Four years after the fiery end of the Branch Davidian standoff, the cult lives on, pressing a lawsuit aimed at pinning the blame for the 80 deaths on the government.
- The lawsuit, seeking hundreds of millions in damages, challenges the government's conclusion that the Branch Davidians themselves started the fire and that they also shot first during the federal raid on their compound 51 days earlier.
- The plaintiffs - about 250 surviving Davidians and the relatives of the dead - contend that when federal agents punched through the walls and fired tear gas into the cult compound in an April 19, 1993, attempt to end the standoff, the canisters ignited, burning the building and the people inside.
- Joe Phillips, a Houston lawyer for the plaintiffs, acknowledged that they will be hard-pressed to make their case.
- "Certainly the fact that the government killed most of our witnesses and theirs mostly survived makes it more difficult for us," he said.
- With hundreds of motions and rulings expected, it will probably be years before the case goes to trial.
- On Saturday's anniversary of the blaze, the Branch Davidians plan to gather at the site of the fire and hold a ceremony in honor of political prisoners.
- The siege began in February 1993, when four federal agents and six Branch Davidians were killed in a gun battle that broke out when the government tried to arrest cult leader David Koresh on weapons charges. After weeks of negotiations, the FBI sent in armored vehicles to flush the cultists out with tear gas.
- Since then, cases that have gone to court and two weeks of congressional hearings have exposed mistakes by federal agents, but no government officials were ever charged with any crimes.
- Instead, surviving Davidians and relatives of the dead filed nine lawsuits that were consolidated into one case in 1995. The defendants include Attorney General Janet Reno and top officials of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the FBI, including then-Director William Sessions.
- Last year, against the plaintiffs' wishes, the case was moved from Houston to federal court in Waco.
- "We did not want to go there because the only federal judge is Walter Smith. He is unfairly biased against the Branch Davidians," Phillips said.
- Smith has put eight surviving Davidians in prison for various charges, including weapons violations and voluntary manslaughter. A federal appeals court has ordered him to review some of his more severe sentences.
- The Davidians have also asked the appeals court to remove Smith from hearing the lawsuit.
- In the meantime, the Davidians hold weekly services at the Mount Carmel site, a tangle of burned-out vehicles and concrete ruins.
- Anti-government militias and conspiracy theorists have made Waco a rallying cry. And federal prosecutors have suggested that Timothy McVeigh, who once visited the compound's ruins, blew up the Oklahoma City federal building on the second anniversary of the fire as revenge.
- "I came down here because I was drawn to it because of all the anger," said Dale Perkins, a visitor to the site from Garland. Shaking her head, she said, "I don't know who was at fault. It's hard. It's hard."
Just as the burn scars on Branch Davidian Clive Doyle's hands will never go away, neither will the images imbedded in his mind during the 51-day standoff at Mount Carmel.
Saturday was the five-year anniversary of the shootout between cult members and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that led to a 51-day stand-off at Mount Carmel, about 10 miles east of Waco. Four agents and five Branch Davidians died during the firefight.
A somber mood lingered about the grounds as survivors, friends and curious onlookers milled around the now barren campground that once was the site of the two-story clapboard compound.
A small group of survivors and family members gathered in the early morning hours to pray together, hoping to alleviate some of the grief and anger that many of them still feel.
"I feel just as adamant about it as I did when it happened," Doyle said, remembering the day of the shootout. "There's no call for what went on out here - no real justification for the way it was handled."
On the morning of Feb. 28, 1993, about 100 ATF agents tried to arrest Branch Davidian leader David Koresh for possession of automatic weapons. The shootout sparked the standoff that ended in an inferno April 19, 1993. Doyle and nine others escaped the fire which killed Koresh and 75 of his followers, including 21 children.
"I've done what I hoped to do today," said Doyle, the father of a woman who died in the fire. "We wanted people to know we still remember and still care and that this thing is not going to be swept under the rug."
He and other Branch Davidians have filed a civil case against the government, hoping to "bring the truth to the American people as to what happened and let them decide as to what they believe," he said.
"Many of the lies they told about us in order to justify what they did have been proven to be lies," Doyle said.
In the meantime, he and other Davidian supporters are making plans to rebuild the church that once represented the heart of the compound.
