The Nightmare of Idaho's Ruby Ridge
As a new inquiry begins, questions linger
For those who believe that federal law officers have gotten out of hand, what happened to Randy Weaver and his family in Idaho's rugged Selkirk Mountains resonates with as much fury as the fiery demise of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. And like Waco, the 1992 tragedy that ended in the deaths of a U.S. marshal, Weaver's wife and his 14-year-old son atop Ruby Ridge has become a recurring nightmare. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is reeling from charges of a cover-up, and this week, a Senate subcommittee led by Pennsylvania Republican and presidential candidate Arlen Specter will begin 10 days or more of intermittent hearings on the affair. It will take at least that long to piece together a story filled with missteps and miscalculations on all sides.
Weaver, now 47 and living quietly in Iowa, is a former Army engineer with Special Forces training. He, his wife, Vicki, and their children, Sammy, Sara and Rachel, moved to Idaho from Iowa in 1983. They built a cabin on Ruby Ridge, about 40 miles south of the Canadian border. Another daughter, Elisheba, was born there, and a friend, Kevin Harris, later joined the group.
Firearms charge. Weaver has described himself as a white separatist. He is not believed to have been a member of the white supremacist Aryan Nations, but he did attend several meetings at the group's compound in Hayden Lake, Idaho. It was there that he met an informant for the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Weaver later expressed interest in selling the ATF informant illegally sawed-off shotguns and in fact sold him two such weapons in October 1989. Eight months later, ATF agents tried to use the threat of prosecution over the transaction to persuade Weaver to become an informant against Aryan Nations. Weaver refused and was indicted on the firearms charge.
Subsequent reviews by both a Justice Department task force and the Treasury Department's inspector general concluded that ATF's conduct of the firearms case was proper. Yet an Idaho jury found Weaver not guilty of the firearms charge two years later, effectively agreeing with defense arguments that the informant had entrapped him.
After his arrest on the initial firearms charge, Weaver was arraigned and released by a magistrate, who scheduled the trial for Feb. 19, 1991. The date was later changed to February 20, but a probation officer sent Weaver a letter that erroneously referred to the trial date as March 20. When Weaver didn't appear on February 20, the court issued a bench warrant for his arrest, and then, on March 14, a federal grand jury indicted him for failing to appear for trial.
Authorities made no attempt to correct the confusion about the trial date, and a subsequent Justice Department review criticized "the rigidity of the government's approach." But there were indications Weaver wasn't going to show up anyway. A March 5 letter to U.S. marshals from the Weaver family stated that "whether we live or die, we will not obey your lawless government."