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Senate Panel Chastises U.S. Law Agencies in Idaho Siege

December 22, 1995|RONALD J. OSTROW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The "chain of mistakes" in the deadly siege at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992 involved "substantial failures" by U.S. law enforcement agencies, whose mission should be to save lives and enforce laws, a Senate panel concluded Thursday in a stern review of the confrontation.

"The events at Ruby Ridge have helped to weaken the bond of trust that must exist between ordinary Americans and our law enforcement agencies," the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on terrorism said in its report on the shootout and siege in which a deputy U.S. marshal and the wife and 14-year-old son of a fugitive were killed.

"Those bonds must be reestablished--and that healing must begin with an honest accounting by those in government whose actions and inactions caused the deaths on Ruby Ridge," said the report, which reflected 14 days of public hearings and the testimony of 62 witnesses.

The subcommittee was critical of the FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service and the U.S. attorney's office in Idaho because of their actions at Ruby Ridge and in its aftermath. But the panel directed its heaviest fire at the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

The panel said the ATF had exaggerated how dangerous fugitive Randy Weaver was, using erroneous information that he had a criminal record and was linked to bank robberies. Then the bureau failed to correct the information and, later, it failed to acknowledge its mistakes in testimony before the subcommittee, the report said.

Responding to the subcommittee's report, Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin emphasized that the tragedy never would have occurred if Weaver, arrested on charges of selling two illegal shotguns to an ATF informant, had appeared in court, a point also made by the subcommittee. Rubin, however, noted that the ATF "has engaged in important reforms" since the Ruby Ridge tragedy and that it is time for the public to support the bureau's efforts against illegal guns, bombs and arson.

Rubin made no mention of the subcommittee's request that he conduct a review of ATF conduct in the Ruby Ridge case and that he give his opinion on the need for institutional reforms.

Though the report has no direct legal consequences for those involved, it could affect federal policy. For example, subcommittee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said he hopes to conduct hearings early next year on whether the ATF should continue as a separate agency.

Turning to the FBI, the subcommittee found that the FBI sniper shot that killed Weaver's wife, Vicki, violated the Supreme Court's interpretation of what constitutes a legitimate use of deadly force. The panel also found that the shot was inconsistent with the FBI's own deadly-force policy and even with the controversial rules of engagement in the Ruby Ridge case, which said that deadly force "can and should" be used on armed adult males. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) was the panel's sole dissenter on this point.

The subcommittee noted that Weaver was arrested on weapons charges after he refused to serve as an ATF informant inside the white supremacist Aryan Nations group. When he failed to appear for trial, the Marshals Service undertook a 17-month investigation and surveillance program to bring in Weaver, who had threatened to kill anyone attempting to apprehend him.

On Aug. 21, 1992, the marshals' surveillance of Weaver's remote property erupted into a firefight between several deputies and Kevin Harris, a friend of the Weavers, and 14-year-old Sammy Weaver. Deputy U.S. Marshal William Degan, a highly decorated officer, and the boy were killed.

While some forensic analysis is still being conducted, the subcommittee said the evidence and testimony are most consistent with the conclusion that the firefight began when a deputy marshal shot Sammy's dog, Striker, and that the marshals' claim that Randy Weaver may have inadvertently shot his son lacked credence.

The FBI's hostage rescue team was then called in, and FBI sniper Lon Horiuchi fired two shots, the first of which wounded Randy Weaver. The second killed Weaver's wife, who was standing hidden by an open door to their cabin, and wounded Harris, who was running for the shelter of the cabin.

The subcommittee found no credible evidence that those running into the Weaver cabin "presented a threat of grievous bodily harm or death to Agent Horiuchi or anyone else"--requirements under the FBI's deadly-force policy.

A Justice Department task force had reached the same constitutional conclusion about Horiuchi's second shot, but the department rejected the finding after its internal watchdog and civil rights division expressed their disagreement with the task force.

"Agent Horiuchi had to make a split-second decision, in dangerous circumstances," Feinstein said in a dissenting footnote. "Hindsight is often better, but there was no evidence presented to suggest that Horiuchi violated either the deadly-force policy or the rules of engagement.

FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, in a statement, noted that he has "changed virtually every aspect of the FBI's crisis-response capabilities" as a result of lessons learned from Ruby Ridge.

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