U.S. plays tapes from siege

Davidians in excerpts discuss setting fire around sect compound

The Dallas Morning News, July 11, 2000
By Lee Hancock

WACO – Branch Davidians, overheard on FBI eavesdropping devices, made jokes about federal agents dying at the start of a 1993 standoff and also laughingly discussed their belief that God would take them "like flames of fire."

"Catch fire, and they couldn't even bring the firetruck, 'cause they couldn't even get near us," Branch Davidian Steve Schneider was overheard saying April 17, 1993, two days before a fire leveled the compound with more than 80 sect members inside.

Government lawyers played 45 minutes of excerpts from the sect's intercepted conversations Monday as they continued trying to convince jurors that Branch Davidians – and not government agents – caused the 1993 standoff.

FBI bugging devices inside the compound also captured sect members talking in the final hours before the fire about spreading fuel around the building and lighting fires.

"So we only light 'em at first if they come in with a tank, right? Not if they come in with men?" one unidentified sect member could be heard asking.

The final intelligible exchanges before the bugs went dead included a male voice saying, "I want a fire around back," and another male offering the last captured phrase, "Let's keep that fire going."

A $675 million wrongful-death lawsuit alleges that government agents began the standoff with a botched raid that disintegrated into a gunbattle.

It charges that FBI commanders in Waco guaranteed a deadly ending with an overly aggressive tank and tear-gas assault that violated approved plans and failed to address the known threat of fire at the compound.

Four agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms died Feb. 28, 1993, when a gunfight erupted as they and 72 colleagues tried to raid the compound for illegal weapons. Six Branch Davidians also died that day.

FBI agents brought in to resolve the standoff smuggled 11 electronic transmitters into the compound, hiding the tiny bugs in cartons of milk, gym bags and other items given to sect members during the 51-day siege.

The bugs captured hundreds of hours of conversations, including one March 15 exchange in which sect leader David Koresh and his chief lieutenant, Mr. Schneider, talked at length about the initial gunfight with ATF.

The two men discussed how Branch Davidians fired through windows and walls, at one point watching dumbfounded as one agent stared at them through a window but failed to fire his weapon.

Mr. Koresh laughed as he recalled seeing one ATF agent "in the corner all slumped," and then watching as his "head blew up."

"He shouldn't have been standing in my door," Mr. Koresh later added. "Trying to come in. . . . But . . . what am I goin' to do? Let 'em come in?"

The tapes were played over protests from plaintiffs' lawyers, who argued that many of the voices on the recordings could not be identified. They contended that the tapes might unfairly prejudice jurors against plaintiffs who had no part in the initial gunfight or in setting fires April 19.

'Misguided' effort?

Michael Caddell, lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, has conceded that at least one of the three fires that consumed the building may have been set by sect members. But he has argued that it probably was ignited in a "misguided" attempt by a few male Branch Davidians to repulse FBI tanks.

He has noted that the fires did not break out until after FBI commanders ordered one tank to begin demolishing the rear gym of the building and sent another to penetrate a concrete bunker where authorities thought Mr. Koresh might be hiding.

All of the more than 20 children who died in the fire and most of the Branch Davidian women were found in that concrete room. Seventeen of the Branch Davidian dead, including some of the women and children, died of gunshots or stab wounds.

Government lawyers have dismissed the plaintiffs' argument as irrelevant. "I don't know what the motive was or all the reasons that the Branch Davidians burned down their compound," U.S. Attorney Mike Bradford told reporters outside the courthouse. "Regardless of what their reasons were, they set the fire and not the government."

U.S. District Judge Walter Smith turned aside the plaintiffs' objections about the tapes, adding that he had spent much of the previous weekend reviewing them and accompanying government transcripts.

"I don't think it matters who is talking," the judge said. "These are adult Branch Davidians who are talking and who were making admissions."

The plaintiffs also had challenged the reliability of the government's transcripts, noting that they had found significant inaccuracies after reviewing the audio tapes.

A consulting engineer who prepared the transcripts conceded Monday that they contained some notable differences from transcripts he had presented for the government in a 1994 criminal trial.

Government lawyers withdrew one tape segment that they had planned to play for jurors after the judge ruled that the plaintiffs could offer alternative transcripts. The plaintiffs' transcript of that segment includes one Branch Davidian's description of another being shot by a government helicopter Feb. 28.

Government testimony

Federal agents and the Texas National Guard pilots of the three helicopters used in the ATF operation have testified that none carried mounted weapons and none of their passengers discharged the pistols they carried on board. But some Branch Davidians have testified that they saw helicopters shooting at them.

Mr. Caddell said he will play that recording for jurors Tuesday.

The trial's fourth week began Monday with accounts from three FBI agents stationed around the compound April 19. All said they heard sporadic gunfire from the building for most of the morning before the fire.

Two agents described watching sect members in two separate areas bending over and making suspicious movements just before the compound fires began.

Agent Ronald Elder said he watched through binoculars as a sect member bending over near a second-floor window just before smoke and flames erupted there.

"Once he got back up, in four or five seconds, I saw the smoke and the flames," the agent said.

Mr. Caddell questioned whether the agent could see that from his position a half-mile away, especially when using hand-held binoculars.

The lawyer noted that Mr. Elder's sighting did not appear in any of the detailed logs FBI officials kept during the Waco incident and was first documented in a written interview more than two months after the siege.

The agent said that he told nearby agents what he saw but was not responsible for reporting it to the FBI's command center. His job, he said, was to watch for threats to FBI positions.

"I didn't even have a radio that day," he said.

A second agent, John W. Morrison, testified that he saw a Branch Davidian inside the compound's front door bend over and make "sweeping motions" with his arms seconds before a fire erupted in that part of the building.

He said the man was carrying a rifle when he appeared in a gaping hole bashed into the compound's front doorway by FBI tanks.

He said the man briefly disappeared and then reappeared, going down on one knee.

"He was doing a motion that I describe as washing his hands," Mr. Morrison said. "He finished doing that and a fire sprang up."

Mr. Morrison said he radioed other agents about the sighting. But under cross-examination, he said that he could not say why April 19 FBI logs included only a sighting report from his position of "an unknown subject with gas mask."

"There's no mention of fire," Mr. Caddell said as he flipped through minute-by-minute incident logs.

The lawyer then displayed dozens of FBI photographs taken from the agent's position, pointing out that none showed fire or smoke near the bashed front doorway until well after the blaze was under way.

The agent finally suggested that the gunman he saw was standing some distance away from the front doorway and might have been as far back as the compound's chapel. Government fire investigators found traces of accelerants on the chapel floor, and they concluded that it was the starting point for one of at least three fires that consumed the building.

A third FBI agent, Chris Whitcomb, testified that he heard "rhythmic or methodical gunfire" from the building just after he saw smoke and flames in two dining-room windows.

"My impression was, 'they are killing themselves,'" he said.

He added that one round whizzed between him and another agent when they emerged from a covered position to take pictures of the fire.

Mr. Caddell noted that the FBI's logs from that day listed only a report from the agent's position of "shots fired or rounds cooking off."

A juror then asked whether the rhythmic firing could have come from bullets exploding in the blaze.

"I don't think it could have, because the [structure] fire was not that involved," Agent Whitcomb responded.

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