Ruby Ridge, Part Two: Confirmation
The Weavers didn’t trust the government. The government didn’t trust the Weavers. What happened next confirmed each side’s worst fears.
By Cori Brosnahan
Dave Hunt, Spring, 1992
By the time reporter Bill Morlin published an article headlined “Feds Have Fugitive ‘Under Our Nose’” in the Spokesman-Review, it had been over a year since Randy Weaver missed his court date. Deputy Marshal Dave Hunt had exchanged several letters with the Weavers, passed through their neighbors, but attempts at negotiations had proven unsuccessful. From the beginning, others in the Marshal Service had not been as sanguine about the situation as Hunt, and even Hunt had eventually come around to the idea that patience alone might not resolve the situation.
So Hunt called in the Special Operations Group. The Marshal Service’s tactical force, the SOG was specially trained for situations that presented a high potential for violence. At the time, Hunt’s primary reason for bringing in the SOG was access to their resources — their surveillance equipment, their manpower, and their professional opinion about just how dangerous Weaver was.
The SOG sent an advance team to do a work-up on what they were facing, or would be facing. They came back to Hunt and said that it would be impossible to arrest Randy Weaver under the current circumstances without people being hurt or killed.
So a plan had been hatched at the Marshal Service’s headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. A deputy named Art Roderick came up with a long-term, three-part campaign he called “Operation Northern Exposure.” The first phase was to gather more intelligence; the second was to conduct intensive surveillance. Only after identifying when Weaver left the cabin or what kind of ruse might be employed to lead him away from it, would the marshals enact the third phase — arrest.
Dave Hunt had his reservations about involving the SOG in the Weaver case. He was a little worried that it would go tactical — that in the end, they would go in and do whatever it might take to get Weaver down. Hunt did not think that was necessary. And he was more than a little worried about what would happen with the children in that scenario.
But the SOG offered valuable assistance, especially when it came to surveillance. They brought over $100,000 worth of equipment, including long distance telephoto cameras that they set up at night in the woods around the Weaver cabin. Those cameras would record over 100 hours of videotape in the coming months. In this way, the marshals learned the family’s daily routine on the compound they came to call “the knoll.” They saw who came and went and when. The Weavers were almost always armed. Hunt believed that they were waiting; he thought that if the marshals came up the mountain, they would be met with resistance.
Sara Weaver, Summer, 1992
At times, Sara felt that they were being watched. There were helicopters flying over the house. One day, Sammy and Kevin found a camera in the woods. They didn’t know who it belonged to. It was eerie. It was different. Things certainly were different.
They didn’t go anywhere anymore. For 18 months, they had stayed up on the ridge. It was not easy. During that time, Sara’s mom had baby Elisheba. She thought she was carrying twins, but it turned out she actually had a very large blood clot. It was a blessing that she was able to deliver the baby without medical complications, with only Sara’s dad to help. Sometimes, friends came to see them, concerned about the situation. They brought food and supplies and conversation. But it was hard to trust anybody at that point, even their friends. There was always the chance that someone worked for the government. To Sara, it was all pretty unsettling — and lonely. At least she had Sammy.
Sammy was Sara’s best friend. He was fun and adventurous, loyal, resourceful, and super-smart. If something broke, Sara would take it to Sammy and he would fix it. And if she had a problem, he was the first person she’d talk to. But she was also his big sister and felt the need to protect him. Once, on one of their infrequent outings to the store, some kids were being mean to him, running around the aisles and calling him names. It felt so good to go up to them and tell them to leave her brother alone, to be his hero. Other times, he was her hero. Once she went for a hike with Sammy and their friend Kevin and they ended up going way into the mountains, where there was still snow. Well, they hadn’t dressed for snow and Sara’s toes were freezing. Sammy somehow managed to build a fire on top of the snow with wet wood to warm up her feet. That was how it worked: she rescued him and he rescued her.
And now, during those long, lonely months, they were rescuing each other again. On what she would remember as the best day ever, Sara, Sammy, and their family friend Kevin, who was staying with them at the time, hiked down to Ruby Creek. They went fishing and roasted the fish they caught over a fire they started on a rock in the middle of the creek. It was a beautiful day and after lunch, they decided to go swimming. There were gorgeous waterfalls and this great big pool. Sammy was always kind of a shy boy, but that day he was brave enough to take off his t-shirt when he swam. It was just perfect — even after Sara fell on the way home and busted her knee on a rock. The scar left over would remind her of the best day ever for years to come.
Of course, she couldn’t have known then that the next day would be the worst.
After months of surveillance, Dave Hunt and the SOG team had decided that the best way to apprehend Randy Weaver in a non-violent manner was a ruse. A female and male deputy would go undercover, posing as a couple who were building a cabin on the property behind the Weavers. Hunt knew that Randy Weaver was a very social person, and believed it was driving him crazy to stay on that mountain with no one to talk to. He therefore expected Weaver to make the first contact, drifting over to meet and form a relationship with his new neighbors. In that way, the marshals would be able to separate Weaver from the children and effect his arrest. Hunt, as usual, was not in a hurry. He expected this third and final phase of Operation Northern Exposure to take anywhere from six months to a year — or longer.
