The small town where Randy Weaver now lives is as wide and open as Ruby Ridge was steep and hidden. The Union Pacific whistles past the cornfields hourly.
It is not unusual to find Weaver in Iowa because he was born and raised here, the son of a grain salesman. People forget that part.
What they remember is the 11-day standoff with federal agents in 1992 that left Weaver's wife and 14-year-old son dead on an Idaho mountainside in the debacle that came to be known as Ruby Ridge.
What they remember is the survivalist who wanted to separate from a race-mixing nation and its oppressive government.
Now, Weaver mows his neat little lawn here on Wilson Avenue. A Cadillac sits in his driveway. He is listed in the phone book. But to say that Weaver has come down off the mountain would be only half-right.
At 53, he is still not ready to forgive. Not after the Justice Department settled a lawsuit brought by his family for $3.1 million. And not after a wayward soldier named Timothy McVeigh killed 168 Americans to avenge what happened at Ruby Ridge and Waco, the other disastrous federal siege.
When McVeigh is executed next month for his role in the Oklahoma City bombing, a violent chapter in American history will close with one more death. Weaver says the real enemy will remain at large. The real enemy will continue to violate the Constitution and "eavesdrop on your house from a mile away with that super ear thing."
Organizations that track the activities of racist and paramilitary groups dismiss Weaver as a fading figure in a waning movement. "In the scheme of things, he's milquetoasty," said Joe Roy, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project.
Yet Weaver continues to rise like a martyr above the wreckage. In his case, the black helicopters really did come. A robot with a gun in its claw really did move across his cabin porch.
It's hard to say who Weaver is now. The industry of rage and resentment makes certain demands upon him. He is a folk hero of ultra-right-wing groups. When asked about McVeigh's impending execution, he says almost reflexively, "There should be a bunch of federal agents lying right beside him on the gurney."
Although he lost his own wife and child, Weaver identifies with McVeigh more easily than with the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing.
"He was a soldier's soldier," Weaver says. "He just switched sides. Tim McVeigh was trying to make a point. He was what you call pro bono. He was going to be judge, jury and executioner. No different from the federal government. One has a badge and one don't."
But other times Weaver is not so gung-ho. What if McVeigh had come to him with his plans for Oklahoma City?
"I would have told him to forget it."
'They Are Just Mad' "Meet Randy Weaver," the blinking sign announces outside the fairgrounds in Lincoln, Neb. Inside a stale expo hall, the tables are laid out with rifles and scopes and munitions. Weaver is near the door, standing at a table piled with $20 copies of his 1998 book, "The Federal Siege at Ruby Ridge."
No one here for this mid-April gun show really needs the book to tell what happened. In 1989, while living in Idaho, Weaver was caught selling two shotguns he had sawed off shorter than the legal limit to an informant working for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The ATF tried to enlist Weaver as an informant, promising to drop the gun charges, but he refused and was indicted by a grand jury.
When Weaver failed to appear in court -- he had been given the wrong date -- an arrest warrant was issued.
Seventeen months later, federal agents in camouflage and face paint were crawling around Weaver's 20 acres when they were detected by the family dog. Agents shot the dog and began a gun battle with Weaver's 14-year-old son, Sam, and a family friend, both armed. Sam was killed. So was U.S. Marshal William Degan. The siege began.
Weaver holed up in the cabin with his wife and three daughters. The day after Sam was killed, Vicki Weaver was holding her 10-month-old daughter when an FBI sniper shot her in the head.
Weaver surrendered after 11 days. He was charged with murder in the death of the marshal, but an Idaho jury acquitted him. He spent 16 months in jail for the original gun offense.
And here he is at a gun show, unable to own a firearm legally because of his conviction. He stands at a table with only his story.
The procession is steady. "My condolences," says one man, extending his hand. "I appreciate all your character. It must be a bitch."
Weaver signs the book and takes the $20. "I appreciate that."
They approach like mourners coming to pay their respects. He relaxes them, sometimes with humor, sometimes with anger. Some of them vent. Some want to know about missing shell casings at Ruby Ridge after the siege. One man is curious about "that shotgun robot sent in by the Freddies."
"They want to talk to me a little more than I want to talk to them," Weaver says. "They've become so upset with the government that it's hard to trust anybody. They're not bad people. They are just mad."
