Jury hears tapes about fire, pouring fuel inside Mount Carmel

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

Discussions picked up by planted bugs about pouring fuel and keeping a fire going inside Mount Carmel on April 19, 1993, were played Monday for a Waco jury hearing the Branch Davidians' wrongful-death lawsuit.

The fire seven years ago led to the deaths of David Koresh and 75 followers.

There were numerous references in the audio tapes to fuel and fire: “Real swift thing, you can order the fire, yeah?” . . . “The fuel has to go all around to get started.” . . . “Well, that's the fuel. We should get more hay in here.” . . . “Do you think I could light this soon?” . . . “I want a fire around the back.” . . . “Let's keep that fire going.”

U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr. overruled plaintiffs' objections that the tapes were hearsay and should not be admitted unless the voices on them could be identified.

Both sides heard things differently.

“All the indications we have is that they were lighting fires to burn the place down, probably as part of a suicide attempt,” said government co-counsel Michael Bradford. “But regardless of what the reasons are, they set the fire and not the government as alleged by the plaintiffs in this case.”

Houston attorney Mike Caddell denied the tapes show the Davidians setting fires.

“They were trying to survive what they viewed as a final assault, a final attack on their home,” said Caddell, lead attorney for the plaintiffs. “There was no indication in these tapes that they were committing suicide.”

The advisory jury that will assist Smith in reaching a verdict listened to the tapes with the help of cordless earphones. They also followed two transcripts.

One was prepared by the government. The other was done by plaintiffs attorney Cynthia Chapman and a staff member. Chapman's version has the Davidians pursuing the tanks pouring tear gas into Mount Carmel rather than self-destruction.

The government's version of one fuel discussion read: “So we only light ’em as soon as they tell me last chance, right? Not if they (unintelligible).”

Chapman's version, however, read: “So we only light ’em at first if they come in with a tank. Not if they come with men.”

Caddell said the tapes show the Davidians trying to defend themselves against what they viewed as an attack.

“I do think the Davidians probably started the fire in the chapel, but . . . these are not the tapes of people starting a fire,” Caddell said. “These are tapes of people who feel they are being attacked. And as misguided as they are, what you are listening to are people pouring fuel in Molotov cocktails or torches or whatever, and if you hear them, you hear them say, ‘Aim it. Don't throw it unless a tank comes in. Don't throw it if it is men, if men come in.’ ”

Bradford disagreed with Caddell's explanation of what's heard on the tapes.

“I don't know what the motivations or reasons were for why the Branch Davidians set themselves on fire and burned down the compound,” Bradford said. “It may have been for religious motivations. It may have been suicide. But there is certainly nothing on those tapes that indicates they were lighting fires to fend off tanks.”

The tapes — recorded from bugs inserted into objects such as the cartons of milk given the group — also show Koresh laughing at the death of an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Davidians' fidelity to Koresh.

Bradford played a copy of a March 15, 1993, tape that captured Koresh saying, “A guy came around the corner goin’ (pause) then, I looked around the corner and saw the guy over there, you know, and, uh, in the corner all slumped. He was in the corner (unintelligible) (laughs) head blew up.”

An April 17, 1993, tape records the beliefs of Steve Schneider, one of Koresh's confidants, regarding Koresh:

“I guarantee if you go out and he tells you not to, you are lost. No matter what you, no matter what your will is.” . . . “Now I believe this man is a god. This man is the lamb.” . . . “She don't choose to go out unless David tells her to. She don't, he don't, I don't, Floyd don't. There's not one person here that ever go out unless they've been told to.”

Before the tapes were played, three FBI agents testified Monday that they saw fires start in three different locations: the dining room at the back of Mount Carmel, a second-floor room on the south side; and near the entrance.

However, no account of the fires being spotted can be found on FBI logs — which were not kept by the agents.

Agent John Morrison, who was in a house across from Mount Carmel, said he saw a man inside the entrance make a motion similar to someone pouring fuel shortly before noon on April 19.

“As he came nearer to me, he did a sidestepping motion with a sweeping motion,” said Morrison, who said he watched the man with the aid of scopes.

Morrison said the man left, but returned.

“I couldn't see his hands,” Morrison said. “He was doing a motion I described as washing his hands. As he finished that, a fire spring up where his hands had been.”

Caddell, on cross-examination, showed Morrison a series of photographs showing the front of Mount Carmel during the fire.

“I don't see any fire at the front door,” Morrison acknowledged repeatedly.

It was only when Mount Carmel was almost fully involved that a fire could be seen at the entrance.

Before moving to the day of the fire, the government submitted a written deposition from Kathryn Schroeder that dealt with the ATF raid and its aftermath. Schroeder, who served a short prison term, left during the siege to be with her children.

She testified that Koresh collected guns to sell at gun shows as well as to get the Davidians ready for a prophesied showdown with the government.

“. . . it was Habakkuk 3, being ready, arm yourselves and be ready for whatever is going to come,” Schroeder said. “And Daniel 2 and all the other teachings that told us that the King of the North was going to come in and there was going to be a battle.”

Schroeder said Koresh confided in his followers that he was converting semi-automatic rifles to automatic.

“He eventually, finally, told us that he was taking guns that go rat-tat-tat and making them go rat-ta-tat-tat,” she said.

From November 1992 until the Feb. 28, 1993, ATF raid, Koresh talked regularly about weapons with his followers, Schroeder said.

“On an average eight-hour study, I'd say every single study could have had 10 minutes talk about guns,” she said.

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