The departure Sunday of seven Branch Davidians from their encircled compound near Waco gave renewed hope that the standoff between the cult and authorities may be nearing an end

However, former cult member Marc Breault cautioned that such hopes may be premature.

He noted that cult leader Vernon Howell, also known as David Koresh, has not released any of his children nor any of his inner circle.

James Lauder, 70, Sheila Martin, 46, and Ophelia Santoya, 62, were the latest Branch Davidians to leave the compound 10 miles east of Waco, said FBI agent Sharon Smith. They walked out at 2:30 p.m. Sunday. As done previously, they were escorted by federal agents and state trooper’s car to the McLennan County Jail.

Martin is the wife of Waco attorney Wayne Martin, a cult member still in the compound.

Two women — Victorine Hollingsworth, 59, a British citizen, and Annetta Richards, 64, reportedly a Canadian citizen — started the exodus about 1:20 a.m. Sunday.

Authorities would not confirm the spellings for names of those released.

Minutes after the daily press conference by the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms ended at 11 a.m., FBI Special Agent Dick Swensen announced the release of two more women: Rita Riddle, 35, and Gladys Ottman, reportedly a Canadian citizen. The younger of the two women acknowledged a row of news reporters with a slight smile as she rode away.

“The quicker it picks up, the better the situation is, and we’re getting more and more out,” Swensen said.

Swensen said he’s hopeful that there is a peaceful end to the standoff, which began Feb. 28 when four ATF agents trying to serve am arrest warrant on Howell were killed in a shootout.

“I would point out that this is the 22nd day since we’ve been here,” Swensen said. “Of course, we got here on that Sunday. There hasn’t been one shot fired; there hasn’t been one person injured; and there hasn’t been one person killed. . . There’s no indication that they want to push it to the brink, and I would hope it remains that way.

Breault, however, was more guarded in assessing the meaning of the spurt in the numbers of people leaving the compound.

“Vernon is letting go of people who aren’t essential to him,” Breault said in a telephone interview from Michigan. “I hope negotiations are going well, but Vernon hasn’t released any of those in his inner circle: Greg Summers, Steve Schneider, Wayne Martin, Jimmy Riddle, David Jones, Nicole Gent, Aisha Gyarfus, Sherri Jewell and, of course, Rachel (Howell). Based on the people who are out, it’s hard to make a call yet on what he’s doing.”

Those remaining at the compound may be part of what Branch Davidian theology calls the wavesheaf, Breault said.

In the Bible, the wavesheaf was the grain waved before the Lord at the start of harvest. Branch Davidian theology considers the wavesheaf to be the people who first go to heaven, Breault said.

“The wavesheaf are those who will go through the hardest times,” he said. “When they do their thing, whatever it is, perhaps martyrdom, they will go to heaven. Those who leave would be considered part of the 144,000. They’re left behind. The idea is that the wavesheaf will end up teaching the 144,000, who will become like the apostles, healing the sick, raising the dead and so on. That would explain why people really want to get back inside the compound. They want to be part of the wavesheaf rather than the 144,000.”

One cult member leaving the compound was taken to Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center.

Swensen said Hollingsworth suffers from pre-existing heart condition. Howell told FBI negotiators that she had been confined to her bed the past several weeks.

Hillcrest officials said she would be hospitalized three to five days.

Dr. Michael Attas, a cardiologist, said Hollingsworth is in stable condition and receiving treatment for a heart condition and high blood pressure.

David Hook, vice counsel and management officer from the British Consulate in Houston, said he visited briefly with Hollingsworth about 8:30 a.m. Sunday.

Hook said Hollingsworth probably will be held as a material witness upon her release.

On Friday night, Brad Branch, 34, and Kevin Whitecliff, 31, left the compound as negotiators carried on a lengthy conversation with Howell.

Thirty-four people, including 21 children, have left the cult’s compound since the standoff began. Seventy-nine adults and 17 children remain inside, according to figures provided by Howell.

Tribune-Herald staff writer Samuel Adams and the Associated Press contributed to this story.

Read the Tribune-Herald's 7-part investigative series on the inner workings of the Branch Davidians. Hours after Part 2 appeared in print, the ATF raided the group's compound.

Read the Tribune-Herald’s account of the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound on Feb. 28, 1993. Four ATF agents and six in the compound were killed in the gunfight.

Read the daily news accounts of the 51-day siege at the Branch Davidian compound near Elk, which began Feb. 28 and lasted until April.

April 19 and beyond: FBI agents began inserting canisters of tear gas into the Branch Davidian compound in the early morning hours. By noon, it was on fire.

Federal officials left the compound site in late May 1993. As identifications of bodies continued, questions about the survivors, the compound and the cult itself began to emerge.

As the world began to take a critical look back at the events and legal proceedings continue, the ATF's bombshell report forces a shakeup at the top after the raid gone "tragically wrong."

In 1994, the surviving Davidians went on trial in San Antonio. Over six weeks, more than 140 witnesses testified, with the verdict coming just two days prior to the anniversary of the ATF raid.

The Rodenville shootout and the 1988 trial, the end of the world in 1959 and more stories from deep in the Trib archives.