Controversy continues to surround what one critic calls the “storm trooper” tactics of the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms raid on the Branch Davidian cult Sunday.
Rumors persist that an ATF informant tipped off cult leader Vernon Howell, also known as David Koresh, on the timing of the raid.
Priscilla Coates, a 10-year Cult Awareness Network volunteer based at the organization’s Glendale, Calif., office, said she doesn’t like to criticize government agencies, but she feels that perhaps “somebody needed to do more homework” before staging a raid.
“It almost sounds to me like ivory-tower mentality,” she said.
ATF may have been reluctant to take the claims of former cult members seriously concerning the magnitude of the weaponry at the Mount Carmel compound, she said.
The Tribune-Herald reported before the raid that the cult had .50-caliber weapons, AK-47s, AR-15s, M-16s, Israeli assault rifles, 9mm handguns and at least one starlight filter for night patrol. Sources said Howell and his followers could be manufacturing “grease guns,” a type of machine gun.
Sharon Wheeler, spokeswoman for the ATF, said Monday that the agency was “outgunned.”
“They had bigger firearms than we had,” she said, adding agents also feared hitting women and children in the compound.
A video of the battle showed some ATF agents shooting with handguns. Helicopters and about 100 ATF agents raided the compound.
Tom Hill, an ATF spokesman in Washington said Wheeler’s comments should not be taken “literally.”
“I think when she was saying that, she was doing it from the aspect of seeing comrades injured,” he said. “One has to think in terms of what was in Sharon’s mind. You have to consider she was responding in the emotion of having lost fellow workers, people being injured.
“As law enforcement agents or police, you just can’t go in there with your guns blazing,” he said. “You know that there are women and children in there and other innocent people and that is uppermost in the minds of agents and police.”
“All of those kinds of questions will be answered when the operation is over.”
In a Houston Chronicle story, former McLennan County District Attorney Vic Feazell criticized the raid for “storm trooper” tactics.
Feazell was the target of a federal probe six years ago and acquitted of racketeering charges. While he was DA, his office prosecuted cult leader Vernon Howell in 1988 for a shootout with George Roden, a rival prophet who is now in Vernon State Hospital.
Feazell said his office did not have any problems arresting the Davidians then.
But Marc Breault and his wife, Elizabeth Baranyai, said things might not have turned out much differently even if ATF had been able to arrest Howell alone outside the compound.
Breault said ATF agents first contacted him in December about Howell. Breault said the agent told him he’d been working on the case for two months. ATF officials claim they have been working on the case for eight months.
“The ATF tried everything they could to do that,” he said of getting Howell alone outside the compound.
Recently, Breault said, Howell would not leave the compound alone.
“He was always armed,” he said. “So what ATF’s strategy was, was to storm the place and surprise him,” he said.
As for a possible leak about the raid, Hill said he would not comment on rumors that an ATF informant tipped Howell off.