By Ben Olson
Editor’s Note: In the first two installments of this series, we covered the events leading up to the Stand-Off at Ruby Ridge that occurred near Naples, Idaho in Aug. 1992. In this third piece, we will cover the preliminary trial activity of Randy Weaver and Kevin Harris. There will be a part four next week highlighting the trial, and quite possibly a part five dealing with the aftermath of this incident. One thing rings true about the story of Ruby Ridge: It’s a complicated story that requires a lot of space to tell.
Part two left off with Randy Weaver surrendering to authorities and coming down off the mountain while Kevin Harris remained in custody while being treated for a gunshot wound. Vicki Weaver, 14-year-old Sammy Weaver, U.S. Marshall Degan and family dog Striker had all been killed.
Assignment of Lawyers
After the 11-day stand-off at Ruby Ridge that had captivated the nation, the lead up to the trial of Randy Weaver and Kevin Harris had generated a considerable amount of attention. A federal grand jury had indicted Kevin Harris for the murder of Marshal William Degan and Randy Weaver for aiding and abetting in Degan’s death. Weaver was also still charged with failing to appear for his original court date in regard to the original illegal firearms charge that led to the events that unfolded at the Weaver cabin in August.
Randy had received a commitment from noted lawyer Gerry Spence to be his defense attorney. Spence — a flamboyant and arduous trial attorney — was famous for never having lost a criminal case either as a prosecutor or a defense attorney.
In his book “From Freedom to Slavery: The Rebirth of Freedom in America,” Spence later reflected on the initial response he received after agreeing to take Randy’s case.
“The blood hadn’t cooled on Ruby Hill before the national media announced that I had taken the defense of Randy Weaver,” Spence wrote. “Then all hell broke loose.”
Spence said he had gotten blowback from all over the map, from strangers to his own family. His sister decried him for defending a “racist.” Letters to the editor flooded into newspapers that “expressed their disappointment that I would lend my services to a person with Weaver’s beliefs.”
Spence wrote in a letter to a friend, who had implored him to withdraw from the case: “…if I were to withdraw from the defense of Randy Weaver … I would be required to abandon my belief that this system has any remaining virtue. I would be no more at fault than the federal government that has murdered these people, for I have not been trained to murder but to defend.”
While Randy was in good hands with Spence, Kevin Harris didn’t have a lawyer yet, nor could he afford one. Boise-based defense attorney David Nevin was asked by the judge conducting the preliminary hearing if he would serve as Harris’ court-appointed attorney.
Nevin, a self-proclaimed “yellow-dog Democrat,” had mixed feelings. He had been on vacation during the standoff, so he missed a lot of the news barrage. He said his general understanding was that a family with “unusual white separatist” beliefs had held off government agents for awhile before being captured.
Nevin flew to Spokane to meet with Harris the day Randy came down off the mountain. Harris was in a hospital room guarded by U.S. Marshals. Nevin said later that after meeting Harris and spending time talking with him, he had a hard time believing Harris was a cold-blooded murdered. He decided to take the case, despite his initial reluctance.
U.S. Attorney Ron Howen was named as the federal prosecutor to represent the federal government.
Howen had made a name for himself after participating in numerous cases involving violent white supremacist groups such as the Bruderschweigen (Silent Brotherhood) and The Order, which carried out several bombings in the Coeur d’Alene area and even murdered a Jewish Denver talk radio host.
“My role in the Weaver/Harris trial was to prepare the case for trial and actually try the case with my trial partner, Kim Lindquist,” wrote Howen in an email interview with the Reader. “In essence, it was my case.”
On Tuesday, Sept. 1, 1992, mere days after his son and wife had been killed, Randy appeared in federal court in Boise accompanied by his attorney Spence and Boise attorney Chuck Peterson, who served as co-counsel. Weaver pleaded not guilty to the original charge of selling illegal weapons and failure to appear. Howen tacked on an additional charge of assault on a federal officer, for which Weaver would plead at a later date.
