Koresh talked about suicide a month before fire at Waco, tapes indicate

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 31, 2000
By Terry Ganey

Branch Davidian leader David Koresh talked about the possibility of suicide a month before the final siege of the sect's complex that led to his death along with about 80 of his followers, according to government surveillance tapes.

"My work is finished," Koresh said. "I don't need to hang around here. I've already been shot, understand? I've been rejected. . . . All I need to do is cover it, cock the pistol back, have my thumb on the trigger and my mind on the Psalms."

Koresh's remarks are among the passages that two amateur experts on Waco have referred to when interviewed recently by investigators for Special Counsel John Danforth. The tapes are likely to figure in the upcoming trial of a civil suit that Branch Davidian survivors have filed against the government, as well as in Danforth's own investigation.

The tapes were made by surveillance microphones the government inserted in goods delivered to the complex. Koresh suggested suicide during a taped conversation with his chief lieutenant, Steve Schneider, on March 16, 1993, when it appeared negotiations to end the standoff with the government were going nowhere.

Koresh died April 19, 1993, as fire consumed the Branch Davidian complex. An autopsy revealed he died from a bullet wound to the head. Next to him was Schneider, who also had been shot in the head.

Those who have heard the tapes say other conversations reveal that:

  • Koresh and his followers began talking about the possibility of a fire destroying the complex two days before a tear gas assault by tank-driving FBI agents.

  • Two weeks after a botched Feb. 28 raid by agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Koresh talked about seeing an agent get shot in the head and said, "He shouldn't have been standing in my door."

  • The Davidians were in possession of pyrotechnic devices capable of starting fires.

    Some portions of the tapes were played during a criminal trial in 1994 but only from those on the final day of the siege. Danforth's staff has access to hundreds of hours of tapes, but they have never been made public in their entirety.

    Two who have heard the tapes are Mark Swett of Portland, Maine, and J. Phillip Arnold of Houston. An FBI negotiator at Waco has confirmed the accuracy of the passages they've cited to Danforth.

    Swett works for an insurance company and describes himself as a student of Biblical apocalyptic groups. He is a friend of Davidian survivors and got copies of the tapes through lawyers for some of the defendants in the criminal trial. Swett has assembled so much material on Waco that he has become a source for writers and movie producers interested in the subject. He also has a Waco research Web site at http://home.maine.rr.com/waco/.

    He shared the tapes with Arnold, who has a doctorate in religious studies and has been investigating what happened at Waco ever since he tried to arbitrate an end to the siege in 1993.

    Swett was interviewed by an investigator from Danforth's staff last week. Arnold was interviewed in December.

    It's difficult to fit either Arnold or Swett into either a pro-Davidian or pro-government category. Sometimes their explanation of the facts supports Davidian claims of government excesses. Other times, they point out information that will surely help the government when the Davidians' wrongful death case is tried next month in federal court in Waco, Texas.

    Both say they believe that for Danforth's investigation to be complete, the conversations that took place within the complex, as well as the negotiations with FBI agents, have to be viewed within the structure of the Davidians' religious beliefs.

    Swett and Arnold say the tapes show that the Davidians were deeply grounded in their religious beliefs, that no one was being held against his will and that there is no evidence on the tapes of physical or sexual abuse of children.

    "The government and the Davidians were like two freight trains in the distance, miles apart, and coming together on the same track," Swett said. "One was following what they believed God told them. The other was saying, 'You broke the law.' They met head on."

    "Title III tapes"

    During the 51-day siege, the government managed to get listening devices inside the sect's complex by including them in containers that delivered milk to the children. The devices picked up snatches of conversations from March 6 until about 11:45 a.m. on April 19, during the final minutes of the siege. The tapes are known as the Title III tapes, a reference to the federal law that provides for court-approved wiretaps.

    On April 17, after FBI tanks began removing parked vehicles from around the complex, the Davidians talked about plans that Arnold interprets as fulfilling a catastrophic version of the prophetic end of the siege. He said that before April 17, sect members believed there would be a peaceful end to the confrontation. They believed Koresh would be able to write his interpretation of the Seven Seals in the biblical Book of Revelation while the FBI waited. Arnold said he believes that after the interpretation was completed, they would all leave the complex peacefully.

