Lawmen Reflect

10 years after Mount Carmel , lawmen reflect over mistakes made, lessons learned

Waco Tribune-Herald/March 16, 2003
By Mike Anderson

One Sunday morning 10 years ago, two cattle trailers filled with federal agents rumbled toward a large wooden building on the Central Texas prairie.

In the back of one trailer, U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent Bill Buford heard a troubling radio message: All was quiet outside the Branch Davidian compound.

"They said no one could be seen outside, which really drove the tension up because we expected at least somebody to be outside working," he recalls. "We tried to be hopeful because the last we heard they were in the chapel praying. But before I even got out of the trailer, I could hear machine guns, and I knew we didn't have any."

Although ATF officials knew the Branch Davidians had been forewarned about the raid, Buford, now 58, says agents did not expect the firefight that followed.

"I'm an old Vietnam vet, and I can tell you - the firing was intense."

ATF agents went to the remote place Davidians call Mount Carmel on Feb. 28, 1993 , to search the compound and arrest Branch Davidian leader David Koresh on federal weapons charges. Instead, they engaged in a gun battle in which four agents died, and 15, including Buford, were wounded. Six Branch Davidians also died and an unknown number were injured that day.

Following a 51-day standoff between frustrated federal agents and the Apocalypse-obsessed religious group, a tank and tear-gas assault was launched by the FBI. Fire flashed through the shoddily built structure and 76 people inside died, including 21 children.

The actions of federal agents during those 51 days have been intensely scrutinized over the past 10 years by the public, the media, and the government. The U.S. treasury and justice departments and the Texas Rangers each investigated the case.

Congressional hearings and criminal and civil trials kept the story in the news. Books, films and Web sites accused federal agents of misdeeds. A further federal investigation by a special counsel later dismissed many such allegations.

Today a legacy of those dark days near Waco shows up in the procedural changes embraced by government agencies involved in the Mount Carmel siege. Retired ATF agents who led teams on Feb. 28, 1993 , testify to the rapidity with which changes were considered and adopted.

At the time of the raid, Bill Buford was a leader of the New Orleans ATF special response team, while Robert White, now 58 and also retired, was a leader of the Dallas team.

White, also shot during the raid, says that since 1993 decision-making power in high-risk situations is entrusted to officers specially trained in handling such cases. The Treasury Department ' s 1993 report criticized the lack of training and experience of the ATF supervisors who gave the go order for the raid.

Specifically, the report criticized the decision to go ahead despite word from undercover ATF agent Robert Rodriguez that the Branch Davidians had been tipped off that the ATF was coming.

"The people actually calling the shots, whether to go or not, did not have the tactical training necessary to make those kind of decisions," White says. "They had the authority to make those decisions simply because of their rank. Now, before any decision is made, a leader of one of the tactical teams, someone who has been trained specifically for that purpose, will make the call."

The Treasury Department report also faulted some ATF officials for lying both to investigators and reporters to cover up the fact they knew the Branch Davidians had been told they were coming. After the report was released, then Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen suspended five ATF officials and replaced the bureau ' s director, Stephen Higgins.

Current ATF director Bradley A. Buckles, who worked in the bureau's general counsel office in 1993, says the importance of being honest is stressed throughout training for all agents. He also says new training regimen developed since 1993 includes working specifically with the media.

"It may sound simple, but the main point we stress in our training program when it comes to dealing with the media is the importance of being truthful and accurate," he says. "Nothing can cause things to go wrong more quickly and drastically than not being honest and accurate.

"And we also tell our agents today, if you don't have an answer, for sure you need to be prepared to say just that."

Since 1993, the ATF has formed four specially trained, regional tactical teams to plan and carry out high-risk operations, Buckles says. In addition, agents now receive more extensive training in intelligence-gathering and decision-making.

More time is also spent planning contingencies in case something goes wrong during a raid, Buford says. In 1993, the search plan crumbled in the face of fierce gunfire, he says. One of the raid's commanders was under fire in a helicopter above the compound while another was trapped with other agents behind a cattle trailer.

