WASHINGTON — The Justice Department agreed Tuesday to pay $3.1 million to white separatist Randy Weaver and his three surviving children for the loss of his wife and 14-year-old son, who were killed by federal agents in a 1992 shootout at Ruby Ridge, Ida.
The payments--$1 million to each child and $100,000 to Weaver--settle $200 million in claims filed by the family over the episode, in which a deputy U.S. marshal also was slain.
"The settlement reflects the loss to the Weaver children of their mother and brother," the department said in announcing the action. "By entering into a settlement, the United States hopes to take a substantial step toward healing the wounds the incident inflicted."
Justice Department officials said the settlement had no relationship to Senate hearings on the Ruby Ridge action, set to begin in three weeks, or to a federal criminal inquiry into whether five now-suspended FBI officials participated in a cover-up to protect themselves from blame over the killing of Weaver's wife, Vicki.
The government admitted no wrongdoing or legal liability to the Weaver family plaintiffs in the settlement. At the government's suggestion, the settlement said it was not intended to interfere with or reduce the availability of information or evidence related to the incident.
Nevertheless, the payments could add fuel to critics of the government's actions at Ruby Ridge and the following year at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Tex., who contend both incidents were overreactions by federal agents.
"In the Weavers' eyes, the government acknowledges wrongdoing by the payment of these moneys as damages," said Weaver's attorney, Gerry Spence. He added that the payment "in no way lessens the family's determination to see that those guilty of killing their mother and brother be brought to trial and held responsible in the criminal courts."
The Ruby Ridge firefight began Aug. 21, 1992, when deputy marshals tried to conduct surveillance on Weaver's remote north Idaho cabin because he had failed to appear for a 1991 trial on weapons charges. But they ran into Weaver, his son, Samuel, and friend, Kevin Harris, at a trail crossing. There was an exchange of gunfire that left deputy U.S. Marshal William Degan dead from a chest wound and Sammy, as he was known, killed by a shot in the back.
With a deputy marshal dead, the FBI was called in, and the next day Weaver's wife was killed by an FBI sharpshooter as she stood, with an infant in her arms, behind a cabin door. The sharpshooter said she was out of sight and that he was aiming for Harris, who was armed and fleeing toward the cabin.
The matter grew complicated because the FBI's "rules of engagement" had been ordered changed from the standard lethal force policy, which states that agents can fire only to protect themselves or innocent persons. Instead, the altered rules provided that agents "could and should" use deadly force against any armed adult male spotted in the open.
In disciplining 12 FBI officials over the incident last January, FBI Director Louis J. Freeh concluded that the sharpshooter was following the standard deadly force policy, not the more permissive rules, which he agreed were probably illegal. Freeh contended that the sharpshooter fired in response to an armed man he believed was threatening a helicopter overhead carrying federal agents.
But in reaching that conclusion, Freeh relied on an FBI inquiry and summary that the Justice Department's internal watchdog, the office of professional responsibility, now suspects was flawed by a document being destroyed and by false statements.
That led Freeh to suspend the five officials, including Larry A. Potts, whom he recently removed as deputy director after vigorously fighting for his promotion, until completion of the criminal inquiry by U.S. Atty. Eric Holder Jr.
After the shootout, the Justice Department brought Weaver and Harris to trial on conspiracy and murder charges. They were acquitted on those charges, but Weaver was convicted of failing to appear for trial on the earlier weapons charge and served a prison term.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Gen. Frank W. Hunger, who heads the civil division that reached the settlement, was asked Tuesday if he saw any irony in paying $100,000 to a man the government sought unsuccessfully to convict on murder charges.
"He was acquitted," Hunger said.
A separate lawsuit and $10 million in claims against the government sought by Harris were not covered by Tuesday's settlement.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on terrorism, which will open the Ruby Ridge hearings on Sept. 6, said the settlement "obviously shows some real governmental concern, but I wouldn't read too much into it. A civil settlement does not necessarily mean an admission of fault. It does show the inquiry needs to be pursued."