Weaver wears motorcycle boots and keeps his wallet leashed to his blue jeans by a silver chain, Harley-style. His silver hair is cut close on the sides and long in the back.
A broad-shouldered man in a John Deere jacket and an NRA cap extends his hand. "Fritz Oltjenbruns," he says. "I'm part of America's largest not-for-profit organization -- farmers. I was just telling my son this morning how the ATF snookered you down by an eighth-of-an-inch on that shotgun."
Weaver rocks back on his heels. "I ain't ashamed of it. I'll cut it right down to the stock, whatever."
The farmer folds his arms. "It's a darned shame what you went through with your wife," he says. "It's hard to believe the government went that corrupt that fast."
Weaver signs a book and pockets the twenty. "Keep your powder dry, buddy."
A concessionaire trots up with a present. "Here's something for you, Randy," he says, handing over a napkin. Buffalo jerky. "Thanks," Weaver says, and sets it aside forever.
A grandpa type holding a pistol approaches. "They haven't tried to run you out with your books, have they?" When Weaver was appearing at a gun show at the Reno Hilton once, the Northern Nevada B'nai B'rith pressured the promoter into banning his appearance.
An intense, red-cheeked man holding a 32-ounce Coke pounces with a great gale of rhetoric on religion and politics that begins with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and ends with his plea, "If you have the time, I'd really like an answer."
"I don't have the answer," Weaver says. "Religion's all a bunch of crap." The speechmaker, silenced, walks off into the sea of guns.
The only person in the armory who isn't white is a janitor at the fairgrounds, a Native American named Floyd Pilcher. He approaches Weaver with a bag of sage, a faded bandanna and a T-shirt that reads, "IN THE SPIRIT OF CRAZY HORSE." "These are gifts from powerful people," Pilcher says.
Weaver takes the gifts. "I guess anybody who's ever gotten stomped on by the government knows what I'm talkin' about," he says.
Back inside, a strapping young man in a T-shirt imprinted with a Fort Benning logo and the words "DEATH COMES QUICK" solemnly shakes Weaver's hand. "I'm sorry your deal happened," he says. A creamy-skinned woman extends her hand. "By God, stand by your word," she tells Weaver.
The show doesn't end until 3:30, but Weaver starts breaking down his booth 40 minutes early. Two teenage boys hover. "Need some help?" one asks.
"Thanks, partner," Weaver says.
The kid turns to his friend. "He called me partner!"
At Ruby Ridge
When a pickup truck comes to a four-way stop in Jefferson, it is a lone red object against an endless curtain of green. Only the grain elevators have altitude. There is an A&W stand next to the ballfield, which is next to a cornfield.
This is the place Randy and Vicki Weaver wanted to separate from when they sold their belongings and moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1983 with their three children. Separate from what, he is asked.
"From what we were trying to get away from."
It was Vicki Weaver who drove her family's peculiar following of Old Covenant Laws, calling God "Yahweh" and believing themselves to be the true Israelites. Because a woman having a child was considered unclean, Vicki Weaver gave birth to her fourth child in a shed behind their cabin on Ruby Ridge. She canned her own food and home-schooled the children.
On three or four occasions, the Weavers attended Aryan Nation meetings up at Hayden Lake, a compound for government resisters and for white separatists and supremacists. Weaver says he'd drink beer and talk to the skinheads. He did nothing illegal, he says, until he got desperate for money and sold the two sawed-off shotguns to the informant.
The Weavers' racial views were obscured by the enormity of what happened to them during the siege at Ruby Ridge. After the sniper killed Vicki Weaver, negotiators used a bullhorn to greet her in the morning, saying they'd had pancakes for breakfast -- what did she have?
FBI Special Agent Eugene Glenn later told a Senate inquiry that agents didn't realize that Vicki Weaver had been shot. The sniper, Lon Horiuchi, testified that he could hit a target at 200 yards within one-quarter inch. He said he had been aiming for one of the armed males, not Vicki Weaver.
An investigation found that the FBI had altered its rules of engagement, directing agents to shoot any armed adults on sight. Several high-ranking FBI officials were disciplined after a Justice Department inquiry found evidence of a cover-up. One pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice. The No. 2 official at the FBI, Deputy Director Larry Potts, was demoted after an investigation found evidence of misconduct. He retired two years later.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is still reviewing whether Horiuchi should be subject to manslaughter charges.
