The FBI Saturday blasted besieged religious cult leader Vernon Howell, saying he is selfish and cares nothing for his apparently still-devoted followers holed up with him in a heavily fortified compound outside Waco.
Negotiators, a bureau spokesman said, are “extremely worried” that the doomsday prophet will provoke a violent end to the month-long standoff, fulfilling his end-of-the-world vision.
“It does not appear . . . that he cares about human life except for his own,” said Bob Ricks, special-agent-in-charge of the FBI’s Oklahoma City office.
“We believe that for him, it would be a marvelous achievement if he could get a substantial number of his people killed. We believe, though, that in the end, he is going to protect himself.
“He looks for the lonely, the lost, the unloved, the innocent. These are the people he’s brought into his fold that will do anything he orders them to do,” Ricks said during the FBI’s daily news briefing at the Waco Convention Center.
However, Howell’s top aide, Stephen Schneider, told negotiators Friday that no one left in the compound wants to come out, Ricks said.
The FBI agent’s ominous words, a replay of rhetoric from earlier in the week, comes as the standoff at Mount Carmel enters its second month.
About 100 Branch Davidians led by Howell, also known as David Koresh, have been in the 77-acre compound since a Feb. 28 failed raid and shootout that killed four federal agents and an unknown number of cultists.
Ricks said negotiations have hit a stalemate. Meanwhile, authorities continue shining bright lights at night, broadcasting music and other noises through loud speakers, and trying other psychological warfare tactics.
“What we have right now confronting us is that we are required to prove that David is not Christ, which is an impossible task. I don’t believe there’s anybody out there in the world that could prove to his satisfaction that he’s not Christ.”
Howell, according to former cult members, has claimed he is Jesus Christ.
“When you’re God, it’s very difficult to have someone come forth and prove you’re not God,” Ricks said.
In other developments Saturday:
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which conducted the botched raid, confirmed published reports that the agency had evidence that cult members were making and selling illegal methamphetamines from the compound, possibly using the drug profits to build up the group’s arms cache.
“Specifically, we had information that 11 members, who were identified, of the compound, were involved in prior drug activity, including possession and trafficking of narcotics,” said David Troy, ATF’s chief of intelligence.
Allegations about possible drug-related activity were used by the ATF to justify the use of three Texas National Guard helicopters for the raid.
The three aircraft were grounded after they were struck by gunfire from the cult compound, Troy said.
The ATF arrested cult member Kathryn Schroeder, charging her with conspiring to try to kill federal agents during the gun battle. She had been held as a material witness since leaving the compound last week.
U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr. ruled Friday that she could be released once a court officer set certain conditions on her freedom. The arrest warrant probably means she will not be released.
Schroeder, 34, is the only cult member who has been charged as a result of the shootout. Similar charges are against two women who came out of the compound in early March were later dropped.
Ricks said the FBI had unconfirmed reports that a second person had gotten past authorities and entered the compound, leaving officials “somewhat embarrassed.”
On Thursday, Louis Alaniz, 24, of Houston shocked the FBI and cult members by scurrying to the compound’s front door.
Alaniz is still inside, apparently being “indoctrinated” by Howell, Ricks said.
He said the FBI has taken unspecified steps to tighten security on the perimeter of the compound.
Saturday evening, a helicopter shining a bright spotlight could be seen circling over the countryside surrounding the compound.
Authorities also closed off Old Mexia Road north of the compound to curiosity seekers and most media.
On Friday, the Texas Department of Public Safety arrested five people for trying to slip past a checkpoint near the compound.
The daily news briefings at the Convention Center have served as a barometer of the status of negotiations among authorities, Howell and other cult members.
For example, FBI agents last weekend softened their tone when describing the negotiations, saying an end to the siege appeared imminent. They scuttled that tactic after Howell apparently reneged on a promise to quickly end the standoff after nine people left the compound.
On Saturday, Ricks turned up the heat, saying negotiators have seen little to convince them Howell is serious about coming out peacefully.
For example, he said, nothing positive has come from the FBI promises to allow cult members who leave the compound to call back and talk to Howell and others.
The ATF, its reputation at a nadir, also has used recent briefings to go on a public relations offensive after cult members accused ATF agents of firing first during the raid.
Offering a vigorous defense of ATF tactics before, during and after the raid, Troy last week replaced tight-lipped higher-ranking officials as ATF’s spokesman.
On Saturday, Troy said, ATF agents at the scene reacted bravely during the shootout with the Branch Davidians.
“We had people who did not do anything other than what they were exactly supposed to do,” Troy said.
“We had agents on the raid who never fired a shot because they could not acquire a shot, which is exactly what they are trained to do . . . We had people who did not move, run and panic when they were taking rounds, when people next to them were getting hit and killed.
“It was an outstanding display of courage, and, quite frankly, it humbled all of us as we listened to their stories,” Troy said.
ATF officials denied a report in the April 5 issue of Newsweek, on newsstands Monday, that some of the killed and wounded ATF agents might have been shot by other agents.
“We have the tape. We have reviewed our agents’ statements. There is no information whatsoever that any of our agents were hit by friendly fire or by accident,” during the raid, said ATF spokesman Jerry Singer.
FBI agent Ricks’ harsh criticism of Howell seemed a repeat of the tough talk coming from him and another bureau spokesman earlier last week.
Ricks said Saturday that Howell had selfishly failed to respond to negotiators’ concerns about the 17 children still in the compound. Howell has said there are also 40 women and 38 men still inside.
“Women and children, to him, are expendable items. They’re there, women particularly, for one purpose, that’s to have children,” Ricks said.
As many as 15 female cult members are believed to be members of the harem-like House of David, making them Howell’s “wives.”
The end of the standoff, Ricks said, depends on how Howell is interpreting the apocalyptic Seven Seals of the biblical book of Revelation.
“The end game is, again, one that is being controlled by Mr. Koresh. He still seems to be following his apocalyptic theory of resolution. We’re trying to avoid that,” Ricks said.
“Again, I think he has put forth a self-fulfilling prophecy, and we’re hoping something will happen to interrupt this prophecy that he has laid out there,” he said.