The medical examiner in charge of sifting through the ruins of the Mount Carmel complex refuted claims Thursday by federal authorities that bullet wounds were found in some bodies.
The Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office in Fort Worth, under contract since January with McLennan County, is responsible for performing autopsies and identifying bodies.
Nizam Peerwani, lead medical examiner, said a team of forensic experts has counted 35 bodies, including what appear to be two children. Their removal from the site began Thursday.
Only one autopsy has been performed so far, Peerwani said. The victim, believed to be a white male in his 50s, died of smoke inhalation and secondary burns – not gunshot wounds, he said.
“There is absolutely no evidence of that as far as we are concerned at this stage,” he said.
All bodies will be X-rayed to determine if death occurred from a bullet, he said.
On Wednesday, Carl Stern of the Justice Department in Washington said at least three bodies discovered so far suffered gun shots, raising speculation that cult members may have committed homicide or suicide before Monday’s fire ended the 51-day standoff.
Peerwani said nine bodies were found on top of the concrete base of the observation tower. The others were in the surrounding rubble.
Cult leader Vernon Howell, also known as David Koresh, and 86 of his followers including 17 children, are believed to be dead after the hellish fire burnt the compound to the ground.
The fire swept through the structure after an attempt by the FBI to drive cult members from their compound with tear gas.
Six of the nine survivors of the fire claim the FBI started the blaze. The FBI says Howell orchestrated a mass suicide.
The devastation and heat damage has made for a slow, grim task, Peerwani said.
He said the bodies are “very soft and…crumbling” because of extreme heat damage.
“They are partially destroyed,” he said. “There are no identifications that we can rely upon such as facial characteristics and fingerprints.”
Peerwani said experts now think it will take them longer than the three to five days they originally predicted.
Experts must carefully collect all debris around the bodies to make sure they do not miss teeth or teeth fragments near the remains, he said.
Rodney Crow, forensic dentist, called on dentists who treated the victims to contact the medical examiner’s office.
Dental records will be the key in identifying many of the victims, he said.
“In describing bodies…there are no faces on some of them, and the faces have just completely powdered and they have fallen into the areas underneath the bodies…hopefully the teeth will be in this debris.”
Forensic experts began the task of sifting through the remains on Wednesday. They feared that heat from smoldering debris could cause ammunition at the scene to explode.
On Thursday, Department of Public Safety spokesman Chuck McDonald said officials estimate a million rounds of ammunition are inside the cement base of what was the compound’s tower.
It’s about to your thigh when you walk in there,” he said. “This morning there was an explosion that blew debris up above the roof of that bunker.”
Crow said much of the ammunition does not appear to be singed.
“I stepped over several hand grenades on the way out…there’s rocket shells…with fins on them...they look very ominous.”
A spokesman for an Idaho company that sells and makes hobby rockets and parts, confirmed in an interview with the Tribune-Herald that someone at the compound ordered rocket casings, motors and propellants.
Peerwani said that once the top layer of bodies is recovered, experts will move deeper into the rubble.
“We think there are at least two or three layers...before we do that, however, the crime scene people have to come in and do the crime scene work,” he said.
On Thursday, DPS completed laying out a grid, much like at an archaeological site.
Meanwhile, two more survivors of the inferno appeared at hearings in Waco federal court, as more details emerged about the last minutes inside the Branch Davidian compound.
Renos Avraam was ordered held as a material witness after a brief appearance before U.S. Magistrate Dennis Green.
A scheduled hearing for Derek Lovelock was postponed a week at the request of his attorney, Don Ervin, who only took the case Wednesday at the request of Houston attorney Dick DeGuerin.
Avraam’s lawyer, Dick Kettler, said his client jumped from a second-floor window near the front door of the compound and said the fire that engulfed the building seemed “instantaneous.”
Kettler said Avraam told him he and a group of men and women – no children – were in a dark hallway when black, choking smoke came billowing down the hallway.
“They didn’t have time to escape. The fire was just too fast, too rapid,” Kettler told reporters outside the courthouse. “You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face, and people got disoriented.
“The indication I got was that he went out immediately. If he had stayed another second, he wouldn’t have gotten out,” Kettler said.
Kettler said he didn’t know, other than the wind, what could have spread the fire so rapidly. However, he did note that the Branch Davidians had placed bales of hay around windows and doors to stop bullets.
“I blame the FBI,” Avraam told reporters as he walked in chains from his hearing to a van taking him back to jail. “I was shown the Seven Seals clearly by David Koresh.”
Both Kettler and Ervin told reporters their clients assured them there was no suicide pact. In fact, both said their clients didn’t even see Howell that day.
“All of the witnesses have said that it was not a suicide pact and that suicide was never discussed,” Ervin said after his client’s hearing. “I think personally in my opinion, you can rule it out.”
Ervin said Lovelock escaped by scrambling through a first floor hole made by a tank.
Thursday’s hearing was attended by Lovelock’s father … a retired Manchester resident, and brothers Kevin and Lorenzo Lovelock.
Two men who got past FBI lines during the standoff were released this week from jail.
Louis Alaniz, 24, of Houston was released from McLennan County Jail Tuesday afternoon after posting bond. He was charged with interfering with the duties of a police officer. The material witness charge was dropped.
Jesse Amen of California also was released from jail Tuesday afternoon after posting bond. He was charged with interfering with the duties of a police officer.
But nine foreign cult members now face additional obstacles to getting out of jail. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service has filed detention documents to keep them in jail for violating their temporary visas.
The nine include fire survivors Graeme Craddock, 31; Lovelock, 37, and Avraam.