The FBI sniper who shot and killed Vicki Weaver, the wife of white separatist Randy Weaver, in the 1992 siege at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, was charged with manslaughter yesterday just before the five-year statute of limitations would have foreclosed criminal prosecution.
Idaho prosecutors charged a friend of the Weavers, Kevin Harris, with first-degree murder for killing U.S. Marshal William Degan in the gunfight that began the confrontation. Both Harris and Randy Weaver previously had been tried in federal court for murdering Degan and found not guilty.
Boundary County Prosecutor Denise Woodbury announced at a brief news conference in Bonners Ferry, Idaho, that she also had investigated the death of the Weavers' 14-year-old son, Sammy, who was killed by a shot in the back during the Aug. 21, 1992, gunfight, apparently as he was running away.
The teenager's death, Woodbury said, "has been determined to be a justifiable killing based on self-defense."
The FBI sniper, Lon Horiuchi, killed Vicki Weaver on Aug. 22, 1992, as she was standing in the doorway of the family cabin in northern Idaho, holding her baby daughter. Horiuchi said he was aiming at Harris, who was fleeing into the house from the sniper's first shot, and did not see Vicki Weaver.
Horiuchi was charged with involuntary manslaughter by use of a firearm in a reckless, careless or negligent manner. Woodbury said he fired the fatal shot through the front door "without first determining whether any person other than his intended target was behind the door."
The accusation paralleled the findings of a special Justice Department task force, which concluded several years ago that Horiuchi "needlessly and unjustifiably endangered the persons he thought might be behind the door."
The task force recommended the case be considered for "prosecutive merit," but was overruled by higher-ups and then again last week by a specially appointed U.S. attorney, Michael Stiles, who found no basis for proceeding against the FBI sharpshooter under federal law.
Stiles said yesterday there was no conflict between the decision of Idaho authorities and his special team, which looked at the case from the standpoint of federal civil rights laws that require proof of having acted willfully. There is no federal statute covering involuntary manslaughter by reckless use of a firearm.
If he is convicted of the charge filed yesterday, Horiuchi could face a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Harris could face the death penalty.
FBI Director Louis J. Freeh said he was "deeply disappointed" by the decision to prosecute Horiuchi, adding that his job as a member of the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team "involved making split-second decisions."
The FBI snipers were sent to Ruby Ridge following the gunfight involving the U.S. marshals and were given unprecedented shoot-to-kill orders covering any armed adult male seen in the vicinity of the Weaver cabin. Horiuchi's first shot wounded Randy Weaver and sent him, Harris and Weaver's 16-year-old daughter scurrying back into the house while Vicki Weaver held the door ajar.
Freeh said Horiuchi, a West Point graduate and 13-year veteran of the FBI, would continue to have his legal expenses paid by the Justice Department. One of his attorneys, Adam S. Hoffinger, said they might try to have the case removed to federal court under a law permitting U.S. government employees to seek such a shift by claiming they were acting in the proper and necessary performance of their duties.
Two of the marshals who survived the gunfight, Larry Cooper and Arthur Roderick, said through their lawyer that the murder charge against Harris "validates" their account that Harris shot first and that he pursued the marshals when they retreated.
"Degan was killed by a single shot to the chest," Woodbury, elected last year after a stint as deputy prosecutor, said in her statement.
She said the marshals had been "chased by Kevin Harris and Samuel Weaver for a distance of over 1,000 feet" and that Degan was killed "at a location over 6,000 feet off the Weaver property."
The jurors at the first Ruby Ridge trial, however, were convinced that the government was the culprit. Most agreed that the marshals fired first, killing the Weavers' dog and provoking the gunfight. The acquittal on federal charges did not preclude prosecutors from filing state charges.
Harris's lawyer, David Nevin of Boise, denounced the new murder charge as "an outrage." Harris, Nevin said, "stood for prosecution with the most powerful law enforcement agencies and finest prosecutors in the land and was found not guilty without calling a single witness." The three marshals involved in the gunfight were part of a surveillance operation that had spent more than a year spying on Weaver. They were dressed in jungle camouflage when Weaver, his 14-year-old son and Harris heard their dogs barking and took up the chase. Weaver said later he hoped it was a deer. They encountered the marshals about a half-mile from the now-untended cabin, which collapsed last winter under heavy snow. The jury foreman at the first trial, Jack Weaver (no relation), said yesterday that he welcomed the new charges.
"I think, just by charging Kevin Harris, that it's going to bring out more facts," Jack Weaver said. "I don't think the results on Kevin Harris will be any different unless there's compelling evidence that we didn't see. As far as Horiuchi is concerned, there's been a lot of talk about him being low man on the totem pole, but he is a West Point graduate and he's been an agent for years. If he'd been a deer hunter and taken that shot, he would have been charged with manslaughter."
Harris surrendered himself around noon yesterday at the courthouse in Republic, Wash., where he has been working as a welder at a local mine. Nevin said the mine closed "and all the employees went to the courthouse with him" to show their support.
He is scheduled to appear in court in Bonners Ferry this afternoon.
Horiuchi's lawyers said last evening that his surrender had yet to be arranged. Staff writer Richard Leiby contributed to this report.