A new Justice Department memo denounces the U.S. attorney’s office in Idaho for botching the chance to negotiate white separatist Randy Weaver’s peaceful surrender on a federal weapons charge.
Instead, the 1992 surveillance of Weaver’s North Idaho cabin led to a shootout and standoff that left a deputy U.S. marshal and Weaver’s wife and teenage son dead.
In the April 5 memo, Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick criticizes decisions made by the U.S. attorney and U.S. marshal in Idaho. After reviewing more than 1,000 pages of documents, Gorelick found:
The U.S. attorney should not have rejected a surrender the marshal’s office was negotiating with Weaver that would have placed him in custody and left his family safe in their Ruby Ridge cabin.
The U.S. attorney should have granted the marshal office’s request for arms charges against Weaver to be dropped and then secretly reissued to trick him into leaving his cabin.
Federal and some state and local law enforcement officers exaggerated the threat Weaver posed.
The marshals service took an undue risk by throwing rocks and making noise on the road near Weaver’s house during their surveillance.
The U.S. attorney’s office drafted an “inappropriately broad and aggressive” murder indictment and then failed to have it properly reviewed. Weaver and family friend Kevin Harris eventually were acquitted of those charges and others.
The U.S. attorney’s office engaged in misconduct before a federal grand jury in Boise.
Maurice Ellsworth, Idaho’s U.S. attorney in 1992, likened the memo to “Monday morning quarterbacking” and characterized it as an attempt by a new administration to tar those no longer in office.
“It was a difficult circumstance and it’s easy to point fingers,” Ellsworth said Wednesday. “This is the most detailed thing that I’ve seen so far and it troubles me.”
Weaver was wanted for failing to appear for a February 1991 trial on federal charges of selling two sawed-off shotguns to an undercover agent. He was holed up in his cabin with marshals maintaining surveillance in the summer of 1992.
On Aug. 21, 1992, Samuel Weaver, 14, was killed during an exchange of gunfire that also left Deputy U.S. Marshal William Degan dead. The next day, an FBI sharpshooter shot and killed Weaver’s wife, Vicki, as she stood in the cabin doorway holding their 10-month-old daughter.
Weaver and Harris, who were wounded, surrendered 10 days later and were tried for Degan’s death. Both were acquitted in July 1993 but Weaver was convicted of failing to appear in court on the original weapons charge and spent a total of 15 months in jail.
The Justice Department announced earlier this month that it would censure a top FBI official for managerial lapses during the standoff. But Larry Potts, the FBI’s acting No. 2 man, is still expected to be promoted to that position permanently.
Weaver, who has sold his Ruby Ridge property and now lives in Iowa with his three daughters, said he had not seen Gorelick’s memo. But he said it sounded “like the proper thing.”
He and Harris, who lives in Washington, have filed lawsuits seeking more than $180 million from federal agents involved in the shootout.
Former U.S. Marshal Mike Johnson said he has not seen the Justice Department’s entire report on the Weaver case. However, “I’ve seen the letter that you have talked about and it’s accurate to the best of my knowledge,” he said.
Ellsworth disputed a number of Gorelick’s findings. He said his office did not have the authority to reject the marshal’s attempts to negotiate a surrender. But an Oct. 17, 1991, letter from Assistant U.S. Attorney Ronald Howen discouraged such talks.
Ellsworth said the indictment was “reviewed to death” by Justice officials. And he said he was unclear to what Gorelick was referring when she wrote about misconduct before the grand jury since a judge rejected defense attempts to throw out the grand jury proceedings during the Weaver trial.
Boundary County Prosecutor Randy Day still is considering whether to press charges in the case. Release of the full Justice Department report has been delayed until he completes his investigation.
Day was unavailable for comment Thursday, but in a March 28 letter, he reportedly told Gorelick he hoped to finish conducting interviews by June 1.