Bill Hewitt
September 25, 1995 12:00 PM

ON THIS MUCH ALL SIDES CAN agree: 43-year-old Vicki Weaver was standing in the doorway of her family’s cabin on Ruby Ridge, Idaho, when an FBI sharpshooter’s bullet caught her in the head, killing her instantly. Beyond those basic facts, almost everything about Weaver, her family and the now-infamous standoff three years ago remains open to debate. Vicki and her husband, Randy, now 47, had settled deep in the hills partly so they could raise their children according to their fringe religious and political views, well away from what they saw as the corrupting influences of modern society. But they ultimately were consumed by the apocalypse they feared, and the shootouts on Aug. 21 and 22, 1992, claimed not only Vicki but also the Weavers’ son Sammy, 14, and a U.S. marshal, William Degan, 42.

Since then the Weaver family has alternately been glorified and demonized, and the siege at Ruby Ridge has become the object of a continuing congressional investigation. Vicki Weaver remains an enigma: She was by all accounts a loving parent, but one who led her family into a terrible right-wing zealotry that might never have permitted the children who survive her, Sara, 19, Rachel, 13, and Elisheba, 3, to adjust to life in the world beyond their mountaintop. Instead the sisters now enjoy the pleasures of malls, movies and Nintendo. Vicki’s daughters, says her sister Julie Brown, 42, are “wonderful girls—generous, good-hearted and smart.”

Vicki’s twisting road to Ruby Ridge began in 1971, when she married Randy Weaver. The newlyweds, who grew up on Iowa farms and met in Fort Dodge, Iowa, settled in Cedar Falls. Randy, who had served with the Army Green Berets, worked at the local John Deere plant while Vicki, an executive secretary, later became a homemaker.

Vicki’s sister Julie remembers the couple, who were already devout Christians, plunging deeper into fundamentalism. Eventually, Vicki got rid of all the family’s photographs—she considered them “graven images” and thus prohibited by the Second Commandment. For the same reason she threw out her flowered curtains and refused to allow her kids to have teddy bears. “People say Vicki wore the pants in the family, which wasn’t really true,” says Jess Walter, who has written a meticulously researched account of the Ruby Ridge incident, Every Knee Shall Bow. “She was the spiritual and intellectual force.” Vicki feared that the Apocalypse was imminent: In 1983 the family headed to Idaho, in search of a remote area like the one she had seen in a vision. They found Ruby Ridge, where they built their cabin, six miles from tiny Naples.

By then the Weavers’ beliefs had become distinctly racist and anti-Semitic. Neighbors recall that they railed against blacks and Jews, and their children were fully indoctrinated. Visitors to the home after the shooting found a poster in Sammy’s room proclaiming “Death to Jews,” while in Sara’s room a calendar had a swastika marked over the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr.

Even by the live-and-let-live standards of rural Idaho, the Weavers’ notions were considered extreme. Neighbors Jackie and Tony Brown acknowledge being disturbed by what they regarded as Randy and Vicki’s bigotry. “I saw things in her I didn’t like,” says Jackie. Yet she and her husband found much to admire in the Weavers, especially Vicki, who taught her kids at home. “She was a genuine, dedicated person,” says Jackie. “She was a wonderful mother. If her child had a question, everything stopped until she answered that question.”

The siege put an end to this rough-hewn paradise. What exactly happened that first day is still hotly disputed. Five federal marshals had come to Ruby Ridge to check up on Randy, who was facing a minor weapons charge for selling two sawed-off shotguns to a government informant. The marshals insist that Sammy and a family friend, Kevin Harris, then 24, spotted them and opened fire first. The Weavers maintain it was the marshals who began shooting. In any case, Degan was fatally shot in the chest, while Sammy was shot in the back.

The next day, as scores of FBI agents laid siege to the cabin, a sharpshooter, who later claimed he was aiming at Harris, opened fire, wounding Harris and killing Vicki as she stood in the doorway, Elisheba in her arms. For 10 days, the survivors huddled in the cabin, while Vicki’s corpse lay in the kitchen under a blood-soaked blanket. Finally on Aug. 31, they gave up.

In the end Randy Weaver was acquitted in the killing of William Degan and served only 18 months in jail for failure to appear in court on the original weapons charge. Weaver subsequently brought a civil suit against the federal government for the deaths of his wife and son, which the Justice Department settled last month for $3.1 million. While Weaver was behind bars, Vicki’s sister Julie and her mother, Jeane Jordison, 73, who live in Iowa, thought the girls would be safest with them.

It soon became clear that Sara intended to stick to her mother’s beliefs. “She had real definite ideas about what should go on, what the girls should eat,” says Jordison. Sara and Rachel took down photographs and other “graven images” at their grandparents’ home in Fort Dodge and even tried to have the television thrown out.

By mid-October the girls had settled more permanently with Julie Brown in Des Moines, and Sara’s attitudes began to moderate. At Johnston High School she got an A in government and became friendly with some liberal students, says Julie. She vented her anger by writing poetry. Last year she graduated in the top 15 percent of her class.

Recently, Sara bought an $8,000 house in Grand Junction, Iowa, several blocks from the home now occupied by her sisters and father. She is decorating her new place with rugs and quilts made by her mother and lives with Dave Cooper, a former skinhead from Las Vegas, who works locally in construction. Although Sara was a dramatic witness at the Ruby Ridge hearings, friends say the accent in her life these days seems not on zealotry but on more mundane matters—working at a video store and as a waitress at a popular steak house, in-line skating and shopping.

Rachel, an eighth grader, was initially so used to deprivation that she hoarded candy and toys. Now an A student, she had to overcome her terror of school, where her mother had told her she would contract AIDS. Toddler Elisheba loves to play with makeup and nail polish, and tells anyone who will listen, “I love my daddy.”

These days, Randy Weaver talks about moving everyone back to the mountains, perhaps to Wyoming, using the money from the government settlement to buy land. Somehow, it seems, he still hopes to find the tranquility that so eluded him in Idaho. “We want to get a little, small remote ranch,” he told one interviewer, “raise horses and dogs and cats and live as peaceful as we can, enjoying the elk, bear, deer and nature.”

BILL HEWITT

MARGARET NELSON in Grand Junction, MICHAEL HAEDERLE on Ruby Ridge and BARBARA SLAVIN in Washington

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