Ruby Ridge, Part Three: Fear & Faith
Hundreds of federal agents surround a cabin where a family holes up in fear. The standoff stretches on until the government gets help from an unlikely source.
By Cori Brosnahan
Jim Botting, Sunday, August 23, 1992
FBI negotiator Jim Botting began his career in SWAT, in Los Angeles, before being recruited for the agency’s Critical Incident Response Team. CINT had been created in 1985, the result of a new initiative to resolve conflicts through negotiation rather than force. CINT’s primary job was to accompany the Hostage Rescue Team — HRT, known as the bureau’s super-SWAT — at major incidents. You needed the tactical force to set up a perimeter, thereby forcing the individual to negotiate — but it could be a tricky balance. Negotiators had to push their way to the table. The HRT had their guns, and Botting thought there was truth to the old saying: when the only thing in your hand is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
Botting got the call from headquarters on Sunday, two days after the original shootout at Ruby Ridge. He immediately hopped on a plane at LAX and flew up to Spokane. There, he and another negotiator were met by some agents who drove them a couple hours to the staging area, where they were briefed on the situation: Randy Weaver was a guy that lived with his family up in the mountains. He was reported to be an anti-government, survivalist, racist, neo-Nazi sort of personality, with some connection to Richard Butler and the Aryan Nations; Weaver had been involved in a shootout with the marshals, in which one marshal had been killed. The FBI thought maybe someone else had been injured, but they weren’t sure. Now Weaver was barricaded in a cabin with his family. The HRT had arrived and they had the perimeter. Weaver wasn’t talking to anyone — a very negative sign. Usually, Botting knew, someone has a story to tell; usually, they want somebody to listen to them; oftentimes, once you’ve listened to them, they get what they need, and it’s over.
This was going to be challenging.
Demonstrators screamed at Botting and the other negotiators as they passed the bridge on the way up to Ruby Ridge. They appeared to be local people, very anti-government, threatening to throw things. Once they got through the crowd, the negotiators approached the meadow that law enforcement was using as a base. Botting thought it looked like they were preparing to invade Germany or something. That was the lower command post. The negotiators got in a Jeep to drive up to the forward command post, the cabin itself, which was manned by HRT. It was located on top of a hill and seemed pretty primitive. A rocky path led to what was basically a plywood shack, two stories with rickety stairs heading up to the main level. There they met with two more negotiators, and were briefed once again: They had been bull-horning Weaver in the cabin, but he wasn’t talking to them. They hadn’t been able to get in a hostage phone.
The negotiators were also informed that there had been a change in the standard rules of engagement. Under normal circumstances, you were authorized to use lethal force if you or someone else was in fear of death or grievous bodily harm, and only after a warning to surrender had been called out. But someone had decided that no warning was necessary at Ruby Ridge — that it was a “shoot-on-sight situation” of the kind you found in war. So they had amended the rules to allow officers to fire on any armed adult they saw. This came as a surprise to Botting, who thought the situation looked pretty static. It did not seem appropriate, but Botting wasn’t in on the command-level discussions; it wasn’t up to him.
In fact, by the time Botting got there, an HRT sniper had already fired several shots. When Botting met with him, the sniper explained that on Saturday, Weaver and a man named Kevin Harris had left the main cabin to go to this little shack. They had been armed, and when a helicopter passed overhead, they looked up at it like they were going to shoot. From his perch on an adjacent ridge north of the cabin, the sniper had fired a shot at the two men, but didn’t think he hit anybody. When Weaver and Harris turned to run back to the house, the sniper fired a second shot. That time, he thought he might have hit Harris. But he wasn’t sure.
Later, when they discovered who that second shot had hit, Botting would think back to that conversation. But he would always believe the sniper didn’t know where his second bullet had gone.
Sara Weaver, Saturday, August 22, 1992
The morning after Sammy had been killed was rainy, cold, and quiet — until the dogs started barking again. Sara’s dad and Kevin headed out to see if someone was coming up the drive to finally talk about what had happened, but when they got out there, the dogs had stopped and all was quiet again — or so it seemed to Sara.