Neither was able to alter tactics, even though they were in the thick of a rapidly changing situation.

"We did have a backup plan, but it lacked, and I am partly to blame for that," Buford says. "If our spotters had noticed something wrong before we drove up, we would have not pulled into the driveway, but we would have set up a perimeter instead.

"The one thing we had not planned for was to be pinned down by fire right out in front of the building," Buford says. "We did not anticipate we would come under such heavy fire, nor did we anticipate we would have such heavy casualties."

Buford and White say the ATF has generally moved from using the penetration-type search planned for Mount Carmel to one where agents surround a site, announce their presence and work to get those inside to surrender so agents can search safely.

Buford says that during the planning stage for the 1993 raid, agents initially considered using the latter approach. Ironically, the idea was scrapped because interviews with people familiar with the group's beliefs said the Branch Davidians would hold out as long as possible, then kill themselves, he says.

The hard lessons learned by the ATF in 1993 have resonated through law enforcement agencies across the nation, Buckles says.

"Even the (Los Angeles Police Department), where the SWAT concept was primarily first developed, they have begun to learn to consider a wider range of approaches," he says.

While direct tactics and approaches may work well when dealing with what Buckles calls the "common criminal," such approaches can prove disastrous when dealing with a group whose motive is something other than money.

"I think now we are much more effective at adjusting our tactics to suit not only the situation, but also the people we are dealing with," he says.

Retired FBI agent Byron Sage, 55, the bureau's lead negotiator during the 51-day siege that followed the ATF raid, says the FBI has also shifted toward a "surround-and-call-out" approach since 1993.

The first big test of this approach came in 1996 near Noble, Montana, at the compound of an anti-government group known as the Montana Freemen. After investigating allegations that group members had committed fraud and threatened public officials, the FBI surrounded the group ' s rural residence on March 25, 1996 , and began negotiations for those inside to surrender.

After an 81-day standoff, the group came out.

Sage, who did not take part in the Montana Freemen standoff, says while the FBI's approach likely contributed to the incident's bloodless end, fear of another " Waco " ending also led officials to actions that weakened the negotiators' position.

"Because of the tragedy of the Branch Davidian siege, the die was cast," he says. "It was made clear in public statements by FBI officials early on they would stay back and continue to negotiate for as long as it took, come hell or high water. Quite frankly, the up-front statement of that fact worked against negotiators because the Freemen felt so comfortable there wasn't any impetus for them to do anything but stay put. They didn't even start talking to us for 53 days.

"Some of the public statements that this wasn't going to be resolved tactically, by some of the FBI senior leadership, allowed them to sit back and wait," Sage says. "(The Freemen) felt there was no danger."

Some critics of the government's handling of the Branch Davidian case have faulted federal agents for not arresting Koresh when he left the compound to go into nearby Waco . The Treasury Department report also criticized ATF officials for missing opportunities to arrest Koresh by not gathering intelligence that would have revealed he left Mount Carmel on several occasions before Feb. 28.

Three years later in Montana , the story was different, with FBI agents arresting two of the Freemen leaders outside their compound.

While ATF agents would have preferred arresting Koresh outside, they still might have come under fire had other Branch Davidian leaders, the armed group of so-called "Mighty Men," remained inside the compound, Buford says.

Sage says the tragedy at Mount Carmel led to the birth of a new FBI team to respond to standoffs, hostage situations and other potentially explosive scenarios. The Crisis Incident Response Group (CIRG) was formed in 1994 to bring together under one command the negotiators, tactical officers and other elements needed to respond to a crisis such as Mount Carmel .

In 1993, the FBI's negotiating team and Hostage Rescue Team were separate units, and some communication problems resulted during the standoff. Sage alludes to a March 21 incident as an example.

"We had gotten seven adult (Branch Davidians) to come out during the day, then that very evening the tactical team was given the authority to clear away vehicles from around the building," he says. "That caused some anger inside the compound. The timing was absolutely wrong. The command structure was informed about everything, but they were focusing on safety issues of the tactical people, not the tactics of the negotiators.

