WASHINGTON — The tape recording on which members of a House subcommittee listened to frantic telephone conversations between a deputy sheriff and members of the Branch Davidian cult near Waco had been altered, members of the subcommittee said Wednesday.

But who erased critical conversations — and when — was not clear.

The Appropriations subcommittee on treasury, postal service and general government is investigating. So is the Justice Department.

The recording, on which McLennan County Sheriff’s Lt. Larry Lynch appealed to Vernon Howell and his followers to lay down their weapons and end their Feb. 28 gun battle with federal agents, was played during subcommittee hearings last week.

Lynch’s efforts to negotiate a cease-fire while gunfire roared over the telephone lines and Howell quoted the Scriptures was the highlight of two days of subcommittee hearings on the ill-fated raid by more than 100 agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF).

The recording left the impression that Lynch was unable to contact the ATF agents to tell them Howell and one of his lieutenants had called the Waco Police Department 9-1-1 distress line in the middle of the gunfight.

The complete tape recording was released last week by the Waco Police Department after 9-1-1 operators read a published subcommittee transcript and realized that large portions of conversation had been omitted.

In fact, the unedited tapes indicate Lynch talked with ATF agents while he held the Davidian callers on the line, though he did appear to have trouble contacting ATF.

Lynch told the Tribune-Herald Wednesday that he “walked in cold” last week to the congressional hearings, not knowing what to expect or what questions he would be asked.

He said Sheriff Jack Harwell has told department employees not to answer questions during the pending criminal investigation.

As information on the tapes came to light, several issues emerged:

  • At a closed meeting of the subcommittee on Wednesday, investigators did not say where they got the tape but specifically said they did not get it from the FBI, according to an aide to U.S. Rep. Jim Lightfoot, R-Iowa, the subcommittee’s ranking Republican.
  • Later in the day, evidently unaware of the closed subcommittee meeting, an FBI spokesman said the bureau did give the tape to a subcommittee staffer but with the understanding that it was not complete.
  • One of the main conclusions of last week’s hearings, that the raid was too poorly planned to provide clear channels of communications, grew out of the impression from the original version of the conversations that Lynch had been unable for over 30 minutes to contact ATF. The new transcript indicates Lynch did have trouble contacting ATF, but it does not reflect such a long delay.
  • Lightfoot said Attorney General Janet Reno told him the tape should never have been released in any form because it had been subpoenaed as evidence in criminal investigations growing out of the shootout.

Tribune-Herald staff writer Tommy Witherspoon contributed to this story.

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.