She had followed the boys out to make sure that everybody was okay. She stood there looking out over the mountain, and it was a little while before she realized that her dad had taken off towards the shed, where they’d brought the body of her brother. “I’m going to go see Sam one last time,” he said, and Sara followed him, feeling like she needed to keep an eye on everybody.
Her dad made it around the corner of the shed before she could catch up, and that’s when she heard a gunshot. Sara hurried over and found him around the other side of the shed, which stood between them and the mountain where the gunshot had come from. He was half-crouched, holding himself. He’d been shot. He seemed shocked and confused, like he didn’t realize what had happened. Sara’s survival instinct kicked in; she told her dad they had to get back to the house. She put her hand on his back and said, “Go.”
At that point, Sara’s mother came out on the front porch. She was holding the door open, asking what happened. Sara’s dad said he’d been shot and she started screaming for them to get in the house. Crouching, Sara and her dad headed toward the front porch, with Kevin following behind them. Sara was pushing her dad through the door, next to her mom, who was holding baby Elisheba and still screaming for them to get in when she heard this giant BOOM, right in her ear, like somebody had fired a gun next to her. She felt things hit her face. Her mother dropped to the ground and Kevin fell into the house from behind her. Sara was still standing, not understanding anything. It took her a second to comprehend that her mother had died, and that it was parts of her mother that had hit her face. Kevin was on the ground moaning. Her sister Rachel was screaming, her father was screaming, and Sara’s ears were still ringing.
That’s when her father scooped up baby Elisheba, handed her to Rachel, and pulled Sara’s mom into the house so they could close the door. At that moment, it seemed clear that these people weren’t here to talk, that there would be no discussion. If Sammy’s death had been an accident, Sara thought, this certainly wasn’t; the family was being hunted.
And so, Jess Walter would think, the narrative had diverged once more. The FBI believed that in the midst of an ongoing firefight, a sniper hit a man who was attempting to fire on a helicopter. Meanwhile, the Weavers were grieving the death of a wife and mother who was holding the door open for her family to get inside to safety.
At the same time, the FBI was starting to uncover new information that led them to doubt their original narrative. Sunday evening, agents found the body of a little boy in the shed on the Weaver’s compound. On Monday, Special Agent in Charge Gene Glenn held a press conference at which he announced that Samuel Weaver appeared to have been killed in the initial firefight.
Back when Jim Botting was on Los Angeles SWAT, he had been among those called out to Whidbey Island to assist with the capture of Bob Mathews. SWAT teams from Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco had also been called in, along with the HRT. When Botting arrived, it was cold and raining and the scene looked like the Marines dug in for an epic battle. Everyone was scared that Mathews was going to come out shooting, and sure enough, he started firing at that helicopter and then at them. Even after the cabin burned down with Mathews inside of it, they expected him to come out of the ashes like a Friday night movie.
Up at Ruby Ridge, Botting thought about Mathews. Both Mathews and Weaver had at least some relationship with the Aryan Nations and the white supremacist movement. Botting and others had been amazed at the dedication Mathews had for his cause and wondered if Weaver was as committed. As the week wore on, the negotiators worried that he could kill the whole family, commit suicide, or come out shooting.
Botting was frustrated. They’d tried to deliver a hostage phone using a bomb robot, which was a real challenge because they had to drive it up that rocky path with a joystick and a computer, and the thing had a tendency to fall over. They addressed their appeals to Vicki Weaver, who they’d been told was the brains of the outfit. But nothing. The Weavers wouldn’t go near the robot — even after they took off the shotgun that had been strapped to the front of it.
They were stuck. Weaver had no confidence in the federal government, and as time went on, it became clear they needed a third party negotiator. That was always a risk — third parties weren’t trained, could be difficult to pull out, and the nature of their relationship to the subject was never totally clear. But they had to try. After about four days, they brought in Weaver’s sister. “These are great guys,” she bull-horned up to Randy. “They’re really trying to help you.” It didn’t work. The negotiators were back to square one. They needed to find someone Weaver trusted that could speak on their behalf. But they had no idea who that could be.
Then, about mid-week, they got a call from headquarters. There was a guy who had been calling, saying he could help. Like Weaver, he was a former Green Beret and affiliated with the far right. A retired lieutenant colonel, he was, by all accounts, a big personality. Some said he had been the model for Rambo. Apparently, he was running for president of the United States. His name was Bo Gritz.
