FBI agent says he wasn't trying to demolish gym when he drove tank through

Waco Tribune-Herald, July 11, 2000
By Mark England

An FBI agent denied Tuesday that he was trying to demolish the gymnasium at Mount Carmel seven years ago when he repeatedly drove a tank through it.

Gary Harris told U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr. and the advisory jury hearing the Branch Davidians' $675 million wrongful-death lawsuit against the government that he was trying to create a "driveway" so a second tank equipped to deliver tear gas could reach the so-called bunker area.

“It wasn’t a haphazard, just run up and smash and crash things,” Harris told government co-counsel Michael Bradford.

Tearing down the gymnasium was not his mission, Harris testified.

"My job was to create a path," he said. "I was not trying to destroy that part of the building or to crash the roof."

The plaintiffs allege that FBI commanders prematurely began disassembling Mount Carmel to force the Davidians out. However, Harris said he drove through the gymnasium rather than try to skirt the Davidians' outdoor pool with a 60-ton tank.

"We didn't want to end up in that pool upside down or even worse," said Harris, now head of the SWAT team for the FBI's Atlanta field office.

Bradford asked if that would have resulted in the crew drowning.

"Pretty much," Harris said.

The FBI's infrared (FLIR) videotape from April 19, 1993 showed the combat engineering vehicle driven by Harris seesawing through the Davidians' gymnasium shortly after 11 a.m. Harris testified that the FBI wanted to put tear gas into the base of the tower at Mount Carmel. It was believed Koresh had gone to the bunker there to escape the tear gas.

However, Harris said he soon realized that reaching the tower via the gymnasium wouldn't be easy.

"I could tell it would not be as simple as putting a hole in the wall," Harris said.

He said the gymnasium was used as a storage area and was full of "junk" that hampered the CEV's efforts.

Mike Caddell, lead plaintiffs attorney, pressed Harris on whether the CEV penetrated the back of the gymnasium. The FBI's FLIR tape at one point shows materials blown out the back of the gymnasium into the courtyard adjoining the tower.

"I don't believe the CEV was at the back of the wall," Harris said. "That pile of debris I was pushing had knocked the wall out," Harris said.

He added that he didn't plow through the debris and into the courtyard out of caution.

"When we made the penetration, one of the things we thought we saw was a drop-off," Harris said.

Harris said he didn't have a intelligence report telling him there was no drop-off in the courtyard, so he tried to find another path through the gymnasium. Eventually half the gymnasium collapsed as well as a walkway just under the roof line called the dog run.

A portion of the FLIR later showed Harris' tank ramming the section of the gymnasium that had not collapsed. Harris said it was an accident.

"I've looked at this many times," Harris said. "I actually believe I was trying to turn around and ran into the building."

Caddell noted that the FBI's operation plan on April 19 called for ripping through the outer walls of Mount Carmel if inserting tear gas for 48 hours failed to dislodge the Davidians. Then he asked Harris if there would have been any of the gymnasium left to demolish if the Davidians had stayed inside for two more days.

"I don't think you can make that determination," Harris said.

Harris told Caddell that he wasn't aware of any rotation plan for the Hostage Rescue Team despite its launching upon a tactical operation scheduled to last 48 hours.

"Were you told you'd be in a tank for 48 hours?" Caddell asked.

"No, we were not told about a shift change," Harris said. "We were told in 48 hours we would peel the walls back so hopefully the people inside would come out."

The government won an opening courtroom battle Tuesday when Smith allowed it to read the portions of Derek Lovelock's deposition where he invoked the Fifth Amendment rather than repeat phrases like "Pour the fuel" and "Light the fire." They were among the phrases picked up on audio surveillance bugs inside Mount Carmel on the day of the fire.

Lovelock was one of nine Branch Davidians to survive the fire that led to the deaths of David Koresh and 75 followers.

Smith told members of the advisory jury that they could draw a "negative inference" from Lovelock's refusal to say the phrases into a tape recorder. However, Smith also reminded the jury that Lovelock had not been charged with a crime in connection with the fire at Mount Carmel.

Forensic chemist Andrew Armstrong of Arlington, Texas testified that clothing samples from Davidian survivors as well as soil samples from the burned compound tested positive for gasoline, kerosene, charcoal lighter fuel and camp stove fuel.

Armstrong worked with the fire investigation team that determined the fire was intentionally set and accelerants were used to speed the flames.

Caddell contested his testimony, pointing out that some shoes and clothing contain petroleum products. He also rattled off a list of items from Mount Carmel examined by Armstrong — delivered to his laboratory in sealed cans — that showed no traces of combustible liquids.

Armstrong acknowledged he could not prove any of the Davidian survivors set Mount Carmel on fire.

"The only thing the chemist can say is what is in the can," Armstrong said. "The chemist cannot identify the action of the person who is associated with the crime."

He also agreed that he could only state that the residue found on a piece of clothing was from a certain family of fuels, which might range from camp stove fuel to paint thinner.

"I cannot say it is camp stove fuel," Armstrong said. "But it has the characteristics of camp stove fuel. ... It is the closest match."

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