FBI sniper Lon Horiuchi and his boss, Richard Rogers, stepped into the Boise federal courthouse on June 2, 1993, flanked by a squad of husky bodyguards with what spectators thought to be large automatic weapons under their jackets. It was a visible show of force in the midst of a criminal prosecution that was growing weaker by the day.

The two agents had been called to testify about their roles in the deadly siege of Ruby Ridge. White separatist Randy Weaver and Kevin Harris, a young man Weaver regarded as a son, stood accused of murdering Deputy U.S. Marshal William Degan in the Aug. 21, 1992, gunfight about a half-mile from their mountain cabin.

But for prosecutors, calling the high-ranking FBI agents to the stand that day only made the situation worse. In the end, the jury not only acquitted Weaver and Harris of Degan's murder, but became convinced that the government itself was the culprit in the initial bloody confrontation. Most jurors agreed that U.S. marshals fired first, killing the Weavers' dog and provoking the gunfight that left Degan and Weaver's 14-year-old son, Sammy, dead.

The government's case had been hobbled all along by a sloppy FBI investigation, contradictory testimony, persistent withholding of needed evidence, and a shaky stack of other charges that turned out to be quite difficult to prove. FBI resistance in building the case was so strong that when the trial ended, a special Justice Department task force began investigating claims that the government was covering up what really happened at Ruby Ridge.

Now, the Justice Department is probing allegations that the task force's work was deeply flawed -- a coverup of a coverup.

At the trial that day, Rogers, commander of the FBI's elite Hostage Rescue Team, was the first to testify. His squad had been dispatched to deal with the Weavers after Degan was killed. Before Rogers even arrived at the scene on the morning of Aug. 22, 1992, he composed "rules of engagement" for the snipers that amounted to a "shoot on sight" policy for any armed adult seen near the Weaver cabin.

Under questioning, Rogers said he was satisfied from reports received during a hurried flight west that Weaver had "clearly demonstrated that he was willing to shoot at federal officers."

"Well," Weaver's chief defense lawyer, Gerry Spence, asked Rogers, "did you know of anybody then, and do you know of anybody now, as you sit there today, who ever saw Mr. Weaver shoot at anybody?"

Rogers: "No, I do not."

Spence: "Do you know of anybody, as you sit there now today, that can say that Mr. Weaver even pointed a gun at anybody?"

Rogers: "No, I'm not aware of any."

Weaver listened at the defense table. During the brief Aug. 21 gunfight, Weaver himself fired no shots at anyone. The next evening, Horiuchi, without warning, fired two shots from his perch behind a pine tree, wounding Weaver and Harris, and killing Weaver's wife, Vicki.

Horiuchi, a West Point graduate and 10-year FBI veteran, testified next. Since the snipers were told that the Weavers usually came out of their house armed, he said, the "rules of engagement" made them fair game.

Spence: "Under your rules of engagement, you could then, and should -- if they came out of the house, you could and should use deadly force?"

Horiuchi: "Yes sir, it is true.

What about a warning shot? Spence asked.

"Sir, we do not fire warning shots in the FBI."

Spence: "If you're going to shoot, you shoot to kill, don't you?"

Horiuchi: "Yes, sir."

At another point, Spence asked the sniper if he enjoyed his job. He said he did.

In the jury box, Dorothy Mitchell felt a shudder. "I interpreted his answer to be, I enjoy killing,' " she said in a recent interview. "That was hard for me to take. He was just cold-hearted." She and other jurors were struck by the trauma Weaver's children must have suffered, living in the cabin for almost 10 days with their mother's bloody corpse on the kitchen floor.

In this context, Rogers's testimony was equally chilling. "Even after all this horrible stuff happened, he wasn't questioning whether what they did was right," recalled juror Dorothy Hoffman. "He didn't seem to have any conscience, if that's the word."

"He took those {standard FBI rules of deadly force} that are drilled into everybody and basically threw them out the window and wrote his own," said jury foreman Jack Weaver (no relation to Randy Weaver). "I got the sense that if he had to do it all over again, he'd do the same thing."

The five men and seven women sitting in judgment of Weaver and Harris eventually came to wonder whether the right people were on trial. "This is a murder case," Spence thundered in closing. "But the people who committed the murder have not been charged." Convinced of a Conspiracy

The trial of U.S. v. Weaver and Harris began April 13, 1993. The central charge was that Degan's murder was the culmination of an overarching conspiracy that began 10 years earlier when "Randall C. Weaver and Vicki Weaver left Iowa with their family and moved to Idaho in their belief and prediction that a violent confrontation would occur with law enforcement officers. . . . "

Even banal statements that Weaver had made, such as, "I've got to talk to my wife about this," were cited as evidence of their conspiring with one another, as well as with "others known and unknown."

