Waco's 'Dark Questions' Elude Answers, Solace

ASSOCIATED PRESS

What happened at Waco?

Why did Todd McKeehan, a 28-year-old Marine veteran of the Gulf War, die in a firefight on American soil? Why did Melissa Morrison, a 6-year-old with a charming smile, perish 51 days later in an inferno?

What explanation is there for some 90 deaths on a 77-acre spread in central Texas?

And why, after 6 1/2 years, are we still asking these questions?

The facts seem simple. On Feb. 28, 1993, agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms tried to serve members of the Branch Davidians, an apocalyptic sect, with search and arrest warrants. A furious gunfight ensued; four agents and six Davidians died that day.

The standoff began. On one side, the Davidians and their leader, David Koresh. On the other, the FBI.

On April 19, an FBI tank rammed the Davidian headquarters, knocking down walls and breaking open holes and then pouring tear gas inside. Around noon, fires broke out--ignited, the government says, by the Davidians--and the compound burned to the ground. Koresh died, along with about 80 of his followers. Seventeen of them were children.

End of story.

But it wasn't.

Since the moment the ATF sent 76 agents to storm David Koresh's home, there have been those who have accused the government of abuse of power, lying and even murder in Waco. Some are extremists, like Timothy McVeigh, who is said to have timed the bombing of the Oklahoma federal building to coincide with the anniversary of the Waco fire.

But others are less easily dismissed, and they were buoyed by the FBI's admission this month that it had, in fact, fired two pyrotechnic tear gas grenades at the Davidian compound, despite previously denying it had used anything that might have sparked a fire.

The FBI insisted the grenades were fired hours before the fire and bounced harmlessly off a concrete bunker. And it turned out the Justice Department had revealed the information to Congress in 1995, but it was buried in 100,000 documents, and even Atty. Gen. Janet Reno appeared unaware of it.

Reno appointed former Missouri Sen. John Danforth to examine the FBI's conduct at Waco--to answer what he called "the dark questions" of Waco.

But where Waco is concerned, there is nothing but dark questions.

For one: Was the government justified in its campaign against David Koresh--rock 'n' roller, polygamist and self-proclaimed Christ?

Born Vernon Wayne Howell to an unmarried 15-year-old girl, Koresh took full control of the Branch Davidians in 1988. The Davidians, an offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventists, have repeatedly predicted the end of the world from Waco, where they have lived since 1935.

It is widely known that Koresh had wives as young as 14 and had sex with others even younger. He had appropriated the wives of all the Davidian men; his children, he claimed, would rule the world.

But the ATF said Koresh was depraved in other ways. It alleged that he was running a methamphetamine lab. None was ever found.

David B. Kopel and Paul H. Blackman, in their book "No More Wacos," say the drug allegations were a ruse--the only legal pretext whereby the ATF could seek the military's help.

The military helped train ATF agents for the first assault on Mount Carmel, as the Davidian compound was known; it was revealed this month that three Army special operations officers were there on April 19, though the Pentagon insisted they were merely passive observers.

The main charges against Koresh and his followers were that he was breaking firearms laws--more specifically, converting guns into machine guns. The ATF said Koresh had spent $199,715 in the previous year to buy guns, gun parts and other components, enough to build a fearsome arsenal.

There were many guns at Mount Carmel, but Koresh's supporters and lawyers argue that most were made or bought for profit.

"All gun dealers stockpile weapons," Dick Reavis, author of "The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation," told a congressional hearing.

Warrants in hand, the ATF decided to arrest Koresh at Mount Carmel with a major flourish. The reason, agents said, was that he was a recluse, rarely seen outside the compound. But local newspapers and others reported that he had been seen at an auto repair shop, at two local bars, at a junkyard and jogging down the road.

At 9:48 a.m. on Feb. 28, ATF agent Roland Ballesteros approached Mount Carmel's door and shouted: "Police! Lay down!"

But the Davidians knew they were coming.

Earlier that day, KWTX-TV cameraman James Peeler encountered a postman and asked for directions to the Branch Davidians' place. Reportedly, Peeler told the mailman he'd "better get out of here because . . . they're going to have a big shootout with the religious nuts."

Peeler did not know that the postman was a Branch Davidian--David Jones, Koresh's brother-in-law.

An ATF agent who had infiltrated the Davidians, realizing that the secret was out, excused himself and reported that the ATF had lost the element of surprise.

Nonetheless, field commander Charles Sarabyn pressed forward, and would insist later that he was not aware that the secret was blown.

"I do not know what went on in the man's mind when he made the decision" that was "in absolute violation of the instructions," Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen later said, after his department, which runs ATF, issued its report on the raid.

Todd McKeehan and three other agents--Conway LeBleu, Robert Williams and Steven Willis--were killed in a 45-minute gun battle. Six Branch Davidians died. Twenty-eight agents were injured, along with an unknown number of Davidians, including Koresh himself.

Who started the shooting?

The government has always insisted that the Davidians did. "They were throwing everything at us," ATF agent Jim Cavanaugh told Congress. "Their guns sounded like cannons, and our guns sounded like pop guns."

Koresh certainly was willing to tangle. "I don't care who they are," he said in a taped conversation with a lawyer. "Nobody is going to come into my home, with my babies around, shaking guns around, without a gun back in their face. That's just the American way."

But during the shootout, members of Koresh's group called 911.

"We ain't firing. That's not us. That's them," cried Steve Schneider, Koresh's top aide.

