Though I remember hearing at a young age about the events of that took place at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, it was only recently that the name “Randy Weaver” crossed my attention and aroused my curiosity. After reading up on it, I have to say that I was startled to find that Weaver had been largely vindicated, albeit quietly. I was also surprised, while reading the details of the case, by how eerily similar the events that transpired at Ruby Ridge were to the plot of the Rambo movie First Blood.
The first similarity between Randy Weaver and John Rambo was that they were both in the military. Weaver, however, remained stateside throughout the Vietnam War. Another similarity could be found in interpreting both men as having once been eager and patriotic, as one would have to assume that Rambo was when he volunteered for the special forces unit that shaped the character’s backstory. Weaver, for his part, had been enrolled in community college courses with the dream of becoming an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) prior to the events at Ruby Ridge.
Both incidents seem to have been precipitated by mistakes on the part of law enforcement, which possibly could be attributed to ironically lawless attitudes. Where Rambo was harassed by police over his vagrant appearance, in the case of Ruby Ridge, Weaver showed up on the radar first through the vengeful intent of a neighbor who had lost a civil dispute with him in court, and subsequently wrote letters to the FBI, Secret Service and County Sheriff accusing him of making death threats against the Pope, the President, and the Governor of Idaho. Weaver had written to Ronald Reagan personally to apologize for and disclaim any death threats that Reagan may have received, although it is doubtful that it made him look anything but less sane to do so. Later, Weaver would become swept up in an investigation of Aryan Nations activity near his home at Ruby Ridge, in Northern Idaho. It would turn out that he was only tenuously linked to the group through a mutual friend.
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agent Herb Byerly eventually came to the belief that Randy Weaver was a minor player, hardly worth scrutiny, until an unfortunate development occurred. Due to alarming the Aryan Nations’ security by driving a car with a mismatched Vehicle Identification Number to a meeting, an undercover ATF agent posing as a white supremacist for the investigation was “burned” and could no longer continue. An undercover FBI agent (there were concurrent FBI and ATF investigations into this Aryan Nations chapter) took the opportunity to “out” that ATF agent to the group, to enhance his credibility. The ATF agent, faced with the prospect of going home empty-handed, ended up convincing Weaver to sell him two sawed-off shotguns, in a likely attempt for a consolation prize. However, Weaver contends that the shotguns were full-length and legal at the time of the transaction. The only known evidence to support either claim is testimony.
While Rambo’s run-in with law enforcement escalated when he ignored police requests to stay out-of-town, the Ruby Ridge incident did the same when Weaver refused to co-operate with an offer to become an asset for the ATF, who were desperate to salvage the Aryan Nations investigation. Weaver was offered that the shotgun charges would be dropped in exchange for his assistance, which he refused. That is the point where events at Ruby Ridge began to spin out of control. Weaver was arrested by ATF agents posing as motorists with a broken down car, which added to his distrust and sense that the authorities “had it out” for him. Also exacerbating the distrust of the situation was that in filing for their arrest warrant, the ATF had claimed that Weaver was, among other things, a bank robber. Weaver factually had no criminal record prior to his arrest and indictment on charges of making and possessing (note the absence of sales-related charges) illegal weapons.
After his beating at the hands of fictional Pacific Northwest law enforcement, Rambo escaped and was chased into the woods, where he began to set traps to dissuade pursuing officers. Weaver stayed hunkered in his cabin-style home at Ruby Ridge while federal marshals deployed a six-man team to conduct a raid on his family dwelling. The ultimate trigger for the call to bring Weaver in forcibly was a missed court date. To highlight a gross injustice central to the Ruby Ridge tragedy, it should be noted that an incompetent official had sent Weaver notification to appear in court at the incorrect date of March 20. The date of the proceeding that Weaver missed was Feb. 20, and even after being informed by a probation officer who noticed the discrepancy in the notice Weaver was sent, the judge in the case refused to grant a continuation.
The law enforcement officers who chased Rambo into the woods wanted his blood, not his surrender. Examination after the fact shows that in the Ruby Ridge case, multiple levels and jurisdictions of authority likely wanted Weavers’, also. The U.S. Marshal Service made a decision to attempt the apprehension of Weaver in a military-style raid, based on information which may possibly be construed as willfully misinterpreted. Statements of Weaver’s character were taken from interviewed neighbors, most of whom were determined to be more radical than Weaver himself. The content of those statements, in regards to Weaver’s likeliness to resist arrest, were attributed to Weaver himself erroneously. A psychological profile of Weaver, which formed part of the justification for the preliminary use of force against him, was written by an employee of the staff who not only had never interviewed Weaver, but who also inaccurately referred to him as “Mr. Randall” throughout the document. In spite of those missteps, six marshals were deployed to forcibly apprehend Weaver. Further, marshals had contacted Weaver in the guise of prospective real estate buyers. Why they did not arrest him peacefully at that time is unclear.
