Many Branch Davidians remaining inside Mount Carmel may leave if they’re satisfied with how authorities treat cult members now out, an FBI spokesman said Wednesday.
Special Agent Bob Ricks, speaking at the daily press briefing on the 19-day-old standoff, said as many as 30 cult members may be ready to leave.
“Mr. Schneider is talking about that he believes there may be substantial sums of people, 20 to 30, who, if they are satisfied with the treatment that Kathy Schroeder or Oliver Gyarfas receives, might be interested in coming out,” Ricks said of Steve Schneider, a top lieutenant of cult leader Vernon Howell.
Schroeder, 34, and Gyarfas, 19, left the compound 10 miles east of Waco on Friday. They are being held as material witnesses.
FBI negotiators say Schneider continues to do most of the Davidians’ negotiating. Howell was reportedly wounded in the side during the Feb. 28 raid, in which four agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were killed during a fierce shootout.
Although one FBI agent had labeled Howell’s medical condition as going “downhill,” Ricks downplayed the seriousness of Howell’s injuries.
“I cannot characterize his health as going downhill,” Ricks said. “My impression would be probably the other way. He has his moments where he expresses great pain to us, and there’s moaning, but once he gets into discussions, it seems his strength increases … It appears that his situation has probably stabilized and may have gotten even better.”
Howell reports that 88 adults and 17 children remain inside the compound.
Many cult members are from other countries, Ricks reported. With only a limited understanding of the U.S. legal system, they are asking where they will be housed if they surrender, what charges will be filed against them, who will file the charges and what are the chances of getting a change of venue.
Ricks said he caused the Davidians some concern when he told reporters recently that the government “owned” the compound.
“I probably misspoke,” he said. “My intent was to say that we are not allowing anyone inside that compound. We are not allowing anyone outside that compound unless we agree to that. We have completely sealed that compound.”
The Davidians wondered if forfeiture proceedings would be started against the compound, Ricks said.
“Those who are not charged, (wonder) will they in fact have a home to return to once this is all over,” he said.
Ricks said negotiators tentatively arranged another face-to-face meeting between Davidian representatives and authorities for Wednesday. Last Monday, Sheriff Jack Harwell and a negotiator met for the first time with cult members Wayne Martin, a Waco attorney, and Schneider.
“Yesterday we attempted another face-to-face, but Mr. Schneider reported that he was thoroughly exhausted and requested that any meeting take place today,” Ricks said. “We will attempt to have another face-to-face meeting this afternoon.”
Although negotiators have increased the pressure on the compound – turning off the electricity, beaming intense lights at the compound and displaying less and less interest in Howell’s Bible studies – Ricks disclosed Wednesday that Davidians seeking medical treatment would be allowed to return to the compound under certain circumstances.
“We have said, ‘If you show us a sign of good will, and that is by allowing children or other adults to come out, we will allow those who need medical treatment to return back inside the compound if they so wish,’” Ricks said.
He said the cult’s frantic efforts to reach the press, such as flashing Morse code signals and painting signs on bedsheets, could be addressed by a surrender.
“We will no longer allow him direct access to the media unless we are in fact assured that he has come out of the compound,” Ricks said. “But once he comes out, the terms of surrender are completely open as to the access that he may have.”