Vernon Howell made his apocalyptic vision come true Sunday.
He and his Branch Davidian cult members opened fire on agents with the Bureau and Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms attempting to serve an arrest warrant on him for possessing illegal weapons.
By late Sunday, ATF reported four agents killed, two Davidians killed and more presumed dead, 15 agents and three cult members wounded.
Shortly before midnight, a hostage negotiating team from Travis County arrived. It brought six trucks, a portable electric generator and floodlights.
“We’re going to do whatever we need to do,” said Kim Hale, a member of the team.
Tom Hill, ATF spokesman in Washington, D.C., said the fierce morning gunfight was followed by another shootout at about 6 p.m. when three Davidians came out of the compound and started firing on agents.
After hours of negotiations, the Davidians released two children at 9:15 p.m. and two at 10:30 p.m. Two more children, for a total of six, were reportedly released.
The morning shootout had left four ATF agents dead and one Branch Davidian reportedly killed. In the evening shootout, a Davidian was killed, another is presumed by ATF to be dead and one cult member was captured, according to ATF spokesmen.
Hill said authorities believe Howell was tipped off in a telephone call before the morning raid. “I don’t know where that’s coming from. We do believe they were tipped off,” he said.
He said the Davidians broke from their normal routine Sunday morning, which ATF took as an indication that they were tipped off the raid was coming.
Hill confirmed the bureau had undercover agents within the compound before Sunday. None of those undercover officers was still inside at the start of the raid Sunday.
“We had our plan down. We had our diversion down. But they were waiting for us,” ATF Special Agent Ted Royster said.
Howell, in a phone interview with CNN, said he knew about the raid ahead of time.
“I knew they were coming,” he said. “I knew they were coming before they knew they were coming.”
Sunday was the worst single day death toll in the history of the ATF, created in 1972.
Howell, also known as David Koresh, had long predicted a bloody shootout with authorities, according to former cult members.
This bloody Sunday, it happened.
The assault began at 9:55 a.m. Three helicopters circled on the horizon for several minutes before two cattle trucks containing approximately 100 ATF agents from Dallas, Houston and New Orleans offices pulled into the entrance of Mount Carmel, the Branch Davidians’ headquarters 10 miles east of Waco.
As the cattle trucks swung up a long dirt road in front of the compound, the helicopters came in low from the north, a Blackhawk helicopter hovering like angry wasp over the rambling building.
Agents wearing blue jumpsuits and flak jackets leaped out of the cattle trucks, throwing concussion grenades and screaming “Come out!”
They received a brutal greeting — a hail of automatic gunfire.
Agents took cover, as did the helicopters. The initial shooting lasted approximately 45 minutes. Thereafter, the shooting was sporadic.
At least three ATF agents were shot as they attempted to enter an upstairs window at the compound. A news photographer with KWTX-Waco, Dan Maloney, filmed the assault, while hiding behind a bus. Two ATF agents went through the window, then a burst of automatic fire peppered the wall, wounding an agent crouching outside. He fell to the roof, the roof behind him exploding. The fallen agent managed to climb to a ladder and slide down.
Special Agent Ted Royster of Dallas said two agents were killed on the roof and one died on the ground. He did not know how the fourth agent died. Authorities have not released the names of the dead pending notification of their relatives.
Two of the three copters were struck by ground fire and, in accordance with procedure, landed for damage assessment.
“At first it sounded like hail, then we realized it was gunfire,” said Royster, who rode in one of the copters.
The death toll Sunday “was certainly our worst” for casualties, said Jim Pasco, a spokesman for the Treasury Department agency.
Howell, who said he was wounded in the initial shooting, claimed he had opened the door to the compound to ask what the ATF agents wanted, when they fired on him. Cult members returned the fire, he said.
“I had planned never to use these weapons,” Howell told CNN. “The only problem is that people outside don’t understand what we believe.”
After more than two hours of gunfire, a truce was negotiated so that the ATF could remove their dead and wounded. Commandeering the TV truck, the agents pushed the vehicles out of the compound.
As agents slowly walked back down the road fronting the compound, a pickup truck zoomed past them. In the back was an agent, seriously wounded. Fellow agents performed CPR. At the end of the road, two CareFlight helicopters took the seriously wounded to a Waco hospital.
One of the female ATF agents told reporters that she hadn’t expected the Branch Davidians to put up such a fierce fight. Suddenly, a male ATF agent ran up to a reporter, sweat and anger in his eyes.
“Can’t you see we’ve been through it?” he asked.
One of the agents said she had friends wounded and killed in the shootout.
“It’s just a terrible tragedy.”
Negotiations between the ATF and the Branch Davidians continued Sunday afternoon and on into the evening. Sporadic shooting was also heard.
The ATF late Sunday afternoon asked KRLD radio in Dallas to broadcast a message to Howell saying the agency would not use aggression if he were willing to give up.
KRLD broadcast the announcement several times.
Later in an interview with KRLD, Howell said he was the most seriously wounded of three people inside the compound.
“I’ve been shot. I’m bleeding bad,” he said as a baby cried in the background. “I’m going home. I’m going back to my father. Your weapons have overcome me this time. I begged these men to go away.”
Howell said the two injuries were both flesh wounds, one to a hand and another to a leg. He began to cry as he talked about the 2-year-old child that he said had been killed, which ATF could not verify. Howell identified the girl as his own daughter.
Authorities have said about 75 people were at the compound, but Howell said there were many more there, including children of all ages.
