Ruby Ridge: The Justice Report
By James Bovard
Originally printed in the Wall Street Journal, June 30, 1995.
The 1992 confrontation between federal agents and the Randy Weaver family in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, has become one of the most controversial and widely discussed examples of the abuse of federal power. The Justice Department completed a 542-page investigation on the case last year but has not yet made the report public. However, the report was acquired by Legal Times newspaper, which this week placed the text on the Internet. The report reveals that federal officials may have acted worse than even some of their harshest critics imagined.
This case began after Randy Weaver was entrapped, as an Idaho jury concluded, by an undercover Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms agent to sell him sawed-off shotguns.
While federal officials have claimed that the violent confrontation between the Weavers and the government began when the Weavers ambushed federal marshals, the report tells a very different story. A team of six U.S. marshals, split into two groups, trespassed onto Mr. Weaver's land on Aug. 21, 1992. One of the marshals threw rocks at the Weaver's cabin to see how much noise was required to agitate the Weaver's dogs. A few minutes later, Randy Weaver, Kevin Harris, and 13-year-old Sammy Weaver came out of the cabin and began following their dogs. Three U.S. marshals were soon tearing through the woods.
At one point, U.S. Marshal Larry Cooper "told the others that it was ['expletive deleted'] 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. The others agreed.... William Degan ... took a position behind a stump...."
As Sammy Weaver and Kevin Harris came upon the marshals, gunfire erupted. Sammy was shot in the back and killed while running away from the scene (probably by Marshal Cooper, according to the report), and Marshal Degan was killed by Mr. Harris. The jury concluded that Mr. Harris's action was legitimate self-defense; the Justice report concluded it was impossible to know who shot first.
Several places in the report deal with the possibility of a government coverup. After the firefight between the marshals and the Weavers and Mr. Harris, the surviving marshals were taken away to rest and recuperate. The report observed, "We question the wisdom of keeping the marshals together at the condominium for several hours, while awaiting interviews with the FBI. Isolating them in that manner created the appearance and generated allegations that they were fabricating stories and colluding to cover up the true circumstances of the shootings."
After the death of the U.S. marshal, the FBI was called in. A source of continuing fierce debate across America is: Did the FBI set out to apprehend and arrest Randy Weaver and Kevin Harris -- or simply to kill them? Unfortunately, the evidence from the Justice Department report is damning in the extreme on this count.
The report noted, "We have been told by observers on the scene that law enforcement personnel made statements that the matter would be handled quickly and that the situation would be 'taken down hard and fast.' " The FBI issued Rules of Engagement that declared that its snipers "can and should" use deadly force against armed males outside the cabin.
The report noted that a member of an FBI SWAT team from Denver "remembered the Rules of Engagement as 'if you see 'em, shoot 'em.' " The task force report noted, "since those Rules which contained 'should' remained in force at the crisis scene for days after the August 22 shooting, it is inconceivable to us that FBI Headquarters remained ignorant of the exact wording of the Rules of Engagement during that entire period."
The report concluded that the FBI Rules of Engagement at Ruby Ridge flagrantly violated the U.S. Constitution: "The Constitution allows no person to become 'fair game' for deadly force without law enforcement evaluating the threat that person poses, even when, as occurred here, the evaluation must be made in a split second." The report portrays the rules of engagement as practically a license to kill: "The Constitution places the decision on whether to use deadly force on the individual agent; the Rules attempted to usurp this responsibility."
FBI headquarters rejected an initial operation plan because there was no provision to even attempt to negotiate the surrender of the suspects. The plan was revised to include a negotiation provision -- but subsequent FBI action made that provision a nullity. FBI snipers took their positions around the Weaver cabin a few minutes after 5 p.m. on Aug. 22. Within an hour, every adult in the cabin was either dead or severely wounded -- even though they had not fired a shot at any FBI agent.
Randy Weaver, Mr. Harris, and 16-year-old Sara Weaver stepped out of the cabin a few minutes before 6 p.m. to go to the shed where Sammy's body lay. FBI sniper Lon Horiuchi shot Randy Weaver in the back. As Randy Weaver, Mr. Harris, and Sara Weaver struggled to get back into the cabin, Vicki Weaver stood in the cabin doorway holding a baby. Agent Horiuchi fired again; his bullet passed through a window in the door, hit Vicki Weaver in the head, killing her instantly, and then hit Mr. Harris in the chest.
At the subsequent trial, the government claimed that Messrs. Weaver and Harris were shot because they had threatened to shoot at a helicopter containing FBI officials. Because of insufficient evidence, the federal judge threw out the charge that Messrs. Weaver and Harris threatened the helicopter. The Justice report noted, "The SIOC [Strategic Information and Operations Center at FBI headquarters] Log indicates that shots were fired during the events of August 22.... We have found no evidence during this inquiry that shots fired at any helicopter during the Ruby Ridge crisis. The erroneous entry was never corrected." (The Idaho jury found Messrs. Weaver and Harris innocent on almost all charges.)
The Justice Department task force expressed grave doubts about the wisdom of the FBI strategy: "From information received at the Marshals Service, FBI management had reason to believe that the Weaver/Harris group would respond to a helicopter in the vicinity of the cabin by coming outside with firearms. Notwithstanding this knowledge, they placed sniper/observers on the adjacent mountainside with instructions that they could and should shoot armed members of the group, if they came out of the cabin. Their use of the helicopter near the cabin invited an accusation that the helicopter was intentionally used to draw the Weaver group out of the cabin."
The task force was extremely critical of Agent Horiuchi's second shot: "Since the exchange of gunfire [the previous day], no one at the cabin had fired a shot. Indeed, they had not even returned fire in response to Horiuchi's first shot. Furthermore, at the time of the second shot, Harris and others outside the cabin were retreating, not attacking. They were not retreating to an area where they would present a danger to the public at large...."
Regarding Agent Horiuchi's killing of Vicki Weaver, the task force concluded, "[B]y fixing his cross hairs on the door when he believed someone was behind it, he placed the children and Vicki Weaver at risk, in violation of even the special Rules of Engagement.... In our opinion he needlessly and unjustifiably endangered the persons whom he thought might be behind the door."
The Justice Department task force was especially appalled that the adults were gunned down before receiving any warning or demand to surrender: "While the operational plan included a provision for a surrender demand, that demand was not made until after the shootings.... The lack of a planned 'call out' as the sniper/observers deployed is significant because the Weavers were known to leave the cabin armed when vehicles or airplanes approached. The absence of such a plan subjected the Government to charges that it was setting Weaver up for attack."
Mr. Bovard writes often on public policy.
Search James Bovard's web site for other writings on Ruby Ridge.