The very mention of Ruby Ridge still elicits powerful emotions. In 1992 with a Republican in the White House, the full might of the US government was unleashed on an American citizen and his family. I’ll not debate the man’s politics or the righteousness of the investigation. What is indisputable, however, is that a 14-year-old boy, an unarmed mother holding an infant, and a US Marshal died violently in a miserably botched Law Enforcement operation.
Researching this tale was tough. Facts from sources I should be able to trust were in overt conflict with those of other sources I should also be able to trust. Where the details are incongruous I’ll try to stay neutral.
Randy Weaver was born in 1948 to Clarence and Wilma Weaver of Villisca, Iowa. He had three siblings. Randy was raised a theological fundamentalist yet eventually became a self-described atheist. In October of 1968 at age 20 Weaver dropped out of community college and enlisted in the Army.
Some sources I read described Weaver as a hardened Green Beret in the mold of John Rambo. Others said he was trained as a Combat Engineer and assigned to a Special Forces unit but not a graduate of the Special Warfare Center and School. Regardless, he served on active duty for three years and was honorably discharged.
For a time afterward, Weaver studied Criminal Justice at the University of Northern Iowa. Ironically his stated goal was to become an FBI agent. He dropped out of school when he could no longer afford tuition.
In 1992 Weaver lived on his rural 20-acre Idaho property with his wife Vicki, Sara age 16, Sammy age 14, Rachel age 10, and 10-month-old daughter Elisheba along with an adult friend named Kevin Harris. The Weavers have been alternately described as white supremacists, white separatists, religious fundamentalists, or just nice simple folks wanting to be left alone. In retrospect, none of that matters.
The US government was actively attempting to infiltrate white nationalist groups in the area using a series of undercover informants. Randy Weaver sold a pair of shotguns to one of them. One gun was a simple single-shot 12-gauge. The other was a slide action Remington 870. Weaver claimed the informant approached him about the sale. The government asserted that Weaver initiated the exchange. A jury later sided with Weaver.
The shotgun barrels were cut below the legal minimum of 18 inches. Several sources claimed they were only a quarter-inch too short. Another said they were five inches shy. The government said Weaver cut the barrels. Weaver alleged that the informant pruned the tubes after the sale. This bit of information turns out to be really important. It also makes the arbitrary rules on gun barrel length look pretty stupid.
Law Enforcement officials accused Weaver of creating two illegal short-barreled shotguns but offered to drop the charges if he would infiltrate nearby white supremacist organizations. Weaver refused and a court date was scheduled. Due to an administrative oversight, Weaver’s notification of his court appearance was one month later than the actual date. When Weaver inevitably failed to appear a warrant was issued for his arrest.
Federal Marshals pursued Weaver for a year and a half, eventually establishing surveillance positions around his home. It was alleged that Marshals threw rocks at the cabin to test the response of the family dogs. Regardless, when Weaver’s dog Striker began barking at the federal agents Kevin Harris and Sammy went to investigate.
Harris carried a bolt-action M1917 military rifle. Young Sammy packed a Mini-14.
Every narrative I could find seemed shaded by an agenda. These are the dispassionate facts–the Marshals killed the family dog with an M16A2 and shot Sammy in the back with a 9mm Colt submachine gun. Harris killed Federal Marshal Bill Degan with a single round from his M1917. Weaver and Harris retreated inside the cabin but later retrieved Sammy’s body. The feds responded with more than 300 agents, lawmen, and National Guardsmen.
Law Enforcement commanders issued liberal rules of engagement demanding that any armed adult male be shot on sight. Investigators later determined this to be both unconstitutional and legally indefensible. This epically flawed decision set the stage for the disaster that followed.
Lon Horiuchi was a West Point graduate and former infantry officer. On August 22, 1992, Horiuchi was a sniper for the FBI Hostage Rescue Team set up in sniper hide Sierra 4 some 180 meters from the Weaver homestead. When Randy Weaver, Sara, and Kevin Harris left the cabin to tend to Sammy’s body, Horiuchi fired.
