The Painful Lessons of Ruby Ridge

Randy Weaver, still wiry after 10 years out of the limelight, his dark hair turned silver, was signing autographs for fellow survivalists at an Independent American Party convention in Elko, Nev., in April when someone asked if he would act differently if he could relive the horrible 11-day siege at Ruby Ridge.

"I would have put on my full camo," Weaver said, looking at his questioner, "and shoot them in the back. As many as I could."

It has been a decade since Weaver, waiting for Armageddon while holed up in a crude cabin in the Selkirk Mountains of Northern Idaho just 40 miles south of the Canadian border, engaged in a firefight with federal law enforcement agents.

The Aug. 21, 1992, shoot-out resulted in the deaths of three people - Weaver's wife, Vicki, holding an infant daughter when she was shot through the head by an FBI sniper; their 13-year-old son, Sammy; and Deputy U.S. Marshal William Degan. It also raised serious questions about the use of force and abuse of police powers by FBI agents and other law enforcement officials.

Weaver surrendered to authorities and, in July 1993, was acquitted of murder charges related to Degan's death. The FBI wasn't as fortunate. Subsequent investigations were critical of law enforcement's methods - gunfire occurred before the Weavers were afforded an opportunity to surrender - and the federal government in 1995 settled damage claims by paying Weaver and three surviving daughters $3.1 million.

The incident helped spawn an American militia movement that continues today, although its popularity appears to have waned. It also served, in the view of many, as a prime example of the abuse of federal law enforcement powers. The bombing of the federal government building in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh in April 1995, leaving more than 150 dead, reportedly was motivated, at least in part, by revenge for what is known as the Shootout at Ruby Ridge.

Gerry Spence, the legendary attorney who successfully represented Weaver at trial, said the Idaho standoff and similar incidents, like the deaths of David Koresh and his followers in Waco, Texas, show what can occur when police powers are not properly checked.

"Where there is excess of power there will always be abuse of power," Spence said. "The people of this country are more and more acceding to the intervention of government into their lives. They look to the government for protection and more and more are willing to give up their rights in exchange for promises by the government for protection.

"The question then, of course, is who protects them from the government?" he said.

Spence said he and Weaver are "worlds apart philosophically" but he felt compelled to represent a man who believes in racial separation with ties to the Aryan nation because he was victimized by governmental abuse of power.

"We can expect increasingly more of it," he said.

Weaver and his family moved to Ruby Ridge in late 1983 to escape what they viewed as a sinful world. The home Weaver built with his own hands had neither electricity nor running water. Family members settled in and waited for the second coming.

According to a Justice Department report, Weaver first came to the attention of federal law enforcement personnel in 1985 after reportedly making threats against then-President Ronald Reagan and Idaho Gov. John Evans. A Secret Service investigation showed that Weaver mingled with members of the Aryan Nation, a white supremacist group, and had a cache of weapons including handguns and rifles and access to explosives and "an unlimited amount of ammunition."

Weaver denied making the threats and told agents he had "no time for Aryan Nation's preachers." But in July 1989, Weaver appeared as a speaker at the World Aryan Congress and met up with Kenneth Fadeley, an undercover informant for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. In October, after several conversations, Weaver sold Fadeley a pair of sawed-off shotguns for $300.

It was this incident, and Weaver's subsequent indictment on weapons charges, that led to the shootout. Federal agents initially tried to use the gun charge as leverage to get Weaver to inform on the Aryan nation. He refused. On Aug. 21, 1992, three deputy U.S. marshals were on Weaver's Ruby Ridge property trying to determine how best to bring him into custody when the shootout occurred, leaving Degan and Sammy Weaver dead. An FBI sniper killed Vicki Weaver the next day.

John Trochmann, a Weaver family friend and co-founder of the Militia of Montana, witnessed the standoff and described it as "a sad time in our lives when certain federal agencies exercised their might over the people."

Like Spence, Trochmann believes an incident like Ruby Ridge can occur again, noting that, "it happened again in Waco, Texas."

For a time, Trochmann said, it appeared the FBI and other agencies were using more subtle tactics. In 1996, for instance, the FBI was engaged in an 81-day siege involving about two-dozen heavily armed members of the Freemen group, hunkered down in a Montana ranch. The Freemen, who reject governmental authority, were wanted for passing bogus checks amounting to about $15 billion. The incident ended without violence.

But Trochmann said in the wake of 9/11, the federal government's attitude might be changing again.

"Based on past performance, I believe a mission creep is in progress," Trochmann said. "There is a homeland defense force being created that can do much the same thing."