Waco reignited

St. Petersburg Times, November 28, 1999

The windowless basement smelled of dust and neglect, locked from the world for five years. Michael McNulty did not know what he would find in this forgotten tomb. He knew what he wanted.

As the fluorescent lights hummed and flickered on overhead, he passed through a small anteroom into a larger room. Propped against a wall was a door punctured with bullet holes and marred by a tank tread.

The door looked like a grave marker for what lay buried in this storage room in Texas: the remains of a deadly battle near Waco.

On a spring morning in April 1993, the U.S. government ended a 51-day standoff between federal agents and an armed religious community holed up inside its rural compound in Mount Carmel. For hours, armored vehicles punched holes through the walls and sprayed tear gas inside to force them to come out. No one did. A fire, fanned by the gusting Texas winds, raced through the wooden structure.

Black smoke filled the sky, and the television screens of millions who watched on live news reports. Waiting. Hoping that someone would escape the inferno.

Some 58 adults and 21 children died.

The horrifying picture seared in the nation's brain would fade in time: Those religious fanatics doomed themselves, committing mass suicide when they thought they'd be taken.

But for others, the fire still smoldered. How could his government wage war, asked Michael McNulty, on men, women and children who wanted only to be left alone to await the prophecies of the Bible?

As he stood amid the detritus in this gloomy room, where his five-year obsession had led him, he believed he would find what he had hunted so long: The U.S. government murdered the people of Mount Carmel because they defied it. And because it could. Here he would find proof.

What McNulty found became grim accusation in a documentary, Waco: A New Revelation, to be released this week, and evidence in a wrongful-death suit against the government slated for trial next year.

It would rattle Capitol Hill and the leaders who thought the chapter on Waco was closed.

What he found reignited one of the biggest law enforcement debacles in U.S. history.

After the raging inferno

The fire at Waco burned until the structure was ash and the bodies charred. In congressional hearings in 1993 and 1995, officials of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were cleared of any criminal misconduct in the siege. The members of the religious group, the Branch Davidians, set the fire to fulfill the scriptural prophecies of their 33-year-old leader, David Koresh, the subcommittees ruled.

The Davidians initially brought the law to their doorstep with warrants when they stockpiled illegal firearms and explosives.

On Feb. 28, 1993, a hundred ATF agents, many hidden in cattle trucks, rushed the building. Gunfire erupted. Four agents were killed and five Davidians died in the botched raid. The next day, control was handed off from the ATF to the FBI.

Soon 400 law enforcement officers gathered at this place in the middle of nowhere. They included the FBI's elite Hostage Rescue Team. Armored personnel carriers and tanks rumbled over the scrubby plains. To the multitude of press gathered for a briefing, FBI special agent-in-charge Jeff Jamar said: "The goal is to resolve the situation, ultimately in federal court, with no further bloodshed."

But after almost two months of negotiation, only two dozen or so adults and children had surrendered. The tear gassing began at 6:04 a.m. April 19, with FBI director William Sessions and newly appointed Attorney General Janet Reno at the J. Edgar Hoover building in D.C. to monitor the assault.

They were as stunned as TV viewers when fire consumed the Davidians. In the weeks that followed, federal officials repeatedly said the tear gas pumped into the building for nearly six hours was not incendiary. Reno had ordered that no flammable gas be used because of the potential for fire. No agent fired a shot at the Davidians during the standoff, the FBI said. Video and audio tapes of events were garbled or fuzzy and of little use, they testified.

Some did not believe the government. McNulty, at the time an insurance agent in California, began a search for answers that would devour his finances and his waking hours for seven years.

An Arizona lawyer, who attended the congressional hearings and consulted for the National Rifle Association, fired off Freedom of Information Act requests, trying to uncover the piece of paper or sooty shard that would prove that the government wanted not justice but revenge. A financial planner in Colorado could not clear his head of the images of dead children in Texas.

"I'm not a conspiracy-theory guy. I couldn't be more middle of the road," says Rick Van Vleet of Fort Collins. Yet when the building burned, it incensed him.

