Investigator says test shows gunfire didn't cause flashes on siege video

Source in Waco inquiry calls sunlight, tank heat are possible origins

The Dallas Morning News, April 23, 2000
By Lee Hancock

Preliminary results from a test designed to determine the source of flashes on an infrared video at the end of the Branch Davidian siege near Waco strongly suggest they were caused by sunlight and heat from FBI tanks reflecting off debris - and not government gunfire, an investigator said.

A preliminary report submitted this month by court-appointed British experts did show that flashes were clearly visible on a test infrared video recording from weapons ranging from assault rifles to shotguns, other sources said.

But the test video also recorded distinct flashes from tank exhaust and sunlight reflecting off ground debris, and gunmen firing each of the weapons were always visible on the test video, according to sources who have reviewed the report by Vector Data Research.

Flashes from gunfire on the test video were also far shorter in duration, lasting at most one-fiftieth of a second while those from debris lasted up to 19 times as long, the sources said.

"The length of the April 19 flashes are consistently much longer than what you would see from muzzle blasts," said a government investigator, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Their duration is far closer to what you saw being generated by debris in the field test."

"There is now clear evidence to suggest that whatever caused those flashes on April 19, it wasn't guns," said the investigator. "It appears from their preliminary report that Vector is going to be systematically eliminating all of the glints as coming from muzzle blast on April 19, 1993."

Determining cause

More than 80 sect members died that day in a fire that consumed the sect's home. The fire broke out six hours into an FBI tank and tear gas assault, an operation in which lawyers for the sect have alleged that government agents fired guns repeatedly into the rear of the compound and cut off potential avenues of escape.

Government officials have long denied that any one from their side fired a single gunshot on April 19.

U.S. District Judge Walter Smith ordered a test to try to resolve the issue after the plaintiffs' infrared experts reported that flashes recorded by an airborne FBI forward-looking infrared or FLIR camera on April 19 could have only come from government guns.

The British infrared firm was hired by the court last year to supervise the March 19 field test after being recommended by the office of Waco special counsel John C. Danforth. Judge Smith also asked the firm to prepare an independent report on the results for the court.

Mike Caddell, lead lawyer for the plaintiffs in the wrongful death lawsuit arising from the siege, said he remains hopeful that Vector's final written report to the court will conclude that some of the flashes on the April 19

video came from gunfire.

Many issues

But he said he and other lawyers had expected to hear immediately from Judge Smith about the substance of an oral report he received last Monday by the British experts on its conclusions about the gunfire. Mr. Caddell conceded that the judge's decision not to pass along what he was told "may be a bad sign."

He said the judge may not have wanted to give potentially bad news to lawyers for the sect during the same week that surviving sect members observed the seventh anniversary of the siege's fiery ending.

"There are many issues in our lawsuit. Gunfire is only one of them. It is not even the most serious issue in terms of loss of life. The most serious issue may be the decision not to have adequate firefighting equipment there on April 19," Mr. Caddell said.

"We can only recover for a death one time. And if we recover because there was lack of firefighting equipment or there was premature demolition of the building or because the government's actions contributed to the fire, or we recover because there was government gunfire - that is immaterial," he said. "For my clients, people who lost loved ones on April 19, all of these issues

are equal."

Government case

Government lawyers have focused their key legal maneuvering during the last nine months on making the allegations of gunfire and government agents' use of excessive force against the sect the only issues that will be brought to a full trial. They have repeatedly asked Judge Smith to dismiss remaining issues in the lawsuit, arguing that federal law protects the government and its agents from what amounts to "second-guessing" of their decisions in a courtroom - even if those decisions have tragic results.

"The judge is likely to let at least some of the other issues go to trial, but losing on the gunfire issue is a major setback. The darkest of the dark questions in the plaintiff's case will be answered in the negative," the investigator said. "For anyone banking on the April 19 flashes being caused by gunfire, asking for this field test may have been the tactical equivalent of that prosecutor in Los Angeles asking O.J. Simpson to try on that glove."