"One of the lessons learned that day was we weren't working from the same sheet of music," Sage recalls. "It was frustrating because we were sending mixed messages."

In order to give all CIRG members a better understanding of the tactics and needs of negotiators, the entire team takes a two-week negotiations class every year, Sage says.

"Hopefully this will enhance the communication lines so tactical (team members) and negotiators, rather than working at odds, will complement each other," he says.

The lessons of 1993 did not go unnoticed by local authorities in McLennan County . Sheriff Larry Lynch, a lieutenant with the department at the time of the standoff, says he too learned the importance of having a backup plan in case something goes wrong. Also, since the siege the department has added negotiators and formed a Crisis Response Team, he says.

While the events at Mount Carmel led to changes within participating law enforcement agencies, some child protective policies that were criticized 10 years ago remain in effect today.

A year before the siege, allegations began to surface that children were being physically and sexually abused at Mount Carmel . Acting on those allegations, the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services opened an investigation during which caseworkers went to the compound three times.

Uncovering no evidence of abuse, agency officials closed the case in April 1992.

A year later 21 children died as flames engulfed the compound.

One of the criticisms leveled at the protective services agency is that investigators should have interviewed the children outside the compound where, well away from the group's adults, they might have spoken more freely.

Bob Boyd, now protective services program administrator for a 30-county region that includes McLennan County , was director of the Waco office in 1993. He says protective services investigators did not remove the children for interviews because none they spoke with made an outcry about abuse. It is a policy the agency holds to today, he says.

"People are under the assumption that if we had taken the children out of there for an interview, they would have opened up to us about abuse," he says. "The reality was it was highly unlikely. They were such a closed group, and because of their strong beliefs and devotion to Koresh, I don't believe we would have gotten any of them to talk to us about abuse. They were not going to open up to outsiders.

"Even those kids we talked to who did come out during the standoff didn't reveal anything to us. It was only after a long time were we able to piece together some pictures of what it was like inside."

Rules constraining child protective services remain a sore point for David Jewell, whose daughter, Kiri, in 1995 testified before Congress that Koresh had sex with her when she was 10. He says he believes now as he did in 1993 - that authorities called ahead before caseworkers visited Mount Carmel .

Thus warned, the Branch Davidians were able to send some of the children from the compound so they could not be interviewed, he says.

Jewell says he was told about the advance warnings by Joyce Sparks, then investigative supervisor for the protective services office in Waco . Boyd, however, continues to assert that, to his knowledge, no calls were made by protective services announcing visits to Mount Carmel .

"As a matter of practice," he says, "we never notify people before we go out to investigate them."

In a 1993 interview with the Tribune-Herald, Sparks accused then McLennan County Sheriff Jack Harwell of telling her to back off of the investigation of alleged child abuse at the compound. Harwell, who has since died, denied he ever made such a statement.

Sheriff Lynch says his department works "hand-in-hand" with child protective officials. He says his officers aggressively pursue child abuse allegations. He cites as an example the recent arrest of two adults that authorities claim made two children sleep in a shed without a toilet or heating.

In the end, despite changes that have occurred the past 10 years, many of those reflecting on the events of 1993 express skepticism the standoff would end differently if it happened today.

Had the ATF not lost the element of surprise, Buford believes agents could have secured the building safely and avoided a standoff. But once the siege started, he says he was convinced the Branch Davidians would commit .

To this day, questions remain as to whether the fire that consumed the compound was sparked by the FBI or Davidians bent on suicide. Federal officials have maintained over the years that those inside the compound started the fire, citing as evidence infrared images that showed hot spots erupting simultaneously in different parts of the building.

Meanwhile, critics of the FBI ' s handling of the final hours of the standoff have suggested federal agents started the blaze by firing tear-gas shells that were capable of generating several hundred degrees of heat.