Both Spence and Randy presented written statements to the court and the press after the arraignment. Spence’s statement said while he and Randy “do not see eye to eye on many issues,” he felt compelled to take the case because “in America, all of our religious and political beliefs are protected by the Constitution. If this were not so, we have lost what is most sacred in America.”
Randy’s statement acknowledged many of the same points, emphasizing that, “People ought not be murdered by their own government. This case must stand for something. Otherwise my darling Vicki and my dear son Sam have died for nothing.”
The preliminary hearing began Sept. 10, 1992. Weaver and Harris both pleaded not guilty to all the various charges against them, which included murder, aiding and abetting murder, conspiracy and assault.
The trial was set to begin Oct. 26, but was later pushed back to February 1993.
Meanwhile, Howen filed an amended 18-page indictment on Nov. 19 that named Randy Weaver, “defendant and co-conspirator,” as a leader of the group of criminals, Vicki Weaver as an “unindicted co-conspirator,” and Kevin Harris as “a member of the conspiracy.”
Howen wrote in the indictment that “it was part of the conspiracy” that the Weavers had left Iowa and moved to Idaho “in their belief and prediction that a violent confrontation would occur with law enforcement involving a ‘kill zone’ surrounding their property.”
Howen argued that it was part of the conspiracy that the Weavers bought the property on Ruby Creek Road and built the cabin as an attempt to form a group opposed to the New World Order. Howen asserted that the Weavers had isolated themselves, sold illegal firearms, bought legal firearms and that they “precipitated a violent confrontation with federal law enforcement officers by refusing the requests, pleas and entreaties of federal, state or local law enforcement agents and officers, relatives and friends to peacefully surrender and appear for trial.”
“Based on the information I had received including several written letters from Vicki Weaver, I was very confident that Randy Weaver had no intention of appearing before Judge Ryan in February or March (to answer for illegal firearms charges,)” Howen wrote in a recent Reader interview. “How else could the agents of ZOG (Zionist Occupation Government) be lured up the mountain for this apocalyptic shootout where the second coming of Christ would occur?”
Spence argued in court that, “Many things in the indictment have nothing to do with the case and have only to do with laying a foundation for the prosecution to introduce evidence that’s prejudicial in the case and that the prosecution knows is improper and prejudicial. They charge him with being part of the Aryan Nations movement and that raises the specter that this man is being prosecuted for what are allegedly his beliefs rather than for the crimes that he allegedly committed.”
Motions to Dismiss and a Damning Memorandum
In January 1993, Spence and Peterson filed a motion to dismiss the indictment and to remove Ron Howen from the case. The defense lawyers claimed that since Howen had been present during the siege, and had even assisted in the search for evidence, he could be called as a witness.
Spence and Peterson filed a lengthy memorandum in support of the motion that included the Weaver family’s version of events, as well as making the case that the U.S. Marshals, not the Weavers, were the ones who provoked the confrontation that led to the deaths.
The memo said the team of Marshals, “in preparation for this alleged ‘reconnaissance mission’ went to a shooting range where they spent several hours sighting-in their guns.” After months of surveillance in which the marshals observed the Weavers regularly carrying weapons, Spence said the Weavers had always confronted people on their property nonviolently: “In face of this history, the marshals’ apparent strategy was to engage the Weavers while they were armed which, even in the face of their alleged orders not to engage the Weavers, would provide the marshals cause to use deadly force against the Weavers.”
The memorandum went on to discuss the incident at the “Y” where the family dog Striker was shot, followed by 14-year-old Sammy Weaver and U.S. Marshal William Degan.
“[Marshal] Roderick now admits that his team was throwing rocks toward the Weaver house, thus taunting the dogs,” the memo said. “Later, contrary to these admissions by Roderick, Marshal Jack Cluff of Moscow, Idaho, told the press that the Weavers had loosed their dogs on an approaching vehicle.”
Marshal Art Roderick did, indeed, admit during grand jury testimony that his team had thrown rocks at the family dog.
The memo concluded that when the dog began chasing the marshals, Kevin and Sammy started chasing the dog, hoping it was on the trail of a game animal. The dog passed Marshal Larry Cooper, who elected not to fire, admitting in his grand jury testimony that if he killed the dog, “I believed it would precipitate a firefight.”
