Authorities met face to face with two members of the Branch Davidian sect outside the barricaded compound Tuesday, a change in negotiating procedure that federal officials called "helpful" in their efforts to end the standoff.
"I think that at this stage we view any meeting as a successful meeting and we hope it leads to something better," said Dick Swensen, a spokesman for the FBI.
Cult leader David Koresh was not one of the negotiators. Swensen said the health of Koresh continues to decline, as do the conditions of others inside the compound who were wounded in a Feb. 28 raid by law enforcement officials. Four agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were killed and 16 others were wounded in the gun battle precipitated by the federal agents' efforts to serve search warrants related to possible weapons violations. At least four people inside the compound were also killed in the wild shootout.
Swensen said federal negotiators and McLennan County Sheriff Jack Harwell met with cult members Steve Schneider, characterized as Koresh's trusted lieutenant, and Wayne Martin, a Harvard-educated lawyer.
Koresh's health "has been a progressively downhill condition," Swensen said. "Now he's basically lying down most of the time or sitting up most of the time, having trouble moving from room to room." Nevertheless, Koresh remains firmly in charge, he said.
Swensen said much of what was discussed was a repetition of telephone conversations with cult members, including legal issues involved in their leaving the compound, messages from the outside and questions about lawyers. But Swensen said the telephone negotiations had ground nearly to a stop and he hoped the Monday meeting would be a prelude to more face-to-face conversations.
He cautioned, however, that the meeting was no reason to believe that the standoff might be in its final hours. One major obstacle, he said, is getting the cult members to focus on ending the standoff rather than thinking about which members might exit under what conditions. "They want to talk in small pieces as opposed to the long-range of how to end this in totality," he said.
In the course of Tuesday's press conference, Swensen described those inside the compound as "tired," but not showing the kind of anxiety in their voices that would indicate a desire for the standoff to end as quickly as possible.
Swensen said the other major factor was Koresh himself, who has said he will do nothing until he talks to God. Two days after the firefight, Koresh said he was ready to end the siege, but then changed his mind and said he could not come out without God's permission. Swensen on Tuesday described it as the "overlying problem of waiting for God's word."
Swensen said that he believed Koresh approved of the face-to-face negotiations and that his death would no doubt speed the process of ending the standoff.
"If Koresh was dead it would be hard to get God's word and I presume a lot of them would be moving out," he said.
The negotiations Monday came as the federal authorities tried to intensify the pressure on cult members. They have turned off electric power to the compound, refused to talk endlessly about Scripture and shone bright lights on the compound through the night.
Meanwhile, cult member Kathryn Schroeder, a mother of four who left the compound last week, appeared in federal court Tuesday where prosecutors asked that she be held without bond. A decision will be made today.
Schroeder's lawyer, Scott Peterson, said it would send a "negative message" to the compound if she is not released.
"If she is released, she would like to send that message home (to the compound), that if you go through the system, it works if you haven't done anything wrong."