The Echoes Of Ruby Ridge

The government quietly capitulates in a lawsuit over the bloody '92 standoff with the separatist Weaver family. But the controversy is far from over and before it ends, top FBI officials must explain how a shoot-to-kill order turned a routine case to tragedy.

Washington being Washington, there was no photo op--just a one-page press release conceding the government's responsibility for one of the most shameful episodes in the history of American law enforcement. After months of negotiation, the U.S. Department of Justice announced last week that it had agreed to pay $3.1 million to Randall Weaver and his three surviving children, Sara, 19. Rachel, 13, and Elisheba,3. for the shooting death of Weaver's wife, Vicki, in 1992. "By entering into a settlement, the United States [government] hopes to take a substantial step toward healing the wounds the incident inflicted," the press release said. It did not say that 14-year-old Sammy Weaver had been fatally shot in the back, or that Vicki Weaver had been holding the baby Elisheba in her arms when an FBI sniper, firing from the dense brush outside the Weaver cabin on Ruby Ridge, Idaho, blew off half her face.

Her death has now embroiled the FBI and the Justice Department in a highly politicized scandal that may take months to play out. Like Waco, Ruby, Ridge long ago entered the political mythology of the paranoid ultraright. Like Waco, it attests to the emergence of a reckless mentality that sullies the image of the FBI and plays straight into the hands of those who like to demagogue the federal government. Next month a Senate subcommittee chaired by Sen. Arlen Specter will open hearings on the incident and the FBI's conduct. The Justice Department and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington, meanwhile, are investigating the possibility of a running cover-up by ranking FBI officials. The nation's top law-enforcement agency--the agency all Americans rely upon to root out corruption and official wrongdoing-- is itself being investigated for obstruction of justice.

The roots of this scandal go back to 1983, when Randy and Vicki Weaver migrated from Cedar Falls, Iowa, to the wilds of northern Idaho. The Weavers were extreme Christian fundamentalists whose religious views led them to reject modern society. They were survivalists who believed in the imminence of a Biblical Apocalypse, and they were at least somewhat sympathetic with the anti-Semitic, anti-black doctrines of the Aryan Nation, a notoriously violent underground group. Randy Weaver had friends who liked to talk about taking action against the federal government, and that is what eventually led him into trouble with the law.

It began when weaver met an informer for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in 1986. The informer, Kenneth Fadeley, bought two sawed-off shotguns from Weaver, and the ATF later tried to use the threat of prosecution to force Weaver to spy on the neo-Nazi underground in Idaho and Montana. Weaver refused, and in early 1991 he was arrested and charged on the weapons violation. With his wife's encouragement, he and his family then holed up in their jerry-built cabin on Ruby Ridge for nearly 18 months. The U.S. Marshals Service tried in vain to talk him out and finally decided to force him out-de-spite the fact that Weaver was known to have an ample supply of weapons and the will to use them.

On Aug. 21, 1992, a team of marshals on a reconnaissance mission ran into Sammy Weaver and a family friend, 24-year-old Kevin Harris, near the family cabin. According to an exclusive NEWSWEEK excerpt (page 28) from a new book about the case by journalist Jess Walter, "Every Knee Shall Bow: The Truth and Tragedy of Ruby Ridge and the Randy Weaver Family," Sammy Weaver and one of the marshals, William Degan, were killed in a fire fight that began when Sammy's dog sniffed out the marshals. The FBI was called in and the siege began the following day-an epic fiasco that involved the bureau's crack Hostage Rescue Team and led to Vicki Weaver's death. In 1993, Weaver and Harris went ontrial for Degan's murder, among many other charges. But an Idaho jury., confounded by discrepancies in the prosecution's case, acquitted both men of murder and conspiracy, and Weaver ultimately served a mere four months in prison for missing his court date on the original weapons charge.

The family sued the government for $200 million for the wrongful death of Vicki Weaver. Justice Department experts said they probably would have collected if the ease had gone to trial. The agreement, in which the DOJ admits no wrongdoing or legal liability, averted that expensive humiliation.

But the controversy isn't over--and it has now created what one bureau source calls "turmoil" within the FBI. One reason for this morale problem is the friction between field agents and higher-ups over who is really to blame for the bureau's overreaction at Ruby Ridge. Another reason, potentially far more damaging to the bureau's credibility with Congress, the Clinton administration and the public, is the persistent allegation of a cover-up by a handful of top bureau officials. Though still unproven, the basis of that charge is more than two years of wrangling over who approved the rules of engagement during the siege. These rules governed the conduct of the FBI hostage team and, according to some of the FBI's own experts, led more or less directly to the death of Vicki Weaver.

The man in the middle of this increasingly nasty mess is FBI Director Louis Freer, a former FBI field agent and U.S. district judge who, until recently, enjoyed a solid-gold reputation for competence and integrity. No one suggests that Freeh took part in any cover-up. But he consistently defended the bureau against critics of the Weaver case, and he accepted the findings of an extensive review whose shortcomings were, or should have been, obvious. Worse, Freeh last spring staked his reputation on promoting an old friend, Larry Potts, as deputy director of the FBI. Potts was the man in charge of Ruby Ridge and Waco--and though he denies any wrongdoing, he is now a subject of the cover-up investigation.

