The Texas Rangers have a crime to reconstruct.

Sadly, instead of having more witnesses than they can handle, they have but a handful.

The central figure in the events is gone. The scene is scorched. That leaves federal agents to answer some of the questions that a judge and jury might have expected of Vernon Howell — also known as David Koresh.

President Clinton has ordered an in-house investigation into the matter. That’s not good enough. Only an independent, non-partisan probe will do. As the president stated Tuesday, the administrative branch must be accountable to the people. And an agency cannot be expected to investigate itself.

From the moment that federal agents had to retreat from the Branch Davidian compound Feb. 28 after seeking to serve a warrant, this was a hostage situation. The FBI has observed that Howell was in complete control of the people in the compound either through mind control or force.

And even if he was not in control of the adults, the children in the compound had no say in the matter. They were hostages.

No one should have died in this incident, even with all the weapons poised on both sides of the compound walls. That said, it is easy to say in hindsight that the lives of the cultists could have been saved. If in fact they had a suicide pact as some former cultists had warned, Howell’s flock could have carried it out at any time.

Opportunity squandered

Waco residents have verified that Vernon Howell was no hermit. He was in fact quite a man about town. He could have been arrested away from his fortress. It’s possible that Howell’s followers would have done something rash had their leader been arrested away from the compound, but at least they wouldn’t have been his hostages.

This all should serve to remind that in the end law enforcement wasn’t dealing with a religious visionary but with a sociopathic manipulator. Howell used people as his shields. He armed the compound for war, and he was ready when he sensed an opportunity to use his arsenal.

As far as waiting out the Davidians, it was said Tuesday that the government had a limit to its resources and its patience. But today it seems that a wait of any duration would have been worth getting everyone out without further bloodshed. After all, in similar hostage situations overseas our government has waited years for a peaceful resolution.

Religion isn’t issue

The government certainly is in line for criticism on a variety of fronts. But let’s not allow those questions to scorch the earth. There was a clear reason for law enforcement action as far back as two years ago.

Some anti-government voices have tried to portray this as a simple matter of constitutional freedoms clashing with and overzealous government. Some particularly want to make it an issue of religious liberty or gun ownership.

Those people are either blind or ignorant of what former cult members were saying in pleading with local authorities to do something.

Among their allegations: statutory rape, child abuse, illegal weapons and explosives, immigration fraud. Let no one forget the host of concerns raised about the Branch Davidian compound before this story became a staple on network news.

Some have said that what the Branch Davidians were doing was no one’s business but their own. Hogwash. Whether or not federal authorities carried out their roles properly, those authorities were acting on behalf of the law and in the public interest. Now, in the public interest, an investigation is in order.

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.