Federal prosecutors, concluding a controversial two-year investigation, said Friday that they had found insufficient evidence to prosecute former Deputy FBI Director Larry A. Potts or his deputy, Danny O. Coulson, on criminal charges for their role in the bloody 1992 shootout in Ruby Ridge, Idaho.
In announcing that no criminal action would be taken against Potts, Coulson or two lower-ranking FBI officials over the incident, in which the wife of an anti-government activist was killed, the Justice Department said its internal watchdog unit would recommend whether administrative sanctions, including firing the officials, are warranted.
But the force of any disciplinary action remained in question because both Potts and Coulson, who have been on paid leave for two years, are expected to retire soon, according to colleagues. Nevertheless, Michael E. Shaheen Jr., head of the department's office of professional responsibility, said he hopes to wrap up the disciplinary probe in a few weeks.
Their "retirement dates had nothing to do with this," said Michael R. Stiles, the U.S. attorney who headed the investigation and whose recommendation was approved by Atty. Gen. Janet Reno.
The Justice Department action drew critical comments from Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who led a Senate subcommittee investigation of the incident, and the attorney for Randall Weaver, whose wife, Vicki, was killed by an FBI sniper.
The shootout at Ruby Ridge, much like the government assault the next year on a religious compound near Waco, Texas, became a rallying cry for anti-government groups. FBI Director Louis J. Freeh also suffered fallout from the incident after he elevated Potts to the bureau's No. 2 spot despite having censured him for his role at Ruby Ridge.
"It appears that the FBI agents will be hanging in the wind for many more months while [the] OPR reviews the matter. . . . I cannot fathom why it has taken the Department of Justice so long to conclude this investigation," Specter said, adding that he will push for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing "to try to make some sense of this."
Charles Peterson, the attorney for Weaver, said he was "not too surprised" by the outcome, contending that the federal government is "the world's most impotent giant," unable to prosecute wrongdoers in its ranks. But Potts' lawyer, Howard Pearl, treated the department decision as vindication of his client. "We always knew this day would come, but it's nice to see it finally happen," he said.
Weaver, interviewed at his home near Marion, Mont., accused the government of "trying to wash this under the rug."
"If they go in there and admit they did these things and then turn around and say they don't have enough evidence--well, I don't know how much more they need," he told KPAX-TV in Missoula, Mont. "There is too many people involved that I believe any action against one would cause them all to squeal, then a whole bunch would go down."
As a result of the Justice Department's conclusion, only one FBI official, E. Michael Kahoe, stands convicted of a crime over Ruby Ridge. Kahoe, then-chief of the FBI's violent crimes and major offenders section, pleaded guilty in October to obstruction of justice for destroying an FBI "after-action critique" on Ruby Ridge. Facing a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, he is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 11.
The FBI's involvement in Ruby Ridge began after a shootout between federal marshals and occupants of Weaver's remote cabin resulted in the deaths of Weaver's 14-year-old son, Sammy, and a decorated deputy marshal, William Degan. The marshals had been watching the cabin to arrest Weaver, who had failed to appear in court on federal gun charges.
The next day, an FBI hostage rescue team sharpshooter, Lon Horiuchi, wounded Weaver and family friend Kevin Harris, and killed Vicki Weaver, who stood behind the cabin door.
FBI "rules of engagement" governing the team provided that "if any adult male is observed with a weapon prior to the [surrender] announcement, deadly force can and should be employed."
The Justice Department's criminal investigation determined there was insufficient evidence against Potts and Coulson "either to obtain or sustain a conviction of charges that they had falsely denied knowing of or approving the 'can and should' rules of engagement, or had otherwise destroyed or falsely created records to cover up such culpability."
The two-year investigation also reaffirmed an earlier Justice Department conclusion that Horiuchi did not commit a civil rights violation when he shot Vicki Weaver, who he said he had not seen standing behind the door, and wounded the other two men.
"In essence, the critical element of willfulness necessary for a civil rights violation cannot be established beyond a reasonable doubt," said the Justice Department's eight-page statement on its investigation.
The other two FBI men cleared of criminal charges were Michael Baird, a supervisory special agent, and Gale Evans, former unit chief of the bureau's violent crimes unit.
In a statement, the FBI noted that it had delayed moving Anthony A. Betz, assistant special agent in charge of its Baltimore office, to be one of the special agents in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles division because at the time of the Ruby Ridge incident, Betz headed a unit that reported to Coulson at FBI headquarters. The Justice Department is reviewing his role.
The FBI earlier had been advised that Betz was not of interest in the criminal investigation and could be returned to full-duty status.