"That's the best we could do?" he asks of his country. "I was sickened by it."

Van Vleet's irritation with Big Brother was not new. In handling estates and taxes for clients, he frequently travels to Washington to testify. "I've been trying for 20 years to put the IRS out of business," he says. In 1996, Van Vleet founded MGA (Media for General Audiences) Films to produce family videos. "No more slash and bash, no more sex-Hollywood already has that covered," he says. His son, Jason Van Vleet, who as a child actor was devoured on screen by a B-movie werewolf and later worked on Disney educational videos, joined him.

Before the fledgling company could capture a single G-rated frame, the Van Vleets heard that Michael McNulty, the bulldog of Waco critics, now resided in Fort Collins. There were questions about Waco still begging answers. Maybe McNulty had something for MGA.

Jason Van Vleet met the man for lunch. The bombastic McNulty wore a baseball cap, wolfed two barbecue sandwiches and talked of explosives and surveillance planes and secret military operatives unleashed against civilians.

There was, indeed, more to be said about Waco.

Opposites sniffing for clues

In the fall of 1998, as his flight headed south to Austin and the evidence lockers of the Texas Rangers, Jason Van Vleet thought he might get a wide shot of the room, and that would be that. He was tired, up 48 hours straight doing research. McNulty was with him, suffering yet another kidney stone.

They made an odd pair.

The baby-faced, 29-year-old Van Vleet is as precisely programmed as the computers he finesses for video production. As director of MGA's new film on Waco, he wanted every assertion checked and rechecked. He listened to each minute of 400 hours of recorded FBI and Davidian negotiations. "I was 22 years old when it happened," he says. "I never saw a minute of this in real time."

McNulty, a beefy, bearded 53-year-old whose social graces lose out to impatience, was known in right-wing circles as the man with the dirt on Waco.

A friend of McNulty's in Arizona, David Hardy, had helped dig up a lot of it. Hardy, a former Interior Department attorney, first sued the ATF for access to the evidence in 1996. The ATF told him the Texas Rangers had it because the Rangers had been assigned to investigate the unsuccessful ATF raid. The Rangers said they were not authorized to release anything. Try the Justice Department. An assistant U.S. attorney in Waco finally told McNulty to come on down and take a look.

There was 12 tons' worth.

An inventory of the storage rooms listed 500 boxes and hundreds of sealed, 5-gallon drums containing spent munitions. Charred guns in plastic bags filled shelf after shelf, almost 200 labeled as belonging to the Davidians. The Branch Davidians are a splinter group of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and moved to Waco from California in the 1930s. In David Koresh, followers found a prophet who could interpret the Seven Seals in the Book of Revelation and assure their ascent into heaven at world's end.

Local law enforcement peacefully co-existed with the Davidians. But the group's trade in firearms and explosives at gun shows, and Koresh's multiple wives, some of them underage girls, drew the attention of the ATF. In the storage room, McNulty had little interest in the Davidians' personal effects: the singed Bibles, gas masks and sleeping bags, which the women and children threw over their heads against the fire's heat. He paused only briefly over a wooden spoon with a unicorn decal labeled "The Helper" and used for discipline.

"There was CS gas (residue) everywhere," says Jason Van Vleet. "If you stayed in too long, your lungs would start to burn." Van Vleet and McNulty were the first private citizens to get into the evidence rooms.

They were not looking for the Davidians' story, but the government's.

"We literally stumbled over a cut-down beer box-it had 28 Super-VHS videotapes made by the Texas Department of Public Safety starting April 19, shortly before the fire," McNulty says. The tapes chronicled the collection of bodies and evidence after the blaze. McNulty wondered if the FBI knew they existed. He asked for copies.

He found at least four projectiles and casings he believed to be pyrotechnic. On the next visit he brought munitions expert Jack Frost to take scrapings. They wanted to determine if the canisters passed through the wooden structure.

