Before Waco

The scene at Ruby Ridge

Trump held his latest official rally Saturday, March 25, 2023 in Waco Texas, site of the standoff between the FBI and the Branch Dividian religious group. It ended badly.

At the end the scene was as from one of the many wars fought by our military in my lifetime — a burning village and many dead women and children. Many accusations have been made against Dividian leader David Koresh justifying the FBI’s actions; some of no doubt true but the optics of that event fed the growing militia movement among American conservatives. Waco was but one of a string of events and was true to type. It was the first major event of new Attorney General Janet Reno and followed by eight months a similar event in Idaho at the end of Attorney General William Barr’s tenure. That occurred in August of ’92 near Sand Point Idaho and is the opening scene in Tara Westover’s Memoir “Educated.” In that she recounts growing up off grid and “home schooled” in rural southwest Idaho. Following is the scene as I witnessed it.

Sand Point, ID

It was Sunday, August 23, 1992. We had just walked back from the army surplus store. Overnight the weather had turned to mixed rain and snow with the temperature hovering below 40. Snow on Sherman Pass, the radio had said; a lousy day for riding a motorcycle.
I had bought a new, insulated western shirt and wore it under my black, weathered, motorcycle jacket, zipped up tight. It made me look a little intimidating.

The surplus store was a riot of western and military fashions. Camping gear, jeans, army field jackets and hats were stacked high in narrow rows, little of it military surplus. Along the walls, were displayed hunting rifles. High above the windows behind the glass counter, a row of figurines looked down on us as though to keep us safe. Some were benevolent Christ figures with suction cups to stick to the dashboard of your car; others were crucifixes, some with gold chains. A ten year-old boy pressed his face against the glass showcase, pointing at a 9mm Beretta. “I want one of those,” he said, looking up at this father. On describing the scene to my friend and dispatcher, Rick, a veteran long-haul trucker with a wicked sense of humor, he quipped, “Well, what would Jesus shoot?”

As my wife Nancy and I carried our purchases back to the motel we had talked about staying in Sand Point another day to wait out the weather. We had come from Mt. Vernon, Washington and planned to return the same way, via Highway 20, a favorite motorcycle route that twists it way across several dramatic mountain ranges. We’d camped at Republic, traveling fast despite our gear packed in panniers and dry sacks. The black, 20-year old Norton Twin was still no slouch on the road. It would accelerate from 60 to 90 in the time it took to pass a log truck. The exhaust note of a big, British twin on full song is music to biker’s ears. The Norton was parked visibly outside the motel entrance under the lighted sign.

A nondescript white van sprouting radio antennas had been added to the parking lot while we were shopping. The scene, as we walked into the lobby was straight out of a movie set. Characters sent over from central casting stood around the lobby and lounged in the few chairs: Combat boots, army fatigues, trousers bloused above the boots, olive drab baseball caps worn indoors in most un-military fashion. OD, plastic rifle cases sat on the floor. Funny, we hadn’t them in the surplus store.

In this rough part of Northern Idaho there are many para-military militia groups, including those the press made famous from Hayden Lake, an hour south. The attraction is that it’s remote and mountainous. It took us two days of hard riding to get here and we welcomed the lakeside motel with en suite hot tub. It was the best motel in town.

It was nearly checkout time and we approached the front desk to ask about staying another day. The desk clerk was more than a little nervous. His voice shook. “You’ll have to check out. All the rooms are booked as of this morning.” Bummer! Nancy went back to the room to collect our things while I checked out. I tried chatting up the characters in the lobby. They were having none of it. They were in character and no biker scum was going to penetrate the bluster. But I tried.

“So, you guys here on maneuvers? You VVV?” I asked referring to the group, Viet Nam Veteran Volunteers who’d attempted to invade Cambodia after 1975, only to be thrown out by the CIA.

“No, no we’re not VVV.” Silence.

“Come up from Hayden Lake, then; Aryan Nations?