Bo Gritz, Friday, August 28, 1992
As Bo Gritz remembered it, he was having lunch in Phoenix, Arizona, when the FBI called to ask if he knew about what was going on at Ruby Ridge. They told him that Weaver was a Special Forces soldier, and that he knew of Gritz and respected him. And that they’d like for Gritz to send Weaver a message asking him to surrender. They’d record it over the telephone.
Gritz told them he doubted it would work, but they asked him to do it anyway. Once they got the machine keyed up, Gritz said: “Weaver, this is Bo Gritz. Stay where you are, keep your family safe. I’ll be there on the first thing smoking tomorrow morning.”
“Well,” said the FBI afterwards, “that was not what we were looking for.”
But Gritz had already made up his mind. A Special Forces soldier and his family were in trouble. He believed it was his responsibility to make sure everybody walked out.
Gritz made arrangements to fly to Spokane. He had someone he knew in Idaho pick him up and take him to Ruby Creek, where he found every alphabet soup you could name there with submachine guns. He had to get past them to get to Weaver, but he wasn’t sure how. He repeatedly volunteered his negotiating services, but received no response. Next he tried to serve the top officials involved with a citizen’s arrest. Eventually, he was brought before the agents in charge. As Gritz recalled, they asked him what he could do that their consummate experts could not. “Well, I’m here talking to you. And you’re not talking to Randy Weaver, are you?”
And that, Bo Gritz, would tell people, was how he became the government’s third-party negotiator.
The last thing Jim Botting and the other negotiators wanted to do was insert a personality like Bo Gritz into the situation. This, they felt sure, would be a mistake. They had tried to stiff-arm headquarters, which worked for a few days until Gritz himself showed up at the scene, started demonstrating with all the mountain people down on the main road, bragging about his background, telling them that he could solve this. It seemed like every time somebody flipped on a news camera, the guy was there, standing in front of it. Stocky, charismatic, with a loud voice and muscles bulging out of his head, Botting thought that Gritz was used to being in charge. The negotiators really hadn’t wanted him up there. But the agents in charge were convinced that he was their last hope to settle the standoff peacefully.
On Friday afternoon, eight days after the initial incident, the HRT brought Gritz up to the forward command post. He hopped out in a little tan jungle jacket and went around shaking everybody’s hand. After Gritz was briefed, the negotiators sat him down for a 30-minute crash course in hostage negotiation. They told him that the main thing was not to promise Weaver anything, just to listen to him. Gritz indicated that he understood, and got into one of the armored personnel carriers. The tactical team drove him up to the cabin and Gritz started yelling for Weaver. Nothing happened, so he jumped out of the truck and got up closer. The negotiators waited from 30 yards away. Gritz yelled, and Weaver appeared to respond. Gritz was up there about an hour, and when he got back, he shook his head.
“Boy,” Gritz said, “you guys really screwed that one up.”
“What do you mean?” asked Botting.
“Vicki’s dead,” said Gritz. “Randy’s been shot. Harris has been shot. Dog’s dead. Sam’s dead. You damn near killed the whole family.”
Immediately after the initial shootout, law enforcement had set up a roadblock at a bridge a good two miles down the road from the actual Weaver cabin. Reporter Bill Morlin, along with news media from all over the country, had been camped out there for a week. They were joined by protesters who had gathered in support of the Weavers: friends and neighbors, as well as skinheads from as far away as Las Vegas, and radical right wing groups out of Montana. The crowd numbered from 50 to 100 and even 200 on occasion. The protesters held up signs and screamed obscenities at the agents blocking the road.
It was not exactly a front row seat, thought Morlin. Once a day or so, the FBI’s special agent in charge would come down the mountain and hold what Morlin thought was a pretty feeble press conference. Later, he would tell people that the journalists in Iraq had a far better idea of what was going on than the journalists at Ruby Ridge.
By Friday, the roadblock was tense — you could feel it in the air. It had been ugly after news of Sam Weaver’s death hit. “Baby killers!” the protesters shouted at the agents. Morlin was just waiting for one of them to drive up with a gun and start shooting.
