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Return to Ruby Ridge: ‘American Experience’ returns to the North Idaho mountain where one family and the government fatally collided

On Aug. 21, 1992, a gun battle erupted on ridge not too far from Bonners Ferry. When it was over, a 14-year-old boy and a U.S. marshal were both dead. In the following days, a mother of four would be killed by a sniper’s bullet, two men would be wounded, and the full weight of federal law enforcement would come to bear on a separatist family holed up in a remote mountain cabin awaiting the end of days.

The story of the Randy Weaver family and Ruby Ridge – of the events leading up to the 11-day standoff – is being revisited this week on the PBS series “The American Experience.”

Director Barak Goodman said the Ruby Ridge incident was intended to be included in the “American Experience” program on the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that aired last week. But producers came to realize there was enough material in Ruby Ridge to spin it off into its own film.

“It was such rich story,” Goodman said, and added, “There were roots to this bombing in Oklahoma City that went way back, and we wanted to trace those roots, and they go right through the Ruby Ridge story. If you want to understand the rise of the white supremacist movement, the white nationalist movement in this country that ultimately lead to the Oklahoma City bombing, you have to look at Ruby Ridge. Not so much because the Weavers themselves were white supremacists … they were flirtatious with those ideas, but because of its impact and symbolism to the movement.”

The hourlong documentary by necessity condenses the Weaver story, which spun out over the course of years. Randy Weaver, a former Army Green Beret, and his wife, Vicki, driven in part by the Midwestern farm crisis of the 1980s and increasing belief in “end times” Bible prophecy, leave Iowa in 1983 and move to a remote mountaintop in North Idaho. There they set out to raise their children in a cabin they built themselves without running water, electricity or indoor plumbing.

They begin attending gatherings at Richard Butler’s Aryan Nations compound near Hayden Lake, where Randy Weaver comes to the attention of an informant for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Weaver, needing to make few bucks, agrees to saw off some shotguns at the informant’s request. Federal agents try to turn him into an informant, and Weaver refuses. In January 1991, ATF agents arrest him on the weapons charge. After Weaver skips his trial date, a judge issues a federal arrest warrant, putting the case in the hands of the U.S. Marshals Service.

For for more than a year, until that fateful day when the Weavers’ son, Samuel, and U.S. Marshal William Degan were killed, the Weavers stayed in their cabin, and the marshals kept watch. But by March 1992, word was starting to get out that this federal fugitive was holed up in the woods with his family – The Spokesman-Review headline on March 8 proclaimed “Feds have fugitive ‘under our nose’.” Federal marshals, the story by Bill Morlin reported, were afraid to storm the cabin, fearing a firefight with Weaver, his wife, and their four children.

Morlin, who documented the Aryan Nations and neo-Nazi movements in the region in his long journalism career, is among the people interviewed for “Ruby Ridge.” Also featured is Jess Walter, the Spokane novelist who covered the standoff for The Spokesman-Review, and who would wrote a book about the case, “Every Knee Shall Bow: The Truth and Tragedy of Ruby Ridge and the Randy Weaver Family.” Filmmakers also talked to Dave Hunt, a U.S. marshal assigned to the Weaver case, FBI negotiator Jim Botting, defense attorney Chuck Peterson, writers Daniel Levitas and Stuart Wright, and James “Bo” Gritz, the former Green Beret and presidential candidate who helped broker the Weavers’ surrender.

The key interview, however, came from Sara Weaver, Randy and Vicki Weavers’ eldest child, who was 16 at the time of the standoff.

Securing the interview with Sara Weaver – and the fact that her story is quite compelling – was a big driver in the decision to spin “Ruby Ridge” into its own film.

“No one who meets Sara and gets a chance to talk with her as we did can come away feeling anything but shocked by what happened to her, completely amazed at this event and what she lived through,” Goodman said. “She is such a genuine person, and vivid in her recollections. Now obviously, it’s from her point of view and from the family’s point of view. They were inside that cabin and they had a unique perspective … but certainly the trauma they suffered, you can’t be anything but sympathetic toward them.”

The trauma included the shooting death of Sammy Weaver by marshals during an encounter on a trail near the cabin; Weaver family friend Kevin Harris shot Degan at this time, too. Then there was the apparently accidental shooting by a trained sniper of Vicki Weaver as she stood on the front porch, her baby in her arms, and the teenage Sara standing beside her. Sara Weaver’s description of those events in the documentary are harrowing and heartbreaking. “Mom dropped next to me,” Weaver says in the film.

The family and Harris remained the cabin for another week, as Vicki Weaver’s body lay underneath the kitchen table. Sara Weaver tried to care for the injured Harris and her father, as well as her two younger sisters. As Goodman noted in a recent interview, “She grew up fast that week.”

One of the lasting impacts of Ruby Ridge is that federal law enforcement changed how it handled these kinds of cases. It’s why the Montana Freeman standoff in 1996 ended peacefully after nearly three months, and how the Malheur Wildlife Refuge occupation in southeastern Oregon a year ago ended with only one death.

Morlin, who is retired from the SR and now works as a national correspondent for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said in an interview he has seen over the years how the government’s response to these scenarios has evolved.

“Clearly Ruby Ridge taught federal law enforcement a lesson. Patience, of course in these situations, as we saw at Malheur when I was down there, is costly,” Morlin said. “When you have agents and hostage rescue teams on standby with all their equipment, the clock’s running. The meter’s running. … But when those situations unfold, there’s no sense in going in crazy-like, guns blazing.”

In an interview last week, Walter noted, “The important thing to remember about Ruby Ridge was that it wasn’t handled. It was botched. It was tumbled and stumbled from one agency to another. Even if you take the FBI at their word, then one of the most highly trained snipers took two shots and didn’t hit any of the targets he intended, and killed a person he didn’t intend to kill.”

Walter is among those who see the stories of Ruby Ridge, the Branch Davidian siege outside Waco, Texas, and Oklahoma City as still be relevant today. “There’s a lot of anti-government sentiment right now. We’ve elected a president who wants to dismantle a lot of what we think of as government,” he said. “The other time there was this sort of noise around anti-government sentiments was in the mid-90s, so it’s interesting to go back to those times and see where that leads, and to see the roots of what they’re calling the alt-right and white nationalism, and seeing when white separatists made an attempt at coming into the mainstream.”

In the documentary, Sara Weaver touched upon a similar sentiment.

“The way they stereotyped my dad and blew him up into something that he wasn’t, I think a lot of people do that with our government as well,” she said. “And when you operate out of misunderstanding and fear, things can go wrong.”

This story has been updated to reflect the correct timing of Randy Weaver’s 1991 arrest and decision to skip his trial.


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