A team was assembled to put the plan in motion. It included Dave Hunt, Deputy Marshal Art Roderick, a medic, a tech expert, and two members of the SOG. Hunt and Roderick were the only ones who knew the mountain, so they organized a surveillance mission to get updated intelligence and familiarize the other deputies with the territory.
The night before, the men sat around preparing their gear. Hunt, who was not expecting any kind of confrontation, planned to bring only a 9mm revolver along with his camera equipment. They had dinner and Hunt briefed the team on the mountain’s various trails. They would split into two teams of three. The plan was for Hunt’s team to position themselves above Weaver’s place so they could observe what went on down below, while Roderick’s team moved in around the perimeter of the knoll to familiarize the SOG deputies with the Weaver compound. The deputies would need to get a feel for the country, which was tough and rugged and thick with underbrush and overgrowth that time of year.
The marshals were staying in a condo at the base of Schweitzer Mountain, which had a balcony with a beautiful view. That night, Hunt found himself out there talking to Billy Degan of the SOG. Degan was from North Quincy, Massachusetts. He’d been a football star at the University of New Hampshire, and won recognition in the Marshal Service after directing the response to Hurricane Hugo in St. Croix.
The marshals left in the middle of the night, aiming to be back that afternoon. Afterwards, they planned to go fishing.
Dave Hunt, August 21, 1992
By the time Hunt’s team reached their outpost, the sun was coming up. Around 7:00 a.m., the Weavers started to stir, going to the outhouse, doing their normal routine. They were armed, as usual. Hunt was taking pictures, as usual: Sam talking with Kevin Harris, Randy walking with Striker, one of the family’s dogs, Vicki in a long white nightgown, pacing back and forth like the ghost of some ill-fated seaman’s widow.
Roderick’s team was down below. They were not especially close to the knoll; Hunt thought he had certainly been closer on other occasions. But then one of the deputies on Hunt’s team said he heard a vehicle. Hunt didn’t hear it, but that didn’t mean one wasn’t there; sound did funny things in the mountains. He could see Randy, Sam, Kevin, and Sara out on the compound; their attention had been drawn to the bottom of the roadway. Within a few minutes, the men started to move down the road in the direction of the other marshals. Hunt radioed to Roderick that the Weavers were approaching.
The next thing Hunt heard was one of the dogs barking. Got a whiff of something. Hunt told Roderick to get out of there, the dog might be onto him, something to that effect. Hunt wouldn’t remember what happened next — whether Roderick responded or not — but the dog got more intense in its barking. He was on their trail, and Sam and Kevin were following the dog. Oh crap, Hunt thought.
Within a minute or two, Hunt heard the first shot. Then more of them. It started slow and built in intensity until something like 20 rounds had been fired. Hunt grabbed his guys, said let’s go. Just then he got a radio call from Roderick telling him to get the medic down there: Billy had been hit. Hunt and his team left all their gear at the outpost and moved down the mountain.
They headed into the woods. When they were maybe 25–50 yards away from Roderick and the others, rounds started crackling through the trees, snapping off twigs. They were being fired on, thought Hunt. They stopped for a minute and then they saw one of the other marshals in the brush, motioning them to come in. Once they got there, the medic went to work on Billy Degan. Hunt could see the Weavers’ dog laying there; he appeared to have been shot and Roderick said something about having to do it because the dog wouldn’t get off their trail. Pretty soon, the medic looked up and Hunt knew from the look in his eye that Billy was gone.
Roderick told Hunt they needed to get some help. Hunt didn’t want to leave, but only he and Roderick knew how to get out of the woods, to get down below where you could make a phone call. So Hunt took the medic and headed out along Ruby Creek.
Billy Degan had been shot on Caribou Ridge, but in the coming days, the media would say it was Ruby Ridge and the name would stick, becoming legend in the months and years that followed. It was a little thing that they got wrong — maybe not worth much. But it always bothered Hunt.
Sara Weaver, August 21, 1992
When Striker started barking, Sammy, Kevin, and Sara’s dad thought he was barking at an animal. They thought they’d go check it out — maybe they’d see a moose or a bear or something. Sara followed them part of the way, but then she turned around and went back to the house. Whatever it was, she thought, they would be back to tell everyone all about it.
She felt a little torn — she was, after all, Sam’s protector — but decided that they would be fine.