"I myself would love to see that, in the face of such arrogance," said a Mount Carmel groundskeeper who goes by the name "Andrew." "I mean, my God, to torture women and children for 51 days? How did those people fix their minds to do that?"
Doug Mitchell, who is a member of the original Branch Davidian association, is fighting the group's plans to rebuild the church, saying the Davidians that were on the property during the standoff shouldn't have been there in the first place.
"We're here today to show that Koresh had a different association with the Davidian name and had no right to the property," Mitchell said.
Waco resident Tom Cook was one a few dozen onlookers who visited the compound grounds before noon.
Walking through the grounds each year on the anniversary dates of the shootout and fire is a very special time of remembrance for Cook. About 30 of the Davidians who died in the fire were his friends and regular customers at his hair salon. Others visited him at his home for Bible study.
"America died for me in 1993," he said as a serious expression crossed his face. "Nothing will ever be the same for me. America is mean, brutal and judgmental and I never thought it was that cruel."
The day after the fire, Cook said he helped get one of the surviving Davidians out of jail - a move which cost him about two-thirds of his $52,000-a-year business "because of public opinion."
Although it's a memory that many area residents would like to forget, Cook said it's important to him to remind people of the Davidians.
"Even if everything they claim David did was true, the Davidians didn't deserve this," he said.
A trio of men who traveled to the compound site Saturday had varying opinions about the shootout.
"When there's freedom of speech or freedom of religion that people are abusing, then the government should step in and do something about it," said Danny Nicolls of Ben Hur.
"But not in the way the government did," his friend, Joe Leggett of Waco added. "They should have taken a less-drastic action. They should have waited and used a more-relaxed approach to get in."
Frank West of Waco said he hopes the shootout and fire are tragedies the world will learn from.
"I come by here all the time and every time I do I blow a kiss to these nice people," West said. "There were a lot of innocent victims, especially the children."
10 protesters showed up for the Committee for Waco Justice demonstratin on February 27th, 1998, at the Washington Post, 15th and L Street, and at 12:45 p.m. at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms headquarters, 650 Massachusetts Avenue. Saturday, February 28th is the fifth anniversary of the day 76 heavily armed agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms headquarters made a military-style assault on 135 peopleĐmostly women, children and the elderlyĐliving at the Branch Davidian church outside Waco, Texas, killing six civilians.
We will be protesting the Washington Post's failure to cover the ample eyewitness testimony (14 or more Davidians and two attorneys), as well as forensic, video and audio evidence, that BATF agents illegally shooting from helicopters killed four Davidians on February 28. We also will be protesting the Post's hypocrisy in acting like it is fairly covering current sexual-related charges against Clinton, when it has ignored ample evidence of his involvement in, and obstruction of justice related to, the mass murder of civilians by federal agents at Waco. Members of the Committee believe that if the press and media allows federal agents to get away with these murders, it becomes co-conspirator to future mass murders of civilians in the United States.
One media exception is the film "Waco: The Rules of Engagement", which covers these and many other issues ignored by the press. It has earned an Academy Award nomination for best documentary.
BATF conducted the raid despite David Koresh's invitation six months before to inspect his weapons immediately . On February 28, agents rushing the front door shot David Koresh as he tried to talk to and cooperate with them. They also mortally wounded his father-in-law standing behind him. Helicopter gunfire killed four Davidians, only one of whom may have been shooting in self-defense. BATF ambushed a Davidian trying to return to Mount Carmel and then "finished him off" with shots to the head. The FBI forbid Texas Rangers to investigate until rain had destroyed evidence.
"Friend of Bill" Little Rock BATF chief Bill Buford, helped plan the raid. Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman met with the wounded Buford the day after the raid. The press must investigate whether Buford had information about Clinton's many Arkansas sexual liaisons which influenced Clinton to allow the FBI to engage in their 51 day sabotage of negotiations with the Davidians. Davidians often expressed fear BATF and FBI would destroy forensic evidence that agents had killed Davidians. FBI agents then lied to Attorney General Janet Reno to convince her to approve their gas and tank attack. The attack destroyed the building and evidence of BATF agents' crimes and killed 76 Davidians.
Jun 27, 2000
Fire expert disputes government claim that Davidians set blaze
By MARK ENGLAND Tribune-Herald staff writer
An expert witness for the plaintiffs on Monday attacked the government's contention that the Branch Davidians started the fire that destroyed Mount Carmel.
