'Every Knee Shall Bow'

In the mailbag at the U.S. attorney's office in Boise on Feb. 7, 1991, were letters addressed to the office's 13 lawyers, but only one was addressed to the "Servant of Queen of Babylon."

For Maurice Ellsworth, the U.S. attorney for Idaho, it was one of the strangest letters he'd ever seen. It said the stink of lawless government had reached "Yahweh" and "Yashua." "Whether we live or whether we die," the letter read, "we will not bow to your evil commandments." It was dated Feb. 3, 1991, mailed from a P.O. box in Naples, Idaho, and signed Mrs. Vicki Weaver.

U.S. marshals quickly found out Vicki Weaver was the wife of a guy who'd recently been arrested on a charge of selling sawed-off shotguns without a federal permit. They found out that Weaver had been a difficult arrest, and that he had vowed not to be arrested again. Weaver was a survivalist; he and his family lived in a cabin in isolated Ruby Ridge, and at the edge of their property stood a painted plywood sign: "Every knee shall bow to Yashua Messiah."

As it happened, weavers court date had been changed. His attorney was notified, but Randy was given the wrong date and refused to respond to the attorney's letters. So a failure-to-appear warrant went out, and the ease was assigned to the U.S. Marshals Service, which is charged with bringing in fugitives.

So on the morning of Friday, Aug. 21, 1992, Billy Degan dressed quickly in camouflage, lacing his black military boots one rung from the top. He and other members of the U.S. Marshals Service Special Operations Group had talked the night before about wearing body armor, but it was going to be a scorcher on Ruby Ridge that day, a long hot one under the August sun.

This was the way Degan spent much of his adult life. A former Marine, he always did the most dangerous missions-such as the surveillance of a fugitive like Randy Weaver.

Just before dawn, Degan and five other deputies stepped outside the condo the marshals had rented in a nearby ski resort. They loaded canvas bags with cameras, film, medical equipment, and machine guns and set out on a surveillance mission.

A mile from the Weaver cabin, the marshals pulled off the road, grabbed their guns, and started out on foot. The wooded brush was thick, and the deputies followed Deputy Marshal Art Roderick, who had been up the mountain two dozen times already.

A little before 11 a.m., Weaver's 14-year-old son, Sammy, and family friend Kevin Harris, a fellow separatist, walked out of the cabin with their rifles and strolled down the driveway, Sammy's dog Striker running in front of them. Sara Weaver, 16, was a few steps behind them, and Randy ran out to eater up to the kids. Rachel Weaver, 10, came last, skipping, a rifle over each shoulder. Striker alerted on something, and went nosing off into the woods. Randy, Sam, and Kevin walked after the dog. Randy said later he hoped the dog was chasing a deer or an elk. It would be valuable meat for the long winter ahead.

With the shotgun under his short, sinewy arm, Randy ran along the dirt road that traced the top of the nearby forested meadow. Kevin eradied his bulky 30.06 rifle as he jogged down the hill. Sammy, not even 5 feet tall and eighty pounds, ran with him, carrying a lightweight .228 assault-style rifle.

Ahead, Striker was closing in on the marshals, who had made their way to the area. "Dog's coming! Pull back!" At first, Roderick thought they could take cover, and he slid behind a tree and saw the big yellow lab and Kevin Harris aiming straight for them.

"We've got to take this dog out," Roderick said. "He's leading everybody to us."

As the agents recalled it, one of the deputies, Larry Cooper, then saw Weaver on the higher trail, and thought they had fallen into an ambush. He yelled at Weaver: "Back off! U.S. marshal!" Roderick saw him, too, and yelled at him. Cooper heard the dog bark, turned, and saw it growling at him. He pointed his rifle at the dog, but it ran past him toward Roderick. When Cooper looked back at the trail, Randy Weaver was running away.

Then several things happened in rapid, foggy succession. As the dog moved toward Roderick, Degan rose on his knee to identify himself, and both sides agreed that everything just went to hell.

