Branch Davidian plaintiffs focus on child victims

Waco Tribune-Herald, June 20, 2000
By Mark England

The plaintiffs in the Branch Davidians' wrongful-death lawsuit against the government started early Tuesday during the first day of testimony trying to put a face on their case - a young face.

"This case is about truth and responsibility," said Houston attorney Mike Caddell, in his opening. "Truth about what happened at Mount Carmel and responsibility for the many people who died there, including 25 children."

Caddell showed video images of 15 children who died seven years ago in the events following the fire that destroyed Mount Carmel. As each image flashed on the screen, Caddell hung photographs of children like Hollywood Sylvia on a board in front of the seven-person advisory jury in U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr.'s Waco courtroom.

Sylvia was the child of David Koresh and Lorraine Sylvia.

"Hollywood Sylvia never owned a gun," Caddell said. "Never fired a gun. Never broke the law. Never hurt anyone. Hollywood died on April 19, 1993. She was two years old."

Plaintiffs attorney James Brannon, representing the legal children of Koresh, laid the blame for the children's deaths at the government's feet. "What did the government do to protect these children, even against their own parents?" asked Brannon, in his opening statement. "That's a key question to a child: 'Who is going to protect me?'"

Government co-counsel Michael Bradford, however, put the blame for the deaths elsewhere.

"David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, they were the ones responsible for this tragedy," Bradford said.

Bradford called Koresh "a self-proclaimed messiah" who thought he was "ordained by God to predict when the world would end."

Jurors should consider the act of FBI agent James McGee, who exposed himself to possible gunfire to keep Ruth Ottman Riddle from going back inside a burning Mount Carmel, Bradford said.

"You will have to decide if that is the conduct of people out there to do harm," Bradford said.

Plaintiffs began with the first of four issues the jury will consider: whether the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms randomly fired shots on Feb. 28, 1993 while trying to arrest Koresh for owning automatic weapons. Four ATF agents and five Davidians died in a shoot-out that led to a 51-day siege.

Caddell called two witnesses to give a kid's perspective on the raid.

Jaunessa Wendel was 8 years old and Natalie Nobrega was 10 years old in 1993. Wendel's mother, Jaydean, died in the raid. Nobrega's mother, Theresa, died on the day of the fire. Both Wendel and Nobrega were released before the fire.

"My first memory was the windows shattering," Wendel, 16, told Caddell.

"Did they shatter in or out?" Caddell asked.

"I'm not definitely certain," Wendel said. "But there was glass in my brother's crib."

Wendel said her mother hustled her four children into the hallway. "I stayed low," Wendel said. "I was terrified. I didn't know what was going on. I was shocked and extremely scared."

Caddell asked the last time Wendel saw her mother, whom Wendel testified did not carry a weapon.

"I remember my mom went back into our room," Wendel said. "I never saw her again."

Bradford asked Wendel why she told a Texas Ranger in 1993 that her mother was armed. Wendel said that the answer was probably "suggested" to her by other people who had talked to her.

"That's the only reason I can think of," Wendel said.

She later told Caddell that she had been frightened during the interview.

"I didn't know what he wanted from me, and I was trying to give him what he wanted," Wendel said.

Bradford asked Wendel if her mother knew anything about guns.

"She had gone through police training," Wendel said. "I think that's what you're referring to. She never got her badge."

Nobrega, 18, testified that she had just finished eating breakfast when the raid occurred.

"There was a ticking sound," Nobrega said. "Pop, pop. Like that. I was taking notice of it, and the window smashed. My mother grabbed and covered me."

Her room was shot up, Nobrega said.

"All my quilt coverings were full of holes," she said. "If I had been sleeping, I would not be here today."

Nobrega recalled Mount Carmel as a fun place to live. She said driving go-carts was her favorite pastime. Outside the courtroom, Caddell told reporters that Mount Carmel was "like a summer camp" for the children. Marie Hagen, government co-counsel, presented a starker view of the environment.

Questioning Rita Riddle, the plaintiffs' first witness, Hagen read off a string of names of children at Mount Carmel. One child was Serenity Sea Jones, the daughter of Michele Jones, Koresh's sister-in-law. Michele Jones gave birth to Serenity Sea while she was 13 years old.

Riddle confirmed that each child on Hagen's list was fathered by Koresh. Caddell later presented a series of statements from ATF agents to support his argument they fired their weapons indiscriminately during their raid.

ATF agent Mark Handley, for example, told the Texas Rangers he fired at a window because he was afraid someone could chunk a fragmentary grenade out of it and wipe out those huddled near the front of Mount Carmel.

Fellow ATF agent Thomas Crowley remembered another agent saying, "Don't just randomly shoot, we might need the ammunition later."

Both sides gave a peek in their opening statements as to how they view such key issues as the alleged dismantling of Mount Carmel and the FBI's decision not to bring in firefighting equipment in case of a fire - issues to be addressed later in the trial.

Caddell said an apparent application for medals to be given to FBI tank drivers reveals why the tanks pierced Mount Carmel's gymnasium. The application said the tank drivers were given the mission of "slowly and methodically beginning the dismantling of the building at the back of the compound."

"Make no mistake," Caddell said. "The men driving tanks were following orders. The men responsible for this were Jamar and Rogers."

Jeffrey Jamar was the lead FBI agent at Mount Carmel. Richard Rogers headed the Hostage Rescue Team.

Bradford, however, argued that the plan to dismantle Mount Carmel - to go into effect if the Davidians didn't leave after 48 hours - involved using a tank with a blade to cut through the building's framing. The tanks, though, collapsed the gym while trying to get to a cement-block room in order to disperse tear gas, according to Bradford.

"There is no evidence they prematurely instigated the plan," Bradford said.

"Their (plaintiffs) whole purpose is to confuse you. It has nothing to do with the case."

Caddell said there is no evidence the Davidians started two of the three simultaneous fires that combined to destroy Mount Carmel. In the upstairs room where TV viewers of the siege first saw smoke, there were no burn patterns indicating an accelerant being poured, Caddell said. However, he acknowledged the Davidians may have started a fire in the gym, "in the mistaken belief fire would protect them."

Caddell blamed the tanks ripping into Mount Carmel for helping spread the fire.

"If you've ever started a fire, you know the first thing you do is make kindling," Caddell said. "Then you have to provide ventilation."

Bradford, however, said logic doesn't support Caddell's contention the Davidians only set one fire.

"You don't have fires starting simultaneously," Bradford said.

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