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For eighteen months, federal marshals laid siege to a family of five, their friend, and the family dog, who were holed up in a cabin.
In 1983 Randall “Randy” Weaver, a former Green Beret, his wife, Vicki, and their three children decided to move from Iowa to greater seclusion in the rugged panhandle country of northern Idaho. The Weavers, though not belonging to any particular group, believed in separatism and the apocalyptic prophecies that advised the faithful that the endtimes were very near. True to the survivalist spirit, the Weavers bought a large acreage on Ruby Ridge, built their own home, and managed to make a living by selling firewood.
In The Federal Siege at Ruby Ridge: In Our Own Words, written by Randy Weaver, his daughter, Sara, and Bill Henry, Weaver claims that federal agents saw him as someone who could give them information on some of the white-supremacist and neo-Nazi groups in Idaho. When he failed to comply with their requests, he was indicted in 1992 for selling two illegal sawed-off shotguns to an FBI informant. Weaver and his lawyers protested that he was set up in an elaborate entrapment scheme by federal agents in order to force him to cooperate with them in gaining information about the antigovernment movements in the area. Fearing that he was about to suffer consequences of an uncooperative attitude, Weaver didn’t appear in court for his trial. When he was indicted on a second count, he retreated to his stronghold in Ruby Ridge.
For the next eighteen months, the Weavers were under close surveillance by federal marshals, who ringed the Ruby Ridge property, hoping that Randy would come out so they could arrest him. According to orders issued by the U.S. attorney’s office in Boise, the federal agents were to apprehend Weaver only in a peaceable, nonviolent manner, which translated to arresting him if he left the stronghold and surrendered.
On August 21, 1992, the standoff came to a bloody halt. In the marshals’ account, three officers armed with M-16s were reconnoitering the Ruby Ridge property when Kevin Harris, twenty-five, who was living with the Weavers, and the Weavers’ fourteen-year-old son, Samuel, began chasing them and shooting at them. A brief firefight broke out that left Marshal William Degan, Samuel Weaver, and the Weavers’ dog dead. In his testimony, Harris stated that he witnessed the federal agents’ killing of Samuel and the dog and began firing at the marshals in self-defense, killing Degan.
After the initial gun battle, more than two hundred law-enforcement officers, led by the FBI, surrounded the Weavers’ cabin. On August 22, the day after Samuel Weaver and Marshal Degan were killed, an FBI sniper, Lon Horiuchi, got off two rounds, instantly killing Vicki Weaver and seriously wounding Randy. For the next ten days Weaver, his three daughters, and Harris continued to resist. The FBI brought in Special Forces hero James “Bo” Gritz to negotiate with the beleaguered Weavers, and Harris decided to surrender. Weaver and his daughters waited one more day before waving the white flag.
At their trial in July 1993 one of the Weavers’ attorneys, Gerry Spence, spoke critically of the FBI’s handling of the engagement. Advising the jury that the incident at Ruby Ridge was just like Waco, Spence said that initially the marshals were instructed to keep their distance from the Weavers—to keep them under surveillance but have no contact with them. After several months of maintaining a stakeout, the federal agents began to work at provoking a confrontation, and the Weavers and Harris acted in self-defense.
The prosecution attempted to counter by claiming that Harris had fired first when he killed Degan. The defense produced ballistic evidence that Degan had fired seven rounds before he was shot.
The federal government re-created the death of Vicki Weaver and said that the sniper had caught only a glimpse of someone moving behind a curtain and had accidentally killed her. Earlier in the trial, however, Horiuchi, the sniper, testified that he was considered an accurate shot at two hundred yards.
The jury found Weaver innocent of all serious charges, convicting him only on the original charge of selling illegal firearms. Harris was also found innocent on the grounds of self-defense. Randy Weaver returned to Iowa and began to rebuild his life. He sells his book at gun shows around the country and advises those who chat with him to “keep your powder dry.”
The incident at Ruby Ridge, where one small family was involved in a siege with the federal government that lasted over eighteen months and ended in death and violence, serves as a constant reminder that law-enforcement authorities must never act precipitously and by so doing can bring on violence that might have been avoided.