An FBI agent’s statement that Vernon Howell ordered the Davidian compound at Mount Carmel torched distorts conversations apparently picked up by government surveillance equipment, attorney Dick DeGuerin said Thursday.

“When David Thibodeau testified before the grand jury, he heard what were apparently surveillance tapes made toward the last,” DeGuerin said. “But they’re very poor quality and there’s a dispute over what was said. David Thibodeau thought he heard, ‘Cut the power.’ But the government transcript said, ‘Light the fire.’ David Thibodeau said he (Howell) was referring to a gasoline-powered generator.”

The generator was considered dangerous since tanks were pumping tear gas inside the compound, said DeGuerin, who met several times with Howell during the 51-day standoff between the Branch Davidians and the federal government.

An April 19 fire ended the siege and killed at least 85 cult members.

FBI spokesman Bob Ricks reportedly told a Tulsa civic group Wednesday that Howell believed the tear gas shooting into the compound was the start of another raid.

“Once we were inside, he would light it up and burn us up with his own people,” Ricks was quoted by Associated Press as saying.

When Howell realized the government wasn’t raiding Mount Carmel, he screamed, ”Don’t light it up,” but it was too late, Ricks reportedly told the civic group.

DeGuerin, who has read transcripts of federal grand jury testimony, said Branch Davidian Graeme Craddock testified that there were no plans to burn Mount Carmel, the cult’s compound 10 miles east of Waco. However, cult members did discuss making Molotov cocktails and throwing them at tanks.

“Graeme Craddock testified to the grand jury that in the last hour there was no discussions and there were panicky shouts something like, ‘Light the fire,’ ‘Don’t light the fire,’ or ‘The fire has started,’” DeGuerin said. “But they were referring to plans to throw the Molotov cocktails at the tanks.”

An FBI spokesman in Oklahoma City said Thursday that Ricks would not discuss his speech.

DeGuerin and other attorneys associated with the Branch Davidians, however, had plenty to say, accusing Ricks and the FBI of running a disinformation campaign against the members — 12 of whom are charged with the murder of four agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

They go to Lions Clubs and regale them with horror stories that find their way into the literature as fact,” DeGuerin said. “The only way this can be settled is, if there are tapes, release them.”

“Obviously, there were things going on that I’m not aware of, but I’ve never heard anyone say anything that would give credibility to his statement,” said attorney Gary Richardson, who represents Thibodeau. “Ricks is good at that sort of thing. They didn’t just choose him for his job just because he’s an FBI agent. He’s good at making the FBI look good and everyone else look bad.”

“It’s propaganda, only showing the favorable side of your case in an effort to influence public opinion,” said attorney Gary Coker of Waco, who successfully defended Howell in a 1988 attempted murder trial. “I think it’s detestable.”

Friendly audience

Richardson took exception with the forum for Ricks’ remarks, the Tulsa Rotary Club, which he said guaranteed a friendly audience. Ricks’ refusal to answer press questions about his talk should be expected, Richardson said.

“They say what they want to say, then when they get a tough question, they say they can’t talk because the cases are pending,” he said. “As usual, they like to enjoy the best of both worlds.”

Damage control

DeGuerin said Ricks’ statements may be an attempt to deflect accusations that tanks started the fire that destroyed Mount Carmel by knocking over lanterns. In the fire’s aftermath, FBI officials said government snipers saw cult members set fires in at least three places.

“If the government has any evidence who started the fire, they ought to let it out,” DeGuerin said. “But regardless of who started the fire, it wouldn’t have started if the tanks had not started rolling on the morning of the 19th.”

Read the Tribune-Herald's 7-part investigative series on the inner workings of the Branch Davidians. Hours after Part 2 appeared in print, the ATF raided the group's compound.

Read the Tribune-Herald’s account of the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound on Feb. 28, 1993. Four ATF agents and six in the compound were killed in the gunfight.

Read the daily news accounts of the 51-day siege at the Branch Davidian compound near Elk, which began Feb. 28 and lasted until April.

April 19 and beyond: FBI agents began inserting canisters of tear gas into the Branch Davidian compound in the early morning hours. By noon, it was on fire.

Federal officials left the compound site in late May 1993. As identifications of bodies continued, questions about the survivors, the compound and the cult itself began to emerge.

As the world began to take a critical look back at the events and legal proceedings continue, the ATF's bombshell report forces a shakeup at the top after the raid gone "tragically wrong."

In 1994, the surviving Davidians went on trial in San Antonio. Over six weeks, more than 140 witnesses testified, with the verdict coming just two days prior to the anniversary of the ATF raid.

The Rodenville shootout and the 1988 trial, the end of the world in 1959 and more stories from deep in the Trib archives.