And two Davidians, Marjorie Thomas and Graeme Craddock, described their narrow escapes from the flames to U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr. of Waco and the advisory jury hearing their $675 million wrongful-death lawsuit against the government.
Patrick Kennedy, a Chicago investigator who helped write the industry standards for fire investigations, told Houston attorney Mike Caddell that the government can't prove the Davidians set fires in three locations simultaneously. Caddell is the lead plaintiffs attorney.
Kennedy said the government's reliance on an infrared video to prove arson is "completely erroneous."
"It's never been used before," Kennedy said. "It's never been used since. There's no scientific evidence that you can tell anything from a FLIR (Forward-Looking Infrared video). There is no literature in fire investigation about using a FLIR."
Kennedy said the government also can't prove that accelerants were used in the three locations ‹ dining room, chapel and southwest corner of Mount Carmel ‹ where fires seemed to start simultaneously on April 19, 1993, leading to the deaths of David Koresh and 75 followers.
Samples were taken from all three areas to test for arson, Kennedy told Caddell.
A dog trained to alert at the smell of accelerants made 100 alerts going through the rubble of Mount Carmel, Kennedy said. Thirty hits came back positive for accelerants. Not all three areas, however, tested positive for accelerants, Kennedy said. The dining room, for example, tested negative.
"The (fire) code is clear," Kennedy said. "If you don't get a lab test, you don't get a positive for accelerants."
Kennedy said the government counted the dog's alerts as a positive indication for accelerants.
"We don't even know how the dog works," said Kennedy, noting that gasoline has 400 different compounds. "We do know this: He's not always right."
Kennedy rattled off several explanations for the simultaneous fires: arson; the leaking of fuel throughout Mount Carmel from the numerous propane cylinders, many of which were crushed; and the lack of firewalls, which can cause a fire to race through a structure's walls.
Showing a photograph of the stove in the ruins of the dining room at Mount Carmel, Kennedy noted the presence of one 100-pound propane cylinder and several smaller propane cylinders.
"How can they rule them out if they never examined them?" he asked.
The cause of the fire at Mount Carmel can only be labeled as undetermined, Kennedy said.
But there is no doubt the plowing of tanks into Mount Carmel accelerated the fire, according to Kennedy.
"It made the fire burn hotter," Kennedy said. "It made the fire burn faster . . . Those incursions can't be ruled out as the cause of the fire."
Marjorie Thomas, who suffered third-degree burns on half her body, gave the court a harrowing description of her escape from the Mount Carmel fire. She walked to the witness stand ‹ actually a chair placed on the floor ‹ with the help of a cane and sat on a cushion, still recovering from a March operation to remove scar tissue.
On the day of the fire, Thomas said she felt the building shake as a "frog," her name for tanks, delivered tear gas into the building.
"The roof of the building lifted up and dropped back down," Thomas said.
A ferret round shot into Mount Carmel hit one woman, grazing her forehead, she testified. Thomas said she tried to throw the tear gas canisters back out.
"It was really hot," Thomas said. "I made a few attempts. I was able to throw one out of the building."
She stood guard duty the night before the fire, Thomas testified. That prompted government co-counsel Michael Bradford to ask if she would have shot an FBI agent trying to enter Mount Carmel.
"I wouldn't use the word `shoot,' " Thomas said.
"What word would you use?" Bradford asked.
"Protect," Thomas said.
Smith later instructed the jurors they were only to use that portion of Thomas' testimony in considering whether the government acted reasonably in not allowing firefighters to enter Mount Carmel.
Thick smoke hampered her efforts to escape once the fire started, Thomas said.
"I could hear rushing, screaming, crying, people praying," Thomas said. ". . . I stopped where I was. I couldn't see anyone. I didn't know what had happened until it got quiet. I thought maybe they had found a way out, and I was still there."
Fire pushed her back after she entered a hallway leading to the dining area, Thomas said.
"I was making my way to the dining area, but the flames blocked my way," she said. "My foot touched someone."
Caddell asked whose foot she touched.
"Sheila Jr.," Thomas said, referring to the daughter of Davidian Sheila Martin, who left Mount Carmel during the siege to care for three other children.
The fire eventually caught up with Thomas, she testified.
"I could feel the jacket I was wearing melting," Thomas said. "By this time, my legs were moving out of control. They were burning."
