Justice Department can't find negatives of Waco siege photos

Houston Chronicle, April 18, 2000

WACO (AP) -- The Justice Department has admitted that the original negatives from an important roll of film taken on the last day of the siege on the Branch Davidians' complex are missing.

But the department said it did not tamper with those photos or with infrared and electronic surveillance tapes of the April 19, 1993, episode that left about 80 Branch Davidians dead.

The government acknowledged in a court filing Monday that it is missing 30 original negatives from the first of at least seven rolls of film shot by an FBI photographer who circled 1,000 feet above the complex in a Cessna surveillance aircraft.

The government, however, does have prints of the missing negatives and the original contact sheet of the negatives.

This roll of film is important because it appears to show that there are no government agents standing where flashes show up on infrared surveillance tape of the incident. The absence of agents undercuts the Branch Davidians' claim that the flashes are from the guns of agents firing into the complex. One strip of original negatives from that first roll of film has been turned over to the federal court that is hearing the Branch Davidians' wrongful death suit against the government. It contains a key photograph that appears to have been taken within seconds of flashes on the video. That photograph shows no agents in the vicinity of the flashes.

But other negatives from that roll of film have been missing since at least 1997 and have not been found despite an extensive search by the FBI, the Justice Department said.

The department said that the strip of original negatives with the photo from 11:24 a.m. was separated from the missing original negatives when Congress requested it as part of its 1995 investigation of Waco.

The negatives were discovered missing around April 1997. The FBI then made a duplicate set of the negatives from photographs and marked them with the notation "originals lost."

The Davidians' attorney, Michael Caddell, had claimed that one of the photos from the replacement negatives had a white scratch that appeared to obliterate a speck that might be aperson.

The Justice Department claims that the contact sheet, made from the original negative, had no person or speck.

In Monday's filing, government lawyers deny any tampering, alteration or improper motive.

The point-by-point response refuted sect attorneys' claims that the government be punished for what they called a "disturbing pattern" of missing or altered evidence.

The government said the accusations relied upon incomplete, illogical or scientifically invalid analyses by the plaintiffs' hired lawyers and experts.

The Davidians' lead counsel, in a motion filed last month at Waco, asked U.S. District Judge Walter Smith to schedule a hearing to review the complaint or to sanction or fine the government.

Attorneys will face off Monday in Smith's Waco courtroom to present evidence relating to the June trial of the sect's lawsuit.

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