Sara Weaver won't ever forget the day a government sniper shot her mother. She recalls her father, Randy, saying over and over again, "They shot Mama. They shot Mama."
It will be 20 years this August since the siege at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. Three people died during the 11-day standoff between federal agents and Sara's father, white separatist Randy Weaver. Her 42-year-old mother, Vicki Weaver, was one of them.
For some, the standoff became a symbol of a heavy-handed government run amok. Timothy McVeigh, for example, cited federal oversteps at Ruby Ridge as among the reasons he set the bomb that killed 168 people at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. And Ruby Ridge is still a rallying point for anti-establishment violence. That's largely why Sara, Randy Weaver's eldest daughter, now 36, is coming forward to share her story.
"I think Ruby Ridge and the Weaver name has been used in the past to help spur on other causes ... that I don't necessarily support or agree with," says Weaver, who will appear in Missoula May 25 at a fundraiser for the Christian group Teen Challenge. "Don't take life in my name and think you're doing something good."
Sara now lives in Marion with her husband and 11-year-old son. Randy, her father, also lives in Marion. She's come to forgive the people responsible for her mother's death, Sara saysalthough it's taken her years to get there.
The Weaver family moved to Ruby Ridge when Sara was 7, because Randy and Vicki believed a global calamity was imminent. They lived off the grid, with no power or running water. The family made do with what they had, picking huckleberries and raising chickens and goats.
Randy mingled with local militia groups in northern Idaho. In October 1989, he sold two illegal sawed-off shotguns to an undercover agent with the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms. The ATF told Weaver that prosecutors would drop the gun charges if he became an informant. Weaver refused to cooperate. Seven months later, he was indicted on federal gun charges.
According to Department of Justice reports conducted in the wake of the siege, Weaver was notified of three different trial dates, two of which were erroneous. He was a no-show at his February 20, 1991 trial. That prompted a federal grand jury to indict him for failure to appear.
After the indictment, the federal Marshals Service launched an investigation. "Based on information that it collected, the Marshals Service learned that for many years Weaver had made statements about his intent to violently confront federal law enforcement officials," the DOJ report says. "As a result, the Marshals Service concluded that Weaver intended to resist violently governmental attempts to arrest him."
In August 1992, six marshals travelled to Ruby Ridge to conduct surveillance. The action was to be an undercover operation with the goal of taking Weaver into custody safely.
It didn't happen that way. The family's yellow Labrador, Striker, alerted the Weavers that something was amiss. Striker's barking prompted Randy and his 14-year-old son, Sam, to investigate. Kevin Harris, a family friend, went with them.
The DOJ said later that it was unclear who shot first. Sara says federal agents killed the dog first. Her brother shot back. When Sam attempted to flee, he was shot in the back. Then Harris opened fire, killing Deputy U.S. Marshal William Degan.
In the hours that followed, hundreds of law enforcement personnel descended into the woods around the family cabin. On the second day of the siege, Sara says, the family had no interaction with law enforcement until gunshots rang out again. That happened as Randy, Harris and Sara approached a shed where they had put Sam's body. Randy was hit in the shoulder. Vicki was shot while holding the Weavers' youngest child, an 11-month-old girl, Elisheba. The same bullet that killed Vicki also hit Harris, who was seriously wounded. Randy gave up 10 days after the siege began.
After the standoff, Sara says, she wondered why she hadn't been killed, instead of the others. She thought it would have been easier that way.
Randy was cleared of all but two charges: failure to appear on the gun charges and violating his bail conditions. These days, Sara says, he helps care for his grandchildren.
In the wake of the siege, the DOJ launched multiple investigations. In 1995, a U.S. Senate panel found that there were "substantial failures" by law enforcement agencies during the standoff.
The Weavers filed suit against the government and settled out of court for $3.1 million, without the government admitting any wrongdoing.
Sara reiterates that she's forgiven those responsible for killing her mother and brother. Forgiveness, however, can be a tough sentiment to drum up. That's why she's trying to lead by example and why she'll speak on behalf of Teen Challenge during the nonprofit's annual fundraiser this month.
Teen Challenge uses a faith-based approach to treat women for addiction. Director Jan Henderson says Sara Weaver's ability to let go of anger sets a powerful example for the young women in her program, many of whom have been victims of violence themselves and have "huge un-forgiveness and rejection issues."
Sara says she's happy to lead the way. "A lot of times, we just need someone to help share our burden to get through whatever it is we're going through, and that one hand up can change someone's life forever."
Sara Weaver will speak at Teen Challenge's annual banquet, at the Hilton Garden Inn, May 25. For more information, go to www.teenchallengepnw.com/montana_womens