BONNER COUNTY, Idaho - After her mother and brother were killed and dad imprisoned, you might think Sara Weaver would carry anger against the government in her heart. Instead she found a way to heal, forgive and move out of the shadows of Ruby Ridge.
Twenty years this summer, in the mountains of northern Idaho, one of the darkest chapters in American history unfolded.
In August 1992, federal agents were in a standoff with a North Idaho family on a rocky hillside known as Ruby Ridge. What happened over 11 days changed the way the U.S. government responds to critical incidents like that and changed a family forever.
Now a survivor of that incident is speaking out about life beyond Ruby Ridge.
There are no signs now to mark the road to Ruby Ridge and many of the old landmarks are gone. But Ruby Creek still runs high -- consistent, in a place where so much has changed.
"It's been 20 years, but it feels like yesterday," said Sara Weaver, who was 16 years old in the summer of 1992.
Twenty years ago this August, Ruby Creek Bridge was a flashpoint. That's where federal agents blocked the road to keep protesters from the mountains above. Up in those mountains, history was happening.
"What we are trying to do is bring into custody two individuals that have federal warrants out for them," said Eugene Glenn, the FBI agent in charge of the operation back in 1992.
In a cabin just above where Glenn briefed reporters, the Weaver family was holding out. They came to the mountain to get away, to be left alone. They had no electricity and no running water. Still, until 1992, it had been an idyllic childhood for Sara Weaver.
"It was tons of fun," Weaver said, remembering life on Ruby Ridge. "I like to call it Little House on the Mountain. It was a blast."
But the government believed the Randy and Vicki Weaver were dangerous. They were armed, and the devout religious family had come to Ruby Ridge to prepare for the end times. So when federal agents came to arrest Randy Weaver on a weapons charge that August, they came with everything they had.
Things went badly from the start. In the initial firefight near the Weaver cabin, federal agents shot 14-year old Sam Weaver in the back as he ran for home. Deputy U.S. Marshal Bill Degan was killed in the return fire. The government set up camp, and Weaver supporters came to the roadblock at the Ruby Creek Bridge. They shouted at the federal agents, calling them baby killers and traitors to the white race.
On day 2, the unthinkable happened. An FBI sniper shot into the Weaver cabin, hitting Vicki Weaver in the face. She was killed while holding her 10-month-old daughter Elisheba. Sixteen-year-old Sara was just steps away.
"It was very hard. I felt very hopeless, scared, lost," Sara Weaver remembers. "The most important thing to me had been ripped away."
Eleven tense days later, it was over. Randy Weaver went to jail, charged with the murder of a federal agent. Sara, 10-year-old Rachel and baby Elisheba went to live with family in Iowa.
"I instantly became the caretaker of my family," said Weaver. "I was in the mind frame that if I'm taking care of everyone else, no one can tell me what to do. I was very rebellious, very angry."
She knew the eyes of the world were watching.
"The media was portraying our family completely the opposite of how I saw our family, and I felt like it was my job to do the best I could and be as normal as I could be to make people understand we weren't the monsters everyone thought we were."
Sara Weaver graduated from high school and moved back to the mountains she loved so much. She settled in Montana, got married and had a son. But the scars of Ruby Ridge remained.
"I was miserable all the time -- just sad and depressed," said Weaver. "I had never dealt with all the feelings and emotions that came from the trauma I experienced. I just stuffed them and ran away from them."
She finally found comfort in something she'd abandoned years before.
"I dug out a Bible that had been given to me when I was in Sunday school when I was 7 years old. It was a King James version. I had only memorized one verse, and it came to me at that moment. It was John 3:16. 'For God so loved the world, he gave his only begotten son so that whomever believes in him would not perish but have everlasting life,'" Weaver remembers. "That moment, I felt God's love pour out from heaven. I started bawling, I knew Jesus was real, that he loved me."
The weight of Ruby Ridge was lifted.
"It impacted me more than Ruby Ridge did because he lifted the weight of the world from my shoulders at that moment. It was a miracle in my life," she said.
Weaver grew up with the Bible and God and religion. But she says it was not the same God she found that day in Montana.
"I was raised in a very Old Testament belief system, and I thought God was just a big judge in the sky waiting for me to do something wrong and punish me!" she said.
This God, she says, taught her grace and how to forgive; she learned how to forgive the men who gunned down her family years before.
"After examining what God had done for me, I couldn't not release them," Weaver said of the federal agents. "I couldn't not forgive them."
It changed Weaver's life completely. She divorced, then met and married her husband, Marc, in 2009. She had new reason to live -- and now had another challenge before her.
"Three or four years ago, I Googled my name, and what was tied to that was not the legacy I wanted to leave my son. And I looked at my husband and said 'We need to do something about this. This is our responsibility.'"
Hate groups and anti-government conspiracy theorists like to invoke the Weaver name. Sara Weaver knows she's not the only one who carried hate in her heart about Ruby Ridge. When Timothy McVeigh blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City, he did it with the Weavers in mind.
"What the U.S. government did at Waco and Ruby Ridge was dirty," McVeigh said. "And I gave dirty back to them at Oklahoma City."
"I didn't want my name tied to - to give anyone reason to act out in any kind of violence in my name," Weaver said. "I know what it feels like on a gut level to lose your family to violence."
Now, she's telling her story. She's telling what led her to the very bottom and what has lifted her up again. She's reaching out to those in despair to teach them things she never knew.
"No one talked to me about post-traumatic stress disorder. No one told me that when I heard a helicopter, I would want to hit the deck -- and the fear and anxiety it would bring up in me," she said.
Sara Weaver says she's still very much a work in progress. She's also still close with family members, who live nearby. Randy Weaver, cleared of the most serious criminal charges, is a frequent baby sitter for his grandchildren. Rachel Weaver now has two children of her own. And baby Elisheba is now 21 years old and opened her own nail business in Montana.
Sara Weaver is proud of the family she has, while still grieving the family she lost.
"My son is getting to the age of where Sam was. It's kind of surreal sometimes. It's like I have my little sidekick back."
And, of course, she thinks about her mom.
"She just loved her children. And, I just want [my son] to know how much I love him. Because life is short, and I wish I let them know how much I loved them more than I did."
Weaver now calls her home a place of healing. She's surrounded by mountains and tress and riding horses as she was as a kid. Life here is nothing like Ruby Ridge, but the memories are not far away. She and her sisters now own the property where that cabin once stood; it collapsed in the snow several years ago. The place that once represented anger and vengeance is now a place of peace.
"I did go up one time after I became a Christian and really dealt with some things with God and released mom and Sam to him. It was time of healing, which I think I needed," she said.
The world came to Ruby Ridge on those dark days in 1992; this week, a neighbor said, "It's been a long time since someone asked how to get to Ruby Ridge."
As time goes by, the echoes of hate will fade away. But the healing waters of Ruby Creek still flow.
"Its kind of like a rock in the river that just keeps tumbling, you know -- and eventually gets smooth," Weaver said.
Though it's difficult to relive her painful past, Sara Weaver is now speaking publicly, invited by church groups and other organizations to share her story. You can read more about Sara's mission, find out how to contact her and read about her upcoming book by visiting her website at http://www.rubyridgetofreedom.com/
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