According to the marshals, Kevin Harris wheeled and fired his 30.06, hitting Billy Degan in the chest. Larry Cooper saw his friend knocked backward. He fired right back at Harris, who fell (though he wasn't actually hit).

Degan murmured: "Coop, Coop, I need you."

"I'll be there, Billy, as soon as I get 'em off our ass." He called for Roderick. "Get up here! Billy's been hit!"

But Roderick had his own problems just down the trail. The dog had run up to him, and Roderick had shot it so it wouldn't lead the family to his position. Sammy then appeared in from of him, saw that Striker had been shot, and yelled, "You son of a bitch!" Sammy fired at Roderick. According to Roderick, another round of fire seemed to come from the woods and Roderick dove just as a bullet tore through his shirt and barely missed his chest.

Up the hill a bit, Cooper fired another barrage for cover, darted over the brush, and found Degan lying a few feet away. He put two fingers on the side of Degan's neck, found the carotid artery, and felt the last three beats of his best friend's heart.

Back at the cabin, Sara heard the shots, grabbed her .223, and ran to the rock outcropping. Vicki and Rachel joined her. A few minutes later, Randy arrived, panting and afraid.

"We run into an ambush!"

And then Kevin came through the trees.

"Sam's dead," he said.

The family wailed and fired their guns in the air. The bastards had killed their only son.

Kevin's recollection of events was completely different from the marshals'. Kevin said he and Sammy had been chasing the dog when a man in camouflage stepped out of the woods and shot the dog in the back. "You killed my dog, you son of a bitch!" Sammy yelled. fired at the marshals, one of whom opened up on him, hitting his fight arm and practically tearing it off at the elbow. Sammy had screamed and turned to run away, but the marshals kept firing at him, so Kevin had wheeled and shot one of the marshals. Another marshal had shot at Kevin, just missing him. But as Sammy ran away, one of the marshals shot at him again and a bullet ripped through his back, dropping him face first on the trail. Kevin scrambled to his feet, and went back to Sammy's body. He couldn't find a pulse, so he ran back to the house.

Randy and Vicki sobbed as they walked down the trail and found Samroy's body. They car-tied him into the "birthing shed" where Vicki stayed while she was menstruating, cleansed his body and covered it with a sheet. They prayed and cried. They crouched with their rifles on the rocks, waiting for the other marshals to come finish them off.

About that time, one marshal, Dave Hunt, was barreling in the opposite direction. After 45 minutes, Hunt broke through the woods near the cabin of Wayne and Ruth Rau. Hunt dialed marshals' headquarters in Washington, D.C. "This is Operation Northern Exposure. We got one dead, others stuck on mountain."

The word was relayed to Duke Smith, the deputy director of operations, who began notifying Justice Department officials. When agents passed on what had happened, they said marshals were "pimped down" and "receiving fire."

In Washington, the director of the Marshals Service, Henry Hudson, met with FBI brass, told them one of his deputies had been killed, and repeated that two others were "pinned down." FBI officials then briefed director William Sessions and the head of the bureau's criminal division, Larry Potts, who called in the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team, from Quantico, Virginia. The head of that team, Richard Rogers, loaded a helicopter and other supplies in a private FBI jet and left for Idaho. Duke Smith met Rogers at the FBI airstrip at dusk on Friday.

By that time, the overstatement of danger had reached high levels at Justice. Hours after Hunt made it clear that the deputy marshals were no longer taking fire, one of his bosses told the FBI men were "still pinned down by gunfire." The same bad information was relayed through top-level meetings, working Justice into a bureaucratic frenzy over William Degan's death.

In reality, the situation was hazy, and much of Washington's information was simply wrong. Stories had it that Randy Weaver was a combat-trained Vietnam veteran who might have booby-trapped his mountain with bombs and grenades. The officials flying to Idaho knew nothing about Sam Weaver being killed or the dog being shot.

While the team was on its way, Potts met with deputy assistant director Danny Coulson at FBI headquarters. The two concurred: Because of the rugged terrain, the Weavers' extreme beliefs, and the fact that they had apparently gunned down a deputy marshal, this might be the most dangerous situation the Hostage Rescue Team had ever faced.

