Lawyers debate who's at fault in Waco case

Children, Koresh in spotlight as testimony opens

The Dallas Morning News, June 6, 2000
By Lee Hancock

WACO - Testimony in the Branch Davidian wrongful-death lawsuit opened Tuesday with plaintiffs' attorneys displaying pictures of children killed in the 1993 tragedy and government lawyers countering that the carnage was caused by the sect and its apocalyptic leader.

"I'd like to introduce you to some of my clients," Houston lawyer Michael Caddell told an advisory jury of six people and the one alternate as they silently watched images of smiling, waving children.

Pausing to display photos of 15 children between the ages of 2 and 17 who died in the incident, he added with each picture that the child "never owned a gun. Never broke the law. Never hurt anyone."

U.S. Attorney Michael Bradford of Beaumont countered that Branch Davidians were an "armed encampment" that ambushed agents of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms looking for illegal weapons.

He told jurors that sect members set their compound near Waco afire on orders of their leader, David Koresh, when FBI agents tried to force them out with tear gas. Four ATF agents and six Branch Davidians died in the initial raid on Feb. 28, 1993. About 80 Branch Davidians, including more than 20 children, died when the compound burned about six hours into the FBI's tear-gas operation on April 19, 1993.

"The responsibility for those tragic events should not be placed upon the shoulders of the brave men and women of the ATF and the FBI," Mr. Bradford said. "The responsibility for what happened at Mount Carmel is on David Koresh and the Branch Davidians. They caused this dangerous situation to occur, and they brought it to a tragic end."

Among spectators who filled the second-story federal courtroom Tuesday were sect members who survived the 51-day siege and fire. Several stood to be introduced during their lawyers' opening statements, and the rest watched quietly as both sides laid out their sharply conflicting versions of Mr. Koresh, his followers and their actions in 1993.

Three of the survivors, including two teenagers who were 8 and 10 at the time of the incident, were the first witnesses, and their testimony marked the first time any members of the sect have testified in the long series of criminal proceedings and civil suits arising from the standoff.

The initial raid

The day's testimony focused on the initial Feb. 28 gunfight as the witnesses offered vivid descriptions of the terror and chaos at their rural McLennan County home after heavily armed ATF agents pulled up in cattle trailers to serve arrest and search warrants.

They disputed government lawyers' statements that the sect was "armed to the teeth." Instead, survivors described Mount Carmel as a happy place where children romped and adults learned the Bible from Mr. Koresh.

"There were people from all over the world: different personalities, different families, different interests, different likes and dislikes. We were all there for one purpose, and that was the Bible studies," said Rita Riddle, an Asheville, N.C., resident who lived off and on for two years at Mount Carmel before the raid and lost her brother Jimmy in the final fire.

"David was my teacher."

She and other sect members disputed government lawyers' arguments that Mr. Koresh taught them how to use guns, displayed weapons as part of his religious teachings and indoctrinated members for war and mass suicide. But they conceded that Mr. Koresh took other men's wives as his own and fathered many of the young children who died in the fire.

"It was our home. It was like an apartment building, a community center," testified 18-year-old survivor Jaunessa Wendel, who was 10 at the time of the incident.

Ms. Wendel calmly recounted how bullets crashed through a window on the morning of Feb. 28 as her mother was brushing her hair in their upstairs bedroom. At the time, she said, her two preschool siblings were sleeping on the floor and her 5-month-old brother lay in his crib near the window.

"My first memory is of our window shattering. ... There was glass in my brother's crib," she said. "My mom sort of scurried us out the door into the hallway and then she went and grabbed my baby brother."

"I remember my Mom went back into her room, and I never saw her again," she said.

Ms. Wendel's mother, Jaydean Wendel, was among the sect members who died in the initial shootout. Jaunessa came out of Mount Carmel along with her siblings during the first week. Her father, Mark Wendel, died in the final April 19 fire.

Ms. Wendel and two other women who also surrendered to authorities during the siege told jurors how they cowered for hours in a second-floor hallway during the protracted gunfight. Each said they heard and saw no warning or preparation for the ATF's raid.

"Kids were screaming, crying. It was a mess," said London resident Natalie Nobrega, adding that she later returned to her bedroom and found her bedcovers riddled with bullet holes. "If I had been sleeping, I think I would not be here today. ... If I had stayed in bed, like I wanted to."

Prosecutors' challenge

Government lawyers immediately challenged both Ms. Wendel and Ms. Riddle, pointing out that Ms. Wendel and another adult survivor had told authorities that they each had seen Ms. Riddle carrying or shooting a gun on Feb. 28.

Ms. Riddle denied having a gun and insisted that the first shots she heard came from outside. Ms. Nobrega echoed that, telling the court despite government objections that the first "ticking noises" of exploding bullets came from too far away to have originated from inside the building.

Ms. Wendel testified that she was confused and fearful that she and her siblings "might be split up" when she told a Texas Ranger a week after the initial shootout that she had seen her parents and Ms. Riddle with guns. She insisted Tuesday that what she told the Ranger was wrong.

"I know I was very scared at the time," she said as the taped 30-minute interview with the Ranger was played for the jury. "I was just trying to give him what he wanted."

Mr. Bradford responded by repeating Ms. Wendel's account to the Ranger that her mother "laid down, got a gun and she started shooting back," and used a weapon called a .223. AR-15s, which fire .223-caliber bullets, were among the more than 300 guns found in the wreckage of the building after the siege.

"You just made all that up?" he asked.

The day ended with lawyers for the sect reading portions of another Branch Davidian child's sworn testimony about the siege and the 1993 interview statements of 25 ATF agents involved in the shootout. In the statements, given to Texas Rangers just after the incident, the federal agents described shooting repeatedly at the compound despite their inability to see the gunmen who were firing at them from inside the building.

Allegations that government agents used excessive force and fired indiscriminately during the Feb. 28 raid make up one of four major issues in the lawsuit. The other three issues focus on the FBI's efforts to end the siege with an April 19 tear-gas assault. Mr. Bradford argued Monday that ATF agents acted properly "in a gunfight for their lives."

He said the testimony of federal officials from Attorney General Janet Reno down will show that the two FBI commanders, Jeffrey Jamar and Richard Rogers, acted properly and prudently in "a very dangerous situation." He also promised jurors that the two now-retired FBI agents will testify in detail about their actions in 1993.

The government won a preliminary victory Tuesday when U.S. District Judge Walter Smith ruled that the plaintiffs must seek permission before telling jurors what the government's negotiators advised and feared about the FBI's tear-gas operation.

The government's lawyers had complained that admitting the negotiators' documents and testimony into evidence would be improper because it would violate Judge Smith's ruling that negotiations and other FBI actions were protected from litigation by federal law.


The ruling was made after government lawyers agreed that they would not try to argue that individual Branch Davidians should be held partially negligent for refusing to come out and surrender.

Mr. Caddell said plaintiffs won a big concession with the government's agreement. He predicted that the judge will ultimately allow the jury to see memos from an FBI behavioral expert warning that sending in tanks would guarantee violence and tragedy.

Both sides also declared victory in a day that began with what appeared to be a race to condemn Mr. Koresh and detail his arsenal.

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