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Hearings Suggest Ruby Ridge Tragedy Happened by Accident

Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

Three years later, with the eagle-like vision of hindsight, the violent confrontation at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, looks like nothing so much as a tragedy that need never have happened.

For all the charges and countercharges from both sides, the evidence emerging from three weeks of Senate hearings suggests that Randy Weaver and a small army of federal agents lumbered into deadly conflict more by accident than design.

Each side was spurred on by internal pressures. Each had created overblown images of the other. And each believed - and still believes - that it was forced by the other into confrontation and the outbursts of gunfire that claimed the lives of a deputy U.S. marshal, a 14-year-old boy and his mother.

For their part, Weaver and his wife had plunged so deeply into the fogs of white separatism, anti-government conspiracy theories and religious militancy that they faced the outside world with violent rhetoric and aggressive, threatening defiance.

Their isolated homestead beside Ruby Ridge in the mountains of northern Idaho bristled with guns. And Randy Weaver, holed up with his family, openly defied a federal court order to appear on weapons charges and issued bellicose warnings against agents trying to arrest him.

At the same time, the actions of federal law enforcement agencies and the court at several stages of the protracted affair were shaped not purely by the actions of the Weavers but by the officials' own internal pressures and attitudes.

The result was distortions and exaggerations in the federal agents' view of the situation they faced, which played a role in tipping the case toward violence.

"It's clear that the people involved had some correct information, some hazy information, some information that was partly true and some that was outright false," Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on terrorism that conducted the hearings, told federal officials.

But Weaver, now 47, also bears heavy responsibility for the tragedy visited on his family and that of Deputy Marshal William Degan, a decorated officer who was fatally wounded in an initial confrontation near the Weaver cabin.

Weaver, the subcommittee's first witness earlier this month, acknowledged that "I am not without fault in this matter." He went on to say that, "if I had it to do over again, knowing what I know now I would come down from the mountain for the court appearance."

Weaver and a friend, Kevin Harris, were cleared of murder charges in 1993 resulting from Degan's death and Weaver was acquitted of the firearms charges. A jury convicted him only of refusing to surrender for trial at the earlier date.