Federal agents with a newfound respect for Branch Davidian firepower brought in the Army’s main battle tank Monday to bolster the forces that have besieged the cult’s Mount Carmel compound of the last 10 days.
An FBI spokesman said the unarmed M-1 tanks came in after the cult’s leader, Vernon Howell, told negotiators that he had weapons that could send the Bradley armored personnel carriers at the scene “40 to 50 feet in the air.” Agent Bob Ricks said intelligence reports from around the nation suggest that weapons in the complex might be able to knock out Bradleys after all.
Authorities would not say how many tanks are at Mount Carmel, but television cameras have shown at least four.
Ricks also said Howell, also known as David Koresh, veers between peaceful resolution of the standoff and seeking a firefight with federal agents so he can be martyred and fulfill his prophecies.
“At times he has challenged us and tried to provoke us into action. He has indicated he would be most pleased if we would engage in a gunbattle with him,” said Ricks. “He has made such statements as, ‘We are ready for war; Let’s get it on; Your talk is becoming in vain; I’m going to give you an opportunity to save yourself before you get blown away.’ “
Previously, agents said only that Howell was awaiting a sign from God to surrender.
On the legal front, State District Judge Bill Logue will begin dealing with the tangled issues surrounding the 21 children that have been released from the compound with a custody hearing today.
Federal Magistrate Dennis Green also will be at work today. He will hold a detention hearing on Delroy Nash, a cult member captured after the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms raided Mount Carmel on Feb. 28.
Green also could rule today on whether two Davidians being held as material witnesses should be released from the McLennan County Jail.
Catherine Mattson, 77, and Margaret Lawson, 75, were originally charged with conspiracy to murder after they became the only adults to voluntarily leave the compound. They are being held as material witnesses. Green held an informal hearing Monday about whether the women should be held at all.
A South Texas federal prosecutor told the Tribune-Herald that the arrest and charging of the two women angered federal agents trying to negotiate a peaceful end to the standoff. He said those agents were not notified of the arrests, that news of their treatment miffed Howell and broke down the lines of communications with negotiators for a time. ATF spokesmen have denied the report.
The fact that Howell is awaiting a message from God before he surrenders is just one side of the coin, FBI spokesman Bob Ricks said.
“It is our belief that he believes that his prophecy will be fulfilled if the government engages in an all-out firefight with him in which he is executed,” Ricks said. “We have portrayed the other side, that he is waiting for a message from God. If God delivers the message, he will come out. Unfortunately, he also has this other side that is taking place in the negotiations.”
Ricks said that attitude has been surfacing throughout negotiations and is not a recent development.
“It’s not my intention to paint a totally negative picture of what has transpired here. I think it is necessary for us to put out a balance and get out a picture of what we are in fact dealing with,” Ricks said. “We are still very hopeful that this thing can be resolved peacefully.”
Negotiators talked to 13 inhabitants, asking them if they would willingly remain in the compound. Ricks, who suggested earlier that some might be held at the compound against their will, said they appeared to remain loyal to Howell.
“From conversations that have been reported to me, the people within the compound are thoroughly committed to this endeavor, and they are willing to die for their leader,” Ricks said.
“On each occasion they were completely devoted to David and what he was trying to accomplish,” Ricks added. “To them, it would be going against their belief in the Bible to do otherwise, that what he is doing is the fulfillment of everything they believe in.”
Indeed, CBS News reported that some agents have seen inhabitants taunting them, waving their weapons and making obscene gestures at them. Ricks said inhabitants have been “provocative.”
One woman told negotiators that she and her five children might want to leave the compound. But Ricks said negotiations to make that happen have “broken down.”
Ricks said negotiators and Howell had agreed for the cult to conduct a funeral and bury the body of a cult member killed in the shootout. He said agents know the identity of the dead cult member but are withholding it pending notification of relatives.
Tape shot by CBS-TV just before noon showed three men digging a grave under a tree on the compound’s front lawn.
About 30 minutes later, the three men went to a van and pulled out what appeared to be a large, heavy body wrapped in a bag. The men placed the body into the grave, which appeared to be about 4 feet deep, then covered it with dirt. There was no ceremony.