WHEN camouflaged and heavily armed federal agents crept through the trees toward Ruby Ridge, Idaho, three years ago, they set off a chain of violent events that rocked US law-enforcement agencies, helped spawn antigovernment militias, and may have led - at least indirectly -- to the Oklahoma City bombing.
Tomorrow, in a United States Senate hearing room, lawmakers will begin trying to sort all that out.
''The inquiry needs to be pursued,'' says Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania, chairman of the subcommittee holding hearings expected to continue over the next three weeks.
The case involving white separatist Randy Weaver - whose wife and son, along with a federal marshal, were killed in an August 1992 gunfight - already has led to the suspension of five Federal Bureau of Investigation officials suspected of destroying documents and covering up parts of the episode.
Last month, the federal government paid $3.1 million to Mr. Weaver and his three daughters to settle a $200 million wrongful-death lawsuit. And a Justice Department investigation indicates government agents may have violated law- enforcement policy and the US Constitution in killing Vicki Weaver and her teenage son, Sam.
To many, who are convinced that federal agents regularly overstep their bounds, Weaver (who will be the first to testify tomorrow) is a prime example of that abuse of power.
And to conspiracy theorists, many of whom have made their homes in Idaho - militia members, anti-Semitic white supremacists, ''Identity Christians,'' and self-styled ''constitutionalists'' and ''Freemen'' - Weaver is a symbol of everything wrong with the government today.
Writing about the Weaver case in the newsletter of the Idaho-based neo-Nazi group ''Aryan Nations'' after the shootout on Ruby Ridge (but before the Oklahoma bombing last April) former Ku Klux Klan grand dragon and Aryan Nations ''ambassador-at-large'' Louis Beam warned:
''The blood of these innocent ones, like a prism, makes everything clear. ...Someday, without a signal from anyone - yet, as if a signal had come from everyone - [men] will walk quickly out their front doors with a look of grim determination on their faces.... It will happen nationwide. Ten thousand Randy Weavers are spread out from one coast to another.''
The story began when Weaver agreed to sell sawed-off shotguns to a government informer. After unsuccessfully trying to persuade Weaver to spy on Aryan Nations, officials began prosecuting him on the gun charges. When he refused to appear for a court hearing, law-enforcement officials considered him a fugitive and began a surveillance of the Weaver family's ramshackle rural home.
The Weavers and family friend Kevin Harris (all of whom were heavily armed) discovered the agents. One US marshal and Sam Weaver were killed in the initial encounter. The next day, Randy Weaver and Mr. Harris both were wounded and Vicki Weaver, standing in a doorway with her infant daughter in her arms, was mistakenly killed by an FBI sharpshooter.
Following a 10-day standoff and the negotiating efforts of antigovernment radical James ''Bo'' Gritz, Weaver surrendered. He and Harris were charged with murder of the US marshal but acquitted by the Idaho jury on grounds that they acted in self-defense. Weaver served an 18-month sentence on the original gun charge and now lives in Iowa.
Since then, an internal Justice Department review has found ''numerous problems with the conduct of the FBI at Ruby Ridge.'' This includes insufficient intelligence-gathering, ''serious problems'' with the rules of engagement involving use of deadly force, ''numerous shortcomings'' in the command and control of the crisis by the FBI, and ''failure to use basic crime scene techniques in collecting evidence'' once the crisis was over.
The 542-page internal review also criticizes government prosecutors' decision to seek the death penalty for Weaver and Harris, which ''gave the appearance that the government was overreaching,'' given questions about who shot first. The review also cites ''disorganization'' of and ''mistakes'' by the FBI lab in preparing the trial of Weaver and Harris.
Of particular concern are the rules of engagement, which were hastily drafted as the crisis unfolded and held that agents ''can and should'' shoot to kill any armed adult in the Weaver compound. The FBI's Standard Deadly Force Policy states that ''agents are not to use deadly force against any person except as necessary in self-defense or the defense of another, when they have reason to believe that they or another are in danger of death or grievous bodily harm.''
''This inquiry finds that the rules expanded the use of deadly force beyond the scope of the Constitution and beyond the FBI's own standard deadly force policy,'' the review states. ''The Constitution allows no person to become 'fair game' for deadly force without law enforcement evaluating the threat that person poses, even when, as occurred here, the evaluation must be made in a split second.''
As the Senate hearing revives interest in the case, many in the Pacific Northwest are concerned about the region's image as a haven for racists and violent radicals.
Former Los Angeles policeman Mark Fuhrman - whose taped comments introduced at the murder trial of O.J. Simpson many find revolting - has retired to Sandpoint, Idaho, about 25 miles from Ruby Ridge. Louis Beam, the author of the radical tracts that some experts say became the underlying philosophy of the Oklahoma City bombers, recently moved to northern Idaho as well.
To combat this image, the Bonner County Human Rights Task Force was formed in Sandpoint about three years ago. The group of religious leaders, educators, and businesspeople now numbers some 170. And when a Hispanic man was beaten by men shouting Aryan slogans in rural southern Oregon recently, 150 people rallied to protest hate crimes and donate funds for the victim.
''It's time for the rest of us to let our voices be heard,'' says Brenda Hammond, Bonner County task force president. ''We want this part of the country to be known for its beauty, not its bigotry; for harmony, not hatred.''
'Ten thousand Randy Weavers are spread out from one coast to another.'
- Louis Beam of Aryan Nations and the Ku Klux Klan