But when the case came to trial before U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge, it became increasingly clear to the jurors that the government had no solid conspiracy or murder case. Some said they were appalled to learn about the massive effort and resources the government spent on Weaver, whose movements were tracked by U.S. marshals for 18 months while they tried to arrest him on a weapons charge.

The prosecution set out to prove that Kevin Harris, carrying a heavy-caliber hunting rifle, fired first, after Degan -- one of three camouflaged marshals on an early morning surveillance mission -- stood and identified himself.

But most jurors believed the defense version of the gunfight, especially in light of the testimony of another marshal, who heard the gunfire from an observation post. He said the first shot came from a light-caliber weapon, such as that used by Deputy U.S. Marshal Arthur Roderick. That bullet hit Striker, the Weavers' strong-nosed yellow Lab, in the back.

The testimony of government witnesses left unanswered questions. Deputy U.S. Marshal Larry Cooper, the only government eyewitness, testified that he didn't think Degan had fired a shot -- yet seven spent rounds were found from Degan's rifle. One of those rounds, according to a government ballistics expert, hit Sammy in the arm, almost severing it from his body. A bullet of the type loaded in Cooper's submachine gun then hit the 14-year-old in the back as he was running home.

The evidence established that 19 shots in all were exchanged in the shootout, which lasted less than a minute. Fourteen bullets came from the marshals' guns. Sammy Weaver fired twice at Roderick, narrowly missing. Kevin Harris fired three times, killing Degan in defense of Sammy, Harris's lawyers said.

Weaver and Harris never testified. Defense lawyers, led by Spence and David Nevin, sowed reasonable doubt relying solely on prosecution witnesses.

As juror Dorothy Mitchell concluded, "I could not buy the story the way the marshals told it; it just couldn't have happened that way." Collapse and Review

As the government's case steadily fell apart, prosecutors became convinced that many of their problems were the FBI's fault. After the trial, then-U.S. Attorney Maurice O. Ellsworth complained in an August 1993 letter to Attorney General Janet Reno that his prosecutors did the best they could "trying to deal with bad facts under very difficult circumstances. Many of the difficulties were caused, or at least aggravated by the FBI."

Prosecutors had asked for all FBI materials on Ruby Ridge to help them counter defense charges of a government coverup. But from the start, FBI officials contended that some documents, such as the operations plan for Ruby Ridge, contained "sensitive information" and could not be turned over.

By that time, the bureau had conducted a required "shooting incident review" that tried to justify the killing of Vicki Weaver (the report misnamed her "Vicki Harris"). It asserted that she had "willfully placed herself in harm's way" by holding the cabin door open.

To outsiders, the shooting review was clearly inadequate and raised questions about the impartiality of the FBI investigating the conduct of its own agents. Larry Potts, who headed the Ruby Ridge operation out of Washington, ran the FBI's criminal division at the time. His assistant, E. Michael Kahoe, had been on duty during the Ruby Ridge siege, but he was also in charge of an FBI panel that assessed the shooting review report. Kahoe's panel agreed that law enforcement personnel had acted appropriately and that no action should be taken against FBI employees.

The two prosecutors on the Weaver case, Ronald Howen and Kim Lindquist, also had been frustrated by two separate pretrial trips to Washington to interview FBI officials, including Potts, Kahoe and Danny O. Coulson, Potts's top aide who had headed the Ruby Ridge command center when Potts was off duty. The prosecutors had been told the FBI officials were unavailable.

The Justice Department had to intercede to mediate the conflicts between the FBI and prosecutors. Shortly before the trial started, one official noted in a memo: "the Bureau's intransigence appears to emanate from Potts's level or above."

Lodge ran out of patience on the afternoon of June 4. Horiuchi had concluded his testimony and was flying back to Washington when the prosecution finally turned over a packet of FBI documents that defense lawyers had demanded weeks earlier. It had been sent by fourth-class mail.

The package included agents' notes on interviews with FBI personnel, including Horiuchi, and a still-controversial sketch Horiuchi had made of Harris and the cabin door when he fired his second shot. He had drawn in two heads, seemingly crouching down behind the windowpanes in the door.

The judge called this last-minute production of documents simply "the latest transgression in a series of transgressions," and blasted the FBI for "a pattern of delay and lack of cooperation." In a scorching post-trial order, he fined the FBI $1,920, concluding: "The actions of the government, acting through the FBI, evidence a callous disregard for the rights of the defendants and the interests of justice and demonstrate a complete lack of respect for the order and directions of the court."

The pressures apparently caught up with the lead prosecutor, Howen. In the midst of an argument near the trial's end, he stopped short, shuffled his papers, and told the judge he could not continue. He did not take part in closing arguments.

