WASHINGTON -- Tearfully recalling the notorious shootout with the FBI in northern Idaho three years ago, Randy Weaver pleaded with sympathetic senators yesterday to "see to it that those persons who killed my wife and little 14-year-old son are brought to justice."
"When high-ranking FBI officials issue death warrants and cover up their involvement, the message they send to police officers all over the country is: 'It is OK if you can get away with it,' " Mr. Weaver said.
Mr. Weaver's separatist ideas and deep mistrust of government contributed to the siege of his family's isolated mountain cabin in a place called Ruby Ridge -- an incident that, like the subsequent fiery siege at Waco, Texas, has become a right-wing rallying cry against federal law enforcement.
Although some senators expressed qualms over a hearing that is destined to further tarnish law enforcement, one senator after another, both Republicans and Democrats, attacked the FBI for using excessive force at Ruby Ridge and then hiding the truth from investigators and the public.
"The FBI must stop thinking it is the military and get back to being the FBI," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, where Mr. Weaver and his three daughters live.
It was the start of a hearing without heroes.
The Justice Department and the FBI already have admitted wrongdoing. FBI Director Louis J. Freeh suspended five top officials this summer, including Deputy Director Larry Potts. The Justice Department agreed to pay $3.1 million to Mr. Weaver for the deaths of his wife and son.
And the department is investigating whether any law enforcement officials committed crimes stemming from the Ruby Ridge incident, such as lying, destroying evidence and obstructing justice.
But Mr. Weaver is no poster child, either, as Sen. Larry E. Craig, an Idaho Republican, observed.
Mr. Weaver espoused racial separation, believed the government was controlled by Zionists, attended meetings of the Aryan Nation hate group, admitted stocking about 14 loaded guns and 20,000 rounds of ammunition, and instructed his children to carry weapons at all times.
The siege at Ruby Ridge, in which a U.S. marshal also died, was set in motion when Mr. Weaver failed to appear for trial on charges that he sold an illegal sawed-off shotgun to a government informant.
He reportedly threatened to resist anyone who came after him, his wife and four children.
But at a 1993 trial after the shootout, an Idaho jury acquitted Mr. Weaver of all major charges.
It was when he was asked to recount the gun battles of Aug. 21-22, 1992, that Mr. Weaver broke down. His voice cracking, his hands wiping away tears, he said federal marshals shot his son, Samuel, in the back and the next day an FBI Hostage Rescue Team sharpshooter gunned down his wife, Vicki, as she stood at the cabin door.
The sharpshooter "was shooting straight through this door," Mr. Weaver said, pointing to a bullet hole in the door, which had been brought to the hearing room.
His wife carried a sidearm, Mr. Weaver told a senator, "but when they shot her, sir, the only thing she had in her hand was my baby."
Mr. Weaver insisted that marshals fired the first shot and that the sharpshooter deliberated targeted his wife under relaxed FBI orders to shoot any armed adult.
Law enforcement officials will begin telling their side of the story today and tomorrow.