Kevin Harris, who was severely wounded three years ago in a bloody siege at Ruby Ridge, Ida., disputed on Tuesday crucial elements of the government's account of the incident, including who fired the first shot.
Harris strongly denied to the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on terrorism that he and his friend Randy Weaver--whose cabin had been staked out by federal agents--had sought to ambush marshals on Aug. 21, 1992. The agents were trying to arrest Weaver for failing to appear in court on weapon charges.
Harris branded as "false" the earlier testimony of two deputy marshals who said he and Weaver ambushed the marshals and that Harris shot and killed Deputy Marshal William Degan after Degan identified himself as a marshal. Harris said: "I want to say this as clearly as I possibly can, so that there is absolutely no mistake in anyone's mind."
His voice cracking as he struggled to suppress sobs, Harris graphically described the shooting of Weaver's 14-year-old son, Sammy, and the killing of Weaver's wife, Vicki, by an FBI sniper on the following day, as she stood hidden by the cabin door.
"I would not have been anywhere near those woods if I had known that all those men with assault rifles and a silenced submachine gun . . . were out there," Harris said. "We were just walking along the trail . . . , making a perfect target of ourselves."
"The first thing that happened at the Y," Harris said, referring to a trail junction where the two sides confronted each other, "is that someone shot Striker," the yellow Labrador retriever belonging to Sammy. Before he was shot, Striker had been barking, Harris said, and he and Randy and Sammy Weaver thought that there might be a deer or other game nearby.
As he and Sammy reached the Y, Harris said, Striker neared a man wearing camouflage clothing and the dog seemed to lunge for the man's hands. The dog then moved away from the man, circling, and "suddenly the dog was shot," Harris said. Harris did not say where Randy Weaver was at this point.
Sammy then began to raise his weapon and said, "You shot my dog, you son of a bitch," Harris testified. Harris said that he headed for cover. He said that was the last time he saw Sammy alive. "I saw smoke puffs and brass shell casings flying in the air down in the woods below the trail. I assumed Sam was shooting and that someone was shooting back at him, but I didn't actually see Sam shoot."
Harris said that after he found cover and crouched down, shots were still being fired, "and so I fired once into the brush."
Under questioning by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the subcommittee chairman, Harris said that he had not fired at the man in camouflage. "I was headed for cover. There was shooting all around me. It looked like, you know, they were just bombarding us with shots, and I just fired into the brush."
But under questioning by several senators, Harris acknowledged that he assumed his shot had killed Degan. Harris and Weaver were subsequently acquitted of murdering Degan.
Specter cited conflicting testimony from Harris and Deputy Marshal Larry T. Cooper and said that the senators are considering recalling Cooper. Cooper told the panel on Sept. 15 that he had yelled at Harris, "Back off--U.S. marshals," before the dog was shot. Harris, Cooper said, had fired from the hip, hitting Degan immediately after Degan called out: "Stop, U.S. marshals."
Harris told the hearing that he heard neither agent's warning when Cooper said they were made.
In another possible conflict, Jeffrey Howard, former principal associate deputy attorney general, testified that he had been told on Aug. 22, 1992, by an FBI official that Mrs. Weaver had been heard "wailing that her son had been shot, had been murdered." FBI witnesses said they first learned of Sammy Weaver's death after the body was discovered at least a day and a half later.
The difference could be important because knowing Weaver's son had been killed could have influenced how the FBI handled the siege. Howard, however, said that the FBI testimony may simply mean that the bureau did not confirm Sammy Weaver's death on Aug. 22.
With the hearings adjourned for two weeks, when FBI Director Louis J. Freeh is expected to testify, the panel's ranking Democrat, Sen. Herbert Kohl of Wisconsin, made clear that he has already come to some conclusions.
"Ruby Ridge marks a sad chapter in the FBI's history," he said, in beginning his questioning of Harris. "Although the FBI has been essentially unrepentant, we are beginning to get a clear picture of the errors they made at Ruby Ridge."
Kohl accused the FBI of "playing a game of duck and cover. The world's greatest investigative agency cannot figure out who drafted and approved" permissive shooting rules "written in part in its own headquarters."
"It has consistently ignored or evaded the findings of outside, independent reviewers in favor of FBI-generated reports that scapegoat some and absolve everyone else," Kohl said.
Nevertheless, Kohl said, "Randy Weaver really has to shoulder much of the responsibility for what happened" at Ruby Ridge. "He hid from the law, obsessed with his own irrational fears about the government. And he put a gun in the hand of his 14-year-old son, Sammy, and filled Sammy's head with extreme rhetoric about law enforcement officers."