“Since Cooper had not shot the dog as planned,” the memo continued, “Roderick now fired. The bullet shattered the dog’s spine and the dog let out a yelp. … Thus a confrontation, contrary to the Marshals’ orders, was fully assured – indeed, a forbidden confrontation with one of the Weaver children.”
The memo went on: “To the horror of … Sammy Weaver, he saw a man in a full camouflage suit brutally shoot his dog. Roderick testified up to that point that no one he could identify had fired at the officers. Hence by Roderick’s admission, the first shot was fired by Roderick when he shot the family pet.”
According to the memo, when Sammy saw his dog, he yelled and fired his gun in Roderick’s direction. The marshals opened fire with their automatic weapons. Harris testified that he saw Sammy running toward home with his back to the officers, the child crying out in pain having been hit in the arm by the marshal’s fire. Then, Harris testified, Randy was heard calling for his son to come home. Harris said Sammy called back, “I’m coming, Dad.” There was a brief lull, said Harris, followed by another shot. Sammy cried out and then there was silence.
“Seeing that Sammy had been shot and fearing for his own life, Harris opened fire in the direction of those who had been shooting from the bushes,” the memo said. “He believed he shot the officer who had been firing at Sammy.”
The memo noted that by the time the exchange of shots had concluded, Kevin and Randy were back at the cabin, more than a quarter-mile from the marshals and out of sight from the “Y”: “The Marshals began to spread a false story concerning the incident, a story that would result in the infamous standoff at Ruby Ridge, the death of Vicki Weaver and the wounding of Randy Weaver and Kevin Harris.”
In a Reader interview, Howen wrote, “The competing versions of what happened at the ‘Y’ were presented and argued during the trial. I believe the surviving Marshals, Larry Cooper and Art Roderick. There is one thing both versions agree on. When the shootout at the ‘Y’ happened, Randy Weaver was bookin’ it for the cabin looking out for #1 leaving a 13-year-old boy and a young man with mentality of a 13-year-old to shoot it out with the hated ZOG agents.”
The memo prepared by the defense attorneys contended that Vicki’s death by FBI sniper Lon Horiuchi was based on “illegal” rules of engagement, contending that: “The FBI now faced a serious problem. They had killed an unarmed mother standing at the door with a baby in her arms. They had no warrant for Vicki … Moreover, the FBI had discovered that Vicki had not been involved in the shooting at the “Y.” It appears, therefore, that after Vicki was shot, the officers realized they had no legal or moral justification for having killed Vicki. … Since they had no right to shoot her, the FBI had no alternative but to later claim her death was an accident. In the meantime the federal officers pretended they did not know they had killed a second member of the Weaver family.”
This highly subjective memo was prepared by the defense attorneys in an attempt to persuade the judge to dismiss the indictment before the case ever came to trial. While the interpretation of the facts and events were disputed, later testimony during the trial would show that the basic facts used in the memo were accurately portrayed.
After this memo was released to the media, U.S. District Judge Edward J. Lodge — who was scheduled to preside over the forthcoming trial — expressed concern that the release of these documents was a mistake because it compromised the privacy of grand jury witnesses.
Howen filed a 97-page response to the defense motion, but the judge refused to release that document and further documents in the case to the media.
Ultimately, Judge Lodge did not accept the defense motion to dismiss the lengthy indictment, although some language referring to Randy Weaver’s and Kevin Harris’ political and religious beliefs was removed from the indictment. Howen was retained as the lead prosecutor.
Delays and legal wrangling pushed back the trial date until April 12, 1993. The headline on the front page of the April 11, 1993 Spokesman-Review was especially foretelling: “Feds to Face Tribulations in Weaver, Harris Trial.”
The trial of the decade was about to begin.
Next week, we’ll cover the trial of Randy Weaver and Kevin Harris. Special thanks to Ron Howen, who agreed to be interviewed on his role in the case, as well as Trish Gannon, who helped edit and fact-check the first two installments of this series.