Fighting to the Death

UPDATED 09/14/1992 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/14/1992 at 01:00 AM EDT

IT BEGAN WITH A FIREARMS ARREST, escalated into a siege and ended after a firelight that inflicted tragic losses on both sides. Randy Weaver, 44, had vowed he would never be taken alive. For 18 months, the diehard while supremacist had held out against the law in his cabin perched on a mountain outside Naples, Idaho. I le was backed by his wife and children, who were armed and ready to do battle with anyone who might dare arrest him.

But by last week, Weaver realized—finally—that he was paying too high a price. His wife, Vicki, 43, and their 14-year-old son, Samuel, had been killed in shoot-outs with federal agents. A U.S. marshal had also been slain. For eight days, Vicki's body lay under the kitchen table as Weaver's daughters hid fearfully in the house—Sara, 16, with her 9-mm automatic pistol and Rachel, 11, with her .38 snub-nosed revolver. Weaver's 10-month-old daughter, Elisheba, was motherless. The fugitive himself was suffering from a gunshot wound in his arm. "Randy cried his wife's name, his son's name, then stood up tall like a man and walked down the hill," said James "Bo" Gritz, the former Special Forces lieutenant colonel whom Weaver used as a mediator with the feds. After a final week of gunfire and fear. Randy Weaver had decided to surrender.

The standoff on this remote Idaho mountaintop began in October 1989. when Weaver allegedly sold two sawed-off shotguns to an undercover agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. A sometime logger, Weaver was suspected of weapons trafficking with white supremacist groups. Arrested for making and possessing illegal firearms in January 1991, he was released from jail a day later after pulling up his house against a promise that he would appear in court in February. Weaver never showed.

Instead, he barricaded himself, his wife and children and their close friend Kevin Harris, 24, in their two-room cabin. Federal marshals, concerned about involving children in a possible gunfight, were reluctant to storm the cabin, accessible only by a steep road, so they decided to keep watch over the house, waiting for the defiant Weaver to emerge.

If the feds expected a short wail, they miscalculated. A former Green Beret, Weaver had built the cabin himself from scrap lumber and, out of a desire for privacy, had made it virtually self-sufficient. The 20-by-26-foot house had a vegetable garden that provided much of the family's food and a generator that allowed the family to watch an hour of television news a day, but no indoor plumbing.

The Weavers had chosen to educate their children at home, teaching them the Scriptures and the Constitution. The children were also crack shots. Federal agents on flyby spotted them playing outside, handguns strapped to their hips. During Weaver's months as a fugitive, Vicki gave birth to Elisheba, and though Weaver slipped into town from time to time, the family depended on loyal neighbors to bring them supplies and food, including vanilla ice cream for the children.

Accounts vary, but the final shootout on Aug. 21 apparently began when six marshals encountered Weaver, his son and Harris during a routine patrol of the property. Weaver's Labrador retriever charged the marshals and the gunfire began. When the shooting ended, U.S. marshal William Degan, 42, was dead, shot through the heart, allegedly by Kevin Harris, and Sam, who was armed, had been killed in the crossfire. More than 100 local, state and federal law officers were summoned to the scene.

Two days later, on Sunday, federal agents found Sam's body, cleaned and wrapped in a sheet, in a weather-beaten shack near the cabin. The day before, according to Weaver, an officer who had been watching the shack opened fire when he saw Weaver approach, wounding him in the arm. Weaver later said he had been going to bid Sam a final farewell. As Weaver returned to the cabin, he said, a bullet ripped through the door, killing Vicki, who had been waiting with Elisheba in her arms. (The baby was unharmed.) Shrapnel and bone fragments hit Kevin Harris in the chest and arm, seriously wounding him, Weaver said. Vicki's body was removed eight days later, only after Harris, his lungs filling with blood, was persuaded by Gritz to give himself up on the afternoon of Aug. 30. Harris was taken by helicopter to a hospital in Spokane, where, in stable condition, he faces charges of killing Marshal Degan.

Gritz (pronounced Grites), currently the right wing Populist Party's presidential candidate, arrived on the scene on Aug. 26 after an earlier call from Weaver, whom he'd known dining his Special forces days, lie talked the federal agents into letting him negotiate with Weaver, and the two men communicated by yelling back and forth through the cabin walls until Weaver lei Gritz and an associate inside on the afternoon of Aug. 31. Within a couple of hours, Gritz persuaded the family to come down together, in return for a pledge from the federal agents that the girls could return home on Sept. 7 in the care of relatives. Weaver and his children stood in a circle and prayed. Then, leaving behind some 15 handguns and rifles, along with a stockpile of ammunition, they ended their fight.

Before the confrontation that tore the family apart. Naples had seemed a promised land to Weaver and his wife, who moved there from Iowa nine years ago. The area is a haven for people who want to work their own land, hunt their own food and be left alone, as well as for some (like the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations, which has a compound in Hayden Lake, about 60 miles away) who harbor less savory motives. According to Vicki's sister, Julie Brown, of Port Dodge, Iowa, the Weavers "thought they had a better chance to live their beliefs here." Weaver's particular faith is the Christian Identity movement, which holds dial whites are God's chosen people, blacks are subhuman and Jews are satanic.

While in Idaho, Weaver was known to have visited the Aryan Nations compound twice. Jim Hogue, who lives in the area and knew Weaver slightly, says, "I think it's terrible to raise children with that frame of mind, but around here, people like Weaver go their way and the rest of us go ours."

Which most local residents will now be able to do again. Some, however, seem on the verge of turning the area into a kind of martyr's shrine. When Weaver surrendered, he was greeted by a small band of praying supporters, including skinheads and Aryan Nations members who gathered at a barrier some three miles from the besieged cabin. Says a close friend of the family, Judy Glider: "Our people are being taken—our nation is mourning." A sign leading up to the cabin once read: DEAD END. It has been amended to read: DEAD MOTHER AND CHILD.

ELIZABETH GLEICK
CATHY FREE and CLAY HATHORN in Naplet

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