McNulty, a Vietnam veteran, says he also found a videotape that shows machine-gun fire toward the compound from an FBI helicopter. McNulty made four trips to Austin and two to a storage facility in Waco from November 1998 to March 1999. He was always escorted by at least one Texas Ranger. On the first visit, he at one point crooked his finger at a Ranger, motioning him to come. The Ranger stonily informed him he was not to do that again.

An attorney for Waco survivors and descendants in a wrongful-death suit against the government says he had been denied access to the evidence since filing the case in 1994. McNulty's work proved critical to keeping the suit alive, says Michael Caddell of Houston, until he and other attorneys were given access by a judge last summer.

The trial is scheduled to begin in May.

On Vince Foster, the Clintons

The setting sun gilds the pastures at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains as Rick Van Vleet joins Fort Collins' mannerly rush hour on his way to the MGA studios. Residents of the picturesque college town, many of them vaulted to upper middle class by jobs at Hewlett Packard or in nearby Denver, drive sport utility vehicles with big dogs and boast that Colorado's brutal snowstorms bypass their anointed valley.

Van Vleet sees only Waco. What began as a four-month film project has taken three years.

The trail, he insists, leads all the way to the White House. The extreme right has long made the late Vince Foster its poster boy for conspiracy theories. Van Vleet says the White House counsel shot himself in the head July 20, 1993, three months after Waco, out of guilt. As the Texas Rangers' contact person during the standoff, Foster could not live with what happened, Van Vleet says. Foster's widow told investigators Waco had been on his mind. Foster's involvement indicts the Clintons, says Van Vleet. The only name Van Vleet injects with more venom than the president's is that of the president's wife. "What do you think of Hillary Clinton?" he asks, like some litmus strip on one's politics. On this late afternoon in October, Van Vleet is headed to the studio because he wants to share how the film "connects the dots" to her.

Located outside town in a bland strip shopping center between a coin laundry and an herbal store, MGA is not easy to find. That is intentional, says Van Vleet. The computer keeps crashing and eating his movie, a production delay Van Vleet is not willing to chalk up to mere technical glitch.

He has invested more than $1-million in Waco: A New Revelation-he says there are no outside investors-and undisclosed millions more in the company. Inside the deceptive exterior, towers of shelves brim with expensive synthesizers and servers. State-of-the-art computers crowd desktops. On one sound-baffled wall hang 16 keyboards-there are 60-plus in the building, almost all of which can be played by remote on computer software. His is a self-contained empire capable of filming, editing, graphics, sound effects, music and marketing. A New Revelation will be ready for direct-to-video sales and a limited theatrical release next week, Van Vleet says. The documentary will be sold through ads, a Web site and direct marketing to groups who know "the country is out of whack." "More and more rights are being taken away," says Van Vleet. "As long as people have money in the bank, it doesn't matter to them. But you have to keep the government in check."

As a college student in Nebraska, Van Vleet played late night with a rock 'n' roll band and begged his professors for mercy when he fell asleep in class the next morning. If he flunked out, he would be drafted to Vietnam. The 54-year-old still wears a Beatles haircut. He gallantly pulls out the chair for a woman. He dotes on a 7-pound toy poodle named Kramer, who monopolizes his lap. When Van Vleet talks about the federal government, Kramer invariably loses his seat.

The movie is done like a court case, Van Vleet says, jumping up to pace the room. "We take their (previous) testimony-ATF, FBI, military-and disprove it." The film includes interviews with former FBI, CIA and law enforcement officials, munitions experts and surviving Branch Davidians. "(We) crazies and "bad guys,' " says Van Vleet, "are the only ones asking the right questions."

A year ago MGA mailed each of the federal agencies involved in Waco a packet of photographs and documents on what it found, along with a letter requesting a response. None have replied, says Rick Van Vleet. In August, he met with a dozen legislators and staffers in D.C. to show them rough cuts from the film. The Democrats couldn't care less, he says.

With the movie in the VCR, Van Vleet fumbles with the remote control, trying to advance the tape to the part where Reno and the Clintons are, at the least, made to look like fools. At most, the documentary implies, they are calculating murderers.

