WASHINGTON — The FBI sniper who killed the wife of a white separatist in the siege at Ruby Ridge, Ida., in 1992 invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege Tuesday and refused to describe to a Senate subcommittee the circumstances of the crucial event.
Sniper Lon Horiuchi took the Fifth Amendment after the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on terrorism refused to give him limited immunity from prosecution. Immunity for Horiuchi could have complicated criminal inquiries being conducted by the Boundary County, Ida., prosecutor and the Justice Department.
Although Horiuchi was allowed to appear before the subcommittee in closed session, the image of an FBI agent relying on the Fifth Amendment is one that the bureau had hoped to avoid. The Senate is looking into the August, 1992, Ruby Ridge shootout that resulted in the deaths of U.S. Deputy Marshal William Degan, 14-year-old Sammy Weaver and his mother, Vicki Weaver.
The unusual development came as the U.S. marshal in Idaho at the time of the siege suggested for the first time in his testimony that a high-level Justice Department official had played a role in approving controversial shooting rules at Ruby Ridge. Moreover, ex-marshal Michael Johnson said, he had given that information to FBI officials who investigated the siege in 1993 but that it was not included in their report.
Johnson, describing the scene at an on-site command post as the FBI surrounded the mountain cabin of white separatist Randy Weaver, told of hearing Dick Rogers, commander of the FBI's hostage rescue team, complain that the proposed shooting rules had to be "run" by "Terwilliger." He also quoted Rogers, after a series of phone calls with officials in Washington, as saying that "now Terwilliger is involved in this."
At the time, George J. Terwilliger III was deputy attorney general, the Justice Department's No. 2 official. Johnson said that he later learned of Terwilliger's identity. Terwilliger, now in private practice here, said he was on vacation in the Grand Tetons at the time of the shooting, "without communication to anyone in the Justice Department. I had no conversation with anyone about the matters under discussion, including the rules of engagement," the formal name for the shooting rules.
Under the controversial rules, FBI snipers were told that they "could and should" shoot any armed adult male outside the Weaver cabin, instead of being governed by the FBI's standard rules, which permit agents to use deadly force only to protect their own lives or the lives of others.
Johnson mentioned Terwilliger in response to a question from Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who asked if anything had been left out when he was interviewed on Oct. 12, 1993, by two FBI inspectors. The officials were questioning him for a Justice Department investigation of the Ruby Ridge incident.
Terwilliger, in a phone interview Tuesday night, said that he was puzzled why Leahy raised the matter because he had already told investigators for Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), subcommittee chairman, that he was on vacation at that time.
Confirming that Terwilliger had spoken with the panel's lead investigator, a subcommittee spokeswoman said: "If he would like to come in and give his testimony, the committee would welcome it."
Specter said that the subcommittee may later "revisit" the question of immunity for Horiuchi to testify, vowing that the investigation will "get to the bottom" of the incident.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), expressing disappointment over Horiuchi's refusal to testify, said he hoped that it would have clarified "some discrepancies in his various statements to government officials" and to an Idaho court that acquitted Randy Weaver and his friend Kevin Harris of killing Degan.
"There seemed to be much confusion about the rules of engagement by those on the ground at Ruby Ridge," Grassley said. "Now we are unable to clarify the discrepancies or address the confusion over the rules."
Specter described Horiuchi's demeanor at the closed session as "very solemn, very concerned and obviously very uncomfortable. It was something he didn't want to do."
A transcript of the closed hearing showed that after Horiuchi, still a member of the FBI's hostage rescue team, was sworn in, Specter asked: "Would you describe the circumstances leading to the shooting of Mrs. Vicki Weaver on Aug. 22, 1992?"