The trial lasted 42 days and the jurors deliberated for 22 more. On July 8, 1993, Harris was acquitted of all counts and Weaver was acquitted of all but two minor charges: failing to appear in court on the original weapons charge and violating the terms of his release on that charge.

Foreman Jack Weaver said that in considering the murder charge, most jurors felt that the marshals had fired first and that Harris fired in self-defense. He said "three or four" jurors disagreed but eventually concluded that the government had failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

Lodge sentenced Weaver in October 1993 to an 18-month term. Because of time already spent in custody, he was out by December.

"You've suffered probably far beyond what the court could do," Lodge told him. No Basis for Prosecution

The Justice Department's 542-page task force report, completed last year, was supposed to be the last word on Ruby Ridge. Seemingly thorough and at times harshly worded, it has yet to be officially released, but was leaked to Legal Times earlier this year and put on the Internet.

The inquiry stemmed from allegations defense lawyers had made before trial of "professional misconduct and criminal wrongdoing" by agents of the FBI, the Marshals Service and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Boise. The study was delayed until after the verdicts came in. Since the allegations had mushroomed, Reno ordered a complete review of the Weaver case from its inception until the end of the trial. More than 370 people were interviewed.

The report, which relied on FBI agents as investigators, took no sides on who shot first in the Aug. 21 gunfight, but concluded that the rules of engagement given to the snipers were unconstitutional -- a violation of the Fourth Amendment's strictures against "unreasonable . . . seizures" (death being the ultimate "seizure"). It found that the rules of engagement "had a significant effect on the sniper/observers' sense of danger and had encouraged their use of deadly force."

It did not quarrel with Horiuchi's first shot, accepting his explanation that he thought he was protecting a helicopter carrying federal officials, even though it was in no real danger. But the task force found the sniper's second shot -- the one that killed Vicki Weaver -- unjustified and unconstitutional. It was taken even though there had been no return of fire, no warning given after the first shot and, "most significantly, the targets were retreating into the cabin."

The task force recommended the case be considered "for prosecutive merit," but the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and the Office of Professional Responsibility both said they found no basis for prosecution. That left it to Freeh, who was appointed the year after the 1992 standoff at Ruby Ridge, to take administrative action.

In January, he meted out mild discipline. Freeh announced that "a careful and thorough review of the facts" showed that "FBI employees committed no crimes or intentional misconduct." But he said that 12 agents had demonstrated "inadequate performance, inadequate judgment, neglect of duty, and failure to exert proper managerial oversight."

The highest-ranking of the 12, the FBI's acting deputy director, Larry Potts, was faulted for failing "to provide proper oversight with regard to the rules of engagement," and was given a letter of censure, the same punishment that had been imposed on Freeh, at his insistence, for having lost a cellular telephone.

Undeterred by Potts's conduct in the Ruby Ridge incident, Freeh then pushed for and obtained Potts's promotion to the FBI's No. 2 job.

Eugene Glenn, the special agent from Salt Lake City who had been designated on-site commander at Ruby Ridge, Hostage Rescue Team commander Richard Rogers and others also were censured and briefly suspended.

Glenn, the most severely disciplined, was ordered back to headquarters, losing a coveted job as agent in charge of an FBI field office. A complaint from Glenn in May triggered the current investigation: He said he was unfairly being made the scapegoat for Ruby Ridge to protect Potts and others.

Potts and four other headquarters officials with roles in Ruby Ridge were suspended Aug. 11 pending criminal investigation of coverup allegations. Rogers and Horiuchi were not suspended.

Freeh said in a recent interview that it is obvious now the task force probe was "flawed," and he would not have promoted his friend Potts if he had known then what he knows now.

The report contains errors and omissions small and large. It misstates Weaver's military record, saying that it shows he never was a Green Beret, but the document cited shows that he was. It quotes an Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms informant's testimony to say that Weaver once planned to organize a unit to fight "the Zionist Occupied Government," but the court transcript cited contains no such statement. More significantly, the task force said, "we were distressed by the persistent intransigence shown by FBI headquarters personnel" in producing documents for trial and noted that some documents had disappeared. But it went no further.

"It was based on a wink and a nod," one knowledgeable Justice Department official said of the task force review. "It was clear by the way they asked questions that they did not want any answers that did not comport with a predetermined point of view."

One illustration of that may involve the interview former Green Beret Bo Gritz said he gave at the FBI office in Las Vegas. Gritz, who helped negotiate Weaver's surrender, said he told his interviewers of an encounter with Rogers during which Rogers said the FBI had "targeted" Vicki Weaver because of fears she would kill her children rather than surrender. Rogers's lawyers dispute that, but, in any case, there is no mention of Gritz's allegation anywhere in the task force report.

