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Militant Relives Idaho Tragedy for Senators : Probe: Randy Weaver admits Ruby Ridge errors, seeks ‘accountability.’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

White separatist Randy Weaver, in emotion-charged testimony before a Senate subcommittee, admitted Wednesday that he had made mistakes but demanded that federal agents be held accountable for their actions during the 1992 confrontation at Ruby Ridge, Ida., that claimed the lives of Weaver’s wife, his 14-year old son and a deputy U.S. marshal.

“I am not without fault in this matter,” said Weaver, an anti-government militant whose refusal to appear in court to answer federal weapons charges led to the siege of his isolated cabin by federal marshals and the FBI. “If I had it to do over again, knowing what I know now, I would make different choices. I would come down from the mountain for the court appearance.”

At the same time, however, in his first testimony about the incident that has led to the suspension of five FBI officials and a criminal investigation into their actions, an often-tearful Weaver implored the grim-faced senators: “There must be accountability for the killings.”

Ruby Ridge--like the even more deadly confrontation at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Tex., in 1993, which left more than 80 people dead--has become a symbol to anti-government conservatives of federal law enforcement run amok. And, like the Branch Davidian siege, it has also stirred wider concern about the way such operations are managed and supervised.

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“On Aug. 21, 1992, federal marshals shot my son, Samuel, in the back and killed him. He was running home to me. His last words were: ‘I’m coming, Dad,’ ” Weaver testified. The younger Weaver was fatally wounded when gunfire erupted during an unplanned encounter near the Weaver cabin between three U.S. marshals and the boy, a family friend and Weaver himself. Deputy Marshal William F. Degan was killed in the shooting.

An FBI anti-terrorist team, along with dozens of other federal agents, surrounded the cabin, and Weaver’s wife, Vicki, was shot the next day by an FBI sharpshooter.

At the time of her death, Weaver said, “she was not wanted for any crime. There were no warrants for her arrest. At the time she was gunned down, she was helpless. She was standing in the doorway of her home.”

The FBI sniper, Lon Horiuchi, has said that he did not see Vicki Weaver standing behind the cabin door when he fired. Horiuchi said he was aiming at Kevin Harris, the family friend who had taken part in the earlier shootout and who was armed when the FBI marksman spotted him outside the Weaver cabin.

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FBI agents at the scene had been given special rules of engagement permitting them to shoot to kill any armed adult at the cabin. Those directives, which overrode the normal restrictions on the use of deadly force by FBI agents, have become a focal point of the subsequent investigations--along with the possibility of an FBI cover-up, including destruction of official documents.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on terrorism, reflected the largely sympathetic tone of most senators at the hearing when he said: “This is an American tragedy. . . . Why were FBI records destroyed in an effort to cover up what happened?”

Specter also noted that a federal marshal had been killed and that Weaver’s hostility toward authorities had contributed to the confrontation. Several senators noted that Weaver, 47, had held racist views and advocated violence in the past.

“He is not an Idaho poster child,” said Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Ida.). But he added that “today more and more people are beginning to question whether the federal assault team wearing badges is serving a just cause, which is an undercurrent of opinion that should be of great concern to all of us.”

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Sen. Herbert Kohl (D-Wis.) declared that “Randy Weaver and federal law enforcement officers both made mistakes.” Although the nation can survive mistakes by men like Weaver, Kohl said, “trained law enforcement officials could have defused the situation. They did not.”

Weaver and Harris were later acquitted on charges of murdering Degan, and the Justice Department recently agreed to pay Weaver and his three surviving daughters $3.1 million to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit he had brought against the government.

Weaver, the first witness to be called as the Senate panel opened hearings on the Ruby Ridge siege, will be followed by law enforcement witnesses today.

Wearing jeans and an open-necked shirt as he testified under oath in a crowded Senate hearing room, Weaver said his refusal to surrender to authorities on the firearms violation did not justify a “death warrant” against his family.

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At one point, Weaver stood in the hearing room alongside the door of his cabin, propped up against the subcommittee’s dais, to make the claim that FBI sniper Horiuchi “must have” seen Vicki Weaver behind a small window in the door when his shot penetrated the pane.

Weaver said he had refused to surrender on the weapons charge--selling two illegal sawed-off shotguns to an undercover agent--because he had feared that a conviction might result in the forced sale of his only asset, his Idaho property, thereby leaving his family destitute.

Asked about his views on racial separation, Weaver said: “I’m not a hateful racist as most people understand it. But I believe in the separation of races. We wanted to be separated from the rest of the world, to live in a remote area, to give our children a good place to grow up.”

Asked if he believed that there was “Zionist control of the federal government,” Weaver replied: “My wife and I studied and read a lot. That was part of our beliefs at one time.”

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Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she hoped that the scheduled three weeks of hearings “will prevent this from happening again.” But with gentle questioning of Weaver, she elicited some apparent conflicts in his testimony.

Weaver, for example, flatly denied that he kept an arsenal of weapons in his cabin, as federal authorities had been informed by neighbors. But in response to questions from Feinstein, he said he might have had as many as 14 guns of various types, as well as 20,000 rounds of ammunition.

While insisting that he would have surrendered to any proper authorities who had an arrest warrant, rather than FBI snipers dressed in camouflage, Weaver acknowledged that he refused to call a telephone number that had been given to him for this purpose.

Feinstein asked whether federal marshals had visited his cabin peacefully in March, 1992--five months before the siege--"but were confronted by you with weapons.”

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“That’s possible,” Weaver said. “They never told me they were marshals.”

“No one asked you to surrender?” Feinstein said.

“No way,” Weaver answered. He said he decided to surrender at the urging of close friends nine days after his wife’s death.


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