And now Bo Gritz was coming down the mountain with all his bravado to hold a press conference of his own. Vicki Weaver was dead, Gritz announced to the crowd. A huge cry of alarm went up — protesters were screaming and yelling, and violence seemed close at hand. But Gritz also suggested that he was hopeful he could continue to work with the FBI and peacefully get the remaining individuals out of the cabin.
Morlin himself was horrified. There were three people dead and the thing still wasn’t over.
As a negotiator, Jim Botting knew that you won some and you lost some. When a guy who had been threatening to kill people finally put down his gun and said, ‘Jim, I’m coming out,’ it was pure euphoria. That was the feeling that kept Botting in the game — there was just nothing that could match it. Of course, sometimes you got the other outcome, and the guy you’d been talking to hurt somebody or killed himself. It happened. But, Botting believed, it happened in spite of what you did, not because of it.
Nevertheless, when Gritz told them about Vicki, Botting and the other negotiators just collapsed. They couldn’t believe it. It was devastating. Here they had been addressing their negotiations to Vicki the whole time. It was a bad night, and the next morning, the negotiators stood aside as Gritz went back up to the cabin, feeling like orphan kids left at the bus station. All they could do was look at each other. They’d just have to wait until he came back.
Bo Gritz, Sunday, August 30, 1992
In speaking with Weaver, Gritz learned that Kevin Harris had been shot in the shoulder, heart-side. It did not look good. So on Sunday, Gritz told Weaver that he had to let him take Harris out and get him to a hospital in Spokane. If he didn’t, Gritz was ready to testify against Weaver in court because Harris’s death would be his fault. Weaver said the girls didn’t want Harris to go. Gritz told Randy that he was the man of the house, that he was in charge and had to make the decision — but that he, Gritz, was telling him to give Kevin up. Finally, Weaver agreed.
Weaver and the girls carried Kevin in a chair to the back door. When they opened it, Harris was so yellow, Gritz thought he would have died within the next 12 hours, at most, without intervention; you could tell just looking in his eyes that he was desperate. Gritz walked Harris backwards down the stairs. Next thing you knew, the Huey was spooling up and Harris was evacuated.
It was, Gritz thought, a lot like the games of fiddlesticks he’d played with his grandfather: you have to pick up one stick at a time without disturbing the others. Next, he had to figure out a way to get Vicki — he believed that she was the key.
So Gritz went back up to the cabin and told Weaver to think about his children. It had to be hell for them to see their mother lying there. “Let me come in there,” he said. He told Weaver he would bring a body bag and carry Vicki out of there so the kids didn’t have to look on her anymore. He’d do it with honor. “Okay, Bo,” Weaver finally said. He stood back and let Gritz in.
In the war, Gritz had learned that fear was a thing you could smell — taste, even. When he walked into the cabin, the girls appeared to shrink; he thought that if they could have shrunk through the wall, they would have. They didn’t trust him; he thought they probably expected him to shoot them.
The baby, Elisheba, was running everywhere. They had placed blankets over all the windows, over every orifice that would let someone look in or out. It was dark, but the place looked pretty neat to Gritz. Vicki Weaver was lying under the kitchen table.
Gritz had seen people dead three days in hot conditions; they putrefied. It had been eight since Vicki was shot, but Gritz thought there was no smell of death about her. She had a nasty hole where the bullet had gone into her jaw and came out her neck, but he saw no puffing up, no darkening of the skin. She had a pistol around her waist and cowboy boots on her feet. She was a small-boned woman; her hands were tiny.
Later, someone would send Gritz a book called The Incorruptibles, about how Catholics choose a saint. According to the book, one of the ways you know someone is a saint is if their body is uncorrupted after death. Of course, Vicki wasn’t a Catholic. Still, Gritz would wonder whether Vicki was meant to be a saint.
With Weaver’s help, Gritz slid her body into the bag, zipped it, picked it up. She was maybe 110 pounds, but hard to move, as bodies are when there’s no life in them.
The little girls were wailing. Not a cry, Gritz would make sure to say later, but a wail. And as he crossed to go down the stairs they said, “Please don’t let our mama touch the ground.” He said he wouldn’t. And he didn’t. He carried her all the way down.