“Why do you do this? Didn’t get enough of the NAM? Missed the show?”

No. We’re not from Hayden Lake.”

This last question produced a visible bristling among several of the men.

“We’re not a veterans group and we’re not on an outing.”

“Who, then? You’re throwing us out into the snow. You must have some pull somewhere.”

This comment produced the only useful bit of information. “We’re ATF. That’s all I’ll tell you.”

I could to see that I was on thin ice. The “who” exchange had produced changes in body language throughout the group and the two men still holding rifle cases set them down deliberately. These weren’t hunting rifle cases but were short and looked like they’d hold an M-16; except one guy who had a long case with room for a scope on top.

Nancy returned with the panniers and asked, “Would you get the dry-bag? It’s too heavy for me.”She sensed the tension in the room as the officious characters moved toward the desk. “Come on, it’s late. We’ve got to get moving.”

I wished the militia a good day and walked off to the room to get the dry bag. We loaded the Norton with luggage and went to the dining room for a late breakfast. The mood in the room was hushed; people talked privately, under their breath almost. I heard the words, “Ruby Ridge.” We stalled over a second cup of coffee waiting for the day to warm a little. I stared out the window at the lake and the falling, slushy snow as it turned to rain.

I have been in threatening and stressful situations before and have developed a situational awareness that has yet to fail me. Yet the scene in the lobby produced another of my recurring flashbacks that occur at stressful times.

I am Struggling out of the three-wheeled Lambretta jitney, forcing other passengers to exit first. It is a hot Sunday morning in 1969.

I see the landmark DB had given me, a large banion tree. There is no street sign. I had no idea where I was except that I was near the docks. Across the main road, the one the jitney had travelled, ships towered above the street. Pallets of American beer, Coca Cola, Campbell’s Soup, tooth paste and crackers in metal tins were stacked haphazardly between the road and the dock, banded with metal straps. A fork lift truck rattled back and forth. I stood and stretched, cramped from being wedged into the back of the jitney.

The banion tree marked the entrance to an alley. It was narrow with buildings set close to the footpath and paved with occasional stepping stones to keep sandal shod feet out of the mud. I was uneasy but DB had assured me I was safe. About 25 meters from the street I felt a quick tug at my leg holster and my pistol immediately jammed against my neck. Two other men appeared with rifles crossed, blocking my path. Safe? I guess it’s all relative. Depends how you define it. I wasn’t bleeding yet.

In the street patois, a mix of Vietnamese, French and English, they asked where I was going. Their boots and rifles were new and American not Chinese or Russian. This was a good sign; not all areas of Saigon were under American control. “I’m going to visit DB,” I said, my voice shakier than I hoped. They looked skeptical and I suppose discussed in Veitnamese what to do with me. Things were not looking good.

A bit more chatter and they frog-marched me at gunpoint further down the alley. In perhaps 100 meters we came to a stop at a hovel with a broken cement yard studded with plants I didn’t know. It was roofed entirely with flattened, Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup cans. Andy Warhol couldn’t have done better. Chickens ran amok as though afraid they’d end up in the cans if they stopped. The hovel was perched on the edge of a narrow waterway, a canal leading to the river and surrounded by a wire fence that extended a couple meters into the water. A pig rooted around near the water. Ducks upended looking for fish.

One of the men called out across the yard. A boy scampered out, looked over the scene and ran back into the hovel, chickens following. A minute later, a sleepy-eyed white man of about 30 came out. He was wearing army-issue fatigue pants and a white tee shirt. He hadn’t shaved for a couple of days. He looked hung over. He spoke in Vietnamese to the armed men who dropped their rifles and handed me back my pistol. I holstered it. “You shouldn’t leave that out swinging in the breeze.” he said. “You might not get it back next time.” That was DB.

