The FBI's sniper under fire

A controversial agent is at the center of the Waco investigation

US News and World Report, November 8, 1999
By Mike Tharp

The Sierra 4 sniper position was some 200 yards from white separatist Randy Weaver's cabin, deep in the northern Idaho mountains. The man in camouflage nestled in the thick brush there had a clear field of fire on the wooden structure across the furrowed ridges. On Aug. 22, 1992, the morning was cool, cloudy and rainy.

Eight months later outside Waco, Texas, on April 19, the noonday sun was warm with heavy winds out of the north. The Sierra 1 sniper position was in a boxy concrete outbuilding less than 100 yards from the Branch Davidian compound. The agent stationed there could see the front door and several windows of his target over the gentle grassy rise. Whether shots were fired from this site is one of the hottest controversies in the continuing Waco saga, now the focus of a civil lawsuit and a high-profile congressional investigation.

The man in the Sierra 1 sniper post at Waco and the Sierra 4 post at Ruby Ridge was FBI marksman Lon Tomohisa Horiuchi. Over the past seven years, he has become the most controversial law enforcement officer in America. For most of that time, the 45-year-old West Point graduate and former infantry officer has been in courtrooms or preparing his defense. At Ruby Ridge, Horiuchi shot and killed Weaver's wife, Vicki, 43, as she held their 10-month-old daughter behind the door of their cabin. He also shot and wounded Weaver, 44, and his friend, Kevin Harris. At Waco, some 80 members of the Branch Davidian religious sect perished after the FBI and other law enforcement agencies moved to end the 51-day siege.

Being there. Now it's Horiuchi who is in the crosshairs. He is the only individual defendant still left in the wrongful death civil lawsuit filed by Branch Davidians and their survivors against the federal government. His attorneys say he is innocent, that he "didn't take any shots whatsoever at Waco." But Houston lawyer Michael Caddell, who represents some of the Davidians, says the group has "specific evidence" showing that Horiuchi did fire his weapon. Earlier this year, a federal judge in Waco ruled that the Davidians had uncovered "at least some evidence to support their claim" that

Horiuchi fired into the burning building.

How did this 15-year FBI veteran, the son of another U.S. Army officer, wind up in such a legal quagmire? What caused this husband and father, a politically conservative Catholic who homeschools some of his six children, to become such a figure of hatred? Horiuchi's actions at Waco and Ruby Ridge have been documented in great detail. Perhaps it is the significance militia groups have attached to both events, rather than the events themselves, that has intensified the focus on him. For now at least, Horiuchi is not saying. His attorneys have counseled silence, and that seems to be Horiuchi's preferred response in any case. "He's a very private person, very protective of his family," says Adam Hoffinger, one of the lawyers for Horiuchi, a third-generation Japanese-American who grew up in Hawaii. "We're determined to let him get on with his life."

To his defenders, Horiuchi-who has testified he could hit a quarter at 200 yards-is a consummate pro, honed as a military officer, burnished as a leader of an FBI Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) sniper crew. "He was dedicated, hard working, aggressive. He was trying to do the right thing, trying to serve his country in a stressful environment," David W. Johnson, head of the HRT from 1985 to 1989 and once Horiuchi's supervisor, told the Albany (N.Y.) Times Union in 1995. FBI Director Louis Freeh has also stood by his agent, stressing that his job entailed making "split-second decisions."

To his critics, Horiuchi is a "paid FBI assassin" carrying out the wishes of an increasingly hostile and unresponsive police establish- ment. "After a year-long review, the U.S. Justice Department decides . . . not to charge sniper Lon Horiuchi with any crime. Like the Germans at Nuremberg, [Justice Department officials] declare he was 'just following orders,' " snapped a Las Vegas Review-Journal editorial after the government closed an investigation of Horiuchi's actions without filing charges.

Repeat defendant. By the time he became a defendant in the current Waco case, Horiuchi had already been in an Idaho federal court on involuntary-manslaughter charges in connection with Vicki Weaver's death. A federal judge dismissed the case last year, ruling that "Mr. Horiuchi, rightly or wrongly, was clearly acting under orders authorized by the U.S. government to go shoot and kill an armed male adult because the threat to human lives had already been determined by his supervisors based on the facts then known to them." The decision is being appealed by the state of Idaho.

Horiuchi and 10 other HRT snipers were flown to the Idaho siege after U.S. Marshal William Degan and Randy Weaver's 14-year-old son, Sam, were killed. They were positioned around the cabin when Randy Weaver, his daughter Sara, and their friend Kevin Harris attempted to go to a shed where Sam's body lay. As the trio neared the shed, Horiuchi fired once with his .308-caliber Remington rifle, equipped with a powerful scope, hitting Randy Weaver in the arm. He fired again as the group ran back to the cabin. This round smashed through the door, striking Vicki in the jaw and killing her almost instantly. The same bullet also seriously wounded Harris. Horiuchi later testified he did not see Vicki behind the door and that he believed Randy Weaver and Harris, who was carrying a rifle, posed a threat to an FBI helicopter hovering overhead. (According to Jess Walter, author of Every Knee Shall Bow, a book about the showdown at Ruby Ridge: "There were 11 snipers on the hill, and they all heard the same helicopter. He was the only one who fired.")

Less than a year later, Horiuchi was again at a sniper post, this time outside the Davidian complex, and his actions there are emblematic of why questions about Waco won't go away. New evidence has spawned charges of a government coverup, which the feds deny and former Sen. John Danforth is now investigating (box). The FBI denies its officers fired any shots. But Branch Davidian attorneys insist that the FBI's own infrared videotape, taken from a small aircraft circling above during the last day of the Waco standoff, reveals "characteristic repetitive flashes" associated with gunfire coming from federal agents and from inside the house. They say there are also photos of shell casings on the undercover building where Horiuchi and other snipers were stationed. But firearms experts say it would be nearly impossible to match them with Horiuchi's weapon. "They re-barrel those [sniper] weapons no less than every two years," says one weapons analyst. In the wake of Ruby Ridge and Waco, the FBI has tempered its tactics, emphasizing negotiation over force. To wit: The bureau used third-party mediators instead of force to peacefully end the 81-day Montana Freeman standoff in 1996. "Lon Horiuchi changed the history of how the government deals with so-called right-wing groups," says Kirk Lyons, chief trial counsel of the Southern Legal Resource Center, who represents several of the Davidian plantiffs. "Before Lon Horiuchi, they were considered extremist, but he made [their] criticism of the government legitimate and mainstream." If true, it is an ironic legacy for a man who has dedicated his life to defending that government.

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