By Ben Olson
Editor’s Note: In the early morning of Aug. 21, 1992, six U.S. Deputy Marshals moved onto a steep, mountainous piece of property off of Ruby Creek Road near Naples, Idaho on what was later termed a “reconnaissance mission” to convince Randy Weaver — who had been indicted on illegal weapons charges — to surrender to authorities.
A few hours later, Marshal Dave Hunt made a 911 call to the Boundary County Sheriff’s Office stating that federal agents were trapped on a ridge in Naples taking heavy fire. The call, like much of the early story of Ruby Ridge, was less than true. It triggered one of the largest law enforcement operations ever to occur in Idaho.
Ten days later, three people and the family dog had been killed. Two adults were wounded. North Idaho had been plunged into the national spotlight for what would come to be known as “The Stand-Off at Ruby Ridge,” leaving many in the country wondering whether its federal government could be trusted. Ruby Ridge, along with the siege at Waco, Texas, was regarded as a main cause for the rise of the modern militia movement.
The story of the governmental action that led to the events that took place at the Weaver property has been the subject of countless books, films and television specials over 25 years. For those who grew up here, it is a familiar story; albeit a story far too complex to tell within the bounds of this newspaper. For those unfamiliar, what follows is a brief synopsis of the lead-up to the stand-off, the actions that occurred during those tense eleven days in August and the subsequent trial that ultimately saw Randy Weaver acquitted of the murder charge against him. Special care has been taken to present the information as recorded by known facts; however, due to multiple conflicting accounts of the incident, some details are still contested. Trial testimony, newspaper articles and first-hand accounts helped lay down the groundwork for this multiple part series, as well as several books and television news specials. It is not the Reader’s desire to pass judgment on one side or the other, but simply to present an overview of this incident that has left a lasting impression not only on the surviving members of the Weaver family and neighbors, but the nation as a whole. Attempts were made to interview a member of the Weaver family but were ultimately denied.
A Foundation of Belief
Randy Weaver met Vicki Jordison in the mid-1960s while they both lived in Iowa. After enlisting and completing Green Beret training, Randy and Vicki became engaged and married in 1971.
While the counterculture revolution swarmed around them, Randy and Vicki – both having been raised in Christian families – began searching for a new religious purpose. They studied prophecies from the New Testament, in particular, the Book of Revelation and agreed that these words could serve as a guide to future events in the world.
Vicki gave birth to their first daughter, Sara, in 1976, followed by a son, Samuel, two years later.
It was during this time that Vicki claimed she was having visions from God which ultimately led the Weaver family west to a wooded hillside in North Idaho.
“Here were two admired/respected Christians living and working in Waterloo, Iowa who abandoned a great job with the John Deere Corporation, family and friends to move to northern Idaho,” Ron Howen, federal prosecutor during the Randy Weaver trial, wrote to the Reader. “Vicki Weaver’s ‘vision from God’ was that the second coming of Christ would occur during a shootout with ZOG (Zionist Occupation Government) on a mountain top in northern Idaho.”
According to Howen, Vicki began using apocalyptic language that fit within what has become known as the Identity movement.
“One of the tenets of this ‘movement’,” wrote Howen, “is that the white race are the true descendants of the true 12 lost tribes of Israel.”
Though this same philosophy is shared with groups such as the Aryan Nations led by Richard Butler in Hayden during the 1980s and ‘90s, the Weavers always claimed to not harbor any racial animosity.
In August 1983, after Vicki had given birth to a third child named Rachel, the Weavers sold their home in Waterloo, Iowa, and headed west.
A Cabin in the Woods
After driving across the country on a two-week search for property, the Weavers ended up in the panhandle of Idaho. They located a piece of property outside of Naples, just south of Bonners Ferry, Idaho.
The property, which overlooked Ruby Creek and the Kootenai River valley, would afterward come to be known as Ruby Ridge, though the actual Ruby Ridge lies on the hillside opposite the Weaver cabin.
The young family constructed a simple cabin with plywood walls. The children were taught at home, with an emphasis on Identity beliefs. Seventeen-year-old Kevin Harris began living on the property with the Weavers.
During the mid-1980s, other Identity Christians were moving to North Idaho, some preaching “white separatism.”
While white supremacists believe the Aryan race is naturally superior to others, white separatists believe that the Aryan race should be separated from other “inferior” races by economic, social and cultural means.
“It was constantly disheartening to me that people like Randy and Vicki Weaver would fall for such garbage and head to northern Idaho to assemble with like-minded people,” wrote Howen. “They weren’t the first and they won’t be the last.”
Not all of the Weaver’s neighbors were “like-minded” people. At one point in 1984, a neighbor had a dispute with Randy over a land deal that ended in Weaver’s favor. As a result, the neighbor wrote letters to the FBI, Secret Service and Boundary County Sheriff alleging Weaver had threatened to kill the president, the pope and the governor of Idaho.
In January 1985, the Secret Service investigated the allegations. The Secret Service had been told Weaver was a member of the Aryan Nations and that he had a large cache of weapons at his cabin. After an interview with Randy and Vicki by a handful of federal agents and local law enforcement, no charges were filed.
It was this incident with federal agents that initially led the Weavers to believe that the government was “after them.” In late Feb. 1985, Randy and Vicki filed an affidavit with the county courthouse claiming that certain neighbors were plotting to provoke the FBI into attacking and killing the Weaver family. There was never any proof found that what these neighbors said was true.
A Brush With Hate
In the decade leading up to the stand-off at Ruby Ridge, white supremacist groups had been making the news in North Idaho. The Aryan Nations, led by Richard Butler, lived on a 40-acre encampment in Hayden Lake, where they began holding a “summer camp” called the Aryan Nations World Congress. The camp offered everything from weapons practice to courses on guerrilla warfare. Anti-Semitic, anti-black and anti-homosexual propaganda was handed out to participants.
The Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations was founded in 1981 after a restaurant owned by a Jewish family was defaced with swastikas in nearby Coeur d’Alene. Another task force leader’s house was bombed.
“Frankly, the federal government was asleep at the wheel in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1980s regarding the white supremacy groups that were forming such as Aryan Nations/Church of Jesus Christ in Hayden Lake,” wrote Howen. “The FBI, BATF and the U.S. (Attorney’s Office) did not recognize or fully understand the danger that such groups or individuals posed to the public and minorities in particular until the group The Order burst on the scene in 1984.”
The self-proclaimed “revolutionary” group called The Order became involved in a series of violent crimes such as bombings, bank robberies and escalating to the brutal murder of Alan Berg, a liberal, Jewish talk show host in Denver.
Many members of The Order were prosecuted by Howen and sent to prison, but a second Order emerged with closer ties to Butler in Hayden Lake. In 1986, another series of bombs were set off in the Coeur d’Alene area. The FBI became involved, along with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF), the Secret Service and local law enforcement.
On at least three occasions, the Weavers attended the World Congress at the Aryan Nations compound. While the Weavers reportedly felt sympathetic to the Aryan Nations cause, they made a point of not joining the church.
One of Randy’s neighbors, Gene Hopkins, said that Randy told him, “That place was full of crooks and convicts.”
In 1989, Randy met a biker named Gus Magisono at the World Congress. The two were friendly to one another and kept in touch after the congress was over. Randy was pressed for money, cutting and selling firewood and doing odd jobs, and Magisono said Randy could make some money selling guns.
Magisono said he was in touch with people within the Order who needed sawed-off shotguns. Magisono later testified that Randy said he’d never sold a sawed-off shotgun before in his life and was reluctant to break the law. However, strapped for cash, Randy eventually agreed to do it, said Magisono.
According to testimony at the trial, Randy pulled his pickup next to Magisono’s car and pulled out a Remington pump-action shotgun from a case. The biker touched the barrel at about the 13-inch point, saying, “About here.”
Magisono said Randy delivered two sawed-off shotguns a week later for which he was paid $300, according to trial testimony.
Gus Magisono was actually Kenneth Fadeley. Fadeley had been arrested for gunrunning by the BATF, who offered him clemency if he could recruit more people to do undercover work within the white supremacist groups such as the Aryan Nations and The Order.
