WACO The gunbattle that began the 1993 Branch Davidian siege started with a distant pop of gunshots, followed by an explosion of bullets through the front door of the sect's compound, one federal agent testified Thursday.
Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent Kris Mayfield said a hail of machine-gun fire ripped through the door within seconds after Branch Davidian leader David Koresh stared at approaching ATF agents and then slammed it shut.
"It was coming out fast," Mr. Mayfield said, adding that shots zigzagged through both sides of the double door and through parts of the adjoining walls. "It was like pieces of the door, splinters of the door was being blown out."
A second ATF agent, Eric Evers, said he was knocked to the ground by a gunshot as he was running around the side of the building, and then saw the ground dance with bullets as he tried to avoid the line of fire.
"As soon as I came around the corner of this fence, I heard this loud boom. I fell forward, face forward. I'd been shot in my chest," said Mr. Evers, who was wounded in the forearm and shoulder when the bullet bounced off his bulletproof vest.
After briefly blacking out, he said he regained consciousness, thinking "'You need to get up. These guys are shooting at you. These guys are going to put a bullet in your head.'" The two agents were among the government's first witnesses in its defense against the Branch Davidians' $675 million wrongful-death lawsuit. Attorneys for surviving sect members and relatives of those who died during the 51-day standoff rested their cases early Thursday morning.
U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith rejected government arguments that the plaintiffs had failed to offer enough evidence of government negligence or wrongdoing to allow their case to go to a jury. After hearing a lengthy oral argument from U.S. Attorney Michael Bradford of Beaumont, the judge tersely denied the government's dismissal motion without waiting to hear a plaintiff response.
The lawsuit alleges that ATF agents used excessive force and fired indiscriminately during their Feb. 28, 1993, raid on the compound. It charges that FBI commanders then failed to follow a tear gas plan approved by Attorney General Janet Reno to try to force the Branch Davidians to surrender. The lawsuit alleges that the FBI's Waco commanders ordered tanks that were used to spray in tear gas to prematurely demolish parts of the compound, thereby touching off a blaze that leveled the building.
The lawsuit also charges that the on-scene commanders violated Ms. Reno's specific directive for adequate emergency equipment when they failed to obtain fire equipment and decided they wouldn't try to fight a fire if one broke out during the April 19, 1993, assault. More than 80 Branch Davidians died amid the blaze.
Government lawyers say the allegations are baseless, countering that Branch Davidians ambushed ATF agents as they came to search the compound and arrest Mr. Koresh for weapons violations. Four ATF agents and six Davidians died that day.
"They have not proven that the ATF initiated this and was provoking this situation rather than responding to it," Mr. Bradford told the judge Thursday morning. "They have not proven that there is indiscriminate gunfire."
Lawyers for the sect have disputed that, noting that sect members who have offered testimony have said that the first shots they heard sounded like they were coming from outside the compound building.
On Thursday, lead plaintiffs' lawyer Michael Caddell tried to suggest that Mr. Evers could have inadvertently started the gunfight with a discharge from his own handgun.
"It'd be horrible to feel responsible for unleashing that," Mr. Caddell said after reciting the number of people injured and killed on both sides.
"I didn't unleash anything," Mr. Evers responded.
Mr. Evers testified that he had his pistol in a holster and was carrying a baton when the first gunshots rang out. He said he didn't run toward the compound carrying his gun because he was assigned to subdue any men who were outside working and that there were two agents running behind him who were providing him with adequate cover.
He said he only drew his gun after jumping into a ditch, where he lay bleeding for almost three hours before the gunfight subsided. He added that he never fired, even when a sect member charged at an agent coming to his rescue after a cease-fire.
"You knew that these people had guns, bad guns, bombs and knew how to use 'em?" Mr. Caddell prodded, noting that all of the ATF agents had been warned that the sect had been tipped off to their raid. "You want the jury to believe that you were carrying your baton. ...You didn't unholster your weapon?"
Mr. Caddell also noted that the agent's first statement to a Texas Ranger, recorded 16 days after the raid, included Mr. Evers' description of running "to take a cover position" before any gunshots rang out. "I 'covered down' on any windows and doors on the side of the structure," he told the Ranger in March 1993.
In that statement, the agent added that he assumed the first shots he heard came from agents shooting the compound's dogs, because "they had told us to be ready for gunfire or bangs or flash bangs."
"You don't 'cover down' with a baton, do you?" Mr. Caddell prodded, prompting Mr. Evers to ask if there was "any chance" he might be questioned instead on a later statement in which he removed any reference to the phrase, "cover down."
But he later conceded that "'cover down' is where I'm holding a firearm down at somebody."
Under government questioning, both agents said they were surprised at hearing the first gunshots, even though they knew that the Branch Davidians knew they were coming.
Asked why they went ahead with the raid after learning the sect had been warned, Mr. Mayfield said, "It was still our job to serve warrants, and we never ever expected to get shot at doing our job and our duty."
Four Texas National Guard pilots also testified Thursday, describing taking ground gunfire as they ferried ATF raid commanders toward the compound in three National Guard helicopters during the Feb. 28 raid. Each said their aircraft did not return fire but took six gunshots before landing.
Col William G. Petit said the largest aircraft, a Blackhawk flying in the middle of their formation, reported taking fire as they got within 1,200 or 1,500 feet from the building.
Blackhawk pilot Scott Huntley confirmed under cross-examination that he heard seven or eight gunshots explode "from out his left door" just after hearing one round slam into his aircraft. "I heard what sounded to me like seven or eight shots coming from a small caliber weapon," he said. "It was like a pop, pop, pop, pop, pop."
But he resisted Mr. Caddell's suggestion that they could have come from an ATF agent who was sitting behind him. "I knew it wasn't," the pilot responded, adding that he said he believed the sounds came from a tree line several hundred yards from the compound. While he conceded those shots could not have come from the compound, he said: "the shot that hit the helicopter came from Mount Carmel."
Government lawyers displayed a gashed metal panel from one of the damaged helicopters. The five-member jury also was shown the bullet-riddled front door from the compound, which bore four incoming and nine outgoing bullet holes. The adjoining double door was never found after the fire.
But Mr. Mayfield admitted under cross-examination that there would be no way to tell when any of the bullet holes were made.
"Which of these bullet holes were in the door on Feb. 28, and which were put in sometime later, like say April 19," Mr. Caddell asked. "You think somebody might have shot through the door at a tank as a tank was about to come through that door?"
"I wouldn't be able to determine," the agent responded.
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