The Federal Response To Oregon Occupation May Have Roots In Ruby Ridge | KUOW News and Information

The Federal Response To Oregon Occupation May Have Roots In Ruby Ridge

Jan 31, 2016
Originally published on January 31, 2016 7:02 am

The armed standoff between anti-government militants and law enforcement in Oregon has lasted more than four weeks. After the arrest of 11 people last week, it was expected that the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge would come to an end, but the killing of the group's spokesman in an encounter with police has re-energized protesters.

We have been here before. Back in the 1990s, there were several showdowns between armed anti-government extremists and the federal government.

One of the longest standoffs involved the Freemen of Montana in 1996, who held out for 81 days before surrendering peacefully to law enforcement. It was a different story in 1993, when the standoff with the Branch Davidians near Waco, Texas, ended with the deaths of at least 75 people — many of whom were children — in a fire.

But it was the events at Ruby Ridge in Idaho that would become the symbol of government overreach. This week on For the Record: the lessons of Ruby Ridge.

"Ruby Ridge is a complex case," says Jess Walter, author of the book Ruby Ridge: The Truth and Tragedy of the Randy Weaver Family. In 1992 he was a cub reporter for the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash. "It's one of the reasons when it first unfolded in 1992, it slipped beneath the radar of the national media and the public."

As he tells NPR's Rachel Martin, the story begins with Randy Weaver and his family.

"He lost his job at a tractor farm in Iowa, and they made their way west," Walter says. "They were apocalyptic Christians who believed the world was about to end. And they began practicing a form of religion called Christian identity, which is the religion of skinheads and white supremacists."

One summer, Weaver took his family to a camp run by the Aryan Nations. He sold two sawed-off shotguns to a man he met at that gathering, but that man turned out to be a federal informant. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms planned to use the illegal weapons sale to recruit Weaver as an informant, as well.

As Walter tells it, the ATF approached Weaver and threatened him with prison time and the loss of his farm. But Weaver, who believed that the world would end because of government treachery, took the threat "almost as a declaration of war," Walter says.

For the next year, Weaver and his family holed up in their cabin on Ruby Ridge, refusing to appear in court to face the gun charges. Federal agents kept them under surveillance.

Everything culminated on Aug. 21, 1992, with six U.S. marshals on the ridge outside the Weaver compound.

"It was very, very thick foliage," remembers Arthur Roderick, who was one of the marshals. "I mean, it was August on a mountaintop. You could barely see your hand in front of your face."

As Roderick describes it, the Weavers' family dog saw him and his partners in the woods and started barking. Roderick says the Weavers' 14-year-old son Sam and family friend Kevin Harris started chasing them. Both Sam Weaver and Kevin Harris were armed. Roderick was carrying an M4 assault rifle.

Another marshal, Bill Degan, told them to stop, Roderick says. Degan announced that they were U.S. marshals.

"This was all happening very quickly — within seconds, you know," Roderick says. "The dog stopped, turned around, looked at me. And then I fired a shot at the dog, which killed the dog right there. And then it was just gunfire for about 20 to 25 minutes."

One of Randy Weaver's daughters, Sara, was 16 at the time.

"I do — I remember hearing the gunshots," she recalls. "I remember being very upset when I heard the gunshot because I wasn't expecting that. I'll never forget feeling panicked and helpless that I wasn't there to protect [Sam]."

When the firefight was over, both the marshal Bill Degan and Sam Weaver were dead.

"I think our family was still holding out hope at that point, that because Sam had died, someone would try and verbally contact us to talk about what had happened or how to resolve the situation," Sara Weaver says.

But journalist Jess Walter says poor communication between federal agencies had been making the situation worse.

"The FBI is getting information on this case from the marshals. They aren't told Weaver's son has been killed. They aren't told there's some question about who fired first. They're only told that some marshals were in the woods surveying Randy Weaver, possibly to arrest him, when he and his family attacked them and killed a U.S. marshal," Walter says.

The FBI flew in a hostage rescue team, but the agency had suspended the normal rules of engagement, Walter says. As he recounts, the FBI told their agents they were going into an active firefight, authorizing them to open fire without warning if they saw an armed adult.

Meanwhile, the Weavers and Harris had put Sam Weaver's body in an outbuilding.

"They go to check on the body. And as Randy Weaver reaches up to open the shed door, a shot rings out from the woods, and he's shot in the shoulder," Walter says. "And the family run back to the cabin. His wife, Vicki, holding their baby, throws the door open, screams 'Get back in the cabin.' And the FBI agent fires again. And this shot hits Vicki Weaver in the face and kills her."

Randy Weaver, daughters Sara and Rachel, baby Elisheba and Harris holed up in the cabin for the next 10 days, scared that if they left the cabin, they would be shot.

"I was so drowning in grief," Sara Weaver remembers. "I pretty much felt that I didn't have a chance of coming out alive."

