By Ben Olson
Editor’s Note: Last week, we gave an overview of the lead-up and the first day of the Stand-Off at Ruby Ridge, which took place 25 years ago this week. In Part two, we’ll focus on the duration of the stand-off. Next week, we’ll finish this three-part series with the trial of Randy Weaver and the aftermath of Ruby Ridge.
The Rules of Engagement
At the end of day one of the Stand-Off at Ruby Ridge, 14-year-old Sammy Weaver, U.S. Marshal William Degan and the family dog Striker were dead.
When the shooting commenced, the second U.S. Marshal Service team at the staging area was given the impression that a gun battle raged in the woods with agents pinned down by gunfire. The feds began evacuating residents from their homes in the area to a roadblock set up at the nearby Ruby Creek bridge.
Marshal David Hunt made a series of phone calls to Washington, D.C. explaining that the Marshals had been ambushed and fired upon. Military equipment and federal agents began congregating almost immediately. The FBI assembled its Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) led by Richard Rogers. Federal agents were called in from regional offices. The Idaho National Guard was called up to offer support. Before the end of the day, Gov. Cecil Andrus had declared a state of emergency.
While flying from D.C. to Idaho, Rogers drafted the Rules of Engagement (ROE) for the incident. The report initially read: “If any adult in the area around the cabin is observed with a weapon after the surrender announcement had been made, deadly force could and should be used to neutralize the individual. If any adult male is observed with a weapon prior to the announcement, deadly force can and should be employed, if the shot can be taken without endangering any children.”
Over the years, criticism has been leveled at the FBI for this unprecedented handling of the ROE, which included the term “deadly force can and should be deployed.”
FBI deputy assistant director Danny Coulson received the operations plan but ultimately did not approve of it because it lacked a negotiations option, according to a report compiled by the task force.
“Thus,” a later Senate investigation report concluded, “(Coulson) never saw or reviewed the Rules of Engagement in the plan which appeared after the section in which a negotiations strategy should have appeared … Since there is no written record of specifically what version of the Rules that FBI headquarters approved, we cannot confidently say that the word ‘should’ was approved by FBI headquarters at any time.”
It is this point of the ROE that affected the outcome of the events that followed — resulting in the death of one more person, as well as the imprisonment of one FBI agent for obstruction of justice.
“The two worst guys (in this incident) are the two who authorized/signed off on the ‘shoot to kill orders’ and then orchestrated a cover up to preserve their seven figure incomes in Washington, D.C. post-government service,” wrote federal prosecutor for the FBI, Ron Howen in an exclusive interview with the Reader. “Subordinates erased the SIOC logs and shredded the documents/reports that linked them to those orders. And then the subordinates ‘fell on their swords’ to protect them.”
One FBI agent who “fell on his sword” was E. Michael Kahoe, who was reached for comment via telephone. It is one of the first times Kahoe has talked to the press in 25 years.
Kahoe said in an interview that he attended an “after-action” meeting where his higher-ups Danny Coulson and Larry Potts both declined to appear. Viewing the memo as “nonsense,” Kahoe destroyed it, saying it was an attempt to “protect himself.” It was the destruction of this memo that led to Kahoe serving over a year in prison.
Toward nightfall of day one, after Kevin Harris had notified the Weaver family that Sammy had been killed, Randy, Vicki and Kevin went down the path toward the Y and found Sammy’s body. According to Weaver’s testimony, they brought the body to the birthing shed, cleaned it off and wrapped it in a sheet. They left it in the birthing shed for the time being, electing to worry about burial at a later time.
While most outside of the Weavers and most likely the U.S. Marshals didn’t know that Sammy had been killed, reports of gunfire and a federal agent shot down began to filter throughout the media and the small community.
A small crowd of neighbors and onlookers began gathering at the roadblock on the bridge. As the day wore on, more arrived at the roadblock, some shouting at the vehicles being allowed through, demanding information.
Local newspaper reporters in Bonners Ferry, Sandpoint and Coeur d’Alene were soon joined by reporters from Spokane, Boise and the wire services. TV trucks arrived on the scene and extended their remote satellite antennas.
Rogers, the head of the Hostage Rescue Team, deployed his forces with silenced weapons and camouflage to block possible escape routes, set up observation posts and establish sniper positions.
On the hillside to the north about 200 yards from the cabin, the Sierra 4 sniper team took position. The team consisted of West Point graduate Lon Horiuchi, HRT’s top sniper, and Dale Monroe, his spotter, with what the senate report later criticized as, “virtual shoot-on-sight orders.”
Around 6 p.m., Randy, Kevin and 16-year-old Sara ventured out of the cabin to visit Sammy’s body in the birthing shed. Randy and Kevin were carrying rifles, but Sara was unarmed, according to her testimony.