In an interview with NEWSWEEK, Freeh conceded last week that "it's obvious there was a flawed investigation, and I relied on that." He said he took "full responsibility" for the resulting damage to the FBI's image and admitted that he had promoted Potts because of their "long and close association." "Given the facts we now have," Freeh said, "I would not have made the decision." Potts and four other top-level FBI officials have been suspended, and Freeh promised "very swift and very firm action" against those who broke the law. Though he refused to discuss the specifics, he said the allegations being investigated are "quite shocking."

But they are not new. What Freeh and other bureau officials will have a hard time explaining is why they waited until now to explore the patently clear evidence that the FBI ran amok at Ruby Ridge. This evidence was produced at Randy Weaver's trial and was discussed in detail in the DOJ's 1994 internal review; no one disputes it. It boils down to the rules of engagement, or "ROE," that applied to the FBI team during the siege. These rules were devised the evening before the hostage team arrived in Idaho and, according to the testimony of Lon Horiuchi, the sniper who fired the fatal shot, were directly responsible for the death of Vicki Weaver. The rules said that agents "could and should" use lethal force even before the FBI announced its presence and called for the Weavers' surrender. Some of the agents who took part in the siege were openly incredulous about these rules: the FBI never opens fire without warning unless the subject presents a clear threat to agents or civilians. So the ROE were illegal and even unconstitutional.

The mystery is, who approved the rules? The departmental review found that Potts and the hostage-team commander, Richard Rogers, discussed the ROE the night before the FBI took over, and that commanders on the scene then added the phrase "could and should" to the orders on the use of lethal force. The review also pointedly noted there were virtually no records of this crucial wording change at FBI headquarters in Washington, even though the FBI always maintains a paper trail and even though agents on the scene later complained that headquarters had micromanaged the whole affair.

In January, Freeh disciplined 12 FBI officials on the basis of that report. The pot simmered until May, when Eugene Glenn, the on-scene commander at Ruby Ridge, wrote an angry letter to FBI headquarters. Glenn had been reassigned--and he was outraged that Potts and others got only administrative reprimands. He charged that the review had been inaccurate, incomplete and designed "to create scapegoats and false impressions."

Although Howard Shapiro, the FBI's general counsel, derided Glenn's charges as "baseless" and "irresponsible," they triggered yet another internal investigation of Ruby Ridge. This time, the probers cused on E. Michael Kahoe, then head of the FBI's Violent Crime Section in Washington. Kahoe had been among those who supervised the siege from Washington; strangely enough, he had also been the head of a shooting-incident review team that produced one of many after-action reports justifying the hostage team's actions. Kahoe was polygraphed and flunked: he then admitted destroying a report that might have shed light on discussions at headquarters. "We suddenly realized that much of the [1994] report was invalid," said a Justice Department official. Kahoe was suspended. Potts, who had only recently been promoted to the FBI's No. 2 job, was demoted by Freeh. In early August, further investigation suggested that others may also have lied, and the Justice Department sent the case to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington for criminal prosecution. Freeh then suspended Potts, Danny Coulson, Gale Richard Evans and Anthony A. Betz, all of whom held headquarters jobs during the siege or its aftermath. All, including Kahoe, deny wrongdoing, and it is simply too early to tell how the investigation will turn out.

Despite the settlement with the Feds, the Weaver family is still waiting to see whether the government will hold the FBI accountable for Vicki Weaver's death. Randy Weaver, who now lives in Grand Junction, Iowa, with Rachel and Elisheba, could not be reached. Vicki's mother, Jeane Jordison, said, "Money's never going to bring people back--the justice part is what we're interested in." Gerry Spence, the flamboyant Wyoming lawyer who led Weaver's defense team during the 1995 trial, said the issue was "restoring confidence in our police. We cannot restore confidence until the FBI comes forward and acknowledges what it has done." Spence said he asked Attorney General Janet Reno last spring to file murder charges against the sniper, Lon Horiuchi, the field commanders, Eugene Glenn and Richard Rogers, and possibly against Potts. "The only way you can bring the FBI back into good repute," Spence told the attorney general, "is to prosecute the bad apples." Reno, he added, listened coolly and said nothing.

The upcoming hearings will give the FBI's critics a chance to vent their out-rage--and a trial in federal court, if the criminal investigation leads to that, would be the highest form of accountability the American system provides. But it should never have come to this--which is why Freeh and the once proud agency he leads now face the kind of critical scrutiny the FBI has not had to endure in years.

Federal agents' long surveillance of Randy Weaver on Ruby Ridge, near Naples, Idaho, ends in a deadly 10-day siege. Weaver's wife, Vicki, and son, Samuel, and Deputy Marshal William Degan are killed.

A review led by E. Michael Kahoe, an agent who supervised the siege from Washington, exonerates the FBI.

Prosecutors preparing to try Weaver complain when the FBI refuses to supply crucial documents.

Weaver is acquitted of serious charges. At the trial, an FBI agent says the then Assistant Director Larry Potts approved shoot-on-sight orders on Ruby Ridge.

FBI Director Louis Freeh disciplines 12 agents for misconduct after reading a 542-page report on the siege. Despite a letter of censure, Potts is promoted to FBI's No. 2 spot in May.

Freeh suspends Kahoe, who admits he shredded a key report, and demotes Potts.

The U.S. government settles with the Weaver family for $3.1 million.

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