“There are a lot of children here,” he told KRLD. “I’ve had a lot of babies these past two years. It’s true that I do have a lot of children and I do have a lot of wives.”
In past interviews with the Tribune-Herald, Howell denied that he had more than one wife or two children.
But the newspaper reported in a series, “The Sinful Messiah,” that began Saturday, that former cult members alleged that Howell had at least 15 so-called wives and had fathered numerous children by different women in the cult.
Howell said he would send out two children each time radio station KRLD played a message he had given them. The messages were played. By late Sunday night, six children had reportedly been released.
Royster said ATF agents had planned to try to lure Howell away from the compound. He said they weren’t successful.
Marc Breault, one of Howell’s former right-hand men, said the ATF had flew him from Australia to California in January. They wanted to know if he thought Howell would fight, said Breault, a computer programmer in Melbourne.
Breault, who left the cult in 1989, said he told authorities that Howell would fight.
“I don’t know why they chose that tactic,” Breault said. “I do know Vernon is very reluctant to leave the property. I think he feels safer with all his people all around him.”
One authority at the scene blamed the shootout on “The Sinful Messiah” series. In the series, former cult members detail their allegations that Howell had sex with underage girls in the cult, severely whipped babies as young as 8 months old, and had claimed the right to have sex with any woman in the cult.
ATF spokesman Jack Killorin in Washington said, “I think the newspaper’s investigation set up heightened tension.”
But, he added, “I don’t see a cause and effect.”
Breault said Howell had long planned for a shootout.
“I don’t think the story caused it,” he said. “Whenever you approach Vernon, with warrants, you’re going to get that reaction. The story didn’t indicate the ATF was involved. As Vernon has said in the past, if any authorities come, he will resist with gunfire. Authorities only got what they were warned about in advance. You’ve seen the pictures of the compound. He designed it that way. It’s clear all the way around. There’s no way anyone can approach without being seen. There’s no way.”
Royster said the timing of the raid had nothing to do with the Tribune-Herald series. Federal agencies began their investigation after receiving complaints about inquiries from county officials and private citizens, he said.
In his phone conversation with CNN, Howell reported that he was wounded in the shootout. He called his mother, Bonnie Haldeman, to tell her, he said.
“I said, ‘Momma, they got me. Remember, I don’t hold anything against you. You know, they just don’t want to hear the truth,’ ” Howell said.
A former cult member, however, reported that a hysterical Haldeman said Howell told her that he was wounded and dying. Howell stopped talking and someone else picked up the phone and said he was dead, the former cult member said.
Later, though, Howell did a phone interview with CNN.
He reported that one child at the compound died in the shootout. Two adults were wounded. Both have refused treatment, Howell said.
Television viewers also got a taste of Howell’s teachings. He talked about the Seven Seals, found in Revelation. Cult members believe that Howell will “open” them, setting loose catastrophic events that Branch Davidians believe will end the world.
As part of that prophecy, Howell, who believes himself to Christ, told cult members they would die one day in a shootout, according to former cult members.
However, he claimed the U.S. Army would come after him, out of jealousy over his many “wives.” Followers were told they would be resurrected after their deaths and return to slay the unbelievers, former cult members said.
In a disjointed monologue, Howell lamented, “of course, no one wants to listen to my doctrine.”
Royster said federal agencies had considered trying to arrest Howell away from the compound.
“But we decided that wasn’t possible,” he said.
Royster said the operation was so secretive that the spouses of those taking part probably did not know the nature of their mission.
Royster said more agents will be arriving at the compound.
“We are deeply saddened,” said Royster, who paused to regain his composure. “Our hearts go out to those courageous agents who died today in the line of duty, and to their families. The shootings remind us that the price of protecting the public can be high. But the public must be protected, and law enforcement officers will continue to do their duty.”
Lt. Col Ed Komandosky, the state press affair officer for the Texas National Guard, said federal authorities have requested 10 Bradley Fighting Vehicles to use in the standoff.
The Bradleys are armored personnel carriers using tracks similar to tanks. They are expected to arrive this morning.
Komandosky said they are to be used for defensive purposes only.
Commonly, the Bradleys carry a 25mm chain gun, a machine gun, missile launchers and night vision equipment.
The shootout Sunday was Howell’s second. He and seven followers stood trial in 1988 for the attempted murder of rival prophet George Roden. The men had gone onto Mount Carmel, then occupied by Roden, supposedly to take photographs of a deceased cult member’s body that Roden dug up. Roden had challenged Howell to a contest. The man who could resurrect Anna Hughes would be the cult’s prophet. Authorities filed charges after finding 18 bullet holes in the tree that Roden had hid behind.
Howell’s followers were acquitted. The McLennan County jury hung on Howell’s guilt. But the district attorney’s office later dropped the charged against him.
News of the shootout near Waco stirred police in La Verne, Calif., to inspect the cult’s house there. They found three people, but no weapons, said Sgt. John Hackworth. Police also are temporarily giving shelter to several former cult members, scared of possible reprisals.
“We just wanted to make sure that no one at the La Verne house posed a danger to others,” Hackworth said. “We’re erring on the side of caution. As soon as I found out what had happened, I called and offered our services to the former cult members. I don’t want anyone else to get hurt. When things get stabilized, we’ll send them home.”
Breault said former cult members, unfortunately, expected what happened at Mount Carmel Sunday.
“When you get down to it, Vernon just did what he’s been saying he would do for years,” he said.