FORT WORTH — He has tried ventilation, and he has tried deodorant, but Dr. Nizam Peerwani cannot rid his office of the smell of death.
The odor, putrid even beneath a sweet citrus mask, is a reminder of the work before him. As chief Tarrant County medical examiner, Peerwani is overseeing autopsies on the bodies removed from the ashes of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco.
The investigation into the cult’s final days — and the crimes its members allegedly committed—has shifted from the moonscape of the Davidians’ ruined compound near Waco to the cool sterility of Peerwani’s morgue in a modern, boxy building just south of downtown Fort Worth.
Soon it will shift again, this time to the FBI laboratory in Washington. A separate arson investigation is being conducted in another, undisclosed lab.
In these laboratories, dozens, if not hundreds, of scientists and investigators are working together on a vast and intricate detective story. With scalpels and dental tools, computers and gas chromatographs, videotapes and DNA tests, they are conducting one of the largest and most sophisticated investigations ever.
The goal might seem hopeless — to reconstruct, from a heap of ash and rubble, crucial elements of the cult’s 51-day standoff and its fiery conclusions. And many people believe they will fail.
“Even before the fire, this was going to be a forensic nightmare,” observed Dick DeGuerin, a Houston attorney whose client, cult leader Vernon Howell, died during or just before the April 19 fire.
“But now, with everything burned to the ground, it’s a nightmare times 10. I mean, you had two, three and sometimes four floors collapsing on each other. How are you going to determine what was there?”
Still, the investigators — pathologists and anthropologists, dentists and chemists, among others — are already making remarkable progress. They are quickly learning the crude outline of what, and who, was where. From that, they hope to eventually learn what happened, and how.
Some questions will never be answered. Particularly when it comes to evidence implicating the surviving Davidians in the Feb. 28 shootout that began the siege, the government’s task is something akin to searching for needles in the open prairie.
In fact, it may be worse than that, considering that the needles in this case are bullets, and the government has filled five-gallon paint cans with 1 million of them. Now, the task is to find out which ones were fired, by which guns, held by whom, when and where.
“I don’t think any agency has the manpower to study all that, to be frank with you,” Peerwani said.
The investigators set out to answer these questions:
- Who shot and killed four agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, as well as five members of the Branch Davidians, on Feb. 28?
- Did the Branch Davidians have illegal weapons?
- What caused the deaths of the cult members inside: Fire or firearms? Apparently both.
- Exactly who died?
Only the government has access to the site, so it has been able to marshal the greater weight of evidence, at least for now.
The information developed by investigators in the past several weeks paints a slightly different picture of the Davidians’ final hours from that sketched by the FBI immediately after the fire.
The fire broke out shortly after noon, quickly consuming the rickety compound. For several hours before, the FBI had been punching holes in the compound walls with a tank outfitted with a battering ram, pumping in tear gas.
In the confusion afterwards, it was assumed that Howell, also known as David Koresh, had taken shelter in the cult’s bunker, or perhaps in his bedroom, and that the 17 children in the compound were in their second-floor quarters. That scenario became all the more horrifying when survivors said the FBI’s armored vehicle had collapsed a stairway, stranding those on the second floor.
As it turned out, most of the children were found huddled in the concrete bunker, enveloped in the protective embraces of their mothers.
Both the FBI and Attorney General Janet Reno said they had counted on the mothers’ protective instincts to lead the children to safety.
The instincts apparently were there. They just didn’t make any difference.
Howell, meanwhile, was located in the compound’s communications room, from which the cult’s leaders had conducted telephone negotiations with the FBI. The bodies of his top lieutenants, Steven Schneider and Douglas Wayne Martin, were found near Howell.
The government has branded Howell a liar, but it may have been wrong when it accused him of exaggerating the number of people in the compound. The most recent estimates are that the death toll from the fire was about 86, which corresponds to Howell’s figures.
The government appears to have been right, however, when it said the Branch Davidians had illegal weapons. The ATF, in an affidavit filed in U.S. District Court, says the firearms collected after the fire included fully automatic weapons, which are illegal. The agency also said it found a lathe, mill and press—possible weapon-making tools.
There were hundreds of weapons littering the compound, which also contained a staggering amount of ammunition.
“You can’t imagine—I’ve never been to a crime scene like that in my life,” said Peerwani, the chief coroner in Fort Worth for 14 years. “The bodies in the bunker were not buried in rubble or soil and dirt. They were buried in ammunition. Shells—expended shells and live rounds and live hand grenades—all around the bodies and beneath the bodies. In the bunker itself, they were as high as your hip joint. You’re talking about a million rounds.”
And the end of the siege, apparently, was even more violent than its beginning. Of the first 789 autopsies, 22 revealed gunshot wounds.
Among the shooting victims was Howell, who had one bullet through his forehead. Peerwani is certain the bullet killed the cult leader. What he doesn’t know yet is who fired it — Howell or someone else. Schneider, who was nearby, also appeared to have a gunshot wound. Did he shoot Howell, or vice versa? Did one or both commit suicide? Did Martin shoot them?
These things may yet be known. Burn patterns, for instance, can tell how far a bullet traveled before hitting someone.
To the experts, the bodies—some with the delicate consistency of dried leaves—offer a wealth of information.
From a skeleton, anthropologists can determine a person’s gender, race and approximate age.
If there is any soft tissue remaining on the body—and there is in many cases—pathologists can test it for the presence of drugs, alcohol and poison. They can also test for toxic gases, such as carbon monoxide, that would be present in a fire.
The toughest challenge facing Peerwani and his staff is identifying the remains of the children, many of whom had never had an X-ray.
“We are using the time-honored technique of sorting them out based on what they were wearing,” Peerwani said. “Some of the clothing is discernible, and some of the shoes are discernible. Some of them are wearing their personal jewelry items. We recovered one child still holding a baby bottle, and it had the baby’s name on it.”
At the same time, technicians are poring over a videotape the Davidians had made of the children capturing freeze-frame images of each child and creating a computer database of those.
When the two categories are done, the investigators will try to match them.
“But,” Peerwani warned, “that’s still a presumptive identification . . . Since they were living in a commune, what guarantee is there that the clothes were not interchanged, the shoes were not interchanged, and things like that?
“. . . We may have to go to DNA.”
DNA testing is complicated and expensive. But it will tell conclusively who the children’s parents were. Then, with anthropologists assessing the approximate age of each child, each identity should fall into place.