Randy Weaver, who refused to leave his remote Idaho cabin to face a deadly US firearms charge, died this week.
According to a social media post from his daughter Sara, Randy Weaver died Wednesday at age 74. She did not reveal a cause of death.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the 11-day Ruby Ridge standoff that saw separate and deadly gunfights claim the lives of Randy Weaver’s wife, Vicki, and teenage son Sam, as well as to a US Marshal.
The run-up to the deadly violence saw Weaver likely ensnared in an illegal arms deal to an undercover federal agent, according to a finding by a U.S. Senate committee. Weaver, who refused to work as an informant, was charged with committing a gunshot before the clash, which has become a rallying point for anti-government groups.
Few historians dispute that Ruby Ridge is a landmark event in recent US history. He mobilized militias and Timothy McVeigh cited him as one of the triggers that influenced his bombing of an Oklahoma City government building in 1995.
“Ruby Ridge has continued to have long-term resonance,” said Mark Pitcavage, senior fellow at advocacy group Anti-Defamation League. He said it’s often one of the key historical incidents that the far right summons whenever they perceive the US government’s overreach.
While the law enforcement community mourned U.S. Marshal William Degan, it was the suffering of the Weaver family that infuriated many Americans.
“Ruby Ridge remains the key to understanding how the FBI is no longer bound by the law,” libertarian author James Bovard wrote on his blog Thursday. He cited what he called abuse in the prosecution of hundreds of participants in the U.S. Capitol riots and the recent jury outcome of the hangings in Michigan of men accused of plotting to kidnap the governor of this state.
Randy Weaver, who has been considered a martyr on the far right, held views that many would consider abhorrent. He and his wife disdained interracial marriages and subscribed to Christian identity beliefs that Jews are impostors and white Protestants are the true descendants of Israel.
But, Pitcavage said, “that doesn’t give the government license to do bad things on its own just because the party on the other side is extremist, or even if they did wrong.”
“If the government is not careful in this regard, and takes measures like [what] happened in Ruby Ridge or Waco or [the Philadelphia MOVE bombing]the negative effects can have far greater and far longer consequences and repercussions than you might expect,” he added.
The months-long standoff in Waco, Texas in 1993 ended in a raid by federal law enforcement that left 86 dead and the compound of the Branch Davidians, an apocalyptic religious community, was set on fire. The 1985 Philadelphia police bombing of a compound belonging to the black rights activist group MOVE ignited a generator and killed 11 people.
hotbed of extremism
As described in Jess Walter’s book Ruby Ridge: The Truth and Tragedy of the Randy Weaver Familythe Weavers were a middle-class Iowa family that became radicalized in the late 1970s.
They saw signs in daily life that the violent end times prophesied by the Old Testament could occur in their lifetime. Long before the internet turbocharged QAnon and other fantastic theories, the weavers succumbed to conspiracies communicated through newsletters and videotapes circulating on the sidelines. For example, they believed that the Soviets might soon invade – coming from the south across Canada – and that the IRS was illegitimate.
They moved to a remote cabin with no electricity in the early 1980s in Ruby Ridge near Naples, Idaho, about a 45-minute drive from the Rykerts, British Columbia border crossing.
Like today’s Prepper movement, they stocked up and were armed and ready for any apocalypse.
“Guns were tools in our family,” Sara Weaver said in the 2021 American Experience: Ruby Ridge documentary on PBS.
Federal law enforcement agencies were tied to Idaho. The Aryan Nations were based there and a similar group, The Order, killed Jewish radio host Alan Berg in 1984.
Weaver was forced to go undercover to infiltrate the Aryan Nations – a group to which he did not belong, but whose events he had witnessed. He was charged for the firearms offenses when he did not.
‘Hello, Mrs. Weaver’
Law enforcement was monitoring his home after the firearms charges were filed. After weeks of surveillance by the team, the barking of the Weaver family dog on August 20, 1992 precipitated moves into the bushes and caused panic among the family and security forces. Each side then insisted that the other shoot first. Weaver family friend Kevin Harris, Samuel Weaver and Degas fired weapons. The last two were killed.
The next day, more gunshots. Vicki Weaver, standing in the cabin doorway holding her infant daughter, was killed instantly by an FBI sniper who thought he had Harris in sight.
The standoff lasted several days. For a while authorities ignored that Vicki Weaver had been killed. The negotiators therefore continued to address her by megaphone, with a torturing effect on the kidnapped family.
“Hello, Mrs. Weaver. We had pancakes. And what did you have for breakfast?” they said, according to Walter’s book.
Eventually Weaver and Harris – each with gunshot wounds – were brought from the ridge, along with the three surviving children.
The men were tried for first degree murder in Degan’s death and acquitted. Weaver received US$100,000 after a settlement with the federal government, and his children received $3 million.
A Justice Department investigation concluded that there was no evidence that Weaver “was coerced or improperly induced to sell the sawed-off shotguns.”
The department’s review of the shooting was more severe. He found that the Rules of Engagement “expand the use of deadly force beyond the scope of the Constitution and beyond the FBI’s own standard policy on deadly force.”
Separately, a manslaughter case for the FBI sniper accused of killing Vicki Weaver has been thrown out of court.
Weaver criticized McVeigh’s justification
Ruby Ridge was followed just eight months later by the disastrous federal raid in Waco, Texas.
McVeigh, who would kill 168 people with his bombardment, was seething.
“What the US government did in Waco and Ruby Ridge was dirty,” he told Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck, authors of American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing. “And I gave them the dirty back in Oklahoma City.”
Weaver was appalled to hear that.
“McVeigh took the law into his own hands. He had justified it in his mind. I totally disagree with him,” Weaver said in 2001.
Pitcavage thinks it’s important not to confuse all injured and well-armed Americans. He sees a distinction between an off-grid guy like Weaver and those who want to proactively subvert government office, as many convicted Capitol riot participants did and Idahoan Ammon Bundy, who once led a sit-in. federal lands.
While the most vocal anti-government extremists would likely give the FBI no quarter, Pitcavage points to the peaceful resolution of a long 1996 standoff in Montana Freeman as proof that law enforcement has learned from the failures of Ruby Ridge. and Waco.
Given the extraordinary military might that US law enforcement possesses, it’s critical that the lessons of Ruby Ridge be learned, Pitcavage said.
“The FBI not only has to learn lessons, and often learns the hard way by making missteps and seeing the ramifications, but as an institution [it] often have to relearn those lessons,” he said. “They fade over time.”