Feeling her way along the walls, she got lost, Thomas said. Then she saw a "little flicker of light," actually daylight, coming from a room. She entered and escaped through a window.
Thomas denied that the Davidians made suicide plans on April 19.
However, Thomas told Bradford there had been a plan to commit suicide if Koresh died. His body was to be put on a stretcher and taken outside, accompanied by his wives and children. Grenades would be taken, too.
"What were the grenades going to be used for?" Bradford asked.
"It was going to be used to end our lives," Thomas said.
Outside court, Bradford said Thomas' testimony gave credence to government concerns of "another Jonestown situation." However, Caddell dismissed the stretcher plan as a "fantasy."
Graeme Craddock, serving a prison sentence for possessing an unregistered destructive device (grenade) at Mount Carmel, said he was in the chapel when the fire started, according to a videotaped deposition. He heard Mark Wendel yell twice that Mount Carmel was on fire, Craddock said. The first time, he didn't see the fire. The second time, however, debris was falling like "black snow," Craddock said.
Craddock also said he heard a Davidian at one point yell, "light the fire." However, he said he didn't see anyone light a fire and was not aware of plans to start a fire.
Craddock escaped and hid for three hours in a cinderblock structure, but not before searching for a way upstairs. Craddock testified that he wanted to see what other Davidians were doing.
"I really didn't know what to do at the time," Craddock said. "David Koresh had told people, had told negotiators he wasn't going to come out. Whether that meant he wasn't going to come out because a machine was pushing through the building or he wasn't going to come out because of fire, I didn't know."
Caddell said late Monday that he expects to wrap up his case today.
Former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark, representing Davidians such as Clive Doyle, filed a motion Monday protesting time limits set by Smith on presentations. However, Clark said he thinks Smith "is going to work with us on that."
Reno says she ordered firefighting equipment to be present at Mount Carmel
By TOMMY WITHERSPOON Tribune-Herald staff writer
Attorney General Janet Reno ordered that emergency vehicles, including firefighting equipment, be on hand before the FBI commenced its final tear-gas operation designed to drive the Branch Davidians from Mount Carmel, Reno and high-ranking FBI officials testified Friday.
Attorneys for plaintiffs in the Branch Davidian wrongful-death lawsuit against the government turned their attention Friday to allegations that the FBI helped start and spread the fire and failed to have a plan to fight a fire at David Koresh's compound east of Waco.
Reno, former FBI director William Sessions and three former top FBI officials, all testifying through videotaped depositions, said that Reno was not told that FBI commanders in Waco didn't have a plan to fight a fire if one broke out during the April 19, 1993, tear gassing of the Branch Davidian complex.
Koresh and 75 followers died in the wind-swept blaze.
Government attorneys have said that FBI leaders were justified in holding back firefighters because sect members had fired upon government agents in tanks earlier in the day and because the group's massive arsenal was "cooking off" in the inferno.
U.S. Attorney Mike Bradford of Beaumont and Assistant Attorney General Marie Hagen, who are representing the government in the $675 million wrongful death lawsuit, on Friday asked U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr. to dismiss two of the four claims from the trial. Claims that government agents deviated from a Reno-approved plan and accelerated the destruction of the building while inserting tear gas and that the government failed to respond properly when the fire started "should be dismissed forthwith," the government motion states.
Government attorneys have said that FBI leaders in Waco should not be subjected to second-guessing on their discretionary decisions made under trying conditions. Smith did not rule on the motion.
"Our position remains as it has always been and we don't think the evidence has shown anything any different," Bradford said at the close of the first week of testimony Friday. "And that is the decision on whether or not to use certain kinds of firefighting equipment and whether to send firemen into an area in which Davidians were shooting .50-caliber weapons. Those kinds of decisions are discretionary decisions for the people who are on the scene."
Bradford said that Reno did not specifically direct that fire trucks of any kind be available on the scene.
However, Reno, Sessions, former deputy assistant FBI director Danny O. Coulson, former assistant FBI director Larry O. Potts and former deputy FBI director Floyd Clarke all testified that Reno ordered that sufficient emergency vehicles be available to handle all emergencies. They said that included fire trucks.
Under questioning from lead plaintiffs' attorney Mike Caddell of Houston, the top Justice Department officials said that cost would not have been a consideration in the decision not to use armored firefighting equipment at the end the 51-day siege, which already had cost the government $6 million.
