Federal officials don’t know why cult leader Vernon Howell’s top lieutenant is taking a bigger role in talks to end the standoff at the Mount Carmel compound, now in its 12th day. But they warned that a Dallas radio station’s call for cult members to display banners could be prolonging the siege.
At a morning news conference, FBI special agent Bob Ricks released names of two dead and four wounded cult members. Howell, also known as David Koresh, is one of the wounded, Ricks said.
He said further efforts to get children out of the compound were rebuffed by Howell, who said releasing any more of the 17 he says are still inside would be “contrary to our God-given views.”
Meanwhile, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms spokesman Dan Conroy told reporters the agency arrested one Branch Davidian involved in a separate Feb. 28 skirmish, and said raids on both coasts were carried out as part of the investigation into the cult and its taste for weapons.
Federal agents have been in a stalemate with the Branch Davidians since a bloody ATF raid failed Feb. 28. Four agents were killed in that raid and 16 were injured.
Authorities with the ATF, FBI and DPS declined to comment Wednesday night on the extra military vehicles that trundled into the Waco area. A spokesman at Fort Hood said no announcement would be made about the equipment before today, presumably at the regular news briefing.
Another banner appeared at the compound Wednesday, apparently at the bidding of Dallas radio station KGBS, asking for a sign if cult members needed medical attention. Wednesday’s banner read: “Send in CFA and Don Stewart.”
CFA stands for Constitutional Foundational Association, a newly formed conservative organization that is highly critical of the federal government. Don Stewart, who recently appeared on a KGBS talk show, identifies himself as a “former contract operative of the government,” according to the Associated Press.
Ricks said the station’s efforts to communicate with the compound were sidetracking negotiations. He said cult members never indicated they wanted medical assistance until the radio station asked them.
“They are going to try to reach out to you and try to divert our efforts to get this thing settled,” Ricks told dozens of reporters at the Waco Convention Center.
“Our concern is that that is his primary goal. He loves this attention. He wants to put out his message. And the longer he feels he’s able to capture the media attention nationwide and that he’s successful in getting that message out and has that potential access to the media, we believe he will continue to hold out,” Ricks said.
KGBS talk show host Ron Engelman asked cult members to display banners if they wanted medical care or help from the media.
Engelman asked the group to hang Wednesday’s banner if they were serious about needing medical attention. He showed up at a police checkpoint on the road to the compound Wednesday with two podiatrists, one of whom had been a military medic, and asked to be let in. They weren’t, although Engelman was allowed as far as the media encampment.
Engelman said he wouldn’t let the FBI’s disapproval deter his efforts. “That’s a bunch of garbage, and there are First Amendment rights being violated,” Engelman said.
Paul G. Fatta, a cult member who was away from the compound when the raid took place, said Howell does not want a bloody finale.
“I think the talk of a fiery martyrdom is just something that’s being put out by the FBI,” he said in a telephone call he initiated to The New York Times on Wednesday morning from an undisclosed location. “I believe his religious views and his views as a man are pretty much the same. He loves his kids. He wants, like any father, to see them grow up and be happy.”
Fatta also said he thought getting the media more involved could help resolve the impasse.
But Ricks said federal authorities already were burned once going that route. “We early on thought that might be useful. We allowed him to broadcast a 58-minute tape that went out nationwide on a Christian radio network…Obviously, that was a failure,” he said.
Ricks told reporters that federal agents intend to remain in control of the situation.
“We completely control the compound. We have the ability to at any time turn off the electricity or any access they have to the outside world,” he said.
He declined to say whether the electricity or anything else had been cut off yet.
Ricks said negotiators are still puzzled over why Steve Schneider, described in news reports as Howell’s right-hand man, has taken a leading role in the negotiations.
He said Howell has displayed more pain in recent days and speculated that his wound could be restricting his leadership duties.
When asked if he thought Howell was still in charge, Ricks said, “We believe his leadership is still the main issue. Whether he’s now running the day-to-day activities inside the compound, that’s what we have not yet determined.”
Ricks said that in Schneider they find they have another intelligent, mercurial negotiator.
“He does not focus on the Bible as much as David does,” Ricks said. “He’s also a very uneven-tempered individual. He is extremely calm at times, and then he’ll flail off.”
Conroy said Wednesday that ATF agents have arrested Woodrow Kendrick, 62, and charged him with trying to shoot an ATF agent. He said Kendrick was one of the Davidians involved in a skirmish late Feb. 28, along with Delroy Nash and Michael Schroeder.
Nash, also known as Norman Washington Allison, was indicted Tuesday for assault on a federal officer. Schroeder was identified Wednesday as the body found in the woods along the rear of the compound March 4. Ricks identified the body buried by Davidians on Monday as Peter Gent, an Australian. Bob Kendrick, a cult member originally thought killed in the shootout was identified Monday as the owner of a business ATF agents said was a front operation for Howell. Although officials would not clarify the relationship between Bob and Woodrow Kendrick, two former cult members said Bob and Woodrow Kendrick are the same man.
Ricks said the Davidians identified four of their number as wounded:
- Howell, wounded in the left side and left hand.
- Judy Schneider Koresh, wounded in the hand and shoulder.
- Scott Kojiro Sonobe, wounded in the thigh.
- David Michael Jones, wounded in the buttocks.
Conroy also said ATF officials raided a house once used by Howell in Los Angeles and found “video and audio tapes and records that reflect evidence of violence by David Koresh and others with the Branch Davidian group.”
On the other coast, agents served a warrant on the Shooters Equipment Co. of Richland, S.C., seeking information on Howell’s weapons supply network, Conroy said.
Suicide fears dwindle
One fear that seems to have receded is the threat of suicide by Howell or mass suicide from cult members.
ATF agents cited warnings from ex-cult members that cult members were planning to kill themselves as the reason for a frontal assault against the compound instead of a less risky approach to serving arrest and search warrants. But when asked about the question earlier this week, Ricks said they did not consider that likely.
“In fact, we believe after many discussions with him that that would be completely contrary to his religious philosophy, that he does not want to fulfill his prophecy by taking his own life,” Ricks said.