Experiment Aims to Settle a Key Waco Question

Gunfire Recorded For Comparison With 1993 Video

Washington Post, March 20, 2000
By Paul Duggan

KILLEEN, Tex., March 19-Seven years after the FBI assault on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Tex., ended in a deadly conflagration, lawyers and government officials involved in a lawsuit over the tragedy joined independent investigators today for an unusual exercise that may--or may not--answer a disputed question about the FBI's conduct during the raid. As the 51-day standoff at the religious sect's main building reached its violent climax on April 19, 1993, did agents fire shots into the structure as it was burning, preventing about 80 Branch Davidians, many of them children, from fleeing the blaze that engulfed them?

At an Army base here, far from the view of reporters, eight shooters fired a variety of weapons today on a remote field strewn with Waco-like debris while aircraft equipped with heat-sensing cameras recorded the activity. The images will be scientifically compared with a recording made by a similar camera on an FBI plane during the 1993 raid in an effort to determine if flashes appearing on the 1993 tape are gunfire.

It remains to be seen whether the three-hour exercise at Fort Hood, about 40 miles southwest of Waco, finally will settle the much-debated gunfire question. Long before experts were ready to offer even a preliminary analysis of today's recording, lawyers in the dispute voiced differing opinions of what the experiment likely will show.

"I personally believe that it's going to be very easy to tell" that the 1993 flashes were gunfire, said lawyer Michael Caddell, who represents family members of some of the dead Branch Davidians in a lawsuit against the government.

But Mike Bradford, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas and one of the government's lead lawyers in the case, disagreed. "What we're trying to do here . . . is get this issue hopefully put to rest so that the American public will not continue to hear what we consider a baseless allegation without foundation that the FBI was out in the back of that compound shooting that day," said Bradford. "It didn't happen." Today's recording, made by a device known as a Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) camera, was ordered sealed from public viewing by U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr., who is presiding in the lawsuit. The test was arranged by former Republican senator John C. Danforth of Missouri, who was appointed last September by Attorney General Janet Reno to conduct an independent probe of the disastrous siege.

The FBI has long maintained that its agents did not fire gunshots during the assault, which was carried out with armored vehicles and tear gas, and that the blaze was started by suicidal Branch Davidians, not by government agents. The wrongful-death lawsuit by Caddell's clients questions both of those assertions and faults the government for not moving quickly to extinguish the blaze.

Debate over the FBI's conduct flared anew last August when a former top official of the bureau disclosed that agents fired two pyrotechnic tear gas canisters during the assault. The FBI had asserted for years that it did not use flammable projectiles during the raid. In the ensuing controversy, Danforth was chosen to conduct an independent probe and put to rest what he called "dark questions" still surrounding the siege, which began Feb. 28, 1993, when federal agents arrived at the compound to arrest sect leader David Koresh on weapons charges and became involved in a shootout that left four agents and six Branch Davidians dead.

Caddell said repeatedly today that, unlike some, he does not believe that officials in Washington are involved in "a big conspiracy" to cover up mistakes and misconduct by the FBI at Waco.

"This is a small conspiracy," he said. "There were a handful of people who, on April 19, took matters into their own hands, who disobeyed the orders of the attorney general and the FBI leadership. And I think those people have to be held accountable. . . .

"I believe that our government is a good government," Caddell said. "I believe the FBI is an outstanding law enforcement agency. I don't think what happened at [Waco] is a reflection on the entire FBI. I think what happened is a reflection on some mistakes in FBI procedures at the time."

Danforth and Judge Smith were among about 20 observers at today's exercise, in which the shooters--prone, kneeling and standing--fired single shots, short bursts and long bursts from different weapons as they moved across a field littered with glass, aluminum foil and other reflective debris. The FBI has said that the dozens of flashes on the 1993 FLIR tape could have been sunlight reflecting off debris at the compound.

The FBI has argued that if the 1993 recording were proof of gunfire, the tape would show not only the flashes but the body heat of agents doing the shooting. The shooters in today's experiment wore a variety of combat-type clothing, including an FBI sniper outfit that proponents of the gunfire theory say would have prevented the airborne FLIR camera from detecting the agents' bodies.

The recordings were made by an FBI Nightstalker plane, equipped with a FLIR camera upgraded since 1993, and a British military helicopter carrying a FLIR camera more similar to the one in use on the day of the FBI assault. "Because there are no people visible on the tape from [1993]," Bradford said, "we're going to be looking to see if people are visible on [today's] tape or not. We think that's an important issue. And we're going to be looking at the debris field to see if that causes any kind of glint, any kind of flashes on the tape."

Copies of today's tape were to be given to both sides in the lawsuit, to be used in a trial scheduled for May 15. Danforth, in preparing his report on the siege, will rely on an analysis conducted by Vector Data Systems Ltd., a British company.

"I think they'll issue an honest report, a fair report," Caddell said of Danforth and his staff. "And I think it will be critical in many respects." BACKGROUND: THE WACO SIEGE

Seven years ago, about 75 Branch Davidians died in a fire at the end of a 51-day standoff with federal officials. A lawsuit filed by surviving members and families of the dead challenges conclusions that the Davidians started the fire and shot first during an initial raid. Branch Davidians

Founded: By Victor Houteff in 1929 as an offshoot of Seventh-Day Adventists Followers: 130 before the siege.


  • Their leader was a living prophet, who was treated as a theological king.

  • The second coming of Christ would be announced by their leader. They would move to Palestine to meet the messiah at Mount Zion.

    History: Houteff founded the Mount Carmel center near Waco, Tex., in 1935 to recruit followers. When Houteff died in 1955, the group splintered and Benjamin Roden took control of the movement. He settled the group at what was then called New Mount Carmel.

    David Koresh

    History: Vernon David Koresh joined the Branch Davidians in 1981 and took control in 1988. He changed his name to David Koresh in 1990 and changed the name of Mount Carmel to Ranch Apocalypse in 1992. Beliefs: Koresh believed the apocalypse would occur in the United States, and the Davidians began stockpiling food and weapons. He also took "spiritual wives" out of a desire to create a new lineage of God's children. The Siege

    1992: Federal agents began a formal investigation into whether the Branch Davidians were stockpiling illegal weapons.

  • Feb. 28, 1993: An undercover agent learned Koresh had been warned about an impending raid by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. About 100 agents raided the compound anyway. Four agents and six cult members died in the firefight.

  • March 1-21: Thirty-five men, women and children left the compound.

  • April 12: FBI brought tear gas plan to Attorney General Janet Reno.

  • April 19: The FBI began firing and pumping tear gas into the compound in an attempt to flush out the Davidians. A fire erupted, quickly spreading and destroying the compound and killing about 75, including Koresh.

    The Final Day

    Storm shelter was targeted with military tear gas canisters. Beginning around 6 a.m., modified Bradley tanks broke holes in walls and injected tear gas into the compound.

    Non-incendiary tear gas canisters were fired into windows throughout building.

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