Judge Smith has not yet ruled on those motions, but his decisions on the final size and scope of the case must be made soon because he has scheduled the case to go to trial on June 19.

If the court expert concludes that there is no gunfire, then Mr. Caddell and other lawyers for the plaintiffs will have to decide whether they and their experts have any hope of challenging that conclusion.

Mr. Caddell said conditions in the Fort Hood, Texas, test such as the angle of the FLIR camera and its distance from the targets on the ground could still pose significant questions for whichever side loses when the British experts offer their final conclusions.

If they report no gunfire flashes on the April 19 video, he said, he would have problems accepting that "if there's a significant difference in [flash] time that would be attributed to distance or angle of the camera.

"If their conclusion is it can't be gunfire because we don't see people like on April 19, I'd have a problem," he said, noting that people would have been more visible on the test tape because the day was 20 degrees cooler in temperature and the gunmen in the test were not trying to hide.

"If they can show me flashes on the British FLIR that are from debris, that are identical to flashes on the April 19 FLIR, and they can then show me on the April 19 FLIR that [what appears to some viewers to be moving people] is in fact debris and not a person - I'm not crazy," he said. "I am not unreasonable. I could be convinced of it. But I'd have to see it."

Finding answers

The investigator involved in an ongoing investigation of the Waco incident said he believes that the British firm will be able to find clear causes other than gunfire for most, if not all, of the flashes on the April 19 tape.

He said some experts who have viewed the April 19 video have noted that the moving blips that appear on it could have been caused by blowing aluminum-coated insulation, bits of construction or roofing paper or other similar debris.

"The moving objects appear to go from right to left. That's the direction that the wind was blowing that day," the investigator said.

Experts also questioned gunfire as a possible source for the April 19 flashes because many appeared circular in shape and, "gun flashes are always linear," the investigator said.

Vector's preliminary written report analyzing the recording from the field test also indicated that heavy tanks like those used by the FBI in its April 19 tear gas assault did cause some flashes to appear on a FLIR video, sources said.

Heat from the exhaust bay of the combat engineering vehicles used by the FBI in Waco did throw enough heat onto debris strewn on the ground at Fort Hood to create visible flashes on the test recording, sources said the report by Vector indicated.

Flashes from the debris varied in shape, size and intensity on the field test recording. Its size, and sometimes its shape, was similar to the actual object that was reflecting sunlight or heat, sources said the report indicated.

The length of the debris flashes varied but was always longer than gun flashes. The gunshots caused flashes of uniform brightness and consistently small, linear shape and also left a shadow that was visible two to three feet above the ground when the images were viewed in "stereo," the report indicated.

Flash producers

Six weapons fired at Fort Hood did produce muzzle blasts, disproving the FBI's long-held theory that its camera was incapable of detecting and recording gunfire.

Weapons that produced flashes included CAR-15 assault rifles - a type of gun commonly carried by the FBI's hostage rescue team; M-60 machine guns - which were also present in Waco; M-79 grenade launchers - like those used to fire tear gas at the compound; shotguns, "flash-bang" distraction grenades; and a Mark-19 automatic grenade launcher, the preliminary report indicated.

But the test also supports the government's long-held theory that flashes on April 19 couldn't have been gunfire because no gunmen were visible. Government officials have argued that the first person to appear on that videotape is a Branch Davidian survivor who appeared on the compound roof during the fire.

The Vector preliminary report indicated that gunmen at Fort Hood were always visible, although they sometimes appeared less clearly, sources said. Even before the British firm conducted last month's field test at a closed Fort Hood firing range, some government critics began to say that Vector could not be unbiased in its supervision and analysis because the firm is owned by an American defense conglomerate. Other subsidiaries of the conglomerate, Anteon Inc., have extensive contracts with U.S. agencies including the Pentagon, the National Security Agency, the FBI and the Justice Department.

At least part of the British firm's preliminary report to the court appeared aimed at addressing those critics.

Sources said the report's first section included the statement that the British firm did most of its work for the British defense ministry. The report also noted that the firm was operated and controlled by British nationals and had never previously done work under direct contract with the U.S. government.

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