Ruby Ridge Incident
In 1992 a federal force of U.S. Marshals, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) agents conducted an assault on the Idaho homestead of Randy and Vicki Weaver, resulting in the deaths of Vicki and their son, Sammy. This incident has raised serious questions about the abusive use of force by federal agencies against U.S. citizens, and aroused a dissident activist movement to resist such abuses.
The incident began when Randy Weaver was asked to act as an informant for the government on the activities of local militant groups in northern Idaho, and he refused. Weaver was then approached by an informant of the BATF to sell him sawed-off shotguns. Weaver apparently relented after refusing several times. He sold two shotguns to the informant in October 1989. According to the FBI, the shotguns were 0.25 short of the barrel length, below which a transfer tax becomes due on the sale, and the nonpayment of which makes the weapon ‘‘illegal,’’ even though the well-known policy of the BATF is to refuse to accept payment of the tax. Weaver contended that they were not that short at the time he handed them to the informant, raising the question of whether the FBI fabricated the evidence, a question that has been raised in many other cases.
Weaver was given notice to appear in court on the weapons charges, but with an incorrect date. Rather than correcting the error, the federal officials declared him a fugitive. A federal judge ruled after the siege at Ruby Ridge that the weapons charges amounted to entrapment by the FBI. The incorrect court date appeared to be a deliberate attempt by federal authorities to initiate a confrontation.
On August 21, 1992, deputy marshals engaged in surveillance after entering the Weaver property, without a warrant, in military dress, and armed with night vision devices and fully automatic weapons. While Randy Weaver, his fourteen-year-old son, Sammy, and a family friend, Kevin Harris, were walking the property with the family dog, the dog caught wind of the intruders, and began barking. Following standard practice, the dog was shot by one of the marshals, apparently Art Roderick, from cover, without the agents first showing or identifying themselves.
Enraged by the death of his dog by an unknown and unseen assailant, Weaver’s son Sammy fired back with his deer rifle. Randy Weaver fired his shotgun into the air and screamed for Sammy to return to the cabin. As Sammy turned to run, he was shot in the back, apparently by U.S. Marshall William Degan, and died at the scene. It was then that Harris returned fire. It was alleged this shot killed Degan, but some have contended Degan was killed by a stray round from one of his colleagues.
The FBI were called to the scene the next day, August 22, and an FBI sharpshooter, Lon Horiuchi, shot Weaver’s wife Vicki as she stood with an infant in her arms in the doorway of her cabin. Horiuchi had contended, up until the time a Senate hearing began, that he had been aiming at an armed man, later said to be Harris, who was threatening a helicopter, but invoked the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination when he took the stand. The judge in the criminal trial of Weaver and Harris found this testimony so blatantly false that he ordered the charges related to the testimony to be dismissed. (The helicopter was nowhere near where Weaver or Harris could have shot at it.)
The rules of engagement were also changed the night before by FBI commanders. The new rules instructed FBI sharpshooters in part that they ‘‘could and should’’ use deadly force against any armed male spotted in the open. The standard rules of engagement for the FBI are such that they can only use deadly force in situations to protect themselves or the lives of innocent people. Originally, the FBI concluded that its own sharpshooter had followed the standard procedures and not the modified rules of engagement handed down at Ruby Ridge. However, Horiuchi violated even the modified rules by firing on an unarmed female standing behind an open door.
Horiuchi would later be charged with voluntary manslaughter by the county district attorney, but prosecution was blocked when a federal judge seized jurisdiction, under the alleged authority of the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution, and then dismissed the case, following the standard practice when local prosecutors seek to prosecute federal agents for a crime committed while the agent is ‘‘on duty,’’ on the theory that they are protected by ‘‘official immunity’’ for all of their actions while on duty, even if they act outside their lawful authority.
The government tried Randy Weaver and Harris on conspiracy and murder charges. They were acquitted on all counts, after their defense attorney, Gerry Spence, rested his case without presenting any evidence. Weaver was convicted of failing to appear for trial on an earlier weapons charge and did serve a short prison term. Testimony at the Weaver trial about the days that followed the shooting of Vicki and Sammy disclosed that the FBI would taunt Weaver, knowing that his wife and son were dead, by directing a loudspeaker toward the cabin, saying things such as ‘‘Good morning Mrs. Weaver—we’re having pancakes, what are you having for breakfast?’’
The U.S. government later settled a civil suit by the Weaver family for $3.1 million.
References and Further Reading
- Constitution Society. ‘‘Ruby Ridge.’’ Documents and links, n.d. https://www.constitution.org/ruby/ruby.htm.
- Walter, Jess. Ruby Ridge: The Truth and Tragedy of the Randy Weaver Family. New York: Regan Books, 2002.