FBI headquarters was a mess: there were food packets, glass, plastic bottles. It was, Gritz thought, a huge trash heap, and he felt almost ashamed as he laid her down in it. And then, as soon as he put her on the ground, they came like a stampede of buffalo, the black-helmeted, uniformed FBI. They rushed up, took their cameras out, and started taking pictures of Vicki Weaver. Everyone had come to see her. Gritz thought Randy and the girls could have walked out of the cabin and down the mountain if they’d wanted to because no one was paying attention.
As Gritz remembered it, that’s when the HRT commander said: “Bo, if you don’t get them out by noon tomorrow, we’re taking them out.”
Despite his limited access to information, reporter Bill Morlin had detected early on that there were some differing opinions amongst law enforcement about how to handle the situation at Ruby Ridge. Morlin believed that there were some real gunslingers that wanted to take their tanks up on the ridge and and just mow the place over, while others wanted to take a we-got-all-the-time-in-the-world approach. He imagined that there were some pretty heated discussions going on behind the scenes.
Towards the end of the week, even Morlin was surprised at how long it was taking. They had some 400 agents from various law enforcement agencies on the payroll up there. The story had made NBC Nightly News. How long were they going to let the clock tick?
Bo Gritz, Monday, August 31, 1992
Sunday night in his attic room at the hotel, Gritz knew that the next day would either spell death or victory. In either case, it would be over. So he tried to get some sleep. He thought he drifted off around midnight. Then, early Monday morning, he had a vision. He wasn’t awake, he would tell people later, but it wasn’t a dream.
In the vision, Gritz saw himself on the stairwell, by the door of the little cabin. Randy Weaver was not going to come out. But then, exactly at noon, Weaver opened the door. His girls were with him. And he said, “Get your things together. We’re going to follow Colonel Bo down the hill.”
As Gritz remembered it, that morning at seven o’clock, just before he was about to leave for Ruby Ridge, he received a phone call. He answered it, thinking it might be someone informing him that it was all over.
But it was K-Talk in Salt Lake City. He told the caller that he was on his way out, that he had no time and had to go. But the caller said they were live. Could he just give them something? What was going to happen today? So Gritz told him that at exactly noon, everything would be over. At that point, Weaver and his daughters would come out safely and they would all walk down the hill. The caller asked how he knew that. Gritz told him that he’d had a vision.
“Well,” the guy said, “let’s check traffic.”
When Gritz got to the hill, he saw the head of the HRT. “You know what happens today at noon?” he would recall the commander saying. “I hear you,” Gritz told him. “Do whatever you got to do.” No doubt about it, he thought, this thing would be over today.
Gritz approached the cabin. He was scared that once Weaver refused to come out, the HRT would open fire, or they’d have the tank come down and just shove the thing off. Once he was on the stairs, he heard Weaver say, “Bo, is that you?”
He said it was. Then Weaver told him that he and the girls had prayed all night, that they had voted and they were not going to come out. The feds were going to have to kill them, just like they did Sammy and Vicki. He told Gritz he meant no disrespect but that he might as well go home because they had already made the decision.
Gritz objected. “Weaver, damn you,” he would remember saying. “Don’t you tell me that we’re not going to continue when I have carried your bride out of this cabin, when we’ve got out Kevin Harris, who is still alive.” Gritz was right up at the door. “Don’t you tell me you’re going to quit now,” he said.
Bo Gritz certainly was pushy, Sara thought. She didn’t trust him. He wanted them to leave the cabin. Sara was terrified to step outside, sure her family would be shot. It had been hell on earth inside the cabin with the dead body of her mother under the table in the kitchen and Kevin in so much pain that he had begged her to put him out of his misery. She was living in a nightmare and didn’t see a way out. And now here was Bo Gritz telling them they had to leave, that he had to get them out of there by such-and-such a time.
But now Sara’s father was agreeing. “I believe this is what we need to do,” he told the girls. He was serious. His word had always been the end of the matter, and it was no different now.
When Sara finally left the cabin and stepped out into the sunshine, she still expected to die. But the bullets never came.
