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HEADLINE: Overkill; the FBI's gun battle with Randy Weaver; Column
BYLINE: Bovard, James
The story has been told in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Soldier of Follune magazine. Somewhere you've read or heard about the 11-day stakeout that resulted in the death of a 14-year-old boy, a 42-year-old mother, a federal marshal and one yellow Labrador retriever. It is an American tragedy, one that must be retold until some sense of truth or justice emerges.
Randy Weaver lived with his wife and four children in a cabin in the rugged Idaho mountains 40 miles south of the Canadian border. The cabin had no electricity or running water, but the family survived, as had generations of pioneers. According to his lawyer, Weaver was "a little man who wanted to be left alone."
According to the government, he was a heavily armed white supremacist, a former Green Beret, a member of a cult that believed a Jewish-led conspiracy controlled the government. He stood convinced that God had created separate races for a reason, and that the races should remain separate. Weaver was, said one agent, "extremely irritable, and saw people plotting against him."
Weaver had every reason to be paranoid. People were plotting against him. No fewer than three government agencies targeted Randy Weaver.
Agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were the first to turn their attention on Weaver. In 1989 Kenneth Fadley, a BATF informant, persuaded Weaver to sell him two sawed-off shotguns, carefully pointing out where he wanted the barrels cut - one-quarter of an inch below the legal length.
Prior to the sting operation, Weaver had no criminal record. The agents had noticed Weaver and members of his family at a meeting of the Aryan Nation, a white supremacist movement based in the panhandle of Idaho. According to Weaver the BATF then threatened him, saying that unless he promised to infiltrate the Aryan Nation and turn informer, they would prosecute. He refused; charges were filed in December 1990.
A court date was set, then changed. A probation officer sent a letter to Weaver with yet another date. When Weaver failed to appear, a warrant was issued.
WYATT EARP MEETS RAMBO
Federal agents launched an elaborate 18-month surveillance of Weaver's cabin and land. The agency this time was the U.S. Marshal. Service (headed by former Meese Commission star Henry Hudson), which is responsible for serving high-risk warrants. The service seems to take its cue not from the Constitution but from Hollywood. (As described in "One-Line Pedophiles" in the March Playboy Forum, Henry Hudson spent a small fortune trying to entrap two men to make snuff movies.) David Nevin, a lawyer involved in the subsequent court case, noted: "The marshals called in military aerial reconnaissance and had photos studied by the Defense Mapping Agency. They prowled the woods around Weaver's cabin with night-vision equipment. They had psychological profiles performed and installed $130,000 worth of long-range solar-powered spy cameras. They intercepted the Weavers' mail. They even knew the menstrual cycle of Weaver's teenage daughter, and planned an arrest scenario around it. They actually bought a tract of land next to Weaver's where an undercover marshal was to pose as a neighbor and build a cabin in hopes of befriending Weaver and luring him away." All this despite the fact that the BATF had initially served Weaver a warrant without encountering violence (agents faked a car breakdown; when he stopped to help, they arrested him). According to several reports, Hudson's Special Operations Group thought it was up against Rambo. Had the government bothered to look carefully at service records, it would have known better. According to Soldier of Fortune, Weaver never completed Special Forces training. He was an engineer in support personnel for the Green Berets.
"Although the marshals knew Weaver's precise location," reports Nevin, "throughout this elaborate investigation, not a single marshal ever met face-to-face with Weaver. Even so, Weaver offered to surrender if conditions were met to guarantee his safety. The marshals drafted a letter of acceptance, but the U.S. attorney for Idaho abruptly ordered the negotiations to cease."
On August 21, 1992 six U.S. marshals outfitted in full camouflage and painted faces entered Weaver's property. They carried automatic weapons. They had been told to avoid contact with the Weavers, but had visited a shooting range the night before to sight in their weapons. The group leader was familiar with the terrain: It was deputy marshal Arthur Roderick's 24th visit to the cabin. One of the Weaver family's dogs, Striker, caught scent of the agents and ran barking down the hill. Weaver's 14-year-old son, Sammy, and Kevin Harris, a 25-year-old family friend who lived with the Weavers in the cabin, followed.
What happened next is a horrible vision of law enforcement agents out of control. Lawyers, for the defendants say that Roderick shot the dog, shattering its haunches. Sammy, Weaver fired two shots at the man who had just killed his dog. Randy Weaver called out to his son. Sammy yelled, "I'm coming, Dad," then turned to run to safety. A bullet from a U.S. marshal nearly tore off his arm; a second bullet entered his back, killing him.