As Randy reached for the door of the shed, a shot rang out. A bullet ripped through the flesh under Randy’s arm. The three immediately ran toward the cabin.
“I ran up to my dad and tried to shield him and pushed him toward the house,” Sara later told the Spokesman-Review. “If they were going to shoot someone, I was going to make them shoot a kid.”
Howen interpreted the first shot by Horiuchi as a defensive move by the sniper team: “(Horiuchi) fired the first shot at Randy Weaver when Randy grabbed the side of the ‘birthing shed’ to steady his aim to shoot into the bubble canopy of the helicopter flying overhead. … Lon shot instinctively without being able (to) properly set up and very quickly to save the lives of those in the helicopter.”
Howen pointed out that FBI shooting protocol established that it may use deadly force when “your life or the life of a third party are endangered. Once you use or attempt to use deadly force under this shooting policy, you continue the engagement until the person surrenders, throws down their weapon or is killed.”
Then-FBI Director Louis Freeh testified later that Horiuchi fired on Weaver because he “observed one of the suspects raise a weapon in the direction of a helicopter carrying other FBI personnel.” But numerous federal officials testified during the trial that no helicopters were flying in the vicinity of the Weavers’ cabin at the time of the FBI sniping.
In the cabin, Vicki had heard the sniper shot. She ran to the kitchen door with the infant Elisheba in her arms and held the door open for Randy, Kevin and Sara. As they tumbled into the cabin, a shot hit Vicki in the temple, went through her mouth and tongue, through her jawbone and severed her artery. Vicki fell to the floor.
Kevin, who was struck by the same bullet as Vicki, suffered wounds in his arm and chest cavity. Vicki bled to death , still holding her baby in her arms.
After Vicki’s death, the stand-off lasted another nine days. FBI agents entered the birthing shed on Day Three and found Sammy’s body. News was released the next day that Sammy had been killed, as well as Marshal Degan. Kevin Harris was formally charged in federal court for the murder of Marshal Degan and Randy Weaver was charged with assaulting a federal officer.
The mood at the roadblock grew darker. Several carried hand-painted signs critical of the federal government. Some children at the roadblock wore papers on their chest with targets on them, reading, “Are we next?”
It was a colorful group at the roadblock. While most were concerned neighbors and citizens, there were also organized “patriot” groups and some skinheads wearing swastikas and drawing the attention from both the media and the crowd. John Trochmann, the founder of the Militia of Montana movement arrived with his brother and nephew. On Day Eight, Aryan Nations founder Richard Butler showed up at the roadblock.
By Day Six of the stand-off, the crowd at the roadblock was easily estimated in the hundreds. Nobody knew that Vicki had been killed, but some had suspected as much. Morale was low.
It was on this day that a controversial figure showed up at the scene. Lt. Col. James “Bo” Gritz, the flamboyant former Green Beret who became famous for his attempts to locate and rescue American prisoners of war in Vietnam, began acting as a “citizen mediator” between the federal government and Randy Weaver.
Known for his Christian beliefs and “patriot activism,” Gritz had run for President of the U.S. with the Populist Party under the slogan “God, Guns and Gritz.”
Gritz finally succeeded in gaining an audience with the FBI agents in charge. He convinced them to drive him to the cabin, where he held a conversation with Randy through the plywood of the cabin. Gritz said Randy wasn’t ready to leave the cabin yet, but that he would be willing to negotiate with Gritz.
The mood intensified when Gritz walked down the hill and announced to the crowd that Vicki Weaver had been killed. It was the first anyone outside the cabin heard that she had been killed.
Over the next two days, Gritz worked as a go-between, gaining admittance to the cabin at one point to discuss the situation with Randy, and reporting on the condition of the gunshot wounds that Kevin and Randy had both suffered.
On Sunday, day 10, Gritz convinced Randy to let him and his associate Jack McLamb take Kevin Harris out of the cabin to receive medical attention. Harris was flown to Spokane to receive treatment, where he remained under guard for two weeks.
On Monday, Aug. 31, Day Eleven of the stand-off that had dominated the national news cycle, Gritz entered the cabin one last time and was finally able to convince the Weavers that it was time to come down the mountain. Sara cleaned Randy’s wound one last time and put clean clothes on baby Elisheba. Randy, Sara and Rachel put down their guns and cleaned up the cabin a little.
The four surviving Weavers walked out of the cabin together to a helicopter waiting nearby. Randy hugged his daughters and laid in a stretcher so an FBI medic could examine him. The helicopter took him to Sandpoint Airport, where a waiting FBI jet flew him to Boise where he could visit the hospital before being booked in Ada County Jail.
Next week, this three-part series on the Stand-Off at Ruby Ridge will conclude with the aftermath, including the trial of Randy Weaver. Special thanks to Trish Gannon, who helped edit and fact-check this series of articles. Sara Weaver was contacted, but declined comment for this story.
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