up for nine more days. Harris surrendered on August 30 and they removed Vicki's body. The next day Randy and Sara surrendered.
The aftermath was surprising to the media as it contradicted everything they had been reporting. Kevin Harris was acquitted on all counts including the murder of Deputy Marshal Degan, which the court deemed self-defense. Randy Weaver was acquitted on all counts including the original gun charge, although he was convicted of the charge that he failed to appear and served 18 months.
There were several actions taken by the ATF and FBI that were more than questionable before, during and after the siege. The court found that Weaver was entrapped into selling the guns. The Senate found Agents and Marshals lied about key facts to the press and on official reports, and that they acted irresponsibly under fire. Routine investigations were not conducted. High-up officials covered their asses and the lower levels shifted blame. The federal government spent millions of dollars to secure Weaver's 18 month conviction. In addition to this money they also paid a 3.1 million dollar settlement to the Weaver family for the wrongful deaths of Vicki and Sammy.
Senator Patrick Leahy at the Senate hearings on Ruby Ridge summed this tragedy up by saying, "We have a U.S. marshal, Marshal Degan, who's dead, leaving behind a widow and two orphan children. We have two members of Randy Weaver's family dead. We have millions and millions of dollars spent. We have the humiliation of some of our top and best law enforcement agencies in this country. We have careers being ruined, some through mistakes and some apparently through intentional -- I'd call it malicious -- action. And all this comes from somebody who sold two shotguns that you or I could buy at Sears Roebuck and spend an extra 15 bucks for a hacksaw, cut them off, and if we have any ability at all at woodworking put the pistol grips on them and so on. I was thinking of this over and over again, how anything could come so tragically wrong."