While aboard the plane Rogers and Potts talked about revising the FBI's rules of engagement--which stipulated that agents could fire only if someone's life was in danger--to allow snipers to shoot at the Weavers without provocation. Potts approved changing the rules, Rogers said later. On the plane, Rogers drafted new orders:

"If any adult is seen with a weapon in the vicinity of where this firefight took place, of the Weaver cabin, then this individual could be the subject of deadly force . . ."

Rogers called Potts from the jet and went over the new rules. Potts gave preliminary approval and said they sounded good, but Rogers knew he would have to send the details in writing before enacting them.

Once Rogers and the rescue team reached Idaho, they met inside the Bonners Ferry Armory near Ruby Ridge at 9 a.m. The camouflaged HRT members listened while Rogers briefed them. (At this point, Rogers, Smith and Gene Glenn, the FBI agent in charge at the scene, had not spoken to the marshals who'd actually been in the first gun battle; they were back at their condo.) There will be, Rogers said, "no long siege."

In the armory, the hostage negotiator, Fred Lanceley, wasn't sure he'd heard right. He'd been involved in about 300 hostage situations, and he'd never heard anything like this. With rules of engagement like these, there would be no need for a negotiator.

At the end of the meeting, as snipers prepared to go into the hills, one of Rogers's assistants showed him the rules, and he told the assistant to scratch out what he'd written and to include "and should" after the verb "can." It was the final, critical evolution of verbs: from "could" to "can and should."

"If any adult in the compound is observed with weapons after the surrender announcement is made," Rogers read to his assistant, who would brief the HRT, "deadly force can and should be used to neutralize this individual."

Since Rogers had arrived in Idaho with Potts's approval to revise the rules, there had been little discussion of whether they were appropriate. But it was still up to Gene Glenn to finalize the orders. About 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Glenn got off the telephone with Potts and said that the FBI official had approved the modified version. He still had to fax the total operations plan to FBI headquarters.

At 2:40 P.M., Glenn faxed the plan to headquarters. After 30-some hours on duty, Potts said later, he had gone home, so Coulson read over the first page of the draft plan. He realized right away there was no option for negotiations. He said he stopped reading before he read the section about the rules of engagement. Instead, he told Glenn to include a better option for negotiations. Fred Lanceley worked out some plans, and Glenn faxed the negotiations addendum and Coulson approved it. Later, no one at FBI headquarters would admit seeing the modified rules, even though they'd been faxed to the office as part of the total operations plan. When Justice Department investigators tried to find out who approved the new orders, they found no record of Potts's or Coulson's discussion of the rules, a "lack of documentation" that was "significant and serious."

Meanwhile, in Idaho, the FBI believed it had permission to shoot any adult who came out of the Weaver cabin with a gun. Problem was, most of the time nobody left that cabin without a gun. Several agents felt the rules were inappropriate and planned to ignore them.

All that overcast and cold Saturday morning, the Weaver family and Kevin Harris cursed and mourned and prayed to Yahweh.

Sara and Randy walked around the cabin, shutting in the chickens and feeding the dogs. Afraid the Feds would try to shut off their water supply, the family filled empty plastic milk jugs with water from the spring. They pulled the navy blue denim curtains and prayed that Yahweh would give them the strength to hold off the enemy. The guns were loaded, but they fully expected the Feds to negotiate with them first.

Just before 6 p.m., the dogs began barking again. Like always, Sara ran out of the house to check on the dogs before allowing her dad to come out, She didn't see anything, and so she returned and got her dad and Kevin, who followed Sara out the door with dries.

Randy didn't see anything. But on the way back to the cabin, he stopped and stared full at the shed where his son lay. "I just gotta see Sammy one more time," he said. Weaver stood at the door of the shed, and then, as he reached for the handle, there was a crack. Splinters leaped off the side of the shed. The bullet had ripped through Randy's upper arm and come out his armpit.

When she heard the shot, Sara spun around and ran toward her father. "Get to the house!" she yelled. "Get to the house!"

