The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms may be closing in on a source of Vernon Howell’s automatic weapons.

Hank Neal, resident agent in charge of the ATF office in Pensacola, Fla., said Thursday that his office is investigating something “specific to the Waco incident,” but he refused to say anything else.

The “Waco incident” was the ATF raid on Mount Carmel Sunday morning. Cult leader Vernon Howell and his followers used automatic weapons to kill four ATF agents and repel the raid. An eight-month Tribune-Herald investigation indicated Howell and his followers had a cache of weapons, including .50-caliber machine guns, AK-47s, AR-15s and M-16s.

The Tribune-Herald could not determine Thursday if the ATF’s investigation concerned possible criminal activity or was an effort to get a better picture of Howell’s weaponry.

A former Waco area gun dealer who knew Howell moved to Pensacola, Fla. in early January. Howell spent six months trying to recruit the gun dealer and his girlfriend for the cult, but they didn’t join, according to a source close to the cult.

A Waco businessman said Howell took the gun dealer by his business twice: once in the spring of 1992 and once in October.

In the spring of 1992, the gun dealer arrived with a large plastic basket containing about 35 handguns, most of them black military-style weapons, including Glock 9mm pistols, chrome plated .45-caliber automatics and others.

“They stayed and visited a while,” said the businessman. “He told me, ‘If there is anything you want, it doesn’t matter if I’ve got it or not, and these are all the guns I’ve got. I just brought a kind of a little assortment here to see if I had anything you might want at the time’

“Well, I didn’t think anything about it and I still don’t know that the guy was not on the level.”

In October, the businessman bought a German .22-caliber pistol from the gun dealer.

“He was your quiet, average guy,” said the businessman. “He didn’t look like a bad seed or anything.

“He said, ‘I have a friend of mine who is an ex-gun store owner or part of a partnership in Florida with one or two other partners,’ and he just kind of ran the store. They sold out and he didn’t have the money to buy them out, so he just got out and came to Hewitt and was going to make his living going around to gun shows and buying and selling guns.”

The dealer received a federal firearms license in September 1990.

On Feb. 22, the United Parcel Service tried to deliver an order to his old address from an arms company that sells AR-15 rifles. A shipping employee at the arms company said the order contained aluminum stocks and other parts for AR-15s.

Read the Tribune-Herald's 7-part investigative series on the inner workings of the Branch Davidians. Hours after Part Two 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.

Read the accounts of 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.