Jury in suit over Waco siege listens to tapes of gunbattle

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 21, 2000
By Terry Ganey

WACO, Texas - Audiotapes of the vicious gunbattle between Branch Davidians and federal agents were played for a jury and judge Wednesday during the trial of the sect's multimillion-dollar wrongful death suit against the government.

The tapes, recorded during frantic 911 emergency telephone calls, captured all the fear, drama and chaos of the largest law enforcement disaster in U.S. history. Six Branch Davidians and four agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were killed, and 20 federal agents were wounded.

But the tapes failed to clarify who fired first or how federal agents identified themselves when they came to ram down the front doors of the sect's complex near Waco on Feb. 28, 1993. The raid began a 51-day siege that ended in a fiery battle where about 80 Branch Davidians died.

In the tapes, sect member Wayne Martin is heard pleading with McLennan County Sheriff's Lt. Larry Lynch to call off the federal agents. In the background is the sound of rapid gunfire that seems to be coming from both the Davidians inside the complex and from the government agents outside.

"There are 75 men around our building and they are shooting at us at Mount Carmel!" Martin screamed. "Tell them there are children and women in here and to call it off!"

Lawyers for relatives of dead Davidians and some survivors put some of the tapes into evidence to show the ATF used excessive force. Some of the tapes had been played before a jury in the criminal trial of some Branch Davidian defendants in 1994. But other parts were put before a jury for the first time.

For example, Martin's statements to Lynch that "I have the right to defend myself" and "they started firing first" were not disclosed to the criminal trial jury.

Government lawyers played other parts of the tapes to help the defense. For example, in one part, Lynch asked Martin if authorities could give any medical help to the injured Davidians. Martin responds: "We don't want anything from your country."

In another recorded exchange, Martin says the sect members were prepared to resist "to the last man. We are not going to leave this property. Each man is going to make their own decision."

The defense is trying to use such statements to show that the Branch Davidians believed the U.S. government was corrupt and that a violent world-ending confrontation with federal authorities was inevitable.

In another tape used by the government, Branch Davidian leader David Koresh said, "We knew you were coming before you did." The government has portrayed Koresh as a self-proclaimed prophet who doomed his followers to an apocalyptic end.

The ATF raid was the first chapter of the Waco tragedy. More than 75 battle-equipped agents disembarked from two cattle trailers in a Sunday morning raid to serve search warrants on the complex and to arrest Koresh.

Looking for automatic weapons and illegal explosives, the agents tried to breach the complex's double front door and, using ladders, get inside second-story windows. A hail of gunfire drove them off. After Mount Carmel burned to the ground on the final day of the siege, authorities found more than 200 weapons, some modified to fire automatically.

The raid was supposed to be a surprise, but the forewarned sect members were armed and waiting. Two ATF raid leaders were later disciplined for going ahead, although they knew they'd lost the element of surprise. Both the government and the Davidians claimed the other side fired first.

The gunbattle led to a 51-day siege by the FBI. The siege ended with a tank and tear gas assault in an attempt to force the Davidians to surrender. About 80 died from gunshots and a fire that consumed the complex on April 19. Martin, a Harvard-trained lawyer, was one of them. The plaintiffs say the government's handling of the siege contributed to the deaths.

Armed with transcripts, jurors listened to more than two hours of the 911 audiotapes during the second day of the trial. They also heard from Davidians who lived to talk about the assault and from a Houston criminal defense lawyer who tried to represent Koresh before he died from a gunshot to the head on the last day of the siege.

Graeme Craddock, an imprisoned Davidian, testified by deposition that Koresh had always taught about the possibility that the complex would be attacked by the government. Craddock said he was issued two guns that he had on the morning of the ATF raid. Craddock said the first shots he heard seemed to come from outside the building.

After that, he heard a barrage that sounded like "hail falling on a tin roof." He said he heard screams from Perry Jones, one of the Davidians who died on the day of the raid.

Dick DeGuerin, hired by Koresh's mother to defend the Davidian leader, testified that he visited the complex four times before the siege ended. He said all the bullet holes he saw in the right front door of the complex appeared to have been fired from the outside.

In previous testimony before Congress, DeGuerin had said some of the bullet holes in the door had come from the outside. After the complex burned down, the metal door disappeared and has never been found.

Part of the deposition of Derek Lovelock, a Davidian survivor who lives in England, was read into the record. Lovelock, the first one out of the burning complex, said stairwells inside the complex had been damaged when the FBI used converted tanks to insert tear gas. Damage from the tanks restricted the movements of people inside, he said.

In a videotaped deposition, Davidian Annetta Richards of Jamaica said she saw three helicopters flying toward the complex on the day of the ATF raid that began the siege.

"Shortly after I sat down, a bullet came through the wall, just inches from my face," said Richards, who was 64 at the time of the raid. She said she was in a second-floor room and that bullets came through the walls and the roof. She said she saw no Davidian fire a gun.

About a month after the siege, Richards peacefully left the complex. She said she believed the others would have eventually left the same way.

"Everyone was planning on coming out," she said.

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