Sage says while it is true incendiary shells were among those fired to emit gas on the last day of the siege, he firmly believes they did not cause the fire that quickly consumed the compound.

"This is the critical point, the M651 rounds were never directed towards the wooden structure," he says. "They were used in an area yards away from the building. Also, they were used earlier in the day. The fire didn ' t start until four hours later. They had absolutely nothing to do with that fire."

Sage says the much-debated M651 rounds were fired only at a construction pit near the compound where other gas-discharging devices had been smothered in mud. The pit was targeted because some Davidian gunfire during the ATF raid had come from that area, he says.

The fact the FBI didn't immediately document the use of such tear-gas shells led some critics to believe the bureau sought to hide evidence of its usage. Sage, however, disputes the notion FBI officials were trying to hide usage of incendiary tear-gas shells at Mount Carmel .

Sheriff Lynch says he felt Koresh never would have willingly come out of the compound to face arrest. Koresh said as much after his trial for attempted murder following a 1987 shootout at Mount Carmel with rival prophet George Roden.

"He had his heaven on earth," Lynch says of Koresh and his communal domain 10 miles east of Waco . "He had everything he needed. Back in 1988, when he walked away free after a trial, he vowed he would never go to jail."

Whatever the Branch Davidians' crimes, some critics say compound members acted as many groups might do in a sudden crisis. In this case, the Davidians ' feelings were intensified by their apocalyptic vision of the world and careful avoidance of outside influences.

"The big thing is they were backed into a corner and asked to give up their sense of identity, their sense of reality, and enter out into an evil place," says Jayne Seminare Docherty, an associate professor of conflict studies at Eastern Mennonite University who has written extensively about the Branch Davidian standoff.

Clive Doyle, one of a handful of Branch Davidians to emerge from the compound as it burned, has long said he never felt a suicide pact existed. He says he believed Koresh was telling the truth when he made a deal with negotiators near the end of the standoff to come out once he finished a manuscript interpreting the Seven Seals referred to in the Book of Revelation in the Bible.

"Once we had learned he was working on the seals and we would be coming out, the mood was excited," Doyle says of those final days at the embattled compound. "Everybody was elated that it was over. I mean, we were in a building with wind whistling through the holes. We were on rations. We were ready to come out."

But when asked if he thinks a similar standoff would end differently if it happened today, Doyle's tone changes.

"I suppose (the government) might have learned something from what happened here," he says. "That doesn't mean they won't do it again. They are still as scared as they ever were by groups they perceive as a threat. I don't think personally they've learned to parley and discuss for a longer time rather than have an assault...but who knows?"

While it is true negotiators struck a deal to allow Koresh time to work on his manuscript, Sage says, no evidence was presented that the work was actually taking place.

Once federal officials concluded the deal with Koresh was a delaying tactic, the government decided to begin its assault, one that included the use of tanks and the insertion of gas into the compound and by means other than the infamous incendiary tear-gas shells, he says.

By then, fears were mounting that the standoff could drag on indefinitely. Sage says the government's actions the day of the fire arose out of concern that Davidian corpses and stored human waste inside the compound had become a critical health hazard. He says after numerous conversations with Koresh and others inside, he did not believe they would commit suicide.

Today, with 10 years hindsight, Sage says he does not think he or other federal agents could have done anything during the standoff to reach a peaceful end.

"The FBI never had any control over how this was going to end," he says. "From day one, that was up to Koresh. I think the only control law enforcement had over this was where and when it was going to end. But ultimately the ending was up to Koresh. He never relinquished that control right up to the fire that ultimately took the lives of those children."

But while Sage insists the FBI did nothing to cause the inferno that quickly reduced the ramshackle Branch Davidian compound to smoldering rubble, he says he continues to be dogged by one great mystery.

"I've been asked if I thought that was a mass suicide in Waco ," he says. "I used to say yes. But what I have come to believe is that it was an expression of absolute faith. While I can respect that to some degree, I will never understand how those parents willingly let their children perish in that fire."

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