by Tanya K. Metaksa
As the firearms industry and its customers celebrated the passage of the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 (FOPA), little did anyone know that a national tragedy was already in the making. The Congress and gunowners hoped that this new law would persuade the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to focus its enforcement efforts on stopping criminals with guns rather than going after gunowners who had no criminal intent. Yet, as we see in the case of Randy Weaver, ATF still was looking for the easy arrest. ATF was still up to its old tricks of using petty criminals as informants to inveigle other gunowners to break the law.
In the late 1980s there appeared to be increased domestic terrorism. In a report entitled FBI Analysis of Terrorist Incidents in the United State in 1986, the FBI clearly set forth the premise that there were terrorist cells in several areas of the country. The report identified three different terrorist groups: Jewish Terrorists, Puerto Rican Terrorists and Right Wing Terrorists. All the bombings attributed to the Right Wing Terrorists took place in Coeur D’Alene, ID, where the Aryan Nations (AN) were located. The report states, “In 1986 five terrorist incidents have been attributed to right-wing terrorists. Available evidence leads to suspicion of affiliates of the AN.”
As a result of this information both the FBI and ATF began intensive efforts in Idaho to stop the bombings and bring the “terrorists” to justice. In their efforts they enlisted the help of paid informants. One such man was Kenneth Fadeley, a gunrunner who had been arrested by ATF and became an informant in lieu of being prosecuted. Fadeley, who went under the alias of Guss Magisono, met Randy Weaver, a former Special Forces member and Vietnam vet, at an Aryan Nation meeting. “Guss,” knowing that Weaver was strapped financially, offered to buy two illegal “sawed-off” shotguns from Weaver. It took several meetings for Weaver to finally relent and sell them for $300. Later on Weaver was to testify that he sold the shotguns without modifying them and that “Guss” had modified their length.
ATF Agent Herbert Byerly submitted a case report on the “sawed off” shotguns to the US Attorney’s office in Boise, ID, and recommended prosecution of Weaver. On June 12, 1990 Byerly and another agent, Steve Gunderson, met with Weaver and offered to drop the charges if he would become an informant. Weaver refused. Later he was arrested and charged with breaking federal gun laws.
Before he was released on bail he was told by a court officer that if he was convicted the government would take his land and leave his family penniless. Weaver received a letter from the US Government stating that his court date was March 20, 1991. In fact the date on the letter was in error and the real court date was Feb. 20, 1991. When Weaver failed to show up on Feb. 20, US Attorney Ron Howen declared him a federal fugitive. Believing the government was conspiring against him, Weaver and his family remained on his land for the next 16 months without leaving.
As a fugitive Weaver’s fate was now in the hands of the US Marshals. The Marshal Service brought in their national SWAT team, took aerial photographs, used sophisticated recording equipment and spent $13,000 per week on an operation to capture a man who had never acted violently in his life. During that time the government watched and waited for the right moment to capture Weaver and bring him to justice for selling two shotguns.
On Aug. 21, 1992 the operation took a violent turn. Fourteen-year-old Sammy Weaver saw some men in camouflage shoot his dog, Striker, and Sammy returned fire. He was then shot in the arm and as he turned to run back to his father he was shot again. This time the bullet went through his back and killed him. After Sammy’s death the family friend who lived with the Weavers, Kevin Harris, saw a camouflaged man, Deputy William Degan, in the woods who was shooting at him. Harris returned fire and killed Degan. After these deaths the federal Marshals called other law enforcement, including their headquarters in Washington, DC, reporting a large skirmish on Ruby Ridge. As a result police from local, county, state and federal agencies descended upon Ruby Ridge. One of the agencies that flew in was the FBI Hostage Rescue Team (HRT).