At some point during the exchange deputy marshal William Degan stood up and yelled "Freeze." Harris fired, killing the marshal. Federal agents testified in court that Degan had been killed by the first shot of the exchange, but were unable to explain how it was that the marshal had fired seven shots from his gun before he was shot.
Who was writing this script?
FBI MUTANT NINJAS
The surviving marshals trooped down the mountain and called for help. As Weaver retrieved his son's body, the FBI's elite paramilitary Hostage Rescue Team boarded a plane in Washington, D.C. Almost 400 state and federal agents surrounded the site of the standoff. Although no shots came from the cabin, FBI team commander Richard Rogers changed the standard rules of engagement. The HRT sharpshooters were told to shoot any armed adult male on sight, whether he posed an immediate threat or not.
The next day, August 22, Randy Weaver - with daughter Sara and Kevin Harris - walked from his cabin to the little shack where his son's body lay. As he lifted the latch on the shack's door, Weaver was shot from behind by FBI sniper Lon Horiuchi. Weaver struggled back to the cabin while his wife, Vicki, stood in the doorway, holding their ten-month-old infant in her arms and calling for her husband to hurry.
Horiuchi testified that after shooting Weaver in the back, he followed Kevin Harris through his telescopic sight, leading slightly. He fired as the man rushed through the door of the cabin. According to The New York Times, Horiuchi, who claimed he could hit a target at a distance of 200 meters within a quarter of an inch, said he had "decided to neutralize that male and his rifle." Instead, he hit Vicki Weaver in the temple, killing her. The bullet that passed through Vicki Weaver's skull wounded Harris.
The paramilitary team then switched to psychological warfare. As The Washington Times' Jerry Seper reported, "Court records show that while the woman's body lay in the cabin for eight days, the FBI used megaphones to taunt the family. Good morning, Mrs. Weaver. We had pancakes for breakfast. What did you have?'"
Weaver surrendered after 11 days.
At the subsequent trial, the government sought to prove that Weaver had conspired for nine years to have an armed confrontation with the government. An Idaho jury found Weaver innocent of almost all charges and ruled that Kevin Harris' shooting of the U.S. marshal had been in self-defense.
Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Louis Freeh justified the FBI shooting of Randy Weaver because sniper Horiuchi saw one of the suspects raise a weapon in the direction of a helicopter carrying other FBI personnel. But other federal officials testified at Weaver's trial that there were no helicopters in the vicinity of the Weavers' cabin at the time of the shooting.
Freeh also said the FBI's next shot - the one that killed Vicki Weaver - was justified and that the killing was accidental. Freeh declared, "The question is whether someone running into a fortified position who is going to shoot at you is as much a threat to you as somebody turning in an open space and pointing a gun at you. I don't distinguish between those." Not even when the fortified position is a cabin filled with children?
Freeh found 12 FBI officials guilty of "inadequate performance, improper judgment, neglect of duty and failure to exert proper managerial oversight." However, the heaviest penalty that Freeh imposed was 15 days unpaid leave, and that for only four agents. As The New York Times reported, Freeh has imposed heavier penalties for FBI agents who used their official cars to drive their children to school.
One of the most disturbing aspects of Freeh's actions has been his treatment of Larry Potts, Freeh's pick as acting deputy FBI director. Potts was the senior official in charge of the Idaho operation and defended the shoot-to-kill orders. Despite the finding of a Justice Department confidential report that the orders had violated constitutional rights, Freeh recommended that Potts face only the penalty of a letter of censure. That is the same penalty that Freeh received when he lost an FBI cellular telephone.
In a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno, Idaho Senator Larry Craig asked: "When does the Department of Justice consider it acceptable to fire on an armed citizen first - even if he or she is not threatening the life of any other person - and ask questions later? I am not alone in believing that firearms restrictions do not prevent violent crime; it is appalling that in this case, the enforcement of such restrictions actually led to the sacrifice of three lives. In this sense comparisons drawn between the north Idaho action and the Waco case are inevitable and deeply troubling."
The Weaver case presents a great challenge to the competency and courage of the congressional leadership now in Washington. If Congress is not willing to look into such misconduct, who will protect the Constitution? Will Congress let the Justice Department and the FBI get away with murder?
James Bovard is author of "Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty."