• U.S.

ANATOMY OF A DISASTER

7 minute read
Richard Lacayo

Before there was Waco, there was Ruby Ridge. As an episode in the annals of right-wing panic, the 1992 shoot-out and siege at the Idaho cabin of white separatist Randy Weaver ranks second only to the inferno of the Branch Davidians the following year. Federal agents in body armor and black ninja uniforms, armored cars crashing up hillsides, even the fabled helicopters of militia nightmares-Ruby Ridge had all the elements of a paranoid fantasy, with the difference that it was stamped in real flesh and blood. In the 11-day standoff, Weaver’s wife was shot dead as she held their 10-month-old daughter in her arms. A day earlier his 14-year-old son and a U.S. marshal had been killed.

Like Waco, Ruby Ridge will not go away. Five high-ranking FBI officials, including former Deputy Director Larry Potts, were suspended two weeks ago because the Justice Department is pursuing a criminal investigation into whether they were part of a cover-up after the siege. An early FBI report let everyone off the hook, both at the scene and at FBI headquarters. Another resulted in disciplines but is now considered flawed (Potts, for example, was censured but was later promoted to deputy director). More recent inquiries by the Justice Department have been harsher, full of complaints about stonewalling and deadly and unconstitutional changes in the rules of engagement. No review has been made public, though a 542-page report issued late last year has been widely leaked to the media and even turned up on the Internet.

To settle a lawsuit filed by Weaver and his three surviving daughters, the government agreed last week to pay them $3.1 million. Their lawyer, Gerry Spence, a sagebrush sage and best-selling author, says the settlement lets his clients avoid a trial that would require them to relive memories of a “dead mother on the floor for 11 days, rotting in the sun, and a dead boy out in back in the woodshed.” Meanwhile, the FBI was spared the ordeal of facing an Idaho jury that might well have awarded the Weavers even more money, to say nothing of what could have been weeks of squirming testimony on Court TV. At FBI headquarters, morale has tanked. Even during the darkest days of Watergate, says a morose agent, “we were in trouble for investigating the wrong people. We’ve never been accused of shooting women holding babies.”

The settlement will not spare the FBI from Senate hearings scheduled for next month by Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a Republican presidential hopeful who wants to determine just how the attempt to arrest Weaver on a weapons charge got so spectacularly out of hand. For one thing, Specter wants to shed light on a central controversy: Who approved radically revised rules of engagement for the incident? Those orders let agents shoot to kill any armed male spotted in the open. Regulations ordinarily allow deadly force only in the face of immediate physical danger. “I bridle at the inability to find answers to these questions,” says Specter. What does he plan to do at the hearings? “Raise hell.”

Justice Department officials tried unsuccessfully to persuade Specter to postpone the hearings, fearful they would interfere with their investigation. An earlier department inquiry initially placed blame for the rule change on Eugene Glenn, the FBI field commander at Ruby Ridge, and Richard Rogers, chief of the FBI’s hostage-rescue team, which provided the main firepower during the siege. But in May, Glenn sent a complaint to the Justice Department calling the first inquiry a sham and saying Potts was responsible. The new investigation focuses not only on Potts but also on his former assistant Danny Coulson and three lower-level officials. One of them, E. Michael Kahoe, has admitted destroying documents during earlier inquiries. Two others are suspected of knowing of the destruction, which may have been carried out to protect Potts and Coulson.

The Weaver incident started in October 1989. Weaver, 47, is a sometime logger whose convictions are roughly similar to those of the Christian Identity movement, which holds that white Americans and Northern Europeans are the chosen people of God and espouses a virulent racial separatism. He sold two illegal sawed-off shotguns to an undercover informant and was later arrested. Because of a clerk’s error, a court summons ordering him to present himself before a judge in February 1991 listed the wrong date for his appearance. When Weaver failed to show on the correct date, a warrant was issued for his arrest. Months followed in which Weaver, believing that the government would seize his property and family, reportedly wrote threatening letters and sent messages through friends vowing to shoot whoever would try to take him.

On Aug. 21, 1992, U.S. marshals approaching Weaver’s mountaintop cabin set the family dog barking. That brought out Weaver, his son Sammy and a family friend, Kevin Harris, all armed. When a marshal shot the dog, Sammy fired in the direction of the marshals, then turned and ran. In the ensuing fire fight, a marshal, William Degan, was killed by a gunshot in the chest. Sammy died of a gunshot wound in the back.

To rescue the marshals, who sent word they were pinned down by gunfire, the FBI’s 50-member hostage-rescue team was flown in from Virginia. Though they now see Weaver as a posturing, marginal character, belligerent but not all that dangerous, the FBI commanders, working from information provided by the marshals, at first thought he was a heavily armed one-man commando squad.

On a plane en route from Washington, Agent Rogers, chief of the hostage-rescue team, drew up the fateful new rules of engagement in consultation with Potts by phone. These rules said that armed adults “could be” shot by FBI agents. During the night, the rules were amended to say armed males “should be” shot on sight. Glenn, the agent who initially took most of the blame, claims to have testified that he discussed the final version of the rules by phone with Potts and faxed the agreed-upon text to headquarters. Potts says he was at home sleeping when the fax arrived, leaving Coulson in command. Coulson insists he did not read the amended rules because the second page of the fax on which they were written never reached him. In an affidavit signed by Potts a month after the siege, which was taken as part of an FBI inquiry, he admits having approved changes that said armed adults “could be” shot on sight. How “should be” appeared and was approved is the subject of inquiry.

However the new rules were arrived at, they may not have played a role in the death of Vicki Weaver. The Justice Department decided that Lon Horiuchi, the FBI sniper who shot her, killed her by accident when he was firing at Kevin Harris for reasons that were justified under the old rules of engagement. Horiuchi says he believed Harris was preparing to shoot down an FBI helicopter. As Harris was running to the cabin, Horiuchi fired. The shot went through the upper part of the open cabin door, behind which Vicki Weaver was standing with her infant daughter Elisheba in her arms. The woman fell to the floor dead, from a bullet to the head. Harris was wounded by fragments from the same shot.

Eventually, Weaver was talked off the mountain by Special Forces war hero and right-wing celebrity Bo Gritz. An Idaho jury later acquitted Weaver of murder and conspiracy charges in the death of the U.S. marshal, though he served 16 months on weapons charges. On his release, he moved to Grand Junction, Iowa, where as a single father he lives on Social Security survivor benefits from his wife. He recently told TIME, “I’m just waiting for all of this to blow over so I can go back to my mountain.” It may take a while.

–Reported by David S. Jackson/San Francisco and Elaine Shannon/Washington

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