Three days before the lives of 200 people rested on their shoulders, McLennan County Sheriff’s Department Lt. Larry Lynch and Branch Davidian cult member Wayne Martin bumped into each other by chance.
“It is real ironic now, but the Thursday before the Sunday raid, Wayne and I rode up the elevator together in the courthouse annex and walked over together to the third floor of the main courthouse,” Lynch said.
Their brief Feb. 25 conversation was not meaningful. The pair merely exchanged greetings and pleasantries, Lynch said.
However, less than 72 hours later, Lynch and Martin were thrown together again in a monumental telephone conversation after 100 federal agents were repelled by stifling gunfire as they tried to storm the Branch Davidian compound near Waco.
Lynch, a 15-year Sheriff’s Department veteran, was at 9-1-1 headquarters at the Waco Police Department in case curious passersby saw the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents during the raid or heard gunfire and called to ask what was happening.
Lawyers and judges who knew the articulate and soft-spoken Martin liked him, but wondered how the Harvard-trained attorney could become so strongly involved with Vernon Howell’s strange cult.
It was a decidedly different Martin who during the raid called 9-1-1 in a frenetic, high-pitched voice.
In his first media interview since the failed Feb. 28 raid, Lynch said the stress from talking virtually non-stop for 30 hours to Martin; Howell, who legally changed his name to David Koresh; and Howell’s right-hand man, Steve Schneider, was difficult to handle.
“It’s an experience I’ll never forget. Hopefully, one per career. A man doesn’t need two of those.”
Top ATF, FBI and Justice Department officials have been criticized for their handling of the botched raid Feb. 28 and the fire April 19 that killed at least 80 cult members, including Martin.
But Lynch, 46, has stood tall, receiving accolades for his negotiating skills from Ted Koppel on ABC’s “Nightline”; retired New York City police Capt. Frank Bolz, called the “father of hostage negotiators”; and ATF and FBI officials.
He shuns the spotlight, insisting he was merely doing his job, with the help of some talented people at 9-1-1 headquarters, the way any other officer would have done it.
But the 9-1-1 tapes show that Lynch, known for his quick wit and easygoing manner, did an outstanding job under the direst of circumstances.
He and Martin negotiated the cease-fire between cult members and the ATF agents and allowed the officers to collect their four dead and 15 wounded agents.
To reward his efforts, the FBI has invited Lynch to its prestigious, by-invitation-only Basic Crisis Hostage Negotiations School near Quantico, Va., next month.
“I guess they felt like I needed some training,” Lynch said with a laugh.
“But I’m excited. I am looking forward to it. It will help me do my job better when I am called out to negotiate something. I am very pleased that I have been accepted.”
However, at least one local attorney, recalling how the 51-day standoff ended in tragedy after the FBI took over negotiations, said that Lynch should not go.
“He’d be a fool to go,” said Ken Crow. “If he goes up there, he needs to be lecturing, not listening to them. Maybe they would learn something.”
Lynch’s bosses, Sheriff Jack Harwell and Capt. Dan Weyenberg, said Lynch deserves much credit for saving lives on both sides of the raid.
“Without Larry’s efforts, there probably would not have been a cease-fire and could have been a lot more people killed,” Harwell said. “I don’t think there is anyone who could have done a better job than Larry did under the circumstances.”
Fred Lancely, an FBI supervisory special agent at the Quantico school who led a team of negotiators in Waco during the third and fourth weeks of the standoff, agrees with Harwell.
“We thought the cooperation with the county folks was just outstanding there. Just really good,” he said. “Larry, in particular, is an incredible guy. His responses on that 9-1-1 call were incredible. He was incredibly composed and handled himself extremely well. Frankly, that is why he is coming up here to the school.”
Lynch credits much of his success during the stressful 30 hours to the staff at the 9-1-1 office, who calmed him down when he got excited and helped him keep track of the three telephone lines he was juggling throughout much of the ordeal.
Once, Lynch was on the phone with Martin, who was calling from his law office at the compound, and Howell, who was talking on another compound phone, while a federal negotiator was holding on another phone and those in the small 9-1-1 office were talking to him.
“He’s number one in our books,” the workers at the 9-1-1 office said while shaking Lynch’s hand and hugging him last week during a visit.
Maria D’Marco, 9-1-1 supervisor, said they recently were notified that Kathy McElwea, Jayni Sykora, Lori Pace, Evelyn Dresner and Sandy Neally will receive a statewide award next month for their roles during Martin’s marathon call.
“When I walked into that office at 9:30 Sunday morning, they said, ‘What are you doing here?’” Lynch said. “I said, ‘I’m here for a cup of coffee.’ So they gave me a cup of coffee and said, ‘Sit down and tell us why you are really here.’ And then the phone rang about 9:50 and I think Jayni answered the phone and said, ‘I think this call is for you.’
‘A good team’
“I can’t stress enough how they helped me,” Lynch said. “As their shifts ended, they had to make some of them go home. They didn’t want to leave because they got so involved in it. We became a good team.”
Lynch and some of the women had been to a three-day FBI hostage-negotiation school two years ago. The training helped, but nothing could have prepared them for what they went through in those hours, Lynch said.
The most stressful time for Lynch was after he and Martin negotiated the cease-fire. He had vivid mental images of those agents walking up to the compound to get their dead and wounded and being gunned down.
“They were just walking out there in the open. They were wanting the agents not to bring their guns, and I told Wayne, ‘That’s not going to happen.’ I was really concerned for their safety,” Lynch said.
“Later on, when they were trying to go back there to get Kenny King, who had fallen, they said they looked up and there were people in the windows with guns trained on them. You can imagine the anxiety those people felt. I was just hoping they wouldn’t shoot. I was just trying to reiterate to Wayne, ‘Don’t let them shoot, don’t let them shoot.’”
Lynch said he was convinced after the third day of the standoff that Howell would not come out. He said negotiators hoped to be able to bring more of the children out.
Kids ‘true hostage’
It’s the children Lynch remembers — the ones who came out while he was helping lead negotiations — and the 17 who perished in the inferno.
“I was at the command post that morning of the fire and saw the flames. We kept waiting and watching for somebody to come out. And nobody came. No kids. It was pretty devastating to all of us that the kids didn’t get out. You know, the kids were the true hostages in all of this. The adults could make their own choices. But it’s the children . . .” he said, his words trailing off.
“You still think about it. You always wonder could I have done a little better, right there at the initial onset. You always think, could I have gotten a few more of the kids out? What a tragedy, but you have to look at it that they were given 51 days of options.”
But despite the tragedy and ensuing criticism, Lynch refuses to play Monday-morning quarterback.
“It was the ATF’s operation and their decisions and plans,” Lynch said. “The best-laid plans sometimes go awry. I think that to criticize them would be in very poor taste and not very professional. Right now, everything needs to be directed toward the prosecution of the bad guys. That is where the emphasis should be.”