Randy was running in front, and Sara ran behind him. Harris was bringing up the rear, his rifle dangling in his hand. Vicki had heard the shot, and she ran out of the house, holding daughter Elisheba, age 10 months, under her right arm, her pistol bolstered on her hip. A few feet from the door, she saw Randy running toward her.

As she moved back, Vicki yelled at the hill where the shot had come from: "Bastards! Murderers!" She threw open the heavy door which had a curtained window at eye level and looked out in the direction of the shot. She stood behind the door. Randy and Sara were bursting across the threshold, and Kevin was gathering himself to dive into the cabin.

"You bastards!" Vicki yelled. And then there was another shot.

In the coming year, Lon Horiuchi, a 10-year FBI veteran and top sniper, would testify several times about what happened. "It was overcast, but the visibility was excellent," he said. Horiuchi heard the sound of a helicopter nearby. The chopper "was not in front of me . . . I'm assuming it was somewhere behind me, either to my right or left."

Horiuchi saw a man in his sights whom he assumed was Kevin Harris (but was in fact Bandy Weaver), possibly reaching up on the shed to swing around behind it. "He seemed to be looking for the helicopter. He seemed to be moving, trying to get back on the other side of the [shed]. By being behind the [shed], he could take a shot . . . I perceived that he may be getting ready to take a shot at the individuals in the helicopter," which probably would have justified his first shot even under the normal rules of engagement. But then Horiuchi fired again.

Inside the cabin, everyone was quiet for a second. Vicki Weaver, who had been killed, was just inside the door. Her hands were still cradling Elisheba, so tightly they had to pry the baby out of her grasp.

Kevin was lying there, too, quiet, a silver-dollar-sized hole in his left upper arm. The bullet that had torn through Vicki's head was lodged in Kevin's upper arm, near his shoulder. His chest and arm were pockmarked with bits of bullet and the bones from Vicki's face.

Then began a 10-day standoff, with helicopters overhead and heavily armed federal agents outside the cabin, trying to communicate from an armored vehicle, or through a special telephone they left outside. Meanwhile, FBI agents had begun investigating the scene of the first fire fight and were surprised to discover seven shell casings from Degan's gun spread along 22 feet, meaning not only did he fire his weapon, but he may have been moving when he did it. Along with Samuel Weaver's death, it was another indication that the marshals' initial version of the shoot-out was not the whole truth. It also appeared the family wasn't as dangerous as they'd first believed. They still hadn't fired out of the cabin. The rules of engagement, which, until this point, would've allowed the snipers to try to kill Kevin and Randy again if they saw them, were changed back to normal.

Trying to flush Weaver out of the cabin, the Feds even brought his sister to the scene. But officials also stepped up the pressure with floodlights and loudspeakers blaring recorded messages, mostly directed to Vicki. (They said they didn't realize she had been killed.) Inside the cabin, it seemed like torture, or an effort to set them up for a final slaughter, and for 10 days they refused most requests for dialogue. Only when the name of extremist leader Bo Gritz was raised did Weaver agree to talk, and Gritz went inside and ended the stalemate.

They packed a few things into small cloth bags and looked around the cabin once more. Rachel took off her holster with its .38-caliber snub-nose pistol, and Sara unstrapped her 9-mm. Randy took off his gun belt and then remembered something. He removed his Aryan Nations belt buckle and handed it to Gritz. "I don't want them to get this," he said. They changed Elisheba's diaper, took a deep breath, and stepped toward the door.

1 Lon Horiuchi, closest of 11 FBI snipers, hides 646 feet north of the cabin. He has orders to shoot on sight.

2 Randy Weaver, daughter Sara and friend Kevin Harris walk out of the cabin. When Weaver goes to look at his son's body in the shed, Horiuchi believes Weaver is targeting a helicopter and shoots him in the arm.

3 Sara runs toward her father, then all three rush back to the cabin. Horiuchi fires again, penetrating the window of the door. The shot fatally strikes Weaver's wife, Vicki, in the face as she stands holding baby daughter Elisheba.