TEXT ON SCREEN: August 21, 1992
ARCHIVAL, ABC NEWS, 8-26-92): PETER JENNINGS: A standoff between a man who is wanted by the FBI and a large number of federal agents.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 8-22-92): BARRY SERAFIN: Surrounding a cabin where a fugitive named Randy Weaver is holed up with his family.
NARRATION: In 1992, a bloody standoff between lawmen and an armed white separatist named Randy Weaver left his wife, 14-year-old son and a federal agent dead.
ARCHIVAL (NBC): BRIAN WILLIAMS: The 11-day siege at a place called Ruby Ridge, Idaho. It happened before Waco and for many it’s an even bigger rallying cry. PROTESTOR: I want the truth!
CHRISTOPHER WHITCOMB: You’ve got the OK Corral, you’ve got certain moments in the history of American law enforcement where society says, wait a minute, we got to take a look at this in a different way. Ruby Ridge, began a paradigm shift.
NARRATION: Ruby Ridge shook the highest ranks of the FBI. And it remains a watch word wherever law enforcement stands off against barricaded suspects today.
SARA WEAVER: This story is used as what not to do. That gives me hope. Maybe we won’t make the same mistakes. Maybe we won’t rush into things when it’s a matter of life or death.
SARA WEAVER: I thought they were chasing down a moose or a bear or something, honestly. I had no clue that there were people in the woods with guns that day.
NARRATION: 16 year-old Sara Weaver was in her family’s remote Idaho cabin when their dog ran into the woods barking. Her father, Randy Weaver, a family friend and her 14 year-old brother Sam, followed with their rifles. The next thing she heard was an explosion of gunfire.
SARA WEAVER: Everything in me wanted to run down the hill and try and, you know, protect my brother. Because I knew he was down there, and I’d always been his big sister, I’d always been his protector. So there’s part of me that just wanted to take off down the driveway and make sure he was okay.
NARRATION: Torn, she stayed with her mother and younger sisters in the cabin until the friend, Kevin Harris, returned.
SARA WEAVER: He said that Sam was gone…and I think my whole world fell apart at that moment. None of us at that time were thinking that anything worse could happen.
NARRATION: But, unbeknownst to Sara, US marshals had been staking out her parents, who were vehemently anti government, for months. Her father had fled charges of selling two illegal shot guns and her mother had indicated they wouldn’t surrender without a fight. When the dog uncovered the marshal’s location, an agent shot it and a gunfight ensued that killed 14 year-old Sam Weaver and a US marshal named William Deegan.
CHRISTOPHER WHITCOMB (FBI AGENT, 1986-2002): I can’t speak for everybody on my team, but I assumed I was walking into a violent situation and there’s likely to be a shootout.
NARRATION: Scores of federal agents descended the next morning. As sharpshooters like Chris Whitcomb took position around the cabin they were under an unusual order: “If any adult male is observed with a weapon, deadly force can and should be employed.”
CHRISTOPHER WHITCOMB: The entire world for someone in my position at that time is this big around. You don’t see the larger circumstances. You don’t see the larger picture, you just see the world through a scope.
SARA WEAVER: My dad was wanting to go see Sam one more time and just, I guess do some more grieving, say goodbye, I don’t know. And so I took off after him. And he made it around the shed ahead of me.
CHRISTOPHER WHITCOMB: The people that I saw with assault rifles, were moving from tree to building to woodpile through fog, I didn’t have the shot. My finger was on the trigger, I was trying to take the shot, I didn’t have it.
SARA WEVER: And I just heard a giant boom and I said, “Dad, what happened?” And he said, you know, “I’ve been shot.” At this point, my mom had stepped out of the door and she was screaming, “What happened? What happened?” And “Get in the house! Get in the house!” We all get piled up in front of the door and…I hear what goes, I hear what is like a gunshot going off in my ear. And my mom just drops to my side. I knew, I knew what had happened to her immediately. I thought it was the end for all of us at that point.
NARRATION: Sara’s mother Vicki took a fatal shot to the head as she held the family’s 10-month old baby in her arms. But outside the cabin, no one was aware Vicki was dead and agents kept trying to negotiate with her.
SARA WEAVER: When they got on the bullhorn and started asking for Mom to come out and have pancakes for breakfast with her kids, and wouldn’t you want to do that with your children sort of thing, it added—it’s a cliché to say it added insult to injury. But it did.
NARRATION: As news of the standoff spread, journalists converged on the scene.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, WORLD NEWS TONIGHT, 8-26-92): PETER JENNINGS: Two people have already died, neither side seems ready to back down…
ARCHIVAL (ABC, WORLD NEWS TONIGHT, 8-26-92): BRIAN ROONEY: The FBI says they will not leave until Weaver and his friend Kevin Harris, who lives with him, are in custody.
ARCHIVAL (KXLY): CYNDY PERKOVICH: Everyone here in Naples agrees that Weaver is a white supremacist who just wants to be left alone. For police he is a fugitive on a federal arm charge, heavily armed and dangerous. For friends he’s a moral man ready to die for his convictions.
NARRATION: And a small army of right wing sympathizers also gathered on the road below the cabin to protest.
ARCHIVAL (KXLY): PROTESTOR: Baby Killer! You’re a Baby Killer. PROTESTOR: You’re a traitor to your race and to your country!
NARRATION: The Weavers held out for a total of 11 days. After Vicki was shot they believed they’d be killed if they stepped outside. The standoff ended only after Bo Gritz, a right-wing presidential candidate sympathetic to the Weavers’ cause, negotiated a surrender.
ARCHIVAL (KXLY): REPORTER: Our camera caught a glimpse of the family walking into the staging area. The girl…one of the girls is wearing a red jacket at the bottom of your screen.
SARA WEAVER: When I got to the meadow, it was a scene out of a movie. It was inconceivable to me to think that they would need so much and so many people and-and tanks and helicopters.
ARCHIVAL (CLIP FROM THE MOVIE “THE SIEGE AT RUBY RIDGE”): KIRSTEN DUNST: All this for a family….
NARRATION: The story was dramatized in a TV movie and folk songs and found a ready-made audience.
MARK POTOK (SENIOR FELLOW, SOUTHERN POVERTY LAW CENTER): The Ruby Ridge standoff became a kind of founding myth of the radical right. It not only made the government look bad—it was bad. People, whatever views they had, whatever illegal activities they have, should not be shot down by government snipers when they are not actively threatening the life of somebody.
NARRATION: Later investigations revealed that law enforcement had made a series of errors. Authorities on the ground communicated poorly with agents arriving from afar, which exaggerated the threat Weaver posed and agents on the scene failed to negotiate or set up a clear line of communication with the family until it was too late.
In the end, jurors decided Randy Weaver’s most serious crime was failing to appear in court. And then came accusations that the FBI had attempted to cover up its mistakes.
ARCHIVAL: ANCHOR: The FBI is feeling the heat.
NARRATION: During Weaver’s 1993 trial, another FBI standoff ended in tragedy and accusations of misconduct. Seventy-six members of the Branch Davidian religious sect died in a federal raid of their compound in Waco, Texas.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, EVENING NEWS, 7-8-93):
BILL WHITAKER: There are eerie parallels with Waco. In both cases, government miscalculation in the arrest of a fanatic ended in gunfire and death.
MARK POTOK: The radical right views itself as being in a battle to the death with the Federal Government. Ruby Ridge for them, was the opening shot of that war.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, EVENING NEWS, 8-11-95): SHARYL ATTKISSON: Critics complain there was no real investigation and no real punishment after the 1992 incident. It’s now clear their voices have been heard.
NARRATION: Amid intense federal scrutiny of the Ruby Ridge scandal, the FBI’s number two man was demoted, three other agents were suspended and one was sent to jail. And the Weaver family won a $3.1 million settlement from the federal government.
GARY NOESNER (FBI NEGOTIATOR, 1980-2003): Law enforcement typically changes not because someone has a brilliant idea. We change because we’re sued. Or there’s public opinion that speaks against us. And we realized we had to change. We had to do this better.
NARRATION: Since the early 1990s the FBI says it’s overhauled how it responds to armed standoffs and trained hundreds of police departments across the country. The federal deadly force policy can’t be modified on the fly, as it was at Ruby Ridge.
FBI TRAINING EXERCISE:
TRAINEE: Basically throw us a bone?
TRAINER: Yeah, you’ve got to help me help you.
NARRATION: And agents now train to set up better communication on the scene.
JAMES F. YACONE (FBI ASSISTANT DIRECTOR, CRITICAL INCIDENT RESPONSE GROUP): Organizationally we’ve changed, right? So the negotiators are fully embedded within our tactical section. If you can slow things down and negotiate and peacefully communicate with the subjects and try to figure out what’s motivating them, then you should take full advantage.
FBI TRAINING: TRAINEE: Can you hear me in the bus? This is Katie with the FBI. I want to talk to you about how we’re going to get the phone to you.
CHRISTOPHER WHITCOMB: You get involved in a shootout situation in America today, it’s going to be litigated for years. We look at things differently now. We look and say, time is not the issue it once was.
NARRATION: Take the case of John Joe Gray in East Texas. Seven years after Ruby Ridge, Gray was stopped for a traffic violation and got in a fight with a state trooper and bit him. He then retreated to his farm, with his weapons, and refused to come out.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 20/20 DOWNTOWN, 9-25-00): JOHN QUINONES: John Joe Gray, a 51-year-old, a self proclaimed freedom fighter. What will happen if they try to raid this place? JOHN JOE GRAY: Come out after us, bring extra body bags.
NARRATION: But local law enforcement made a unique decision. They decided not to raid his compound to bring him to court.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, NIGHTLINE, 2-12-00): SHERIFF RAY NUTT: You look at things like Waco, you look at things like Ruby Ridge, and I’m not sure that it is worth going out there and taking that chance.
NARRATION: Henderson County Sheriff Ray Nutt is the fourth sheriff who’s decided not to storm Gray’s compound since the standoff began. And that’s given this case a special status.
KEITH TARKINGTON (EDITOR, HENDERSON COUNTY NOW): Often it’s called the longest running stand-off in American history.
DOUG LOWE (ANDERSON COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY): He’s been under self-imposed house arrest for what now? 14 years? The longest term in prison I could’ve given him was 10. I probably wouldn’t have given him 10.
NARRATION: That doesn’t satisfy Gray’s former son-in-law who watched his ex-wife take their two children into the compound and then disappear. Gray refused to talk on camera, but claimed he’ll stay put indefinitely, living off the land and occasional help from a few supporters. If the police do come, he told us, “I ain’t going down without a fight.” So far, the battle’s remained oddly one-sided.
MICHAEL HANNIGAN: This is more of, I don’t know, a lounge-off, because everybody’s just kind of chilled into what it is. This isn’t going to end until John Joe Gray passes on.
DOUG LOWE: It’s not a perfect outcome to have somebody thumbing their nose a lawful court order. But in the respect that nobody was killed, it’s an acceptable outcome for me.
NARRATION: In the two decades since Ruby Ridge, Sara Weaver bought a small acreage in Montana with a portion of the settlement money, distanced herself from her father’s beliefs and made peace with the past.
SARA WEAVER: It’s not easy being a Christian. Forgiveness is an ongoing choice and an ongoing process. I’m forgiving the people that showed up with tanks and guns and armored personnel carriers. And I’m forgiving the ones that pulled the trigger. I’m forgiving the ones that sent the orders. Forgiveness is not saying what happened is okay. Because I believe that if we forget those mistakes, they can be repeated.