Federal agents said again Wednesday that the only thing wrong with their plan to raid Mount Carmel was losing the element of surprise, thanks to an anonymous tipster.
Their version of events differs sharply from what leaders inside the compound told a Dallas radio station Monday.
Dan Hartnett, associate director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, told reporters Wednesday that a telephone caller tipped off the Davidians about the Sunday raid.
“It is believed that prior to execution of the warrant, a phone call placed the occupants on alert. There is no doubt that they were expecting our arrival,” Hartnett said.
Hartnett disputed the earlier ATF explanation for the raid’s failure to arrest cult leader Vernon Howell and to search the Mount Carmel compound for illegal weapons. Previously, ATF spokeswoman Sharon Wheeler said agents were “outgunned.”
Hartnett said the loss of the element of surprise cause the raid’s failure and the bloodiest day in ATF history. Four agents died and 15 were wounded.
“I don’t know if I would say we were outgunned. We lost the element of surprise,” he said.
He also said the agency didn’t ask for armored personnel carriers before Sunday’s raid and reiterated the belief that agents with surprise on their side could have carried out the warrant without a hitch.
Hartnett said an undercover agent did visit the compound that morning, assured himself the situation was normal and then left.
“When he left the compound everything was normal. People were out in the fields, and people were going about their work,” Hartnett said. “While he was there, a phone call was received . . . we are satisfied it was a tip.”
Hartnett said the agent did not realize at the time that the phone call was a tip. He also said the agency did not have any information about the tipster, but it would be interested in prosecuting that person.
That conflicts with what Howell and Steven Schneider, one of Howell’s top lieutenants, told KRLD-AM early Monday. They said inhabitants of the compound knew they were being watched and figured their new “neighbors” at the house across the road had them under surveillance.
One man, however, gained their confidence, showing an interest in studying the Bible with the cult and actually attended a six-hour Bible study session the night before the raid. He showed up early Sunday morning, Schneider said, and Howell started discussing the Bible again with the man.
Schneider said the man left suspiciously fast.
“He said, well, I need to go over and have my breakfast. About 9:30 or thereabouts,” Schneider said.
“As soon as he went out the door, he went over across the street to his house. As soon as he did that we noticed he left right away and had no time to eat breakfast or anything.”