The tension between Rambo and his police pursuers reached its climax when Rambo threw a rock that caused a pursuit helicopter to pitch, and officer to fall to his death from it. In the case of Ruby Ridge, a similarly apocalyptic turn of events happened when three of the marshals approached the cabin to reconnoiter the grounds, in preparation of the raid. U.S. Marshal Art Roderick snuck up to the cabin, where he then tossed pebbles at it “to test the dog’s reaction.” Randy and his son Sammy, along with family friend Kevin Harris, let the family dog, Striker, outside after his arousal by Roderick. Being that the Weavers and Harris were unaware of the presence of the marshals, their hope was that the dog had heard a deer or other game animal, as the Weavers had run out of meat while holed up in their home for several months after refusing to surrender on the grounds of the misinformation and poor treatment regarding the court date situation.
The first bloodshed at Ruby Ridge was Striker’s. Versions of the encounter differ, but a likely scenario is the following: Roderick had successfully alerted the dog. Randy, Sammy, and Kevin went outside, while armed with rifles, ostensibly to shoot a deer. Randy went up a different trail from Sammy and Kevin, who followed Striker. The marshals were attempting to covertly retreat, as their orders were to perform reconnaissance, not to engage. Striker smelled or heard the marshals’ presence, and Roderick, who panicked at the imminent discovery, shot and killed the dog to halt its approach. Startled and furious, Sammy, a teenage boy, fired at Roderick while yelling swears, and missed. Bill Degan, another marshal, fired on Sammy and struck him in the wrist, covering Roderick. Harris, upon seeing Sammy shot, fired on Degan and killed him. Harris and Sammy turned and ran for the cabin, and Sammy was shot in the back and killed.
The account of the first firefight at Ruby Ridge that was reported by the surviving U.S. Marshals was demonstrably false. Roderick and the third marshal, Cooper, told agency interviewers that Bill Degan had been killed by Harris “without firing a single shot.” However the official investigation, including portions conducted by the Marshal Service itself, found that Degan’s weapon had fired seven rounds while he moved a distance of at least 20 feet, largely corroborating Harris’ account. Randy Weaver himself had not been present at the exchange.
The next day, a multi-jurisdictional team of FBI snipers were on scene at Ruby Ridge, and were also issued unusually provocative Rules of Engagement (ROE). Fred Lanceley, the FBI’s ranking negotiator on the scene, claimed that the ROE’s were the most severe and aggressive out of any of the over 300 negotiations he had been assigned to. The effect of that was seen later that day, when FBI sniper Lon Horiuchi shot Weaver, Harris, and Weaver’s wife Vicky, who died from a bullet wound to the head while unarmed and holding a 10 month old baby in her arms. Harris and Weaver had gone outside to view Sammy’s body, which was being stored in a woodshed. It appears that no offer of truce was made for the Weavers to retrieve and bury the body of their slain son; rather, it was used as a “honeypot,” or bait. Horiuchi took the opportunity to fire at Weaver without verbal offer of surrender. The bullet barely missed Weaver’s spine, and Weaver, followed by Harris, took off running for the cabin. Horiuchi, likely in bloodlust, fired again into the doorway of the cabin, striking both Harris and Vicki Weaver.
The resolution of the Rambo movie First Blood occurs when Rambo’s old commanding officer, Trautman, shows up to negotiate on the basis of trust. Similarly, the situation at Ruby Ridge was de-escalated by the involvement of Bo Gritz, a retired military officer who had served in Vietnam, and who commanded Randy Weaver’s trust. Gritz managed to talk Weaver into surrender simply on the basis of trust, an angle which other agencies had cut off by earlier mishandling. As mentioned earlier, Weaver has since been largely vindicated. The only crimes Weaver has ever been convicted of, despite the horrific events at Ruby Ridge, were for failing to appear at a court date and subsequently violating the conditions of his bail. Also, Kevin Harris was absolved of murder charges from his shooting of Bill Degan.
So while not all of the events at Ruby Ridge are completely synchronous to those in First Blood, I feel that they had ample overlap. Further, they echo one another’s sentiments to the effect of showing the dangerous possibility of falling on the wrong side of the law, for the crime of eccentricity. Hopefully, this small portion of the past will earn remembrance, because America should never allow the repetition of the wanton carnage and tragedy that occurred at Ruby Ridge. Innocent lives were taken by the very men and women whose duty was to protect them. I say “and women” because reports suggest that then-Attorney General Janet Reno was aware of and approved the ROE’s that ultimately absolved Lon Horiuchi from what would, under other circumstances, have constituted murder. Janet Reno is only one of many officials who escaped justice for their responsibility in the events at Ruby Ridge, lest we forget.
Blog by Brian Whittemore
Header Photo Public Domain, Taken by FBI During the Ruby Ridge Stand-Off