This year marks the 30th anniversary of the 11-day Ruby Ridge standoff which saw separate, deadly exchanges of gunfire claim the lives of Randy Weaver’s wife Vicki and teenaged son Sam, as well as a U.S. Marshal.
The run up to the deadly violence saw Weaver likely entrapped in a sale of illegal guns to an undercover federal agent, according to a U.S. Senate committee finding. Weaver, who refused to work as an informant, was charged for a gun offence before the standoff, which has become a rallying point for anti-government groups.
Few historians dispute that Ruby Ridge is a seminal event in recent U.S. history. It mobilized militia groups and Timothy McVeigh cited it as one of the triggers that influenced his bombing of an Oklahoma City government building in 1995.
“Ruby Ridge has continued to have a long-term resonance,” said Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League advocacy group. He said it’s often one of the key historical incidents the far right summons whenever they perceive U.S. government overreach.
While the law enforcement community mourned U.S. Marshal William Degan, it was the suffering of the Weaver family that enraged many Americans.
Randy Weaver, who has been held up as 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, which hold that Jews are imposters and white Protestants are the true descendants of Israel.
But, Pitcavage said, “that doesn’t give the government licence to commit bad acts themselves just because the party on the other side is extremist, or even if they’ve done wrong.”
“If the government is not careful in that regard, and they take actions like [what] happened at Ruby Ridge or Waco or [the Philadelphia MOVE bombing], the negative effects can have consequences and have reverberations far greater and far longer than you might ever have expected,” he added.
The monthslong Waco, Texas standoff in 1993 ended with a federal law enforcement raid that saw 86 killed and the compound of the Branch Davidians, an apocalyptic religious community, burn to the ground. The 1985 bombing by Philadelphia police of a compound owned by the Black rights activist group MOVE ignited a generator and killed 11.
As described in Jess Walter’s book Ruby Ridge: The Truth & Tragedy of The Randy Weaver Family, the Weavers were a middle-class family in Iowa who became radicalized in the late 1970s.
They saw signs in everyday life that the violent end times the Old Testament prophesied might happen in their lifetime. Long before the internet turbocharged QAnon and other fantastical theories, the Weavers fell sway to conspiracies communicated through newsletters and videotapes that circulated on the fringes. For example, they believed the Soviets might soon invade — coming south through Canada — and that the IRS was illegitimate.
They moved to a remote cabin without electricity in the early 1980s on Ruby Ridge near Naples, Idaho, about a 45-minute drive from the border crossing at Rykerts, B.C.
Like today’s prepper movement, they stocked up and were armed and ready for any apocalypse.
“Guns were tools in our family,” said Sara Weaver in the 2021 American Experience: Ruby Ridge documentary on PBS.
Federal law enforcement agencies were keyed on Idaho. The Aryan Nations were based there, and a similar group The Order had killed Jewish talk radio host Alan Berg in 1984.
Weaver was pressured to go undercover to infiltrate the Aryan Nations — a group he didn’t belong to, but whose events he had attended. He was charged for the gun offences when he wouldn’t.
‘Good morning, Mrs. Weaver’
Law enforcement was watching his home after the gun charges were filed. After weeks of team surveillance, the barking of the Weaver family dog on Aug. 20, 1992 precipitated movement in the bushes and panicked responses from the family and security forces. Each side later insisted the other fired first. Weaver family friend Kevin Harris, Samuel Weaver and Degan fired weapons. The last two were killed.
The next day saw more gunfire. Vicki Weaver, standing in the cabin doorway holding her infant daughter, was killed instantly by an FBI sniper who thought he had Harris in his sight.
The standoff lasted several more days. For a while, the authorities were unaware Vicki Weaver had been killed. So negotiators continued to address her through a megaphone, to torturous effect on the sequestered family.
“Good morning, Mrs. Weaver. We had pancakes. And what did you have for breakfast?” they said, per Walter’s book.
Eventually, Weaver and Harris — each suffering gunshot wounds — were coaxed down from the ridge, along with the three surviving kids.
The men were tried for first-degree murder in the death of Degan and acquitted. Weaver received $100,000 US after a settlement with the federal government and his children received $3 million.
A Justice Department probe concluded that there was no evidence that Weaver “was coerced or unduly enticed into selling the sawed-off shotguns.”
The department’s review of the shootings was sterner. It found that the rules of engagement “expanded the use of deadly force beyond the scope of the Constitution and beyond the FBI’s own standard deadly-force policy.”
Separately, a manslaughter case for the FBI sniper accused of killing Vicki Weaver was dismissed by the courts.
Weaver slammed McVeigh rationale
Ruby Ridge was followed just eight months later by the disastrous federal raid in Waco, Texas.
McVeigh, who would kill 168 with his bombing, seethed.
“What the U.S. government did at 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 dirty back to them at Oklahoma City.”
Weaver was aghast hearing that.
“McVeigh took the law into his own hands. He had justified it in his own mind. I don’t agree with him at all,” Weaver said in 2001.
Pitcavage believes it’s important not to conflate every aggrieved, well-armed American. He sees a distinction between an off-the-grid type like Weaver and those who proactively want to subvert government function, as many of the convicted Capitol riot participants and Idahoan Ammon Bundy, who once led an occupation of federal land, have done.
While the most vociferous anti-government extremists would likely give no quarter to the FBI, Pitcavage points to the peaceful resolution of a lengthy 1996 Montana Freeman standoff as evidence that lessons were learned by law enforcement from the failings at Ruby Ridge and Waco.
Given the extraordinary, armed power which U.S. law enforcement agencies possess, it’s critical the lessons from Ruby Ridge are remembered, 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 has to relearn those lessons,” he said. “They fade over time.”