Federal agents face talks in limbo and remain puzzled as to what — if anything — Branch Davidians inside the Mount Carmel compound might do when the feast of Passover rolls around this week.
For the first time since two Houston attorneys went out to the compound Thursday, FBI negotiators talked with Branch Davidian leader Vernon Howell, also known as David Koresh, and his right hand man, Steve Schneider. FBI spokesman Bob Ricks quoted Schneider as saying that “significant progress” was made by sending in Dick DeGuerin and Jack Zimmermann to advise them on legal issues and to offer to escort them out when their siege ends.
At the same time, “Schneider also advised us that Mr. Koresh told him that God is still telling Koresh to wait,” Ricks said.
DeGuerin was back in town Saturday. He said he was using his Waco hotel suite as a place to meet a client from Denton, and that he is still in a holding pattern.
“I plan on staying within easy reach of a telephone,” DeGuerin said.
Ricks also said agents remain in a “cooling off period,” and that no real negotiations have been conducted since DeGuerin’s and Zimmermann’s visit. He said the contacts Friday and Saturday were to sort out procedural issues, and to field a request from those inside for milk for their children and chicken feed for their chickens.
Ricks said the Passover holiday is a significant event in the Branch Davidian religion and could very well be a milestone in the siege, now in its 36th day since agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms raided Mount Carmel to arrest Howell on weapons charges.
“It’s a time of transition, where oftentimes his status with his people has changed — changed from being just a teacher to perhaps a heightened level,” Ricks said of Howell. “He has at various times first announced that he had received divine guidance . . . during Passover.”
“So these are times when either his position or those of the Branch Davidians has changed or he gets additional messages from God,” Ricks said.
At the same time, Ricks said agents remain unclear as to when and how long that Passover feast might last.
“The question is, we’re not exactly certain if it begins on the fifth or the sixth, and we’re not sure how long it will last,” Ricks said. “Traditionally, with the Branch Davidians there has been a number of days of celebration. Some have said three days, some have said up to eight days. So we’re not certain how long a celebration of Passover will even occur — and would something occur during that celebration or after a final termination?”
Ricks did say Howell said the sect will commemorate Passover on April 6, in keeping with the traditional Jewish calendar.
Ricks said communications with the sect could shut down completely during the celebration, as they did when the new moon was sighted March 23.
“They may decide these are their high holy days and communications could cease. Only they could decide that,” Ricks said.
Meanwhile, an ATF spokesman belittles the suggestion that miscues by an ATF undercover agent might have alerted Mount Carmel residents that they were being investigated.
“We had no indication from him that he felt during the course of the investigation that he had been compromised, that they knew he was an undercover agent of any kind,” said ATF spokesman David Troy. He said the probe couldn’t have continued if the agent had blown his cover.
During an early March 1 interview with KRLD-AM, Howell and Schneider said a neighbor they identified as “Robert Gonzalez” aroused their suspicions. He was supposed to be in college but looked too old and had too much money, they said. He said he was a novice with an AR-15 but looked too comfortable with the weapon, they said, and that he was nosy. They said his abrupt departure on the morning of Feb. 28, allegedly to eat his breakfast, helped alert them that a raid was coming.
Troy said suspicion would be nothing new to Mount Carmel residents, who usually met deliveries at the gate of their compound and often posted guards.
“I think we can characterize the people inside the compound as generally suspicious of everything. They are paranoid, they are highly suspicious of most anything you want to bring up,” Troy said. “Whether they were suspicious or not I don’t think is indicative of whether or not he was successful in his role.”
Troy also used Saturday’s briefing with reporters to chide agents who have been talking to newspapers and television shows about the raid. Among other things, they have said that some agents going in knew the element of surprise was gone and they would take fire, and that planning for the raid was inadequate.
Troy said the less-than-flattering statements about the agency were coming from agents still suffering from the loss of four comrades in that raid.