Horiuchi later testified that he had intended to shoot Weaver through the spine, but that the man moved at the moment he squeezed the trigger. The heavy rifle bullet subsequently entered Weaver’s back and exited his right armpit. As Weaver and Harris ran for the cabin Horiuchi cycled his rifle and fired a second round.
This second shot badly wounded Harris and struck Randy’s wife Vicki in the throat, killing her as she stood in the cabin door holding their infant daughter. The subsequent standoff lasted another ten days before Weaver and Harris, now near death, finally surrendered.
During the standoff, federal agents named their operating base Camp Vicki after Weaver’s wife. Negotiators during the siege called out such stuff as, “Vicki, we have blueberry pancakes” in an effort at taunting the Weavers. Though they later claimed they had not realized Vicki was dead, the effect on those within the cabin was absolutely inhuman.
Government press releases described Randy Weaver as a hardened white supremacist Green Beret holed up in a mountain fortress equipped with an arsenal of deadly weapons. In reality, the Weaver home was little more than a glorified shack.
Even today I was unable to locate a proper inventory of the weapons found in the cabin. However, I did find a photograph. Here are the guns Weaver actually possessed at the time of the killings.
At the bottom is an M1917 Enfield. This is presumably the rifle Harris used to kill Marshal Degan. The M1917 is a bolt-action adaptation of a British design chambered in .30-06. The gun weighs 9.2 pounds and loads from the top via five-round stripper clips. While the 1903A3 Springfield got most of the press during WW1, Sergeant Alvin York was carrying an M1917 Enfield when he won his Medal of Honor in October of 1918.
Weaver’s arsenal also included a pair of Ruger Mini-14 semiautomatic rifles, one blued and another stainless. Ruger first introduced the Mini-14 in 1973.
A collaborative effort between Bill Ruger and James Sullivan, the Mini-14 was loosely based upon the action of the M1 Garand and fired .223 Remington. The Mini-14 feeds from detachable box magazines and weighs just south of 6.5 pounds.
A bolt-action hunting weapon, a scoped lever-action Savage, and a pump-action .22 round out the rifles. Agents seized a double-barreled 12-gauge coach gun and a single-shot shotgun as well as a variety of handguns and revolvers.
The collapsible stock weapon at the top is a Crosman pellet rifle. My little brother had one like it when we were kids. The fact that the feds saw fit to include it in the layout frankly makes the whole affair seem all the more pathetic.
The Sordid Aftermath
Kevin Harris was charged with a variety of offenses to include the murder of a federal agent but was ultimately acquitted. Weaver was absolved of all charges save the original failure to appear. For this, he served 18 months in prison and was fined $10,000. Both Harris and Weaver subsequently sued the US government in a civil lawsuit. Weaver’s suit demanded $200 million.
The government ultimately settled both suits. Harris took home $380,000, while the Weaver family was awarded a cumulative $3.1 million. One government lawyer later remarked that it was a good thing the case did not go to trial, as Weaver quite probably would have been awarded the full sum.
Lon Horiuchi also served as a sniper the following year during the government’s comparably botched siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. He was charged with manslaughter for killing Vicki Weaver, but the charges were in time administratively dismissed.
The Ruby Ridge and Waco killings precipitated a maelstrom of anti-government vitriol that culminated in Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. McVeigh killed 168 people in this attack, the worst case of domestic terrorism in American history. He was executed in 2001.
What remained of the Weaver family eventually moved to Montana. Randy wrote a book, while his eldest daughter Sara became a born-again Christian. In 2012 she stated that she had forgiven the federal agents who killed her mother and brother. Amidst a veritable sea of hate, venom, accusations, and agendas, Sara’s seems the lonely voice of hope and reconciliation.
On a blood-drenched Idaho mountainside in 1992 our nation teetered, struggling to define itself on issues of race, freedom, and guns. Now some 27 years later the subsequent wounds are not yet fully healed. Aftershocks still play out on the news even today. God help us.