Investigators sifting through the ruins of Mount Carmel found evidence that suggests some of cult leader Vernon Howell’s followers may have died from causes other than fire.
At least one Branch Davidian suffered a gunshot wound.
“We have some evidence…that there was gunfire when the fire started,” said FBI Special Agent Jeffrey Jamar. “There might have been people killed trying to get out of the compound.”
Justice of the Peace James Collier of Mart said authorities counted at least 12 bodies in the smoldering rubble of the fire Monday that consumed Mount Carmel, the Branch Davidians’ home 10 miles east of Waco.
DPS spokesperson Mike Cox said some of the bodies were those of children.
More than 80 Branch Davidians, including Howell, are feared dead.
The Tarrant County medical examiner's office in Fort Worth, under contract since January with McLennan County, will perform autopsies and identify the bodies.
One body has already been sent to Fort Worth, Cox said.
A federal team of explosives experts will determine when the search for more bodies can begin.
“The legitimate fear they have now is that if they move a body, something may blow up,” Cox said.
The Texas Rangers will process the crime scene. All evidence will be shipped to FBI labs for examination, but DPS spokesperson Linda Aronovsky said investigators were hampered Tuesday by the heat from the remains of the fire.
“It's still considered dangerous,” she said. “Some of the ammunition is still cooking. When we do get started, the first thing we’ll do is mark the position of the bodies and do the videotaping. We’ll have to do all that before we remove the bodies.”
FBI officials Tuesday officially turned over the Mount Carmel site to the Texas Rangers.
But before leaving, they stoutly defended their decision to smash holes into the compound Monday and inject tear gas into the sprawling compound 10 miles east of Waco.
The action broke a 51-day standoff.
Howell, whom the Branch Davidians considered Christ, had been holed up in Mount Carmel with approximately 95 followers — including 17 children — since a Feb. 28 shootout. Four agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms died trying to arrest Howell for possession of automatic weapons. Six cult members were also believed to have died.
At 12:10 p.m. Monday, cult members started three separate fires, FBI officials said, based on aerial observations and reports from government snipers.
Its ferocious heat at one point seared the Branch Davidian flag from its pole. The flag, a Star of David, hung in the wind for a moment, then in a fitting irony, seemed to hurl itself into the inferno.
Jamar forcefully denied the FBI provoked the Branch Davidians.
“David Koresh controlled those people’s lives absolutely,” he said. “He’s the one responsible for their deaths. I don’t know if they would have died in July, August or September. But this was his plan from the beginning....It would have happened 30 days ago if we had gone in then. So if you want to say if the FBI had done nothing these people would still be alive, that’s probably true. But for how much longer?”
FBI Special Agent Bob Ricks said Monday that the FBI hoped the tear gas would prompt mothers to flee the compound with their children.
But a former cult member said Tuesday that was unlikely.
Elizabeth Baranyai, who left the cult in late 1989, said women in the cult watched for years as Howell beat their children’s bottoms until they bled and had sex with girls as young as 12 years old.
“It’s not very likely they would have come out, not with everything else that has happened to their kids,” Baranyai said. “You’re looking at years of conditioning.”
Nine Branch Davidians suffered severe burns. Four of them were hospitalized. Five were jailed.
Three of those injured suffered severe burns. They were taken to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas. Two women — whose identities were not released — are in critical condition. They are on respirators. Clive Doyle, 52, will undergo skin grafts for burns to his hands, a hospital spokeswoman said.
Ruth Ottman, 29, is in good condition at Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco.
Images of the rambling three-story compound at Mount Carmel disappeared from TV screens Tuesday. Instead, all viewers could see was a rusted water tower and a small cinderblock building. Out of the ashes will come, at least, a congressional hearing, numerous criminal investigations and internal probes of both the FBI and the ATF for their handling of the Mount Carmel standoff.
U.S. Rep. Don Edwards, D-Calif., chairman of the House Judiciary civil and constitutional rights subcommittee, announced he will open hearings Friday. Edwards wants to know more about why federal authorities abandoned the strategy of waiting out the Branch Davidians.
“I was surprised that the escalation took place, considering the fact that we understood that they were going to continue the practice which has worked so well in the past of patience and negotiations,” he said.
President Clinton, in a Rose Garden press conference held 24 hours after the deadly end of the standoff, vigorously defended federal agents.
He said the FBI made “every reasonable effort to bring this perilous situation to an end.” He called Howell “dangerous, irrational and probably insane.”
“We did everything we could to avoid the loss of life,” Clinton said. “They made the decision to immolate themselves and I feel terrible about the loss of life, especially the children.”
Clinton said he was surprised at suggestions that Attorney General Janet Reno should resign “because some religious fanatics murdered themselves.”
Reno second-guessed her decision to approve increasing the pressure on the Branch Davidians during a Monday night appearance on CNN.
She said “we made the best judgment we could to escalate the pressure.” But she added, “based on what we know now, obviously it was wrong.”
State officials moved into Waco late Tuesday night, to take on their expanded role into the investigation of the Feb. 28 shootout as well as the fatal fire Monday.
Chuck McDonald, a spokesman for Gov. Ann Richards, immediately issued a plea for the public to stay away from Mount Carmel.
“There are still explosions, and we are proceeding very cautiously,” he said.