Re-enactment results may aid government's case at Waco

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 24, 2000
By Terry Ganey

The test so aggressively sought by Branch Davidian plaintiffs to prove government wrongdoing at Waco may have produced a boost for the government's claim that no FBI agents fired guns at the Davidians' complex.

Although the videotaped infrared test results have been sealed by a federal judge, those who have reviewed them say the tapes show people firing weapons during the simulation of Waco's conditions. That would seem to bolster the government's case because in the original FBI surveillance tapes made on April 19, 1993, no people could be seen near the flashes that the Davidians say represent gunfire.

Government lawyers have said that the flashes on the original tape could not be gunfire if no person shows up near the flashes. Because the re-enactment tapes were made under similar conditions, if there were "shooters" on April 19, they should have shown up then like they did on the test tapes made Sunday.

One independent observer of the test who spoke on the condition of anonymity said Thursday that it appeared that the test results may help the government.

A lawyer who represents some of the Branch Davidian survivors reviewed the test results Wednesday. He said it was clear to him that people showed up firing weapons during the infrared test.

"There is no doubt that both cameras showed human beings where there are flashes," said Jim Brannon, who represents the estates of three of the deceased children of David Koresh, the Branch Davidian leader who died during the FBI assault.

"Their (the government's) argument is: That being the case, where are the shooters behind the flashes on April 19th?"

Brannon said that the test result did not close the door on the Davidians' claim. He pointed out that technology existed in 1993 for FBI agents to be dressed in clothing that could mask the body heat detected by infrared cameras. He said there were cloaks available then that could be quickly slipped over a person, masking 99 percent of the person's heat and thus making them invisible to infrared detection. Those types of garments were not included in the test.

"Their argument has its force, but it also has an explanation," Brannon said. "Which one you want to believe is up to you."

During Sunday's test at Fort Hood, Texas, an FBI's "Nightstalker" plane and a British Royal Navy Lynx helicopter made two separate infrared recordings of gunfire and debris on the ground. The shooters wore flight suits, camouflage sniper outfits and body armor. The idea was to compare the two new tapes with the 1993 original to see what may have produced the flashes.

The test was ordered by U.S. District Judge Walter Smith Jr., who is presiding over the Branch Davidians' survivors wrongful death suit against the government. Special counsel John Danforth suggested the test and recommended Vector Data Systems Ltd., a British subsidiary of a U.S. defense contractor, to supervise the test. Within 30 days, Vector is to give its report on the test results to the court. After that, according to the judge's order, the test results may become public.

While the judge has closed the test results, he has not prohibited the lawyers from discussing it. On Monday, U.S. Attorney Mike Bradford said the results showed that debris could have caused the flashes on the 1993 tape, and that the muzzle blasts from only two large caliber weapons produced flashes on the tape.

Mike Caddell, the lead lawyer for the Branch Davidians' survivors, said his preliminary review of the results found flashes from four weapons, including the CAR 15, which was used by FBI agents during the siege. Caddell also said he didn't see any flashes from the debris.

On Thursday, Caddell said he believed it was a mistake for both the government and the plaintiffs to put out statements based on their quick review of the results.

"I don't like the fact that we came out with one version and they another," Caddell said. He said he believed that in the end each side will "acknowledge the obvious" and see the same flashes but interpret their significance differently. Thus, government experts may say the flashes from the debris on the test tape are more like those on the 1993 tape, while the Davidians' expert may argue that the test flashes from the gunfire are more like the flashes recorded nearly seven years ago.

Bradford and Caddell both said they saw bodies on the test tapes. Bradford said people were visible when they were moving around during the simulation. He said that in each instance where there is a flash, "individuals are visible, in contrast to the tape made on April 19th." Bradford also said that the people "fade in and out" on the tape made by the British Lynx helicopter. That result will be given more weight because the Lynx was using a camera more like the one the FBI had in 1993.

Caddell said the test tape showed bodies appearing and disappearing.

"There are times when you know there are eight shooters on that tape and you can't find any of them and there are times when you can see seven of them," Caddell said. "What you will see when you look at the tapes, the bodies are warm and visible early in the morning. They become less visible as the ground heats up."

There was nearly a 20-degree difference between the temperature during the test (69 degrees) and on April 19, 1993 (85 degrees). Bradford said the difference in temperature would not have made a difference in the results.

Caddell said that people are visible on the 1993 tape later in the day when they seem to appear and disappear while walking around the charred ruins of the complex.

Chronology of Waco investigation

  • April 19, 1993 - About 80 Branch Davidians die from gunshots and a fire after FBI agents insert tear gas into their complex near Waco and begin demolishing it with tanks.

  • 1994-1999 - Congressional hearings, a criminal trial and investigations by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Justice Department fail to answer all questions about Waco.

  • Sept. 9, 1999 - Attorney General Janet Reno appoints John Danforth as special counsel to investigate what happened to the Branch Davidians.

  • March 19, 2000 - At Danforth's suggestion, Waco re-enactment is held at Fort Hood, Texas, to determine what caused mysterious flashes on infrared surveillance tape that Branch Davidians claim are signatures of FBI gunfire.

  • May 15, 2000 - Trial is scheduled in federal court in Waco on Branch Davidians' wrongful death lawsuit against the federal government.

  • Summer 2000 - Possible new round of congressional hearings on what happened to the Branch Davidians.

  • Fall 2000 - Possible findings to be issued by Danforth.

    To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.