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Kill a Boy, Get a Medal

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On March 1, 1996, the U.S. Marshals Service gave its highest award for valor to five U.S. marshals involved in the 1992 Ruby Ridge, Idaho, shoot-out, including the marshal who shot a 14-year-old boy in the back and killed him, and another marshal who started a firefight by shooting the boy’s dog without provocation. The valor award announcement symbolizes federal law enforcement’s contempt for court verdicts, the Congress, and the American people.

The marshals received the award, according to U.S. Marshals Service Director Eduardo Gonzalez, for “their exceptional courage, their sound judgment in the face of attack, and their high degree of professional competence during this incident.” Gonzalez declared: “When gunfire broke out on Ruby Ridge on that summer day, every member of the team came under fire at some point.” Gonzalez labeled the men “heroes.”

The Ruby Ridge story began with the entrapment of Randy Weaver, a white separatist, by an Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms informant, after which Weaver was indicted, and the U.S. Marshal’s Service was assigned the job of arresting him. Once an indictment was handed down, the U.S. Marshals Service made capturing Weaver a high priority — even naming the mission to apprehend him “Operation Northern Exposure.” A confidential Justice Department report later observed: “It appears at initial glance that the resources the marshals committed to the case were disproportionate to the relatively insignificant underlying charge.”

The marshals spend the next year and a half spying on Weaver, sneaking around his land dozens of times, and erecting spy cameras to record all his family’s movements. David Nevin, a lawyer involved in the subsequent court case, noted later:

“The marshals called in military aerial reconnaissance and had photos studied by the Defense Mapping Agency. . . . They had psychological profiles performed and installed $130,000 worth of solar powered long-range spy cameras. They intercepted the Weavers’ mail. They even knew the menstrual cycle of Weaver’s teenage daughter, and planned an arrest scenario around it.”

The confidential report concluded that the August 1992 timing of the federal government’s showdown with Weaver was largely a measure of political convenience for Henry Hudson, the acting director of the U.S. Marshals Service. The report noted:

“The plan to apprehend Weaver was delayed for three months pending the confirmation of Henry Hudson as the Marshals Service Director. The [U.S. marshals] reconnaissance team expressed frustration over the delay because some believed the delay caused a gap in their surveillance intelligence.”

On August 21, 1992, six U.S. marshals sneaked onto Weaver’s property, outfitted in full camouflage and ski masks and carrying submachine guns and other high-powered weapons. Three agents circled close to the cabin and threw rocks at the cabin in order to get the attention of Weaver’s dogs. Alan Bock, in his excellent book, Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Dickens Press, 1995), stated that marshal Larry Cooper admitted at the trial “that [he] was carrying a silenced weapon because [he] had orders to lure the dogs and shoot them so the marshals could sneak up on the Weaver cabin without worrying about the dogs.”

After the dogs began barking, Weaver’s fourteen-year-old son, Sammy, and Kevin Harris, a twenty-five-year-old family friend who was living in the cabin, ran to see what the dogs were barking at.

At this point, the marshals took off running through the woods, followed by one dog. The marshals later told the FBI that they had been ambushed by the Weavers. However, according to a Justice Department confidential report, the marshals chose to stop running and take a stand behind stumps and trees. The report stated that Cooper “told the others that it was ‘bullshit’ for them to continue running and that he did not want to ‘run down the trail and get shot in the back.’ He urged them to take up defensive positions. The others agreed. . . . William Degan . . . took a position behind a stump approximately three to four feet off the right of the trail.” The marshals had the advantage of surprise, camouflage, and vastly more firepower than the boy and Kevin Harris possessed.

The firefight began when marshal Arthur Roderick shot and killed the family dog, as a Senate subcommittee investigation concluded last December. Roderick and Cooper claimed that the first shot of the encounter had been fired by Kevin Harris and had killed marshal Bill Degan. But Captain Dave Neal of the Idaho State Police team that rescued the marshals twelve hours later stated that Roderick indicated that he had fired the first shot to kill the dog.

After his dog had been killed, Sammy fired his gun in the direction where the shots had come from. Sammy was running back to the cabin when, according to the federal government’s ballistics expert at Weaver’s 1993 trial, a shot from marshal Larry Cooper hit him in the back and killed him. Kevin Harris stated that he responded to Sammy’s shooting by firing one shot into the woods to try to protect Sammy and to defend himself. Harris’s shot apparently killed marshal Bill Degan; an Idaho jury later ruled that Harris acted in self-defense. Though Cooper and Roderick testified that Degan had not fired a shot, evidence later proved that he had fired seven shots.

Marshals Roderick and Cooper later stated that they had stayed huddled alongside Degan’s body for the next twelve hours, afraid that they might be shot if they tried to carry Degan off the mountain — even though the Weavers had long since retrieved their son’s body and gone back to their ramshackle cabin. Other marshals panicked and wrongly claimed that the Weavers had U.S. marshals “pinned down” for hours under heavy gunfire. In reality, the marshals fired far more shots at Sammy Weaver and Harris than Sammy and Harris fired at them. And the marshals had no arrest warrant for either Sammy or Kevin Harris — and thus had no right to open fire upon them.