At each pronouncement by a federal official, which Van Vleet has watched dozens of times already, he shakes his head in disgust. It is dark by the time he heads for the door. He tells his son, the father of his two grandsons, the director, that the drums on the soundtrack are still too loud and to take care of it. Kramer is at his heels as Van Vleet walks out into the night.

The conservative from California

Michael McNulty knew it was time to get out of la-la land. His six-figure income as a commercial agent for Nationwide Insurance in California came crashing down when the company pulled out of the state in the early 1990s. McNulty and his wife were forced to file for bankruptcy. Crime was rampant in the overpopulated state, McNulty feared, and the government intended to leave him defenseless.

He lobbied against an assault-weapons ban introduced in the State Legislature after a fatigue-clad gunman sprayed a Stockton schoolyard with an AK-47 and killed five Southeast Asian children in 1989. McNulty says the ban on several types of guns was an "overreaction."

He backed a successful lawsuit to force the issuance of concealed-weapons permits by the city of Los Angeles, which had not signed any in 20 years, in a controversy involving a permit given to an African-American police chief. He founded COPS, a group opposed to gun control and government interference. But carrying his pistol no longer comforted. When a "gangbanger" held up his teenage son in the parking lot of a Ralph's Supermarket for 11 cents, the father of five moved his family to Fort Collins.

McNulty hosted a radio talk show on KHNC in nearby Johnstown, a station the Southern Poverty Law Center labeled anti-Semitic and racist. He was already hip-deep in his work on Waco.

McNulty, a congressional aide once observed, is No. 1 in the "nut-case crowd."

"All we've been doing is asking questions," McNulty counters. "Those who would prefer to keep Waco a dark, deep secret will do their best to portray us as radical nuts, but we just don't fit the mold. I'm not out attending militia meetings. I'm not a member of a white Aryan group."

McNulty spent more than $400,000 of his savings investigating Waco and co-produced the 1997 documentary Waco: The Rules of Engagement, hooking up with former television reporter Dan Gifford, who had also worked on the gun permit lawsuit. The film was an Academy Award nominee in 1998; in September McNulty won an Emmy for investigative journalism.

Rules of Engagement debuted at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 16, 1997, in a theater full of "Hollywood types."

"You know," says McNulty, "the people dressed in black with tight collars. A lot of 'em have long hair in ponytails and multiple earrings and if they're balding they have a special kind of haircut. They're looking at their schedules: "I'm outta here in 20 minutes.'

"At the end of two hours and 40 minutes, they were sitting there still." Critics labeled the film extremist propaganda.

"Nothing shows the federal agents murdered those people and set the fire (at Waco). I think it's a disaster that they (filmmakers) have gained a lot of credibility," says Mark Potok, editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center's publication, Intelligence Report.

The Rules of Engagement takes footage from heat-sensitive film shot from an FBI airplane to accuse agents on the ground of firing on the Davidians in the last hours of the siege. The flashes on the film pinpointed as gunfire, contradict other experts, are reflected sunlight. If they were flashes from the heat of a muzzle, where was the heat image from the body holding the gun?

The film depicts law enforcement as brutes. Waging an escalating war of nerves to end the standoff, officers wore camouflage clothing on the treeless Texas dust and drove the tanks around like dirt bikes. Agents mooned those inside, witnesses said. They blasted audio of rabbits being slaughtered and Nancy Sinatra singing These Boots Are Made for Walking through endless nights.

The Van Vleets and MGA were not involved in the first documentary. Theirs, says McNulty, is less cinematic but harder-edged, drawing the noose tighter and higher up the ladder in D.C.

McNulty blames Clinton not only for Waco but a larger disintegration of order: "Can you remember a (school) shooting at the end of the Bush administration?" Liberals and minorities, in their push for civil rights, escalate urban violence, he says.

"I have nothing against them," says McNulty, a Mormon. "It's when being Jewish, being black, being gay, being a woman gets you something you don't deserve."