The snow was now a cold rain. We finished breakfast and walked out to the waiting Norton. After struggling into our rain gear and new insulated clothing, we climbed aboard. I turned on the gas, flooded the carburetors and Kicked the Norton to life. The bark of the reverse-megaphone mufflers reverberated off the motel wall as I revved the motor a couple of times before it settled into a loping idle. This set off the burglar alarm on the white van and one of the militia types bolted out the door. Seeing us on the Norton he glared his best glare, walked over to the van and shut off the alarm. I kicked the Norton into gear, gunned the motor unnecessarily hard and wheeled out of the parking lot into the rain. We spent that night with the Collville tribe in a tipi a couple hundred miles west near Grand Coolie Dam; no hot tub, no dining room.

The militia’s implicit threat of violence that day was not just bluster. By the end of the day, the body count was: one dog dead, two Ruby Ridge citizens dead, one federal agent dead, two Ruby Ridge citizens wounded and one nine-month old baby orphaned. The siege continued for another 10 days. The lawsuits continued for more than a decade.

Randy Weaver had failed to appear in court on a weapons charge: selling a sawed-off shotgun to an undercover agent a year or so before. He was a former Green Beret but did not serve in Viet Nam. He had run for sheriff of Boundary County in the previous election and came within a few votes of winning. The family were fundamentalist Christians who had moved to Idaho to ride out the coming apocalypse and were thus prepared with stocks of food and weapons and the usual back-country supplies. But for the decaying corpse of his wife, Vicki, they could have stayed on Ruby Ridge indefinitely.

Under Attorney General William Barr’s no holds bared policies the Federal Marshal’s service attempted to arrest Weaver. He declined to surrender as he suspected a conspiracy against him, inasmuch as he had been given three conflicting court dates. He, his immediate family and a friend stood off first Marshals, then the FBI’s Hostage Recovery Team and members of various law enforcement agencies including Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms whom I had encountered at the motel.

The siege ended when civilian negotiators arranged for the family’s safe passage and Weaver’s arrest. Weaver was initially charged with murder1 and an additional 9 charges including the original failure to appear. At trial, he was acquitted of all charges except failure to appear and was sentenced to time served plus three months. The family eventually received a wrongful death settlement of $3,000,000.

To say the Department of Justice handled the situation badly is to grossly understate the situation. The story of Ruby Ridge has gone down in the annals of conservative infamy. It was amplified seven months later by the DOJ’s 51-day siege near Waco Texas of the Branch Dividians under Attorney General Janet Reno. The Dividians were a splinter group of a religious sect and were focused on the Book of Revelations and the end-times to come. Like the Weavers, they had withdrawn from society to prepare for the worst.

In this event 76 people perished in a fire alleged to have been set by the one of the federal agencies as a result of incendiary tear-gas canisters fired into the compound by military assault vehicles largely indistinguishable from tanks. The federal agencies have contended that it was the Branch Dividians themselves who set the fire(s). The charges listed in the initial warrant were possession of illicit or unlicensed weapons. In time various other charges were developed as justification for other agencies to participate.

This event was more like a military engagement with an armed enemy than had been Ruby Ridge. The Dividians, as gun dealers, had a nearly unlimited supply of ammunition as the feds discovered. The events were complex and the outcome was tragic. Whether the federal forces or the Dividians were to blame may never be known with certainty. But the apparent overreach by federal agents was incentive for the Oklahoma City bombing two years later as cited by Timothy McVeigh in an interview.

Tara Westover, in her NYT bestselling 2018 memoir “Educated,” opens her first chapter recounting her father’s telling of the Ruby Ridge events. She was six at the time. His was a cautionary tale of government overreach and the need to be ready for any apocalyptic event. Though she has joined mainstream society by virtue of a good education as told in her memoir, her parents and several of her siblings still hold to the prophecies of her upbringing.

It appears that anti-government attitudes have flourished over the years and the associated fires within American social fabric have burned more brightly with each overreach. One only has to look at the attempted coup on Jan 6 or events of summer 2020 with unidentified government agents snatching people off the streets in Portland Oregon, or police conducting open warfare with Black Lives Matter protesters in several cities.

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