Hand to god, it was exactly like that vision, Gritz would say later. Weaver looked at him and without turning around, he told the girls to get their things together, they were going to follow Colonel Bo down the hill.
Gritz gripped Randy Weaver’s hand tight as they descended those rickety stairs. Weaver was holding the baby in his left hand and behind them walked the two girls, like a couple of Indians hoping the cavalry doesn’t open fire, Gritz thought.
They walked down the little logging trail, and he didn’t let go of Weaver until they were all the way at the bottom. And there was Special Agent in Charge Gene Glenn with a smile on his face, and a Huey helicopter that was starting to spool up. Gritz looked at Weaver and told him that everything was going to be alright. Vicki’s parents were there and Gritz told the girls to go with them.
It had all worked out like a mathematical equation, Gritz thought. Einstein would have been proud.
The next morning, reporter Jess Walter would interview Sara Weaver. He would stay in touch with the Weaver family, and eventually write the definitive book about the events at Ruby Ridge.
The deeper Walter looked into the case, the more he found that every government report about the Weavers followed a narrative that would be familiar to conspiracy theorists. It was, Walter thought, the same kind of thinking that had led the Weavers to conclude the government was out to get them in the first place.
And so he would write in his introduction: “The Weaver case is not proof of broad government oppression and tyranny but of human fallibility and inhuman bureaucracy. The Randy Weaver case is a stop sign, a warning, not of the dangers of right wing conspiracies or government conspiracies, but of the danger of conspiracy thinking itself, by people and by governments.”
After spending 20 hours in the soaking rain the Friday of the initial shootout, Deputy Marshal Dave Hunt was physically sick. And when he heard about Sam and Vicki, he felt emotionally sick on top of it. Hunt had approached the Weaver case wanting to put a human face on the government. In that process, the Weavers had become a human fact to him, too. Now he wondered what he could have done to resolve the situation before it got so bad. The second guessing went on for some time.
It bothered him that Ruby Ridge was already becoming a symbol to the far right and others of government run amok, of law enforcement out of control. In the days after the standoff, he’d been standing at the barricades, listening to the conversation of three or four people from the Aryan Nations. They were joking about how the government had really screwed up. Hunt thought it was like they had wanted it to happen, as if it was just what they needed to build their propaganda. Deputy Marshal Dave Hunt had heard enough; he turned around and walked off.
Bill Morlin, February, 1993
The Weaver trial was held the following year. The Spokesman-Review had a bureau in Boise, where the trial was taking place, but reporter Bill Morlin went down for a bit of it anyway. He was there, watching TV on a lunch break in the cafeteria when live footage showed flames break out at Waco. Well, thought Morlin, here we go again.
Sara Weaver, July, 2015
Decades later, Sara Weaver would be interviewed for a documentary about Ruby Ridge. She would tell the interviewers about the many years of struggle and anxiety and depression that followed the events of that summer. She would tell them about the support and love she had received from friends and strangers and how she had eventually come to a place of forgiveness. She would tell them that the FBI used what happened to her family as a training tool as to what not to do, and that was hugely gratifying to her. They would talk about the fear Sara’s parents had of the government and the fear the government had of Sara’s parents. And Sara would tell the interviewers what she had learned about fear and faith, about how basing your decisions on one or the other led to two completely different outcomes. She had found that faith generally led to a much better one. Of course, it was not easy; because of what she’d been through, there was always a side of her that wanted to go to that fear place. She had to fight that. She was not cured. Helicopters and loud bangs she didn’t know were coming still triggered her sometimes. It was a decision everyday to choose faith. But she tried.
To tell the story of Ruby Ridge — a standoff between the federal government and the heavily-armed, white separatist Weaver family in the remote hills of Idaho — filmmakers Barak Goodman and Emily Chapman interviewed eye witnesses, including federal agents on the ground, journalists who reported the story, and a member of the Weaver family. This three-part narrative draws directly from the transcripts of those interviews, exploring how a seemingly small infraction — failure to appear in court for sawing off shotguns — escalated into a tragic standoff that ignited a powder keg of tension, and served as a calling card the modern American militia movement.
Additional source: Ruby Ridge by Jess Walter