Reno said she does not recall any discussions of using armored firefighting equipment at an April 12, 1993, meeting to discuss the Waco situation. Potts and Clarke said that if such equipment had been available, it would have been standing by.
Potts told Caddell that he was unaware of an offer from a private firm in California to loan a remote armored firefighting vehicle to the government during the siege.
Reno and the FBI leaders testified that the FBI commanders in Waco were told not to use pyrotechnic, military-style tear gas devices because of the possibility that they could spark a fire. Reno said she was told later that no such devices were used, although evidence revealed that at least two military canisters were shot into the compound on April 19, 1993.
Caddell introduced a report from an interview two FBI agents conducted with Reno in August 1993 during the investigation into the Branch Davidian tragedy. Reno indicated that she told FBI leaders to "back away" during the tear-gas operation if Branch Davidians put children in the compound's four-story tower.
"They told me I should butt out after giving okay. Can't call back. Not law enforcement official. Not on scene," the agent's hand-written notes from the Reno interview indicated.
Caddell criticized government officials for not providing the interview notes to him until two weeks ago, calling the delay "reprehensible, inexcusable and unforgivable."
"When an interview with Janet Reno in August 1993 says they told her to butt out and can't call back, I think the jury understands what that means," Caddell said. "And now to prop up Janet Reno as the be- all and end-all of what did or didn't happen at Mount Carmel in 1993, of course, is ridiculous. I think at the end of the day, the jury was dismissing Janet Reno and just ignoring her."
Reno testified that FBI supervisors in Waco had wide discretion in their actions because they were on the scene and she wasn't. She said, however, that they did not have "implied authority" to use pyrotechnic devices to deliver the tear gas.
In other testimony Friday, three FBI agents who were in tanks during the tear-gassing said the saw smoke coming from the kitchen and tower areas after canisters of tear gas were fired into the compound.
Government attorneys have said that the tear-gas operation had nothing to do with starting the fire, alleging that Koresh and his followers started fires that consumed their home.
FBI agent Tom Rowan said he fired 70 to 80 non-pyrotechnic "ferret rounds" into the complex during the early stages of the plan.
He said he saw a person firing a weapon from inside the tower, adding that he saw frequent muzzle flashes from other windows. He said he fired several ferret rounds into the window and then took cover while the person in the window returned fire.
"The person you saw firing. Was that a child?" Caddell asked.
Rowan said he couldn't tell who was firing at his tank.
The plan approved by Reno called for the slow and gradual introduction of tear gas into the compound using tanks equipped with booms to drive the Davidians out. It called for the systematic destruction of the compound only after 48 hours and it was determined that the tear-gas plan had failed.
After agents came under heavy fire from Davidians, the tear-gas assault was escalated, with agents in tanks firing the ferret rounds, agents said.
Steve McGavin, an FBI supervisory agent who helped develop the operation plan for the final day, defended orders that led to the destruction of the gym on the back side of the building. He said the tanks drove through the gym to open escape holes for Davidians and to clear a path to the tower.
"I can't say they are dismantling the gym," McGavin said. "They were ordered to try to create a path to the concrete bunker in the center of the structure because there were reports that there were people in there and the gas was not taking effect."
Cadell asked McGavin if he had watched FBI videos that showed a tank repeatedly driving into the side of the gym, backing out and driving in again.
"It is my belief that he was trying to create a path to the tower," McGavin said.
Caddell pointed out that the vehicle ramming into the side of the gym was not equipped to inject liquid tear gas.
"So if Mr. Bradford said in his opening statement that the purpose of the vehicle was to spray CS gas, that is just not right, is it?" Caddell asked.
"I would assume that he was clearing a pathway so another vehicle with gas could come around and deliver the gas," McGavin said.
Caddell asked the agents about the use of military rounds, tear gas canisters that potentially could spark a fire.
McGavin said FBI agents had several of the military-style rounds. He said most came from local law enforcement agencies which were called on to donate the items when the arsenal of ferret rounds was depleted.
Smith announced Friday morning that he had excused one of the seven jurors because of "personal problems of a substantial nature."
The judge also showed that he is becoming impatient with the pace of the trial, imposing a 40-hour time limit for parties in the lawsuit to present their cases. The judge told the plaintiffs at the lunch break that they already had used more than half their time.