Former Branch Davidians said Thursday federal agents ignored their advice to arrest cult leader Vernon Howell outside the compound, a concern also raised in a blistering Treasury Department report released Thursday.
The report criticized top Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms officials for not calling off the raid after losing the element of surprise, for lying about the failed raid, and for not considering other methods of arresting Howell.
Four ATF agents and six cult members were killed during the bloody Feb. 28 raid. Agents were trying to arrest Howell, also known as David Koresh, on illegal weapons charges.
The report said the ATF decided to raid the Branch Davidian compound, some 10 miles east of Waco, before looking into less risky options—such as arresting him off the compound.
ATF failed to systematically collect and analyze intelligence about Howell and his habits, therefore concluding incorrectly that the cult leader never left the compound, it said.
The Tribune-Herald reported in early March that Howell was off the compound several times in January and in mid-February, shortly before the Feb. 28 raid.
Former cult member Marc Breault, a former confidant to Howell, said ATF agents Davy Aguilera and Bill Buford asked him before the raid what would be the best way to arrest Howell.
“The whole part of that conversation was to minimize the chance of confrontation,” he said.
He told them to arrest Howell alone so the cult would lose its leadership, and then serve search warrants on the compound.
“But it’s also true that the ATF officers who interviewed me thought it was best to get Vernon alone too — that’s what they told me, anyway,” he said.
Bill Buford, one of the agents who made it inside the compound’s gun room and was shot in both legs, said Thursday that arresting Howell outside the compound “would have been nice.” But he added that 80 people were still in the compound.
The report was not entirely critical of the ATF. It praised the agents in the raid, saying that they demonstrated “extraordinary discipline and courage” in the face of withering gunfire.
Buford said there were many acts of courage beyond what has been reported. The report said that one agent threw his body over Buford’s to protect him, after Buford was shot in the legs and nipped in the nose by a bullet.
“I always thought a raid was necessary, but I always thought it would be better to do it while Vernon was off the property.”
Former cult member David Block, who was deprogrammed after leaving the group, said he told agents to lure Howell away from the compound to arrest him. He also told them to arrest Howell’s top people — Wayne Martin, Steve Schneider and Perry Jones — to leave the group without leadership.
“While you’re doing that, you pull them away and then you search the property,” he said.
Block said it wouldn’t have hurt the ATF to show more restraint, and it might have saved some lives. “They shouldn’t have been so aggressive from the beginning,” he said. “You would probably have four ATF agents alive now,” he said.
After the element of surprise was lost, Block said, he would have taken a few agents, gone to the door and knocked.
“Koresh always stressed if you dealt with him fairly, he wouldn’t pull anything on you,” he said. “I wouldn’t have gone in there with a show of force.”
Former cult member Robyn Bunds, who was one of Howell’s many wives, said that she knew he would have to be arrested away from the compound. “I didn’t feel it was my place to tell them how to do it,” she said of the ATF agents who interviewed her.
Bunds said she knew that Howell had found out about the raid because she talked to ATF’s undercover agent, Robert Rodriguez, after the event.
“He was telling me that Vernon knew, and he was really scared. He said he’d never seen Vernon so scared,” she said.
Bunds said top ATF officials who are responsible should be punished. She said she has lost faith in her government. “I know there were things going on there that weren’t right,” she said. “But they’re dead now. What’s the point? You know what I mean?
“It’s OK to save them, trying to do something, but what you did was kill them. I know none of it was intentional, but you expect more” of federal authorities, she said.
Janet Kendrick, a Branch Davidian, said she doesn’t think the government should have raided the compound at all. She is not surprised by the report’s conclusions that “two of the principal raid commanders appeared to have engaged in a concerted effort to conceal their errors in judgment.”
“If I had done what they had done, I’d cover up,” she said. “They didn’t have to go in there with guns in the first place.”
Kendrick said that Howell left the compound on occasion.
She said that the report is incorrect in saying the Davidians fired first, adding that no one coming out of the compound would confirm that.
The report says Howell opened the door and yelled, “What’s going on?” Agents who were scrambling from cattle trailers identified themselves, said they had a warrant and yelled “freeze” and “get down” to Howell. It said Howell slammed the door before agents could reach it.
Gunfire from inside the compound burst through the door to the extent that the “door bowed outward,” the report said.