Agent backs FBI use of tank in siege

He testifies goal was to gas sect, not destroy complex

The Dallas Morning News, July 12, 2000
By Lee Hancock

WACO – The tank that ripped down the rear of the Branch Davidian compound wasn't trying to demolish the building but was trying to clear a path to get tear gas into the sect's hiding place, an FBI agent testified Tuesday.

"We didn't want to just recklessly move through the place," said agent Gary Harris, who drove the 60-ton vehicle on the last day of the 1993 Davidian siege near Waco. "It wasn't a haphazard, just run up and smash and crash things. That's not the reason I was back there in my mind, and that's not the orders I was given."

The agent also disputed as "totally inaccurate" an internal FBI document that called his action a "mission of slowly and methodically beginning the dismantling" of the embattled building.

Plaintiffs' lawyers have tried to convince jurors that the document proves that the bureau's two top Waco commanders, Jeffrey Jamar and Richard Rogers, violated the Washington-approved plan to tear gas the compound at least 48 hours before starting its demolition.

Their $675 million lawsuit alleges that damage created by Mr. Harris' tank and another sent into the front of the building helped to cause or spread fires that consumed the compound April 19, 1993. More than 80 Davidians died during the fire, which was spotted within 30 minutes after the FBI's tanks smashed deep into the compound's front and rear.

But government lawyers have countered that Davidians deliberately set the fires on orders of their self-proclaimed messiah, David Koresh. Late Monday, they had jurors don headsets to hear nearly an hour of intercepted conversations in which compound occupants talked of spreading fuel and lighting fires in the hours before the fire.

The government called an Arlington chemist Tuesday afternoon to detail his discovery of residue from five different types of flammable substances in the compound's scorched remains, surrounding dirt and on the clothing of some fire survivors. Dr. Andrew T. Armstrong, who ran chemical tests for the government's 1993 fire investigation, said the chemicals were "consistent with" Coleman camp stove fuel, two types of charcoal lighter fluid, gasoline, diesel and kerosene.

Dr. Armstrong said he particularly was surprised that three survivors' clothes tested positive for a "highly volatile mixture" that "had every characteristic of camp stove fuel."

Because that fuel burns completely when lit, evaporates quickly when poured and leaves "little or no residue that you can see," Dr. Armstrong told jurors, "If you wanted the accelerant of choice, that would be right up there at the top, because it is so difficult to recover after a fire."

A Texas Ranger testified last week that one of the survivors, Clive Doyle, told him days after the blaze that Coleman fuel had been spread throughout the building April 19 and that Davidians had touched off the fire. Mr. Doyle denied making any statement to the Ranger, and told jurors that he might have gotten gas on his coat while refilling the compound's lanterns. He was badly burned in the fire.

Mr. Doyle was acquitted of all charges in a 1994 criminal case arising from the siege, and neither he nor any other fire survivors ever has been charged with setting the blaze.

Another fire survivor, Derek Lovelock, had the same accelerant on one shoe and two articles of clothing.

Government lawyers' began Tuesday's proceedings by reading excerpts from a February deposition in which Mr. Lovelock repeatedly refused to give recorded voice samples repeating phrases captured by FBI bugs in the hours before the compound burned.

The British subject cited his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination when a government lawyer asked him to repeat nine different phrases about fuel.

Plaintiff's lawyers had tried to convince U.S. District Judge Walter Smith that Mr. Lovelock was unfairly "ambushed" with the request, noting that none of the voices captured on the tape spoke with British accents as he does. But Judge Smith refubbed them, telling jurors that they could "make a negative inference that Mr. Lovelock did utter the words that he was asked to repeat."

Under cross-examination, Dr. Armstrong conceded that the same chemical mixture found in camp stove fuel often is used as a solvent for glue in shoe soles. He also acknowledged that more than 40 samples sent to his lab turned up no evidence of any accelerants, including more than a dozen articles of clothing.

One of the samples that tested negative for accelerants was a blackened, broken broomstick topped with a wad of cloth – an item that Texas Rangers described as "a torch." Earlier Tuesday, Plaintiff's lawyer Michael Caddell tried to shake the testimony of Mr. Harris, the FBI agent who drove into the rear of the compound just before it burned.

Mr. Harris conceded that he and other members of the FBI's hostage rescue team expected sect members to surrender within an hour after they started ramming their compound with tanks and spraying tear gas.

Even though the written plan approved in Washington called for gassing the building for 48 hours, Mr. Harris acknowledged Tuesday that he and other agents weren't told of any plans to rotate them in and out of the tanks if the operation took that long.

"What would you do after your 12-hour shift?" Mr. Caddell asked. "I have no idea," the agent responded. "That's just not at my level."

Under cross-examination, he conceded that he was not threatened by gunfire from the compound in his armored vehicle. He also said he never heard gunshots that morning, even when another tank he drove early in the operation was sent to bash upper stories of the building and spray tear gas.

Mr. Harris testified that he knew nothing about the document describing his actions just before the fire as "a dismantling mission."

The document, nominating Mr. Harris and his tank partner for a special FBI award, bears initials of the two on-site commanders and was sent to Washington from Mr. Jamar's San Antonio office. Later versions excluded all mention of a dismantling mission. The two commanders have said that they do not know who prepared the original.

Mr. Harris said that he got his order to drive through the back of the building from Mr. Rogers, the FBI's hostage rescue team commander. He added that Mr. Rogers directed him April 19 to probe the rear of the compound to try to find a pathway so that another tank equipped with a tear gas sprayer could get close enough to inject gas near the compound's tower.

But as jurors watched aerial footage of Mr. Harris' tank backing slowly in and out of the building, Mr. Caddell noted that he never got within 20 feet of the tower.

Just after the siege, officials said they wanted to get gas into a concrete-walled room at the base of the tower because government bugging devices had intercepted indications that many of the sect members had taken refuge there.

Mr. Harris said Tuesday he did not make it to the tower because he and his partner in the tank spotted tops of 55-gallon drums just beyond the gym's back wall and did not go further for fear that the area might be a dropoff.

He also told jurors that he did not intend to collapse the gym's roof and two of its outer walls. He said he was forced to, however, when he got the tank inside the building and saw it was packed floor to ceiling with furniture, beds and junk. "I'm trying to find a way to push some of this debris out of the way," he said as footage of his tank's movements was played. "We were trying to make the best decision we could. ...We didn't want to just recklessly move through the place."

After Tuesday's proceedings, lawyers for the government said they would not call Mr. Rogers and Mr. Jamar as witnesses.

They said they expect to conclude their case by late Wednesday or early Thursday.

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