Paths to the Inferno: The Embittered Deputy

Time Magazine/May 3, 1993
By David Van Biema, Reported by Elaine Shannon and Elizabeth Taylor

STEVE SCHNEIDER WAS A DISAPPOINTMENT, IF NOT TO HIMSELF, THEN TO some of the people who wanted to use him.

He made his initial public appearance in the unfolding Waco tragedy as a substitute for a wounded David Koresh, grown weak after hours of haranguing FBI hostage negotiators. The bureau told the press that like his boss, Schneider enjoyed explicating Scripture, and that he seemed moody. But his background and character were of considerably more interest than they let on at the time.

Schneider, 43, had been reared, like some of the cultists, as a Seventh Day Adventist. Unlike the others, he had been more than a congregant. Since childhood the blond, outgoing Wisconsinite had felt a calling. After earning a degree in religion from the University of Hawaii in 1986, he tried for a while to start his own church. He next applied for a job as a minister at the local Adventist church. It was shortly after being turned down that he and his wife Judge met Marc Breault, then a recruiter for the Branch Davidians, an Adventist offshoot. Soon Schneider was gathering converts as far afield as Australia.

Schneider was useful to Koresh, a ninth-grade dropout, vetting his theology and advising him on finances. The relationship was not one of equals, however. In 1989 Judy was one of Koresh's first new "wives." Schneider was reportedly appalled. When Judy had a daughter rumored to be Koresh's, Steve wrote home saying the baby was his.

So Schneider had reason to be moody; and the FBI had hopes that there was still a leader in him; or an anger they might parlay into lives saved.

Those who dealt most closely with him doubted it. "He had been elevated way above his capability or accepted the role in that compound," says Byron Sage, the main FBI negotiator. Before Feb. 28, the second in command was Perry Jones, the father and the grandfather of several other Koreshians. "Perry was killed, and all of a sudden you had the Messiah and a quantum leap down to the next viable person, who was Schneider. He was not highly respected. Plus, after giving up his worldly possessions and his wife to David, it's a difficult thing convincing yourself that, hey, you've made a mistake.

But Schneider was the only game in town. Early in March, when he claimed he had 30 cultists ready to exit, the feds dutifully produced a bus. Koresh nixed the deal. Schneider hired a lawyer who, along with Koresh's, outlined an end-of-Passover surrender. That never happened either. "We put a lot of pressure on him that we hoped he could live up to," says Sage. "But he couldn't."

Schneider was by the phone on April 19 when FBI agent called to announce their decision to use tear gas. He hung up on them, and as they watched, he phone came flying out the door. The government tanks advanced and were met by a fusillade from within. Then the firing stopped for a moment, and Schneider scurried out and got the phone.

Who knows what he wanted with it. Maybe he thought he could still broker a peace. By that time, however, it would have been too late for him even if he'd had the nerve.

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