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Shattered Isolation : TWO-PART MOVIE AIMS TO TELL AN OBJECTIVE STORY OF A FAMILY'S STANCE IN IDAHO AND ITS TRAGIC ENDING

May 19, 1996|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's almost impossible not to be aware of the anti-government militia movement in the United States. The "freemen" standoff in Montana and the Oklahoma City bombing trial have been in newspaper and TV headlines for months.

And now one of the government's most controversial encounters with separatists is the subject of the four-hour CBS drama "Ruby Ridge: An American Tragedy."

The docudrama is based on the story of the deadly clash in 1992 between isolationist Randy Weaver and his family and the U.S. government at the Weavers' solitary homestead in northern Idaho.

Randy Quaid stars as Weaver and Laura Dern plays his religious extremist wife, Vicki, who was shot and killed during the siege. Darren Burrows co-stars as the Weavers' friend, Kevin Harris, and Dern's mother, Diane Ladd, plays Vicki's concerned mother.

Bob Gunton also is featured as Bo Gritz, the former Green Beret who brokered a truce between Weaver and federal officials. Gritz recently opened his own survivalist compound in Idaho.

Executive producer Edgar J. Scherick describes "Ruby Ridge" as a "really classic example of an irresistible force meeting an unmovable object. It was totally unnecessary. It could have been avoided on both ends."

Vicki Weaver believed government and society were evil and out to harm her family. Armageddon, she thought, was imminent. Separatists who believed in white supremacy, the Weavers stocked an arsenal of guns and frequented Aryan Nation's rallies denouncing Jews, blacks and the government.

After Randy Weaver defied a warrant for an arrest on a weapons charge, the matter was turned over to the U.S. Marshal's office, which decided to reconnoiter his property in order to arrest Weaver. That led to an encounter in which the Weavers' 14-year-old son, Sammy, and a marshal were killed. Believing the Weavers posed a major threat to the marshals, an FBI anti-terrorist team and dozens of federal agents surrounded the cabin with orders to shoot on sight any armed adult outside the cabin. Vicki was mortally wounded by an FBI sharpshooter while standing in the doorway holding her baby daughter. Harris and Randy Weaver also were wounded during the 10-day standoff.

In the trial aftermath, both Weaver and Harris were acquitted of all charges, save for Weaver's failure to appear in court on the original weapons count. An investigation by a U.S. Senate committee last year found that "there was simply no justification" for the shot that killed Vicki Weaver. Last August, the Justice Department agreed to pay $3.1 million to Weaver and his children for the loss of Vicki and Sammy.

"Ruby Ridge" is based on Jess Walter's book "Every Knee Shall Bow," court testimony and the Senate committee transcripts.

Writer Lionel Chetwynd ("Kissinger and Nixon") also relied on the Internet, which, he says, "yielded a rich lode of newspaper coverage. Obviously, some of the organizations who have very strong views about this are also on the Internet."

In writing a docudrama like "Ruby Ridge," he says, "you really must try to be objective at all times. That was the great challenge, because passions are not only high, they are recent. This is still a breaking story and that makes it all the more important to be objective. You really have to work hard to make sure you have heard all the voices. They are still out there."

Adds Chetwynd: "We are not trying to ask, 'Did something go wrong here?' Clearly, it did. When you start sifting [through the material], the thing that everyone agrees on is that this thing got out of hand."

When Dern first read the script, she found herself "opposed to the belief system of Vicki Weaver. I was on the way to the Sundance Film Festival and [some friends] and I were talking about what kind of parts we wanted to play, and I said, 'I have just read a script where I would think this is, like, the last person on Earth I would want to play, which is why I think I have to do this part, because I need to understand it better. ... what desperate need for control and fear can create."

Though Dern read transcripts and interviews relating to Vicki Weaver, "the thing I got the most out of were her own letters, which trace back 10 or 12 years before her death, in which her convictions, her fears and her religious beliefs were very clear and evident. I do not subscribe to [her opinions] and I hope, in my own little way, by being part of this story, to expose--which I would hope the Weaver family wants to teach now too--how fear and paranoia from anybody's side can cause total destruction and tragedy."

Chetwynd and Scherick say they too disagree with Randy Weaver's views, yet defend his right to have them. "I don't hold much affection for those beliefs," Chetwynd says, "but he is still my fellow citizen and if I don't look out for him, then I am inviting the same treatment upon myself."

"Here is a guy who hated Jews, hated blacks and hated the government," Scherick says. "But by the same token, Randy Weaver had never pointed a gun at another man in anger. By what right should his wife and child be dead now? By what right should that marshal be dead now?"

Chetwynd hopes that, if militia groups tune in, what they will see is that "the mainstream popular culture, which is CBS, who made this film, are prepared to call a foul when they see a foul. The hope is that those people who are angry at the government, who do feel there is sort of a conspiracy out there, will look upon this and say, 'Hold it. Obviously, someone is trying to tell it as it happened.' "

"Ruby Ridge: An American Tragedy" airs Sunday and Tuesday at 9 p.m. on CBS.

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