Meanwhile, the world Weaver had tried to separate from found in him a brother. He says he received more than 30,000 pieces of mail. "Hell, anyone who'd ever been picked on by the government was writing me," he says. "Airmen who'd escaped Red China, black guys from Detroit -- some friends of Leonard Peltier's mailed me one of his drawings."
In the settlement of the civil lawsuit Weaver brought against the government, each of his three daughters received $1 million, and Weaver received $100,000.
Weaver returned to Iowa, where relatives rented him a house in a small town next to Jefferson. He had his two youngest daughters with him. Weaver met a woman, Linda Gross, who was married and in farm-implement sales. The town suddenly got too small. Weaver and his girls went out to Montana for a few years.
Weaver came back to Jefferson in 1999. He and Linda are now married and live with her two children from her first marriage. Linda is a secretary for a lawyer in town. Except for the gun shows, Weaver doesn't have a job. He's working on his next book, "The Rise and Fall of the USSA."
His daughters live in Montana. The oldest, Sara, 24, is married to a corrections officer. The youngest, Elisheba, whom Vicki Weaver was cradling when she was shot, is 9 and lives with her sister Rachel, who is 19. Weaver says his kids "live out there because they like it."
Before he left Iowa for the first time to live in the Pacific Northwest, Weaver sold his Harley-Davidson because he was starting a new kind of life. Now he owns a Harley Heritage Soft Tail that gleams in his garage.
He writes off much about his lifestyle at Ruby Ridge. "Punk idiots" is what he calls many of the attendees at Aryan Nation meetings. He has offended Christian supporters who assume they are simpatico with him on matters of faith. "I've studied religions and pretty much decided they are all the same: [expletive]," he says. "And you shouldn't have to pay a tax-exempt preacher to hear it."
He says people should live by the Golden Rule and not "whore after false deities."
His views on race haven't evolved much. When asked whether white separatism isn't a losing battle in light of the new census figures that show a browning America, he shakes his head in pity. "I feel sorry for the next generation."
A Place of His Own Weaver is having a White Russian at a place called Wet Goods on the town square. Joe Cocker is singing "Unchain My Heart" on the stereo. A tall man in a plaid shirt walks through the door. "Nick!" says Weaver.
Nick Friess has known Weaver since elementary school. During the Vietnam War, they enlisted in the Army about the same time. Weaver was a Green Beret who remained stateside. Friess went to Vietnam, and two years later he stepped on an explosive in the grass. He was awarded a Bronze Star. Part of his leg was amputated seven years ago. He no longer farms. Now he is an educational director at an art museum.
Friess sits down with Weaver. The conversation drifts from their childhood to the gypsum mine where Nick's father worked to church, and Weaver makes a crack about phony ministers. Friess says, in a very "Prairie Home Companion" way, "Oh, well, now, you can't categorize everyone. Some preachers are just fine."
Weaver sits back, for once not spring-loaded. He doesn't have to be from Ruby Ridge right now. He is the boy from Jefferson who used to box with Nicky Friess in the front yard while both of them tried to impress a girl named Lana.
Weaver got a D in government. They both laugh.
Later, Friess will say, "A lot of his beliefs, I don't agree with."
And yet: "After all he's been through, jiminy, it's amazing he can be walking the streets."
And finally: "Maybe with the tragic playing out of events, there is a certain obligation for him to feel a certain way."
Weaver has a gun show in Las Vegas next weekend. They will come for his book and his story. They may talk about the missing shell casings and the shotgun robot sent in by the Freddies, as they did at the show in Lincoln.
But what he remembers about the mountain: "There was no wind," he says. "The snowflakes were so big you could hear them when they hit the ground. The kids had three or four campgrounds around the land. They'd go out and build fires at night.
"And Vicki canned. She and the kids would pick huckleberries. She got top dollar 'cause she picked clean. Or she'd trade a gallon of huckleberries for four quarts of peaches. We sold firewood -- me, Vick and the kids. Then we'd go into Bonner's Ferry and have a hamburger or a pizza."
Weaver says he'd like a place in the Ozarks some day, with nothing but quiet and a clear creek running through.
"That's weird, ain't it?" he asks. "Now who the hell would want to live like that?"