Waco video analyzed

Sect lawyer disputes that flashes sunlight

The Dallas Morning News, May 11, 2000
By Lee Hancock

Flashes recorded on an FBI infrared video at the end of the Branch Davidian siege came not from government or Davidian gunfire, but from sunlight reflecting off glass, metal and water, and the movement of tanks and windblown debris, court-appointed infrared experts state.

The detailed, 65-page final report by Vector Data Research was released Wednesday to both sides in a federal wrongful death lawsuit arising from the 1993 standoff. The report mirrored an oral briefing made public late last month by U.S. District Judge Walter Smith, the Waco federal judge who appointed the British firm at the recommendation of Waco special counsel John C. Danforth to try to help resolve the gunfire issue.

The report indicated that Vector's analysts employed frame-by-frame analysis and computer imagery enhancement programs as well as detailed comparisons of known thermal signatures of gunfire and sunlight-generated flashes to identify the causes of 57 separate flashes on the infrared recording made by the FBI at Waco on April 19, 1993.

Vector's four-month inquiry also employed detailed comparative studies of still photos and other imagery taken by both the FBI and outsiders on April 19 to support the conclusion that none of the flashes came from gunfire, the report stated.

"From the information available to VDS (UK), we have concluded that the 57 thermal events, including the alleged sighting of a person, are all caused by passive specular solar reflection, active thermal reflection or movement of debris," the report stated. The study also concluded that no people were visible anywhere on the infrared recording until several minutes after the Davidian compound caught fire.

More than 80 sect members died in the blaze. Justice Department lawyers have argued that the government bears no responsibility because the fire was deliberately set by sect members. But lawyers for surviving Davidians and the families of those who died have alleged in their wrongful death lawsuit that government actions caused or contributed heavily to the tragedy.

Government officials and lawyers hailed Vector's final report Wednesday, saying they hope its thoroughness will quiet any lingering public doubts about whether federal agents opened fire on the embattled sect on the final day of the 1993 standoff.

"I'm sure there will be people who continue to question this, but my hope is the fact that this is a truly independent study and a very thorough study will put the majority of people at ease that there was no gunfire by the FBI," said U.S. Attorney Mike Bradford of Beaumont, one of the lead lawyers for the government's trial team.

"It confirms totally the position of the FBI that there were no personnel on the ground and that the flashes were not from gunfire," he said.

One federal official predicted that Vector's report "should drive a stake through the heart of the nuttier theories surrounding this case. This report shows that we might have shot our reputations, but we damn sure didn't shoot any Davidians."

But the lead plaintiff's lawyer in the wrongful death suit said the report appears flawed and contradictory.

"I can pick the thing apart in 30 minutes," said Mike Caddell, a Houston lawyer representing the families of sect members who died in the April 19 fire. "It is impressive in its presentation. They clearly spent a lot of time on it. But having said that, there are some clear disconnects in what they've done - obvious instances in their own report where their conclusions are not supported by their own data, their own analysis."

In some instances, Mr. Caddell said, the Vector report lists only about half of the flashes that appear within rapid sequence on the infrared. And throughout the report, the experts fail to detail the maximum duration of known gunfire recorded in the infrared test, he said.

One infrared expert spotted several "clear" instances of people being visible, and those are not addressed in the Vector report, he said. Mr. Caddell and other lawyers for the plaintiffs will grill two of Vector's analysts in two days of depositions scheduled for later this month and will question a third in early June. He said a major area of inquiry will be his concern that Vector "had already made their minds up" about the cause of the infrared flashes before they supervised a court-ordered infrared field test at Fort Hood in mid-March.

Judge Smith told both sides last month during a pretrial hearing that he would not consider Vector's report "conclusive evidence," adding that their opinion "may be controverted, and you have the right to do that."

U.S. Attorney Bradford said he expects that Vector's exhaustive analysis will offer strong evidence for the government's defense in the upcoming wrongful death trial, now scheduled to begin June 19.

While Mr. Caddell's infrared experts reported 36 instances that they believed were government or Davidian gunfire or the detonation of government "flash-bang" distraction grenades, Vector analysts identified an additional 20 "thermal events" on the April 19 infrared tape.

Vector's report noted that two flashes similar to those alleged to be gunfire came from "what is believed to be a smooth metal plate" photographed on the ground near the compound before April 19.

It added that at least one flash alleged to be Davidian gunfire "occurs on 23 differently timed occasions. These 23 flashes span some 26 minutes in time and occur only when the sensor is in the same position with regard to the sun and to the roof in question."

The report added that there was a "clear correlation between debris on the roof and the thermal flashes" that appeared in those 23 instances, and each was "consistent with a passive solar reflection" and lacked the "directional properties associated with gunfire."

"Of significance, our analysis indicates that the flashes are not emanating from the windows as alleged in some instances, rather from debris strewn on the roof," the report stated.

None of the flashes alleged by experts for the sect to be government gunfire or other government-generated explosions matched the six "essential criteria" for thermal signatures of gunfire on forward-looking-infrared or FLIR video recordings, the report stated.

Of those 18 alleged instances of gunfire, only one had both the required size and tone, the report stated. Five others approached the required size or tone, but none had the shape, duration, shadow or other associated features of gunfire, the report stated.

Five flashes that appeared to come from the compound windows and which were identified by some infrared analysts as Davidian gunfire were caused by sunlight reflecting off ground debris near the tower, the report stated.

Another eight flashes that appeared in the rear courtyard of the compound, some of which were alleged to be government gunfire, were caused by sunlight reflecting off debris knocked from the compound by FBI tanks, the Vector report stated.

The report noted that none of those eight flashes appeared "prior to the demolition" of the rear of the building by one of the FBI's combat engineering vehicles.

Vector analysts noted that ground conditions and temperatures in that courtyard area would make "government agents alleged to be firing weapons from these particularly exposed positions - identifiable on the FLIR tape as the flashes occur. No personnel are seen in this courtyard, either on the FLIR tapes or the color (still) photographs."

In some instances where flashes appeared in close proximity to the combat engineering vehicles, Vector analysts concluded that they were caused either by sunlight reflecting off debris that had collected on the vehicles or from their engine heat reflecting off ground debris.

Vector analysts also dismissed allegations by some infrared analysts that a hatch could be seen opening on one of the government tanks at 12:08, just before a prolonged series of flashes.

They found, however, that the tank had just pulled away from the rear of the building and was covered in debris that was "blowing in the wind (to) ... give the appearance of a hatch opening." The report added that a still photo of the same tank showed the "debris still in place over the forward deck" of the vehicle!

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