On Aug. 22, 1992 the HRT leader submitted an amended “rules of engagement” for approval by the FBI. Although no one at the FBI approved the new rules, Larry Potts, assistant director of the FBI’s criminal division, told the HRT leader the new rules of engagement had been approved. Harris, Randy and Sara Weaver, Sammy’s sister, who were in the cabin decided to visit Sammy’s body that had been put in the shed the previous evening. Lon Horiuchi, the Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) “Blue” sniper/observer team leader, who had been deployed overlooking the Weaver cabin, shot Randy as he opened the door to the shed. The three began to run back to the safety of the cabin. Upon hearing the shot Vicki Weaver, Randy’s wife and Sammy’s mother, stood behind the cabin door holding it open for Randy and the others. As she stood behind the door holding her baby Elisheba, Horiuchi took a shot at the doorway. The bullet went through Vicki’s skull and hit Kevin Harris in the left arm and chest. Vicki dropped to the floor. Both Randy Weaver and Kevin Harris were bleeding badly, Vicki was dead, but the baby had miraculously survived.
It would take another six days to stop the government assault against the remaining Weavers and Harris. On Aug. 30, 1992 Harris emerged badly wounded. The next day the remaining Weavers emerged after a negotiation that was arranged not by the government but by a private citizen, Bo Gritz, Randy Weaver’s former commander in Special Forces. According to attorney Gerry Spence,writing in From Freedom to Slavery, “Gritz told Randy that if he would surrender, Gritz would guarantee him a fair trial, and before the negotiations were ended, Randy came to the belief that I would represent him...Randy’s belief that I would represent him if he surrendered was, in part, his motivation for finally submitting to arrest.”
Following the surrender of Harris and Randy Weaver a grand jury indicted Harris for the murder of Deputy Marshal Degan and indicted Randy Weaver as an accessory to Degan’s murder. The trial began on April 12, 1993. Gerry Spence, his son, Kent, and a local attorney named Chuck Peterson represented Weaver. David Nevin represented Kevin Harris.
During the 36-day trial the government called 56 witnesses. With each succeeding witness the Spence defense team was able to show how government witnesses were contradicting each other. The defense team also demonstrated how physical evidence had been tampered with, crime scene photographs were in reality re-enactments and that the government had withheld documents from the defense. It took approximately another three weeks for the jury to come back with their verdicts. Kevin Harris was found not guilty of all counts against him and Randy Weaver was found guilty of not showing up for his court day and violating his bail conditions. The jury even found him NOT guilty of the gun charge. Weaver spent a few months in jail and was released prior to Christmas 1993.
In Washington, DC, the FBI began their own internal investigation that resulted in minor punishments for 14 employees. Additionally their 542-page report definitively stated that the shot that killed Vicki Weaver violated FBI deadly force policy and “contravened the Constitution.” However, attempts to put Horiuchi on trial failed in both Idaho and at the federal level.
In the fall of 1995, Sen. Arlen Specter (then R-PA), chairman of the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Government, held hearings on the tragedy at Ruby Ridge. His hearing vindicated the findings of Weaver’s trial. Also that year the US Government settled a lawsuit brought by the Weaver family. Randy was given $100,000 and his three daughters received $1 million each. In a separate agreement reached in 2000 the government paid Kevin Harris $380,000.
This entire case cost the government way more that $3 million dollars, three dead bodies and many lives ruined, all because the ATF wanted a “snitch” to inform on the Aryan Nation. Weaver said it best at the Senate hearing, “If I had it to do over again, knowing what I know now, I would make different choices....But my wrongs did not cause Federal agents to commit crimes....Federal agents have tried to cover-up their illegal actions. That was their choice, not mine. I have been accountable for my choices. They should be held accountable for their wrongs. But no Federal agent has been brought to justice for the killings of Sam and Vicki Weaver.”
Although most of the findings of wrongdoing were against the FBI and the Marshal Service, the ATF’s overzealousness in persecuting Randy Weaver because he would not be a “snitch” set up the entire tragedy.
As Weaver’s trial was beginning in April 1993, ATF was again finding itself on the brink of another disaster in Waco, TX. ATF and other federal agencies were again ensnarled in a situation that would lead to an even greater loss of life which will be discussed in the next article.