She had lost her brother and her mom — but after a harrowing 11 days, the standoff finally ended and Sara Weaver did come out alive, along with her two siblings, their father and Harris. Ultimately, Randy Weaver was acquitted of every major charge because the jury ruled that the original weapons charge against him had been entrapment.

Walter says the fallout from the incident derailed the careers of several federal agents. There were congressional hearings and government reports examining what went wrong. "It really changed how law enforcement dealt with groups like this," says Walter.

Arthur Roderick retired from the U.S. Marshals Service in 2008. He says he thinks of the experience often, but not the Weaver family.

"I try not to think about them at all," Roderick says. "I mean, all they had to do was show up at court. Very simply, that's all they had to do. I think again more about Bill Degan and his family, his two boys, his widow. You know, his mom and dad. That's who I think about."

Sara Weaver lives in Montana now. She works as an advocate for trauma victims and is raising a teenage son.

"There's a lot about him that is so fun and reminds me a lot of my little brother," she says. "I lost him when he was 14. My son is at that 14-year-old age mark. It's been so healing to have that joke-around relationship with him like I had with my little brother. [I] have a chance to be the best mom I can be for him."

Sara Weaver says she's been thinking a lot about Ruby Ridge these last couple weeks as the standoff in Oregon has unfolded.

"This situation is very, very different in many, many ways. But at the same time, I can relate to much of the emotion surrounding it. It brings back my own emotions surrounding it. I just don't want to see people hurt. I know what it feels like, it's devastating — on both sides," she says. "Nobody wins."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Rachel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And this is For the Record.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Today is day 30 in the standoff between antigovernment activists and law enforcement in Oregon. After the arrest of 11 people last week, officials hoped the occupation would come to an end. Only four militants remain at the refuge, but the killing of the group's spokesman in an encounter with police has re-energized some protesters. We have been here before. Back in the 1990s, there were several showdowns between armed, antigovernment extremists and the federal government. One of the longest involved the Freemen of Montana in 1996.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Sixteen members of the antigovernment group the Freemen surrendered to federal authorities yesterday following an 81-day standoff at a ranch near Jordan, Mont.

MARTIN: In 1993, there was the standoff with the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. Here's NBC's Tom Brokaw.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOM BROKAW: It appears tonight that David Koresh, who believed that he was the son of God, perished today in a setting that closely resembled hell.

MARTIN: But it was the events at Ruby Ridge in Idaho in 1992 that would come to symbolize dangerous government overreach. For The Record today, the lessons of Ruby Ridge.

JESS WALTER: Ruby Ridge is a complex case, and it's one of the reasons that when it first unfolded in 1992, it really slipped beneath the radar of the national media and the public.

MARTIN: This is Jess Walter, and back then, he was a cub reporter for the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash. One hundred miles away in northern Idaho, a man named Randy Weaver and his family were making a new life for themselves.

WALTER: He lost his job at a tractor farm in Iowa, and they made their way west. They were apocalyptic Christian who believed that the world was about to end. And they began practicing a form of religion called Christian Identity, which is the religion of skinheads and white supremacists.

MARTIN: One summer, Weaver took his family to a camp run by the Aryan Nations, and this is what got Randy Weaver into trouble with the law. He sold two sawed-off shotguns to a man he met at that gathering. What Weaver didn't know was that this man was working undercover with federal authorities. They planned to use the illegal weapons sale to recruit Weaver as an informant, someone who could infiltrate the white supremacist groups in the area.

WALTER: So when the ATF approached Weaver and said we know you sawed the barrels off shotguns and sold them illegally. You're going to go to prison and lose your farm, and you know, your family's going to have trouble. What they didn't know - or didn't pay attention to - is the fact that these were real apocalyptics (ph). They believed the world was about to end and that it would end with such government treachery. So for the Weavers, this was almost a declaration of war.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: For the next year, Weaver and his family holed up in their cabin on Ruby Ridge, refusing to appear in court to face the gun charges. Federal agents kept them under surveillance. Arthur Roderick was one of the six U.S. marshals on the ridge outside the Weaver compound on August 21, 1992.

ARTHUR RODERICK: It was very, very, very thick foliage. I mean, it was August on a mountaintop. You could barely see your hand in front of your face.

MARTIN: As he describes it, the Weavers' family dog saw him and his partners in the woods and started barking. Roderick says the Weavers' 14-year-old son Sam and a family friend named Kevin Harris started chasing them. Both were armed.

RODERICK: And at that point, Bill Degan started making, you know, the announcement - stop, U.S. marshals. Stop, U.S. marshals. And at that point, Kevin Harris wheeled around and fired a shot, hit Billy (ph) in the chest. Cooper returned fire. Larry Cooper had a bull barrel 9 mm submachine gun that had a little suppressor on it, and he returned fire of about six rounds at that time. And this is all happening very quickly. It was just gunfire for about 20, 25 minutes.

SARA WEAVER: There was just a lot of pain and agony. And you know, all of that comes to the forefront when I start to think about it.