Several places in the confidential report deal with the possibility of a government cover-up. After the firefight between the U.S. marshals and the Weavers and Kevin Harris, the surviving marshals were taken to a condominium to rest and recuperate. The report observed:

“We note that the marshals were kept together for several hours before giving their statements. We question the wisdom of keeping the marshals together at the condominium for several hours, while awaiting interviews with the FBI. Isolating them in that manner created the appearance and generated allegations that they were fabricating stories and colluding to cover-up the true circumstances of the shootings at the Y.”

FBI Hostage Rescue Team snipers arrived on the scene. The Senate subcommittee report noted: “FBI agents who were briefed in Washington and in Idaho during the early stages of the crisis at Ruby Ridge received a great deal of inaccurate or exaggerated information concerning . . . the firefight.” The marshals’ gross mischaracterization helped pave the way to the FBI “shoot to kill” orders that led to the killing of Vicki Weaver.

Roderick and Cooper testified last September 15 before the Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearings chaired by Senator Arlen Specter, Republican from Pennsylvania, on the Ruby Ridge case. Cooper and Roderick stunned the committee by announcing that Randy Weaver had actually accidentally shot his own son. Though Sammy was shot as he was running in the direction of his father, and though Weaver was far away from the scene of his son’s death and was located in front of him and at a higher elevation, and though his son was shot in the back by a bullet with an upward trajectory, Cooper insisted the father still somehow shot the son.

The only plausible theory that would explain how that could have happened would have been if Randy Weaver had been using “Roger Rabbit” cartoon bullets — bullets that could twist around trees, take U-turns, and defy all the laws of physics. Defense attorney Chuck Peterson observed:

“The evidence places Randy Weaver hundreds of feet up the hill and out of sight of the scene when Sammy was shot in the back. The bullet’s trajectory can be placed from below the place where Sammy fell, as the lead projectile traveled upward from its entry point low in his back.”

The jury foreman at the federal trial in 1993 characterized the new Cooper-Roderick theory as “[expletive deleted]” and told The Washington Post that “the government’s story has changed every time you turn around.”

The Senate subcommittee report concluded: “The Subcommittee . . . has seen no evidence which would support the Marshals’ claim. . . .” The subcommittee has two independent experts analyzing the evidence on who shot the boy, and preliminary results have reportedly found nothing to support the latest Cooper-Roderick theory.

Cooper and Roderick insisted that they did not know that Sammy Weaver had been killed at the firefight and professed shock when the FBI reported finding the boy’s body a few days later. Yet, an FBI agent who interviewed Marshals Service Director Henry Hudson in 1993 reported that Hudson said he knew of Sammy’s shooting the same day it happened; Hudson last September denied to the Senate subcommittee making that statement, saying he was “perplexed” at the FBI official report. Jeffrey Howard, then-associate deputy attorney general, told Specter’s subcommittee that he was informed on the morning of August 22, the following day, that Sammy Weaver had apparently been killed.

The marshals’ dubious conduct is further indicated by the Marshals Service’s refusal to do routine internal investigations after the fatal shootings. The Senate subcommittee noted:

“We were disappointed to learn that, based on his desire to avoid creating discoverable documents that might be used by the defense in the Weaver/Harris trial . . . former [Marshals Service] Director Henry Hudson decided to conduct no formal internal review of USMS activities connected with the Weaver case and the Ruby Ridge incident.”

Last August 15, the Justice Department announced that it was paying the surviving Weaver family members $3.1 million to settle their wrongful-death lawsuit against the federal government. A Justice Department press release announced:

“The settlement reflects the loss to the Weaver children of their mother and brother. By entering into a settlement, the United States hopes to take a substantial step toward healing the wounds the incident inflicted.”

Justice Department officials later insisted that the government admitted no wrongdoing in paying off the Weavers — yet, if that is the case, then the officials who approved the payoff should be indicted for squandering taxpayers’ money. One Justice Department official explained the settlement to The Washington Post : “We recognized that an Idaho jury probably would give Weaver $200 million.” Actually, it was probably sound judgment on the Marshals Service’s part to delay giving valor awards to the marshals involved in killing Sammy Weaver until after the Weaver’s lawsuit was settled; otherwise, the settlement might have cost taxpayers millions more.

Are marshals Cooper and Roderick getting the valor awards for “bravery” at Ruby Ridge — or for their courageous story-telling before the Senate Judiciary Committee? David Nevin, the Idaho lawyer who successfully defended Kevin Harris, notes that perjury by federal lawmen is a serious problem: “They know that if they show up with their broad shoulders and their neatly clipped hair they can say whatever they damn well please.”

Does the Marshals Service believe that Americans are obliged to give the benefit of the doubt to people in Ninja outfits and face masks who jump out of the woods and begin firing submachine guns at them? Federal law enforcement agencies have yet to learn that they cannot brazenly shoot innocent Americans and then pretend that the agents involved should be treated like national heroes.

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    James Bovard serves as policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.