A little while later, Sara heard gunshots. She got worried because she knew the boys wouldn’t just shoot for any old reason, but she thought maybe they’d fired to scare off an animal. But then there were more shots and she started to panic. She saw her father come walking up the road, all by himself, visibly upset, and she knew something was wrong. He told her what happened: Thinking they were chasing an animal, he had taken one trail, while Sammy and Kevin took another. Then, he said, he’d run into someone. This person was in full camouflage from head to toe. “Freeze, Randy,” the man said. Sara’s dad had panicked; he wanted to alert Sammy and Kevin that something was going on so he shouted for them to go home. “I’m coming, Dad,” Sammy called, according to Sara’s dad, and that was the last he’d heard from the boys.
Sara’s dad was worried and scared and really upset. He said they needed to let the valley know that there was something going on, so he fired some rounds in the air.
Some time after that, Kevin came walking up the road. He was missing his hat and he told them that Sammy was dead. Sara asked him how could he tell? And Kevin told her that he had rolled Sammy over and his face was turning blue.
Sara thought her life might as well have been over.
A cold, relentless rain was falling. Hunt was at the bottom of the mountain, making calls. He contacted the U.S. Marshal’s Headquarters and got ahold of the chief of the enforcement operations division. He explained what happened, that Billy Degan was dead. Told him that he hadn’t heard firing for a while, but that three deputies were still up there with Degan’s body.
Next, he called the sheriff’s department, and notified them that the marshals were in a situation, that they had one officer down, and he was requesting all the assistance that they could offer. They had to get Billy down. The marshals would not abandon their fallen friend.
By the time they got Degan off the mountain the next morning, Hunt had been awake almost 24 hours.
It had been Sara’s mom who decided that they would go find Sammy. Sara stayed behind with baby Elisheba, scared of seeing her brother that way and scared the others wouldn’t come back. She could hear their crying when they found him.
Sara’s dad had looked at the body and told the others that his son had been shot twice in the back. It didn’t make sense. It looked like Sammy — 80 pounds at 14 years old — had been murdered. Still, the family hoped it was some kind of accident, some kind of horrible mistake, and that someone would come make it right. They expected someone on a bullhorn at least. But no one came, and that night when they turned on the radio, they found out about Billy Degan. Kevin had said that he fired in the marshals’ general direction—he didn’t know that he’d hit one of them—and he was a mess. Sara’s mom was a mess, too. She said she was going to go upstairs for a while, and Sara’s dad followed. No one slept. All night, home videos of Sammy ran through Sara’s head.
Both sides would later agree that everything began when the dog started barking. But, as Jess Walter would find out, they disagreed on most everything after that.
According to the Weavers, they were following their dog into the woods, when they were confronted with some men dressed in fatigues with dark paint on their faces, very much like a strike team. They had shot and killed the dog, prompting an angry Samuel Weaver to open fire, at which point the marshals fired back, shooting and killing the boy as he turned and ran for home. According to the family, Kevin Harris had in the meantime dove for cover and fired on the marshals, shooting and killing William Degan.
According to the marshals — who would tell a couple versions of the story in the weeks and months and years to come — they had identified themselves and called out a surrender order when Kevin Harris opened fire. In their version, Harris fired the first shot, killing Degan, and only later did they shoot the dog. As for Sam, the marshals would say they didn’t know he was dead.
And so you had two incredibly different narratives: the marshals believed they’d come under attack — or at least told people they’d come under attack — by white separatists, while the Weavers believed they’d come under attack by federal agents. It was, thought Walter, the difference in those two stories that allowed the rest of the tragedy to unfold.
When the marshals called headquarters, somehow the message was conveyed that there was an ongoing firefight with white separatists who had shot and killed a U.S. deputy marshal without any warning. That story — which would make its way to the FBI — was obviously very different than the one the Weavers would have told. But what had started as an ATF investigation and become a Marshals Service fugitive hunt was about to become an FBI operation. The FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team was on its way. As they flew into North Idaho, Walter would later learn, they believed that they were entering an ongoing firefight with a group very much like The Order or the Aryan Nations. They believed that they were going into battle.
Dave Hunt had once sent Randy Weaver a message warning him about the full weight and power of the U.S. government, and what it would really mean if one was to get into a confrontation with it. Hunt told Weaver that it was like a locomotive: once you got it rolling down the tracks, it was hard to stop. And that was exactly what kept going through Hunt’s head as he watched law enforcement descend upon the valley.
Hundreds of federal agents and state police were now swarming over the meadow below the Weavers’ property, which suddenly looked like a military encampment. There were tents and motor homes, helicopters and Humvees. The FBI had taken over; snipers from the Hostage Rescue Team, trained to hit a dime from 200 meters, had set up a perimeter.
Hunt stood back and watched as the incident he’d been trying to resolve peacefully for 18 months metastasized, a whirl of thoughts and emotions swirling around in his head. Mostly, he was angry with Randy Weaver, whom he blamed for all that had happened. At that point, Billy Degan was the only person Hunt knew to be dead. Billy and that dog. But Hunt believed Weaver had triggered an avalanche and it was coming down on him. The following days would only prove him right.
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