MARTIN: This is Sara Weaver, Randy Weaver's daughter. She was 16 years old at the time.

WEAVER: I remember hearing the gunshots. I remember, you know, being very upset when I heard the gunshots because I wasn't expecting that that day. I'll never forget feeling panicked and helpless that I wasn't there to protect him.

MARTIN: By him, she means her younger brother because when that firefight was over, two people were dead, marshal Bill Degan and 14-year-old Sam Weaver.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WEAVER: I think our family was still holding out hope at that point that because Sam had died, someone would try and verbally contact us to talk about, you know, what had happened or how to resolve the situation.

MARTIN: Instead, the situation escalated. Journalist Jess Walter picks up the story.

WALTER: As the FBI is getting information on this case from the marshals service, they aren't told that Randy Weaver's son has been killed. They aren't told that there's some question about who fired first. They're only told that some marshals were in the words surveilling Randy Weaver, possibly to arrest him for this outstanding warrant, when he and his family attacked them and killed a U.S. marshal.

MARTIN: Walter says the FBI scrambled its hostage rescue team. They flew west to Idaho.

WALTER: And as they're flying, they're given an assessment of the situation. And at the highest levels of the FBI, something that's never happened before or since happens, in which the FBI agrees to suspend the rules of engagement, tell their agents you're going into an active firefight. If you see an armed adult, you can and should open fire. No surrender warning, you can just shoot them.

So the FBI surrounds the cabin. The next morning, the Weaver family, mourning the fact that Samuel's been killed - and remember the FBI, at this point, doesn't know that - goes out to where they've put his body. The family's gone back to their cabin and put his body in an outbuilding. They go to check on the body, and as Randy Weaver reaches up to open the shed door, a shot rings out from the woods and he's shot in the shoulder - in the armpit. And he and the family run back to the cabin. His wife, Vicki, holding their baby, throws the door open and screams get back in a cabin, get back in the cabin. And the FBI agent fires again, and this shot hits Vicki Weaver in the face and kills her.

So for the next 10 days, the Weaver family is in the cabin with their dead mother, their wounded father and their wounded friend. And two girls are taking care of the family, taking care of this baby. And they think if they step outside, they'll be shot and killed.

WEAVER: I was so drowning in grief, I pretty much felt that I didn't have a chance of coming out alive.

MARTIN: But after a harrowing 11 days, the standoff finally ended and Sara Weaver did come out alive along with her two sisters and their father. Ultimately, Randy Weaver was acquitted of every major charge because the jury decided that the original weapons charge against him had been entrapment.

WALTER: Everyone wants these cases to be so simple. And on the far right, you'll hear people talk about Randy Weaver like he was a gentleman farmer minding his own business. And on the far left, you'll have people say well, that's what you get for being - you know, for having these awful beliefs. And it's such a complex case. And it's such a case of, you know, no mistakes and cover-ups.

MARTIN: Were there any repercussions at the FBI over the decision to suspend the rules of engagement?

WALTER: Yeah, there certainly were. Of course, no one would ever take credit for it, but it did derail the careers of several FBI agents. The Weavers received a settlement of $3.1 million, $1 million for each of Randy Weaver's surviving daughters and 100,000 for him. There were congressional hearings, and it really changed the way federal law enforcement dealt with groups like this. Rather than feeding the paranoid fire by throwing more wood on it, it was just better to let it burn out and simmer.

MARTIN: It also changed the people who were there. Arthur Roderick retired from the U.S. marshals in 2008.

How do you think back on this experience? Obviously, reporters (laughter) call you from now and again, and it brings it to the fore. But is it something you think about a lot?

RODERICK: Oh, yeah. Absolutely, almost every day. I lost a good friend of mine. He was a really good guy, so yeah.

MARTIN: How have your thoughts or perceptions of the Weaver family changed over these many years?

RODERICK: I try not to think about them. At all. I always think more about Bill Degan and the other team members that I was up there with. I mean, all they had to do was show up at court very simply. That's all they had to do. So you know, I don't think much about them at all. I think, again, more about Bill Degan and his family, his two boys, his widow. That's who I think about.

MARTIN: Sara Weaver lives in Montana now. She works as an advocate for trauma victims, and she's raising her teenage son.

WEAVER: There's a lot about him that is so fun and reminds me a lot of my little brother. I lost my little brother when he was 14. My song is at that 14-year-old age mark, and it's been so healing for me to be able to sort of have that joke-around relationship with him like I had with my little brother. And just - I have a chance to be the best mom that I can be for him.

MARTIN: She tells me she's been thinking a lot about Ruby Ridge these last couple of weeks as the standoff in Oregon has unfolded.

WEAVER: You know, this situation is very, very different from our situation in many, many ways. But at the same time, I can relate to probably much of the emotion surrounding it. And I just didn't want to see people hurt. I know what it feels like, and it's devastating. It's just devastating on both sides. Nobody wins.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.