“Interesting,” the book agent from New York said, “but there aren’t any good guys.”
“Randy Weaver? Wasn’t he at Waco?” said another.
For 2-1/2 years, Spokane newsman Jess Walter shopped a 50-page treatment of his book on the Weaver saga at Ruby Ridge around the Big Apple’s publishing core. There were nibbles but no serious bites.
Then Oklahoma City exploded and America came face to face with the dark side of the militia movement and anti-government paranoia.
Within weeks, Walter, a Spokesman-Review reporter who covered the deadly 1992 standoff in North Idaho, had a book contract in his hands.
The catch: It had to be finished in 10 weeks or no deal.
“You always dream of writing a book,” Walter said with a chuckle, “but you don’t think you’ll do it in 10 weeks. I was putting in 16-hour days, running down to Java Junky’s for triple espressos at 3 in the morning.”
He set up camp in a makeshift office at the top of the stairs in his North Side home, where he spent the final weeks gnawing on a tobaccoless corncob pipe, gobbling take-out pizza and typing until his fingers ached.
Deadline experience paid off. He dispatched the final chapters and revisions to HarperCollins on July 15 - on time and without regrets.
“If I had a year, I’d probably have written the same book,” he said.
On Sept. 1, timed to precede congressional hearings on the standoff, “Every Knee Shall Bow” is due to hit bookstores nationwide.
Newsweek magazine is publishing excerpts of the 383-page book in an upcoming issue. “Good Morning America” is calling. A movie deal could be next.
All of which amazes Walter, a 30-year-old Spokane native with boy-next-door looks who majored in creative writing at Eastern Washington University.
His sudden burst of fame was sparked accidentally. He was quoted in a New York Times magazine story on “off-the-grid” survivalists, saying they are far from an endangered species in the wilds of Idaho.
Judith Regan, an executive with ReganBooks, a subsidiary of HarperCollins, was sufficiently intrigued to contact Walter, sniffing a possible best seller.
He pitched something closer to his heart - the Weaver story.
“It’s just a hell of an intriguing story - religion and gunplay and a wild court case,” he said.
Back in Manhattan, Regan sat on the proposal - until the Oklahoma City bombing. Days later, she was dialing Walter’s number.
“Every Knee Shall Bow (to Yashua Messiah),” a reference to the biblical verse painted on a plywood sign outside the Weaver cabin, goes beyond the mountaintop shootout in which Weaver’s wife and son and a deputy U.S. marshal were killed. It also goes beyond Weaver’s subsequent murder-conspiracy trial to trace the roots of the white separatist’s family and its apocalyptic religious beliefs.
“There are a lot of misconceptions that’ll be cleared up,” Walter said.
For example, Weaver never served in Vietnam, despite strongly suggesting otherwise. And there is compelling evidence indicating a sniper was aiming for someone else when Vicki Weaver was killed.
The book is sharply critical of the FBI’s handling of the standoff - never calling for a surrender before instructing federal agents to gun down any adult in the compound seen with a weapon. Standard rules of engagement allow deadly fire only if an agent’s life is in danger.
As for one of the biggest standoff questions - who fired first? - the author lets readers decide.
“I’m the Warren Commission in a way,” Walter said. “In the book, I present all the evidence and let people make up their own minds.
“The government made mistakes, but they were more due to competition, bureaucracy and old-fashioned blundering than a grand conspiracy.”
Weaver may be viewed by some as a hero, but Walter said the facts show otherwise.
“Clearly, he’s a racist, and if you got to know him, you wouldn’t like him. He’s a tragic figure in a lot of ways, but I can’t think of heroic things he did. Standing up to the government - was it worth having his wife and son killed?”
The grist of the book is more than 300 interviews, 13,000 pages of trial transcripts, wiretap records, Justice Department reports and Vicki Weaver’s letters dating back seven years.
Walter was assisted in his research by Spokesman-Review reporters who also covered the story.
As “Every Knee Shall Bow” nears release, Walter wishes he could keep writing chapters. Government reports are trickling out. Hearings are coming up.
“It’s wild,” he said. “It’s like writing a story about a storm halfway through the storm - you don’t know how it’s going to turn out.”
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