DeadlineBy: Sandra Brown
Golden Branch, Oregon—1976
The first hail of bullets was fired from the house shortly after daybreak at six fifty-seven.
The gunfire erupted in response to the surrender demand issued by a team of law enforcement agents.
It was a gloomy morning. The sky was heavily overcast and there was dense fog. Despite the limited visibility, one of the fugitives inside the house got off a lucky shot that took out a deputy US marshal whom everybody called Turk.
Gary Headly had met the marshal only the day before, shortly after the law enforcement team comprising ATF and FBI agents, sheriff’s deputies, and US marshals met for the first time to discuss the operation. They’d been congregated around a map of the area known as Golden Branch, reviewing obstacles they might encounter. Headly remembered another marshal saying, “Hey, Turk, grab me a Coke while you’re over there, will ya?”
Headly didn’t learn Turk’s actual name until later, much later, when they were mopping up. The bullet struck half an inch above his Kevlar vest, tearing out most of his throat. He dropped without uttering a sound, dead before landing in the pile of wet leaves at his feet. There was nothing Headly could do for him except offer up a brief prayer and remain behind cover. To move was to invite death or injury, because once the gunfire started, the open windows of the house spat bullets relentlessly.
The Rangers of Righteousness had an inexhaustible arsenal. Or so it seemed that wet and dreary morning. The second casualty was a red-headed, twenty-four-year-old deputy sheriff. A puff of his breath in the cold air gave away his position. Six shots were fired. Five found the target. Any one of three would have killed him.
The team had planned to take the group by surprise, serve their arrest warrants for a long list of felonies, and take them into custody, engaging in a firefight only if necessary. But the vehemence with which they were fired upon indicated that the criminals had taken a fight-to-the-death stance.
After all, they had nothing to lose except their lives. Capture meant imprisonment for life or the death penalty for each of the seven members of the domestic-terrorist group. Collectively the six men and one woman had chalked up twelve murders and millions of dollars’ worth of destruction, most of it inflicted on federal government buildings or military installations. Despite the religious overtone of their name, they weren’t faith-based fanatics but rather wholly without conscience or constraint. Over the relatively short period of two years, they had made themselves notorious, a scourge to law enforcement agencies at every level.
Other such groups imitated the Rangers, but none had achieved their level of effectiveness. In the criminal community, they were revered for their audacity and unmatched violence. To many who harbored antigovernment sentiments, they had become folk heroes. They were sheltered and provided with weapons and ammunition, as well as with leaked, classified information. This underground support allowed them to strike hard and fast and then to disappear and remain well hidden while they planned their next assault. In communiqués sent to newspapers and television networks, they’d vowed never to be taken alive.
It had been a stroke of sheer luck that had brought the law down on them in Golden Branch.
One of their arms suppliers, who was well known to the authorities for his criminal history, had been placed under surveillance for suspicion of an arms deal unrelated to the Rangers of Righteousness. He had made three trips to the abandoned house in Golden Branch over the course of that many weeks. A telephoto lens had caught him talking to a man later identified as Carl Wingert, leader of the Rangers.
When this was reported to the FBI, ATF, and US Marshals Service, the agencies immediately sent personnel, who continued to monitor the illegal weapons dealer. Upon his return from a visit to Golden Branch, he was arrested.