Eight months later, Randy Weaver was approached by two BATF agents near Deep Creek, Idaho, who claimed to have incriminating tape recordings of his dealings with Fadeley/Magisono. The agents said Randy could avoid arrest if he agreed to spy on the Aryan Nations, an offer he rejected.
In December 1990, Randy was indicted on federal firearms charges.
Randy and Vicki were driving down the road leading from their property a few weeks later and saw a pickup parked and blocking the bridge with its hood up. A man and a woman were standing looking at the engine.
The Weavers stopped to help and were soon surrounded by BATF agents who had sprung out of the truck’s camper shell. Randy was arrested and taken to the Boundary County jail, where he posted a $10,000 bond with his property as collateral and returned home to the cabin. At that time, Randy was erroneously told by the judge that if he didn’t show up to court to answer the charges, he would not only forfeit his bail, but would lose his property.
Randy’s court date was originally set for Feb. 21, but later moved up to Feb. 20. However, the official notice sent out by probation officer Karl Richins to the Weavers listed the court date as March 20. Richins later testified that Weaver had been sent the wrong date for his trial. When Richins notified his superiors, he was taken off the case and told not to correct the mistake.
When asked about the date discrepancy, Howen wrote, “I can’t recall the dates you refer to accurately 25 years later. In the Randy Weaver case, I decided to obtain a secret indictment and then wait to see whether Mr. Weaver appeared at the later date. If he had appeared on March 20th and explained his [failure to appear] as a mistake … I would have dismissed the indictment and the arrest warrant. … 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. How else could the agents of ZOG be lured up the mountain for this apocalyptic shootout where the second coming of Christ would occur?”
Randy Weaver testified he believed the date discrepancy was done on purpose; regardless, he no longer trusted the governmental system in the least, and had already determined he would not appear in court.
For the next 16 months, the Weavers stayed on their property. In October 1991, the fourth Weaver child was born. Elisheba Weaver was born in a small outbuilding called the “birthing shed,” where Vicki and Sara would stay during their menstrual periods according to their understanding of Old Testament laws about cleanliness.
In the quarter century since the incident, many have questioned the motives of the BATF and their decision to pursue an arrest for the firearms charge – which was a misdemeanor, not a felony. The U.S. Marshals Service, the enforcement arm of the federal court system, became involved, creating a “threat assessment” on Randy Weaver that included such items as unverified rumors that Randy Weaver was growing marijuana on his property and had been involved with bank robberies. These rumors were never proven true.
The report also mentioned heavy-caliber guns mounted on tripods around the “compound,” a name that stuck in the media when referring to the Weaver property. The report also claimed Randy was a member of the Aryan Nations, that he had threatened the life of the president, and that he was likely to shoot officers on sight. These rumors also were later proved to be untrue.
“The reason the federal government and specifically BATF went after Randy Weaver, well, some of it’s speculation, but the reason was that they wanted an informant,” said E. Michael Kahoe, a former FBI agent who was ultimately sentenced to 18 months in prison for obstruction of justice after destroying an internal critique and then lying about it to two sets of investigators.
“The whole thing is tragic,” said Kahoe in an exclusive interview with the Reader. “When they couldn’t flip him … they turned it over to the U.S. Marshals Service. It’s a case of the BATF looking for a mission. … they trumped that whole thing up with the sawed-off shotgun. It’s horrible what they did, I think. Of course, I’m on the other side of it.”
Despite the fact that many items in this report were proven false, it had the effect of painting Randy as a desperate, well-armed man who would be difficult to bring to justice. The marshals had the Weavers under surveillance. A family living nearby the Weaver cabin was convinced to help the Marshals monitor the actions of the Weavers.
During spring 1992, in an effort to beef up surveillance to include electronic monitoring with cameras and other devices, Ron Evans, the chief deputy marshal of Idaho, petitioned Washington, D.C., for authorization to declare the case “major” and bring in high-tech surveillance equipment.
In April, a six-man team of marshals and electronic surveillance specialists began setting up surveillance sites with video cameras on two sides of the Weaver cabin. A helicopter and Cessna airplane were later commissioned to make flyovers to obtain aerial photographs.
From a makeshift HQ, the marshals would frequently scout the Weaver property, always armed and in full military camouflage, taking caution to avoid detection. The marshals began devising contingency plans to take Randy into custody with a minimal use of force.
