Ruby Ridge 20th Anniversary via Cato.org and National Review Online
Remember Ruby Ridge
by Tim Lynch
Timothy Lynch is director of the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice.
Added to cato.org on August 21, 2002
This article was published in National Review Online, Aug. 21, 2002.
location in the state of Idaho, but after an incident that took place
there 10 years ago on Aug. 21, the phrase has come to refer to a
scandalous series of events that opened the eyes of many people to the
inner workings of the federal government, including the vaunted Federal
Bureau of Investigation. Now that 10 years have passed, the feds will
accelerate their ongoing effort to “move forward” and have the scandal
declared “ancient history.” But the Ruby Ridge episode should not be
On August 21, 1992 a paramilitary unit of the
U.S. Marshals Service ventured onto the 20-acre property known as Ruby
Ridge. A man named Randy Weaver owned the land and he lived there with
his wife, children, and a family friend, Kevin Harris. There was an
outstanding warrant for Weaver’s arrest for a firearms offense and the
marshals were surveilling the premises. When the family dog noticed the
marshals sneaking around in the woods, it began to bark wildly. Weaver’s
14-year-old boy, Sammy, and Kevin Harris proceeded to grab their rifles
because they thought the dog had come upon a wild animal.
firefight erupted when a marshal shot and killed the dog. Enraged that
the family pet had been cut down for no good reason, Sammy shot into the
woods at the unidentified trespasser. Within a few minutes, two human
beings were shot dead: Sammy Weaver and a marshal. Harris and the Weaver
family retreated to their cabin and the marshals retreated from the
mountain and called the FBI for assistance.
During the night, FBI snipers
took positions around the Weaver cabin. There is no dispute about the
fact that the snipers were given illegal “shoot to kill” orders. Under
the law, police agents can use deadly force to defend themselves and
others from imminent attack, but these snipers were instructed to shoot
any adult who was armed and outside the cabin, regardless of whether the
adult posed a threat or not. The next morning, an FBI agent shot and
wounded Randy Weaver. A few moments later, the same agent shot Weaver’s
wife in the head as she was standing in the doorway of her home holding a
baby in her arms. The FBI snipers had not yet announced their presence
and had not given the Weavers an opportunity to peacefully surrender.
After an 11-day standoff, Weaver agreed to surrender. The FBI told the
world that it had apprehended a band of dangerous racists. The New York
Times was duped into describing a family (two parents, three children)
and one adult friend as “an armed separatist brigade.” The Department of
Justice proceeded to take over the case, charging Weaver and Harris
with conspiracy to commit “murder.” Federal prosecutors asked an Idaho
jury to impose the death penalty. Instead, the jury acquitted Weaver and
Harris of all of the serious criminal charges.
the outcome, FBI officials told the world that there would be a thorough
review of the case, but the Bureau closed ranks and covered up the
mess. FBI director Louis Freeh went so far as to promote one of the
agents involved, Larry Potts, to the Bureau’s number-two position.
Weaver sued the federal government for the wrongful death of his wife
and son, the government that had tried to kill him twice now sought an
out-of-court settlement. In August 1995 the U.S. government paid the
Weaver family $3.1 million. On the condition that his name not be used
in an article, one Department of Justice official told the Washington
Post that if Weaver’s suit had gone to trial in Idaho, he probably would
have been awarded $200 million.
With the intervening events at
Waco, more and more people began to question the veracity of Department
of Justice and FBI accounts and whether the federal government had the
capacity to hold its own agents accountable for criminal misconduct.
Like the Watergate scandal, however, the response to the initial
illegality turned out to be even more shocking and disturbing.
When an FBI supervisor, Michael Kahoe, admitted to destroying evidence
and obstructing justice, he was eventually prosecuted but only after
being kept on the FBI payroll until his 50th birthday — so that he
would be eligible for his retirement pension. And when Larry Potts was
finally forced into retirement, FBI officials flew into Washington from
around the country for his going-away bash. Those officials claimed to
be on “official business” so they billed the taxpayers for the trip.
After the fraud was leaked to the press by some anonymous and apparently
sickened FBI agent, the merry band of partygoers were not discharged
from service. Instead, a letter was placed in their personnel file,
chiding them with “inattention to detail.”
An Idaho prosecutor
did bring manslaughter charges against the FBI sniper who shot Vicki
Weaver. That move really outraged the feds because they insisted that
they were capable of policing their own — so long as they did not have
any outside “interference.”
The Department of Justice was so
disturbed by the indictment of its agent that they dispatched the
solicitor general to a federal appellate court to argue that the charges
should be dismissed. (The solicitor general ordinarily only makes oral
arguments to the Supreme Court). The solicitor general told the judicial
panel that even if the evidence supported the charges, the case should
be thrown out because “federal law enforcement agents are privileged to
do what would otherwise be unlawful if done by a private citizen.” The
appeals court rejected that sweeping argument for a license to kill, but
by the time that ruling came down last June, a new local prosecutor was
in office in Boundary County, Idaho, and he announced that it was time
to put this whole unpleasant episode behind us and to “move on.” Thus,
the criminal case against the sniper was dropped.
generation of young people who have never heard of Ruby Ridge are now
emerging from the public school system and are heading off to college
and will thereafter begin their careers in business, education,
journalism, government and other fields. This generation will find it
hard to fathom that the federal government could have killed a boy and
an unarmed woman and then tried to deceive everyone about what had
actually occurred and, in some instances, rationalize what did occur.
That is why it is important to remember Ruby Ridge. Someone needs to
remind the young people (and everyone else) that it really did happen —
and that it will happen again if the government is not kept on a short
leash. No one will learn about the incident when they tour the FBI
facility in Washington. It goes unmentioned for some reason.