"It seemed like they didn't want to hear it," Gritz said of his task force interview with an FBI agent and a Justice Department employee.

In a letter of complaint to Reno, U.S. Attorney Ellsworth protested against the use of FBI agents as investigators. He said he feared agents "are so immersed in the policies, procedures and culture of the FBI" that it was impossible for them to be objective, especially when their superiors might be involved.

Ellsworth told a reporter last week that when FBI agents interviewed him, he voiced complaints during the case about the bureau's performance only to have the interviewing agents come back with explanations and excuses. "They were essentially being apologists for the bureau," he said.

Freeh, a former federal judge, disagrees with the task force about Horiuchi's second shot, and still defends it under the FBI's standard deadly force policy, or at least under a 1984 Supreme Court decision "which goes well beyond" the standard. "The Supreme Court said you have to determine danger and you have to determine necessity," Freeh said. Those determinations are up to the sniper, he said.

Spence, Weaver's chief attorney, called Freeh's remarks "legal gobbledygook." The Supreme Court, Spence said, "has never authorized people to be shot in cold blood." An Anti-Government Patriot

Randy Weaver has become a hero to those who call themselves patriots. To Weaver, the government of the United States was and still is a "monster." Weaver and Harris declined to be interviewed for these articles. In an interview with the Des Moines Register last month, Weaver said he has "terrible memories" of August 1992. But he expects to appear at a Senate hearing Wednesday with his daughter, Sara, for the sake of his dead wife and son, because "somebody has to be held accountable."

He acknowledges that he is not blameless for what happened. He could have shown up in court to answer the ATF's charges and has previously said he wishes he had done so. But he'll never trust the system completely. Billy Degan was no monster. He too was a patriot -- a reserve lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps -- and a father, and a husband, and a regular guy. He loved football, having a few beers.

"The death of my husband remains the untold tragedy of the events of three years ago on Ruby Ridge," Karen Degan wrote in a recent note to a Washington Post reporter. "Whenever {men} who spend their lives serving the country . . . are killed in the line of duty, we all lose a piece of ourselves. I lost a bigger piece than others in August of 1992."

In the minds of many, Ruby Ridge stands as a tragic display of excessive government force against individual citizens with outspoken, unorthodox views. And the damage done by the incident itself has only been compounded by lingering allegations of an FBI coverup.

In the Weaver case, something more than lives may have been lost. Freeh said in an interview that he fears the public will lose faith in the FBI -- "the people who sit on our juries, the people who are our informants, the people who will pick up the phone and speak to an FBI agent confidentially." He said he knows he must move swiftly to repair the damage. Those familiar with the case say that may be difficult if he continues to portray the shooting of Vicki Weaver as simply a "tragic accident." CHRONOLOGY OF A SEIGE DISASTER BREAKS OUT on Aug. 21, 1992, when federal marshals reconnoiter the cabin of white supremacist Randy Weaver, who is wanted on a weapons charge. After a marshal shoots the Weavers' dog, Striker, a gunfight leaves Deputy U.S. Marshal William Degan and Sammy Weaver, 14, dead. THE WEAVER FAMILY SECLUDES itself in the cabin and refuses to surrender. Marshals suspect the family is heavily armed. The FBI's elite Hostage Rescue Team is called in.

FBI TEAM COMMANDER RICHARD ROGERS, working in consultation with assistant director Larry Potts at headquarters, drafts rules under which his snipers will operate. They amount to a shoot-on-sight policy for any armed adult in the vicinity of the Weaver cabin. Potts later denies approving the language. SNIPER LON HORIUCHI SHOOTS Weaver after he exits the cabin Aug. 22 and takes aim at family friend Kevin Harris as he runs for cover. His shot hits Harris and kills Vicki Weaver, who is standing in the doorway holding her baby. THE WEAVERS SURRENDER Aug. 31. Harris and Weaver are charged with Degan's murder. CAPTION: In July 1993, a federal jury in Idaho found Randy Weaver not guilty of murder in the shooting death of a deputy U.S. marshal near his mountain cabin. CAPTION: Richard Rogers: Dispatched to Idaho by jet the day of the initial shootout, the commander of the FBI's sharpshooting Hostage Rescue Team composed "rules of engagement" for his men that amounted to a "shoot on sight" policy for any armed adult seen near the Weaver cabin. CAPTION: Acquitted of murder: Randy Weaver and his children, Rachel, 13, Sara, 19, and Elisheba, 3, now live in Grand Junction, Iowa. The Justice Department recently agreed to pay the family $3.1 million for the killing of Weaver's wife, Vicki, and teenage son, Sammy. Kevin Harris, above, at the federal courthouse in Boise after the 1993 trial.