    When the tanks began removing the cars, it was a signal in the Davidians' minds that the siege would end in a fiery climax, Arnold said.

    In one conversation, Schneider was heard to say, "They could bring the fire trucks, but they couldn't even get near us." Koresh replied, "That's all right," and made a sound imitating gunfire.

    There was a reference to fire a day later when an unidentified male said, "We will run through the fire." An unidentified female asked, "God said to do this?" Schneider said, "That's what David said to do, and it's fine with me. Wherever you want to be ... all his ways are directed, as far as I am concerned." The woman replied, "That's no fun," and Schneider responded, "Oh, no. Nothing ever is."

    That same day, Koresh told an FBI negotiator, "Your commanders are fixing to ruin the safety of me and my children." The negotiator responded, "I think that was something that you brought." In the same conversation, Koresh said the events would "place this in the history books as one of the saddest days in the world."

    A wall of fire

    On April 19, when an FBI tank plowed deep into the complex to insert tear gas into a room where women and children had taken refuge, three fires broke out almost simultaneously. About 80 people died, some from gunshots but most from the effects of the fire.

    The government has maintained that the Branch Davidians started the fire. Arnold said he believes that's likely but that it was an act of deliverance, not suicide. He said the Davidians were living as if in Biblical times and believed the flames would be a wall of fire to protect them from evil.

    "Fire would be a defensive mechanism to respond to the FBI's assault they think is probably coming any day now," Arnold said. "If they are not going to write the Seven Seals, what do they do? They think a fire could stop the FBI from coming in further."

    Describing the "Davidians' dilemma," Arnold said the sect was caught between a religious belief that the Seven Seals had to be completed and the government's order that they come out.

    "They decided to go with their religious faith no matter what it cost," Arnold said. "The worst thing the FBI could do was to precipitate it. There was no talk of suicide until they felt like they were going to be assaulted."

    During the ATF's Feb. 28 raid on the complex, four federal agents and six members of the sect were killed in a gun battle. The listening devices picked up Koresh talking about it on March 15. He said he saw a man standing in a corner get shot in the head.

    "All of a sudden, puff (makes a sound like a gunshot and laughs) his head blew up," Koresh said. The conversation continued and Koresh said he was sure the man had died.

    "He shouldn't have been standing in my door," Koresh said.

    Byron Sage, who was the FBI negotiator at Waco, said he has listened to the same tapes and heard the conversations that Swett has pointed out. Sage said that he did not know whether Koresh had been talking about killing the agent himself but that the "total context" of the conversation was that he "dismissed the murder of four federal agents."

    "That passage is very telling, as far as the compassion or lack thereof by the Davidians," Sage said.

    The conversations show that on March 15, Koresh asked about the whereabouts of a box of flares.

    "I want to find out where our parachute flares are," Koresh said.

    Much has been made about whether the government's used of pyrotechnic tear gas could have played a role in the start of the fire. Swett said he wasn't suggesting that the parachute flares were used. But he said they may be among the devices found in the burned rubble of the complex.

    "I'm not saying there was anything sinister about it," Swett said. "I just want people to know there were flares in there."

    Neither Swett nor Arnold were central figures in the Waco drama. The fact that Danforth's staff interviewed them is a sign that the special confidential investigation is checking beyond the hundreds of agents and the Branch Davidian survivors involved.

    Some of the tapes and transcripts will be introduced during the trial of the Davidians' wrongful death case against the government that's scheduled to begin June 19. U.S. Attorney Mike Bradford said the tapes contain information helpful to the government and damaging to the Davidians.

    However, the tapes also could show that the government had a warning about the possibility of a fire from the Davidians' conversations and should have been ready to prevent it. Two of the major points of the Davidians' claims are that the government violated orders by demolishing the sect's complex and did not have adequate fire-fighting equipment on hand.

    Sage said the taped conversations are more easily understood seven years after the event. When the conversations were monitored and recorded, agents often could not understand most of what was said until the tapes were enhanced later.

    "We didn't know they were going to initiate fires in their building and intentionally take the lives of 78 people including their own children, Sage said.

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