Wayne Martin, another member, made the first call: "Tell them there's women and children in here and to call it off."

(Nearly a year later, a jury would acquit 11 Branch Davidians of murder in the shootout, convicting five of voluntary manslaughter instead. "The federal government was absolutely out of control there," forewoman Sarah Bain said. "We spoke in the jury room about the fact that the wrong people were on trial, that it should have been the ones who planned the raid and orchestrated it and insisted on carrying out the plan who should have been on trial.")

After the shooting, the FBI took the lead role for the government. Actually, there were two FBI presences: the hostage negotiators, who tried to calm Koresh and make deals with him, and the elite Hostage Rescue Team, which was intent on ratcheting up the pressure.

Koresh frustrated the negotiators. He would bend their ears for hours with what they called his "Bible babble." He promised an end to the siege, then changed his mind--or, rather, he said God had changed his mind.

The rescue team, meanwhile, was hitting the compound with bright lights and noise: the squeal of rabbits being slaughtered, the high-pitched tone of a phone off the hook, dentist's drills, helicopters. They turned off the Davidians' electricity and refused to deliver milk for the children.

Some argue that these may not have been the best tactics to use against a group programmed to embrace the apocalypse. And the good cop-bad cop conflicts convinced the Davidians "that the negotiators had no influence over the decision-makers and that the FBI was not trustworthy," said Edward S.G. Dennis Jr., who led a government investigation into the FBI's actions.

Twenty-three Davidians left the compound in the first week. More might have left, but the government rejected Koresh's conditions.

He offered to send out 6-year-old Melissa Morrison if he could talk to Robert Rodriguez, the undercover agent who had warned the ATF of the lost element of surprise. The FBI refused, and Melissa died with her mother, Rosemary, on April 19.

April 19 gives rise to the darkest questions of all.

Koresh's attorneys are convinced that they had a deal; Koresh would finish his magnum opus--an explanation of the Book of Revelations' Seven Seals--and then surrender.

But the FBI believed Koresh was stalling and would backpedal once more. The bureau convinced Janet Reno that more must be done.

Her reasons: Koresh was becoming more erratic. There were reports that the children were being beaten (though these reports were never substantiated). There was concern that the FBI's hostage-rescue team was getting fatigued.

Reno and the FBI insisted the plan was not to end the standoff then and there. The action was "not an indication that our patience has run out," said bureau spokesman Bob Ricks. It was instead "the next logical step in a series of actions to bring this episode to a conclusion."

Reno authorized the use of CS gas--actually a fine powder that burns the eyes and skin. It was known that the Davidians did not have children's gas masks; it was hoped that the "maternal instinct" would lead mothers to bring their children out.

Reno says she was assured that CS was safe and not flammable. Critics argue that it is neither, that it could harm or even kill children in high concentrations, that it could feed a conflagration, and that when it burns it gives off deadly cyanide.

"Obviously, if I had thought that the chances were great for mass suicide, I never would have approved the plan," Reno said.

The nine Davidians who escaped the fire denied that any such suicide took place. They claimed the FBI's tank squashed containers of propane and other fuels. Perhaps, they say now, the pyrotechnic grenade or some other projectile set off the fire.

But that morning, FBI surveillance picked up troubling conversations at Mount Carmel: "I already poured it. . . . It's already poured." "Don't pour it all out; we might need some later." "So we only light 'em at first if they come in with that tank, right?"

The FBI says that its snipers saw a Davidian start a fire, and that an infrared camera in a plane overhead detected three fires beginning in three separate parts of the compound, almost simultaneously.

Not all of the Davidians burned to death, however. Twenty-three, including Koresh, died of gunshot wounds. Investigators say they killed themselves or each other or both.

"The FBI never fired one shot at the Davidians," said Dick Rogers, head of the hostage-rescue team.

But Michael McNulty, maker of the Oscar-nominated documentary "Waco: Rules of Engagement," says the same overhead infrared footage that showed the fires igniting shows something else: automatic weapons fire into the compound, out of journalists' view.

And the Texas Rangers say 12 .308-caliber rifle shell casings and 24 .223-caliber casings were found in a house used by the Hostage Rescue Team.

The FBI says the shell casings could have come from ATF agents who used the house during the Feb. 28 shootout. It has been noted that the FBI agent in charge of the post was Lon Horiuchi, who killed the wife of white separatist Randy Weaver at a 1992 standoff in Ruby Ridge, Idaho.

Dr. Nizam Peerwani, the Tarrant County medical examiner, would like to revisit his autopsies of the Davidians. "The focus at the time was not whether the FBI was doing the shooting."

The corpses themselves will be of little use. Weeks after they were autopsied, the morgue's refrigeration failed. The bodies liquefied.

There are other concerns about the investigation and the evidence.

There were no independent ballistics tests. The Texas Rangers complained that the FBI confiscated their photographs and returned just a few. Spent illumination flares have turned up in the store of government evidence--again, devices that could have set off a fire, although the government says they were used long before, to illuminate the compound.

Mount Carmel's door, which the Davidians believe would prove the ATF was the aggressor, has vanished. Cars and tracks at the scene were destroyed by FBI armored vehicles. A cap worn by one of the Davidians who died that day disappeared and has only recently been found; it may show that he was executed, shot point blank, the Davidians say.

Nearly six in 10 Americans now say they believe the FBI lied about Waco, according to an ABC News poll--an indication of the skepticism that Danforth will encounter as he tries to answer Waco's dark questions, 6 1/2 years after these sad events.

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