Events prior to the Feb. 28 raid on Mount Carmel suggest that Vernon Howell and his followers may have been expecting an assault by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms for months.
Officials have argued that Howell was tipped off shortly before the early morning raid, in which four ATF agents and six Branch Davidians were killed.
But information from several sources, including government documents, indicates the cult was already alert for possible action by the ATF related to the cult’s stockpiling of weapons.
Last October, for example, Steve Schneider, Howell’s top lieutenant who is believed to have died in the holocaust that destroyed Mount Carmel, asked a relative to mail copies of any articles on the Randy Weaver case that might have appeared in a conservative magazine she subscribes to.
Weaver is a white supremacist in Idaho, who holed up with his family after being indicted on a federal firearms violation filed by the ATF. His wife, 13-year-old son and a U.S. marshal were killed in a shootout. He is awaiting trial on murder charges.
Howell, according to sources, began combing computer bulletin boards a month before the ATF raid for stories on government action against people charged with weapons violations.
Cult members also reportedly viewed an anti-ATF film before the raid.
Rita Riddle, a cult member held as a material witness since leaving Mount Carmel on March 21, said that before the raid — she declined to say when — she and other Branch Davidians viewed a film that depicted ATF as an enemy of gun owners.
“The ATF said they could have got in there if they hadn’t been tipped off and no one would have been hurt,” Riddle said. “Well, they better look at the Randy Weaver case. I have seen a filmstrip on the ATF and how they operate. The Randy Weaver case was one that was in that. And I’ll tell you what. I don’t believe them for a minute. From what I saw on the tape, they just come in firing, hoping people will be scared and back off. They’ve got to realize people are catching on to them.”
Riddle’s claims are underscored by an affidavit unsealed this week by a federal judge.
The affidavit, used to secure a search warrant for Mount Carmel, states that an ATF undercover agent, Robert Rodriguez, saw the same videotape, which was made by the Gun Owners Association. It portrays the ATF as an agency that violates the rights of gun-owners through “threats and lies,” the affidavit states.
Henry McMahon Jr., a firearms dealer, formerly of Hewitt, is quoted in the same affidavit as saying Howell told him in the summer of 1992 that the ATF was training for an assault on Mount Carmel at the site near the Mag Bag, an automotive repair shop that was run by cult member Bob Kendricks and others.
‘Right in front of us’
“McMahon further stated that Howell had told him that this was training conducted by ATF to assault the compound/Mount Carmel property,” the affidavit said. “Howell had stated to McMahon that ATF is so arrogant that they’re conducting their training right in front of us because ATF wants to send us a message of what they’re going to do to the cult members.”
What Howell thought was an ATF training exercise was put on by local police departments practicing the execution of warrants, according to the affidavit.
It clearly shows that Howell feared an ATF attack.
Waco attorney Scott Peterson, who represents cult member Kathryn Schroeder, said that he understands cult member David Jones learned of the raid from a chance conversation, then drove to Mount Carmel and devised a ruse to get Howell away from an undercover ATF agent.
Howell, according to an affidavit, returned and said the ATF and National Guard were coming after him.
Members say Howell knew he was speaking to an ATF agent.
Schneider, hours after the raid, told KRLD-Radio in Dallas that cult members knew Rodriguez was not a college student, as he claimed to be. He was far more interested in asking Howell questions about guns than in studying the Bible, Schneider said.
Howell told CNN, “I knew they were coming before they knew they were coming.”
Eddie Goins, a former guitar player for the band Blind Wolfe, said he met the ATF undercover agent during a visit to Mount Carmel about two weeks before the raid. Cult member David Thibodeau, a friend of Goins, introduced them.
“I was coming out there and I’d never seen the guy before and I was asking David Thibodeau, ‘Who’s he?’ Goins said. “And he said somebody’s name…and he says he’s out here taking lessons and David Koresh said, ‘Yeah right,’ then walked out. So Dave knew what was up.”
During his trips to Mount Carmel, he frequently found a guard in the cult’s watchtower, Goins said.
Howell’s concern for safety even led him to install surveillance cameras inside and outside of Mount Carmel, Goins said. The cameras were installed about three months before the ATF raid, he said.
Between 10 and 15 cameras were put outside; two or three cameras inside, Goins said.
A veteran McLennan County law enforcement officer said Howell’s words and deeds may just show that he was just worried about having so many weapons, not that he suspected a raid was imminent.
“I think he was paranoid about the ATF with all the stuff he was buying,” the officer said.
However, some families of cult members report receiving ominous telephone calls in the weeks before the raid — calls which seemed to be goodbyes.
Wayne Peterson of Wisconsin last talked to his sister, Judy Schneider, who is believed to have died in the Mount Carmel fire, in December.
“She did know something was going down,” Peterson said in a telephone interview. “She said we would read about it in the paper. We would see it on TV. I encouraged her to come home. She said she would be going home real soon. She indicated that the end of the world would be soon.”
A week before the raid, one cult member called his parents.
“Something is going to happen,” he told them. “It’s going to be in the newspapers. You’ll be hearing about it.”
Paul Horslen said Winston Blake, his brother-in-law and a cult member believed slain in the shootout, sounded dejected during a phone call last October. Blake called to say he could not come home to England to attend a friend’s funeral.
“He said the door of the ark was closed,” said Horslen, in a telephone interview from Nottingham, England.
Peterson said there was a stark difference between Judy Schneider’s December call and her usual telephone conversations.
“Always before it was, ‘You need to get down here. Bring your family. We’re learning new truths every day. The end is coming soon,’ ” Peterson said. “But the last time she called, it was, ‘It’s too late for you.’ ”