Choking on words and brushing back tears, Kevin Harris testified Tuesday that he never saw the federal marshal he killed while firing into bushes during the Ruby Ridge shootout.
The friend of white separatist Randy Weaver risked possible criminal indictment in Idaho to refute what he called false accusations that he and Weaver had ambushed U.S. marshals.
“I want to make this as clear as I possibly can,” Harris told a Senate panel. “I didn’t have any intention of shooting anyone.”
Harris, 28, was acquitted in 1993 in federal court of murdering Deputy U.S. Marshal William Degan, but he still could face state criminal charges from an investigation by Boundary County Prosecutor Randall Day.
Although senators refused to grant Harris immunity from state charges, he nonetheless unfolded his version of events on Aug. 21, 1992. It began with the death of a dog and escalated quickly into a shootout that killed Degan and Weaver’s 14-year-old son, Samuel.
The following day, an FBI sniper wounded Weaver and Harris and killed Weaver’s wife, Vicki, as she stood in the doorway of their remote cabin.
Speaking in a slow, stuttering monotone, Harris described how the deadly standoff began when he, Sam and Randy Weaver followed Striker, their barking yellow Labrador, into the woods.
“I was thinking that an animal might be there,” Harris said. But instead, Striker cornered a man wearing camouflage.
“Suddenly the dog was shot,” Harris said. “Sam started to raise his weapon and said, ‘You shot my dog, you son of a bitch.”’
When a barrage of gunfire broke out, “I fired once into the brush” in the direction from which the shots were coming, Harris said.
Only later did he learn that Degan was dead, Harris said.
Asked by senators Tuesday if he killed the deputy U.S. marshal, Harris replied: “I would have to assume that.”
Harris’ story contradicts that of U.S. marshals who testified two weeks ago that Harris fired first - after marshals identified themselves.
Harris said he didn’t hear the marshals identify themselves until after the gunfight broke out and someone - he presumes Degan - yelled “I’m hit, I’m hit.”
“I never met Mr. Degan, but everyone says that he was a very good man. I’m very, very sorry that he’s dead,” Harris said.
“I don’t know what his intentions were, and I’ll probably never know,” Harris added. “I think it’s possible that he was just like I was - in the middle of something that shouldn’t have happened, that he didn’t start, and that was out of control.”
Harris, a high school dropout, met the Weavers as a troubled teenager, living with them on and off as a “part of their family.”
Just days before the deadly shootout, he had helped Sam remove and dismantle a surveillance camera they had found in the forest. Harris said he knew Weaver was wanted for skipping a court date on weapons charges, but still didn’t expect federal marshals to approach their mountaintop cabin.
Senators cast doubt on Harris’ claim of surprise, wondering if the Weavers were preparing for conflict, and repeatedly questioning Harris about why he didn’t encourage Weaver to surrender.
Harris said he and Weaver never talked about the situation.
“This is the one thing that makes your story not credible to me,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif, “that there was no discussion among the family that they had a big problem, and about what would they do (if marshals approached them).”
While blaming the FBI for the ensuing bloody standoff, Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis, also rebuked Harris for following a cavalier approach to law enforcement.
“There was no honor in what you did,” he told Harris. “You are victims, but you are no heroes.”
Senators also heard testimony from New Hampshire Attorney General Jeffrey Howard, who was an associate deputy U.S. attorney general at the time of the 11-day standoff between the Weavers and federal officials.
Howard said he received a phone call from a top FBI official early Saturday morning, informing him that Sam Weaver may have been shot in Friday’s gunbattle. Howard said the call came from either Larry Potts, then assistant director of the criminal investigative division, or his assistant, Danny Coulson.
FBI officials, who began arriving in North Idaho late that Friday, testified earlier that they had not interviewed U.S. marshals about the gunfight until Saturday afternoon, and didn’t know Sam had died until they discovered his body later that week.
Senators questioned whether the FBI’s approach on Saturday - the day that Vicki Weaver was killed - would have been different had they known Sam was dead.
FBI sharpshooters were given orders allowing them to shoot and kill any male who was armed.
But regardless of the wording in the “rules of engagement,” the deadly results would have been the same, said Thomas Miller, an FBI agent who reviewed how shooting policy was followed.
Miller said FBI snipers were in a dangerous situation and the unprecedented orders “were simply a matter of heightening that awareness.”
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