As paid researcher for MGA and the attorneys in the wrongful-death suit, McNulty finally ditched his 10-year-old, 150,000-mile Aerostar van for a new Dodge Durango. He and his wife, Julie, are purchasing a home in Fort Collins. An MGA film on the bombing in Oklahoma City is under discussion. "If people insist on politicizing (Waco), they will be condemned to things like Oklahoma City," McNulty says. What happened in Texas so enraged Timothy McVeigh, a former soldier, that he bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City and killed 168 people two years to the day after the Waco fire, according to testimony at McVeigh's trial.

"Mr. McVeigh and I both saw what happened on April 19, 1993," says McNulty. "I chose to make some films. Mr. McVeigh chose to blow up a building full of innocent men, women and children."

What was in those lockers

The discovery a year ago of incendiary devices in the storage lockers in Texas relit the fuse on Waco.

On Aug. 25 the FBI reversed six years of denial, acknowledging it fired potentially flammable tear-gas cartridges at the Mount Carmel building the day it burned to the ground.

The 40-mm CS projectiles, military issue and about the size of a football, were used hours before the fire began and bounced harmlessly off a concrete bunker in the middle of the complex, agents insist.

But the admission was the first time any government official contradicted congressional testimony from the attorney general and FBI. Reno named former Sen. John Danforth, a Missouri Republican, to head an investigation into a possible FBI coverup.

The forays into the basement of the Texas Rangers had found the smoking gun MGA had hoped for.

"We were a little tiny pebble that made a big wave," says Jason Van Vleet. A day before the FBI's August reversal, the Dallas Morning News quoted former FBI official Danny O. Coulson, a deputy director during the siege, confirming that at least two projectiles were fired from grenade launchers at the compound. The News asked Coulson about the devices after its reporter visited Fort Collins and viewed portions of the unfinished documentary. "This is the truth and this is what happened. It's important for the American people to know," Coulson said.

On Nov. 15, U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr. ordered independent field testing to determine whether the flashes on the heat-sensitive, or FLIR, film are gunfire. Danforth's office and Davidian attorneys had requested a re-creation, over the objections of the Justice Department on national security grounds.

Waco: A New Revelation also alleges that:

  • Soldiers of the Army's super-secret Delta Force participated in the attack and may have fired dozens of machine-gun rounds into the building from behind armored vehicles out of sight of the press. Federal law bars military action against U.S. citizens without a special presidential order.
  • The FLIR tape shows gunfire aimed at one of the building's last available exits, blocking the Davidians' escape from the flames.
  • A demolition charge was placed on the roof of the bunker and detonated by remote, its blast aimed inward despite agents' knowledge that women and children had taken refuge inside.
  • Munitions were fired from hand-held grenade launchers at the kitchen and another corner of the building and could have ignited the fire.

Waco, opined TIME magazine, is becoming Janet Reno's Area 51: a place full of things she did not know existed.

Government officials continue to deny they started the fatal blaze: FBI listening devices in the building recorded Davidians discussing spreading fuel and igniting it.

No shots were fired by the government, they say. As many as 19 Davidians were killed by gunshots fired at pointblank range by other Davidians. Delta Force soldiers were at the site, but only as observers, they say. Declassified government documents recently obtained by the New York Times show that Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, which oversees Delta Force, was involved in Waco more than a month before the final assault, and reported to the secretary of defense and joint chiefs of staff on its operations. The role of Delta Force is unclear. So is an end to the controversy over Waco.

"It's grown legs and gone places we never thought it would go," Rick Van Vleet says of MGA's work. "Why did a private company with limited resources have to go out and do it?"

Two ways of looking at it

On a Wednesday in November during the last hectic days of the congressional session in Washington, D.C., the group from Colorado screened its documentary at the Union Station theaters for lawmakers, staff and the press.

Rick Van Vleet borrowed an AMC badge from a theater employee and positioned himself at the exit. "What did you think of the film?" he asked departing members of the media.

They would glance at his badge, then talk. "Riveting," said one. "Hogwash," Potok, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, says of the entire effort. "I think these men are doing a great disservice. They're fueling a movement that thrives on wild conspiracy theories." For the filmmakers from Colorado, the revelations about Waco are vindication. See? they say. We are not so crazy after all.



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