Pained with emotion, Randy Weaver told a panel of U.S. senators Wednesday that neither his extremist views nor lawbreaking behavior justified federal agents killing his wife and son.
The white separatist urged the sympathetic lawmakers to hold the government accountable for the tragedy three years ago atop North Idaho’s Ruby Ridge.
“I am here today because there must be accountability for the killings of my wife and son,” the 46-year-old testified as subcommittee hearings convened under the chairmanship of presidential hopeful Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa.
“When high-ranking FBI officials issue death warrants and cover up their involvement, the message they send to police officers all over the country is: ‘It is OK if you can get away with it,”’ he said. “Citizens who cannot trust their government band together in fear.”
Weaver looked the part of Western isolationist, appearing in a gray denim shirt, blue jeans and white running shoes with a key chain clipped to a belt loop.
His remarks appeared artfully crafted and coached. His audience was receptive.
The six Republicans on the Senate subcommittee fawned over the wiry, graying Weaver, tossing aside tough questions about his racist and extremist social and religious views.
Democratic questioners were more pointed. But panel members agreed that Weaver had been wronged by excessive government authority.
The Senate hearing room took on the appearance of a courtroom with props from his cabin and a large model of Weaver’s mountain and property.
The wooden door through which Vicki Weaver was killed by a bullet to the head stood to Weaver’s right, its blueplaid curtains still drawn over a bullet hole in one of the glass panes.
Weaver testified he made mistakes, first selling two illegally sawed-off shotguns and then missing his court date.
“If I had it to do over again, knowing what I know now, I would make different choices,” he said. “I would come down from the mountain for the court appearance.”
Weaver was the leadoff witness at hearings that will scrutinize the way the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, U.S. Marshal Service and FBI handled the fugitive. The panel includes seven senators and non-voting members Sens. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.
FBI Director Louis Freeh is expected to be among the witnesses.
But it was Weaver, the former Iowa tractor mechanic, who captivated the panel Wednesday. He strode into the hearing room flanked by his famous defense attorney Gerry Spence, who shed his trademark buckskin jacket for a sports coat and tie for the Senate appearance.
Weaver spent five hours under hot lights before telling a reporter: “I think I’m tired and ready to go have dinner.”
Sara Weaver, now 19, sat behind her father and dabbed at tears as he recounted the shooting deaths of her brother and mother.
She later offered brief testimony about seeing her mother killed by an FBI sniper’s bullet. The same bullet seriously wounded family friend Kevin Harris.
“I’m just a scared, nervous teenager,” Sara Weaver said. “If I would have taken one more step, he’d have gotten all three of us.”
Grassley said the FBI grossly inflated the threat posed by Weaver, even after an agent was killed.
“Why all this firepower?” Grassley said of the estimated 500 state and federal officers sent to Ruby Ridge. “They concluded Randy Weaver was another Saddam Hussein.”
Grassley said events at Ruby Ridge and later at Waco convince him the FBI and its Hostage Rescue Team have adopted a military persona.
Ruby Ridge “was the start of the militarization of the FBI,” Grassley said. “The swashbucklers were in control. There is no room for this culture in law enforcement. It needs to be stopped now.”
Specter called Ruby Ridge “an American tragedy” whose “consequences have reverberated around the country.”
Later, Specter said the hearings would be neither a witchhunt nor a whitewash. He also said they wouldn’t compromise the current criminal investigation trying to determine who changed the FBI’s rules of engagement and whether authorities later tried to cover up those changes.
The order abandoned normal FBI self-defense directives in favor of instructions to shoot any armed adults on sight.
Specter asked Weaver why he called himself a white separatist.
“I am not a hateful racist,” Weaver responded. “I believe people of every race should be proud of who they are.”
He said his family moved to North Idaho because they wanted to “separate out and be prepared for bad times” - an apocalypse.
Specter then asked Weaver about attending annual summer conferences at the Aryan Nations compound near Hayden Lake.
“To this day, I’m not sure what they’re about,” Weaver said of the Aryan Nations.
Weaver was not asked about the Aryan Nations belt buckle he wore when he surrendered, ending the 11-day siege on Aug. 31, 1992.
Later, Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., pressed Weaver about his religious views, based on the Christian Identity belief that white people are the true children of God and Jews and blacks are inferior.
“I hate being on the hot seat, talking about my beliefs,” Weaver said. He never fully answered, citing First Amendment rights.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., questioned Weaver about the firearms and ammunition at the cabin, and asked why his children carried guns and rifles.
Weaver said he had 14 guns in the home and 20,000 rounds of ammunition.
“Did you know it was illegal to sell sawed-off shotguns without a permit?” Feinstein asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied.
Feinstein, a vocal gun critic, then asked Weaver whether his children ever wore Nazi armbands or yelled racial epithets at neighbors.
“I don’t remember my children ever wearing Nazi armbands,” Weaver said.
When she asked him whether he ever displayed a flag with a Nazi swastika at his cabin, Weaver fidgeted and said he needed to take a break to go to the restroom. Specter called a recess, and Feinstein didn’t revisit the issue when the hearing resumed.
Weaver told the senators he knew he was a wanted federal fugitive, and chose not to come off the mountain because he didn’t trust the federal government.
“I was just waiting for someone to come up and show me the warrant,” Weaver said.
“You would have gone peacefully?” Feinstein asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” he responded.
Weaver’s most gripping testimony came when he detailed the deaths of his son and wife.
On Aug. 21, 1992, Sam Weaver and Kevin Harris followed the family’s barking dog, Striker, down a logging road, believing the yellow Labrador had come across a wild animal.
Weaver followed, then was confronted by a marshal and ran back toward the cabin. He heard Sam yelling, “I’m coming, dad.”
“I thought, ‘Good, that’s great,”’ Weaver testified.
But a moment later, Harris told him his son was dead.
To vent his anger, Weaver grabbed his daughter Sara’s rifle and fired 15 to 18 rounds in the air. Then he grabbed a Mini-14 rifle and fired similarly.
“We just went berserk, all of us,” Weaver said. “We just lost it.”
Sending his armed son to check on the commotion “is one of the biggest mistakes I ever made in my life,” Weaver told the committee. “It’s hard to talk about.”
Of his wife, Weaver said: “Many times I wish she were here instead of me.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Photos (1 Color)
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Wednesday’s hearing Randy Weaver claimed federal agents covered up their illegal actions at Ruby Ridge. While he admitted mistakes, Weaver said those don’t justify his wife and son being killed. GOP senators, appearing sympathetic to Weaver, asked few tough questions of him and suggested the government had overstepped its bounds. Quote of the day: “Randy Weaver is not an Idaho poster child.” - Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho Witnesses today: Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms case officer Herb Byerly of Spokane; Andrew Vita, currently assistant director of ATF. He was the ATF regional director in Seattle during the 1992 siege.