Branch Davidian raid heard on 911 tape

The Dallas Morning News, June 21, 2000
By Brenda Rodriguez

WACO - Jurors in the Branch Davidian wrongful-death lawsuit heard a dramatic 911 recording Wednesday of the chaotic firefight that began a 1993 standoff with federal authorities, a recording that began with a sect member screaming for federal agents to "back off'' amid the din of heavy gunfire.

"There are 75 men around our building and they're shooting at us out at Mt. Carmel ... Tell them there are woman and children here and to call it off," Davidian Wayne Martin told McLennan County sheriff's Lt. Larry Lynch. "Call it off!"

"I hear gunfire! Oh ... [expletive]!'' Lt. Lynch responds. "They're still shooting. I can hear the bullets. God almighty, I knew this ..."

The hour-long tape opened Wednesday's trial testimony in the suit, which alleges that agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms used excessive force in their initial raid on the sect's rural home.

Government lawyers have maintained that the agents acted properly, firing only when they were met by an ambush and shooting only at areas of the compound where they detected hostile gunfire.

Four ATF agents and six Davidians died on Feb. 28, 1993. More than 80 Davidians died 51 days later in a fire that erupted after FBI agents began ramming the compound with tanks and spraying in tear gas to try to force the sect to surrender.

The lawsuit also alleges that the FBI mishandled the tear gas assault, violating Washington-approved plans and contributing to the fires that ended the standoff.

In Wednesday's playing of the dramatic 911 recording, Mr. Martin and other sect members could be heard complaining repeatedly that government agents began shooting first.

"I'm under fire! ... I have a right do defend myself! They started firing first,'' Mr. Martin screams.

Davidian Steve Schneider can then be heard yelling on the same compound speaker phone that government forces have sent in a helicopter to fire on the compound. Three Texas National Guard helicopters were used in the Feb. 28 assault, but ATF officials and the National Guard pilots who flew the aircraft have long insisted that they were unarmed and only provided a diversion for the ATF raid.

"Another chopper with more people and more guns and they're firing!" Mr. Schneider screams on the 911 recording. "They're still firing. That's not us. That's them!"

Mr. Schneider and Mr. Martin both died in the April 19 fire.

The portions of the 911 conversation played by lawyers for the sect also include loud bursts of gunfire and Lt. Lynch's speculation that the sounds appeared to be coming from inside the compound.

"They're shooting again, and it's automatic gunfire, sounds like," the sheriff's deputy can be heard saying at one point.

ATF agents went to the compound on Feb. 28 to arrest Davidian leader David Koresh and search his compound for illegally converted machine guns and other weapons.

ATF agents said they were met with withering bursts of automatic gunfire. Authorities said they found 48 illegally converted machine guns in the compound rubble after the siege.

After one burst of gunfire, Lt. Lynch asks Mr. Martin, "Are you returning fire?"

A second staccato burst of pops follows, and Mr. Schneider then can be heard yelling, "That's them! They're shooting at the door! ... They're doing all this firing at us!"

As Lt. Lynch tries to make contact with the ATF agents outside the compound, a Davidian yells, "If they don't back off, we're going to go to the last man ... Tell them to get off our road, to get away from our door, to get away from our window! ...They're bringing more weapons out! They're breaking out the big stuff!''

Government lawyers followed the plaintiffs' presentation of the tape by playing later segments of the 911 tape in which Davidians repeatedly refused Lt. Lynch's pleas to allow wounded ATF agents to be rescued.

They also played portions of conversations between Lt. Lynch and Mr. Koresh. "What did you go and do that for? You killed some of my children. We told you we wanted to talk," Mr. Koresh says. Mr. Koresh would continue insisting during the early part of the standoff that a toddler had been killed during the gunfight.

But authorities said they later determined that none of the sect members who died on Feb. 28 were children.

Plaintiffs' lawyers said they will shift Wednesday afternoon to testimony from Dick DeGuerin, a Houston lawyer who represented Mr. Koresh and met with him several times in the compound to try to get him to surrender.

Mr. Martin's widow, Sheila Martin, sat in the courtroom Wednesday morning listening intently to the 911 tape of her husband speaking with authorities. She said her husband was on the speakerphone so that he could get out of the view of ATF agents.

On the day of the raid, she said, she was on the top floor, but could still hear her husband on the bottom yelling into the phone. Mrs. Martin said it was "rough" to hear his voice on the tapes.

"He was just trying to save his life," she said. "When you are told 911 is suppose to help you, that's why he turned to it first. His first reaction was to get help."

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