On Aug. 20, 1992, six U.S. marshals set out armed and in camo dress, and entered the Weaver property on what is still called only a “reconnaissance mission.”
The marshals split into two teams. Marshals William Degan, Larry Cooper and Art Roderick comprised the forward team while Dave Hunt, Larry Thomas and an EMT named Frank Norris formed the other.
The forward team took up position behind a big rock that marks the edge of the clearing where the Weaver’s cabin was built. According to trial testimony by Roderick, the marshals began throwing pebbles to “see if they could get the dog’s attention.” Marshal Cooper said in an interview in 2013 that the dog heard a car somewhere in the distance, and that’s what got its attention.
However it happened, 14-year-old Sammy’s dog Striker began barking and sniffing in the vicinity of the boulder where the marshals set up position. Randy, Kevin and Sammy ran toward the rock with their weapons: a 12-gauge shotgun, a .30-06 bolt action rifle and a .223 mini-14 respectively.
Randy later wrote, “I didn’t have any idea what we were chasing, but I hoped it was a deer.”
While Kevin and Sammy followed the dog down the logging road, Randy cut around the trail past the garden that met the road — a common hunting practice is to surround game and have one set of hunters drive the deer out of the woods while the other waited to make the shot.
The marshals ran into the woods to an old logging road that encircled the property. Striker began chasing the group, which eventually fled to a place dubbed “the Y” where they took cover.
Different versions of what occurred next came out in various court testimonies.
“When I reached the first fork in the logging road, a very-well camouflaged person yelled ‘Freeze, Randy!’,” Randy wrote later. “I immediately said ‘Fuck you,’ and retreated 80 to 100 feet toward home. I realized immediately that we had run smack into a ZOG/New World Order ambush.”
Striker came running to the Y area, followed by Sammy and Kevin. At this point, according to the findings of a Senate investigation committee, Marshal Roderick fired at the dog, although Marshals Cooper and Roderick both testified that Kevin Harris had fired first after they had identified themselves as U.S. Marshals.
When Sammy saw Striker had been shot by Marshal Roderick, he yelled, “You shot Striker, you sonofabitch!” and fired his gun in the direction of the stand of trees where the shots originated.
According to Kevin Harris’ testimony, Sammy was running up the trail away from the Marshals when another shot came from the woods, hitting him in the arm. Harris claims Sammy fell and got to his feet to continue running. Another burst of fire came from the trees. Sammy Weaver, shot in the back while running home, died. The Senate investigation committee concluded that the “evidence suggests, but does not establish, that the shot that killed Sammy Weaver was fired by DUSM Cooper.” Marshall Cooper also acknowledged that he shot Sammy in a later interview.
Seeing Sammy fall, Harris fired into the bushes and believed that he had shot the person who had killed Sammy. Harris testified that the agents never identified themselves as U.S. Marshals, nor did they have a warrant in their possession. Marshal Cooper claimed he did shout “Back off, U.S. Marshals,” in a later interview.
William Degan, one of the most highly decorated officers in the U.S. Marshals Service, was found dead in the stand of trees where the forward group had hidden. It was concluded later that the shot by Harris was the one that killed Degan, though a jury later found that Harris acted in self-defense and acquitted him of the charges.
“The competing versions of what happened at the Y were presented and argued during the trial,” wrote Howen. “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 number 1, leaving a 14-year-old boy and a young man with the mentality of a 13-year-old to shoot it out with the hated ZOG agents.”
Randy later testified in court that he wasn’t aware how close Sammy and Kevin were, and that he was shouting for them to get home. Only Kevin made it back.
This is the end of Part One of the Stand-Off at Ruby Ridge: 25 Years Later. With a 14-year-old boy, the family dog and a respected U.S. Marshal dead, what had begun as a simple failure to appear in court had now evolved into an incident that would captivate the nation for the next ten days.
Next week, learn about the next tragedy of the stand-off involving the death of Vicki Weaver, the efforts that were taken to bring Randy off the mountain, and the trial that ultimately led to the acquittal of murder charges for both Randy Weaver and Kevin Harris.