Their patience with the besieged Branch Davidians apparently wearing thin, the FBI has launched a series of tough, psychological warfare-type measures aimed at a quick end to the standoff.
Authorities, said, FBI spokesman Richard Swensen, cut off power on Friday to Mount Carmel and, on Sunday night, shined powerful lights at the fortified compound. They also are trying to steer clear of the lengthy biblically based exchanges that marked most of the negotiations during the first two weeks of the siege.
“Frankly, we’re not here to be converted. We’re here to try and get this resolved peacefully. We’ve made it clear that we want to talk about substantive issues,” Swensen said during the daily briefing Monday on the 17-day-old crisis.
Swensen denied that talks had been broken off by either side.
“If there’s a reason, we’ll contact them,” he said. “We just wanted to move off the dime and start getting something accomplished.”
Hundreds of federal agents and more than 100 Branch Davidians, led by Vernon Howell, have been locked in a standoff since February 28 after a shootout that left four Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents and at least two cult members dead.
Nobody has permanently left the compound since Friday.
Late Monday afternoon, television pictures showed two people leaving the cult’s compound. They returned about an hour later.
FBI spokesman Al Cruz said authorities were aware of the report, but declined to either confirm or deny it. He did say there had not been a new release of people from the compound.
Swensen said negotiators were looking for a “very positive sign” from cult members that they are ready to end the standoff.
The best proof of that, he said, would be “obviously, for them to walk out of there. Short of that, a number to walk out of there, a large number. . .” Swensen said.
Other steps might include the release of Howell’s children and permission for doctors to treat the injured inside the compound.
“All of those are positive things that haven’t happened for a while,” Swensen said.
So far, 21 children, three women and one man have left the heavily fortified compound. The last action took place Friday when cult members Kathryn Schroeder and Oliver Gyarfas came out.
Left inside, according to Howell, are 17 children, 46 women and 42 men.
Swensen said the new tactics are designed to spark new, quicker releases and, eventually, the end of the siege.
“You’ve got to remember they’ve released two people in the course of a week and at that rate, we’ll be here over a year.
“That’s not necessarily something we can’t do, but I don’t think it’s productive to not push it beyond that. I think there has to be something done to move it beyond that and encourage this thing to be resolved peacefully, and I think we are doing that,” Swensen said.
Bending under pressure
Cult expert Rick Ross, who has deprogrammed Branch Davidians from the Waco compound, said there is reason to believe that Howell, also known as David Koresh, is “bending under the pressure.”
“Members have told me that Koresh is subject to panic and anxiety attacks,” Ross said. “I believe he’s anxious about his physical condition, his future, his message and whether or not he can continue controlling those people inside.
“He’s also starving for attention, and the FBI is starving him out of the compound by denying him access to the media,” added Ross. “I’m sure he’s depressed about walking out of his world within a world where he has reigned as a king having his way with women and commanding men.”
Swensen said the shining of powerful stadium-type lights Sunday night was not part of a plan to annoy the cult members. Instead the lights were turned on to prevent the heavily armed Branch Davidians from taking aim at the federal agents near the compound, he said.
“I think it’s an accumulation of just too many people looking out those doors with weapons in their hands,” Swensen said.
Swensen said cult members have not complained about the lights.
But a former FBI agent who headed the bureau’s hostage negotiation team in Houston for six years said authorities might not readily admit they are using the lights to intimidate the cult members.
“It could be a dual purpose,” said Bob Wiatt. “One as they articulated, but the other could be to deprive the dark hours when they can sleep.”
Wiatt said the new tactics could be “part of a strategy in a long negotiation that has gone nowhere in the past.”
Negotiators may be using the new methods to “tighten the circle” around the cult members, “to let them know that they are in control of the situation,” said Wiatt, now director of the Texas A&M University police.
In another development, U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr. denied attorneys access to Howell and his top deputy, Steve Schneider, saying the cult member will not have any legal rights while they remain in the compound.
Houston lawyer Jack Zimmerman had filed a motion Monday seeking permission to speak with Schneider. Schneider’s sister, Susan Johnson, hired Zimmerman.
No lawyers allowed
“We have asked the judge to hold a hearing and have the FBI and ATF come in and say, “Here is why we can’t let these people talk to their lawyers.”
Another Houston lawyer, Dick DeGuerin, filed a similar motion last week on behalf of Howell. Howell’s mother hired DeGuerin.
On Sunday, Schroeder and Gyarfas spoke to several cult members still inside the compound, telling them they are being treated well by authorities. Such contact was part of the deal that led to them coming out, Swensen said.
Schroeder and Gyarfas are being held as material witnesses in the case.
McLennan County Sheriff Jack Harwell also talked to Schneider, asking him to end the standoff.
“None of these conversations appeared to move any of the occupants inside the compound any closer toward resolution,” Swensen said. “Negotiators remain ready to engage in a discussion of substantive issues 24 hours a day.”
The contacts with released cult members, however, are seen as helpful. Swensen said negotiators have repeatedly told cult members that they will be treated fairly by the judicial system if they surrender peacefully.
“They (Schroeder and Gyarfas) called back on their own, were very positive about it,” Swensen said. “We have not had any indication that it has made any drastic impression, although clearly since they wanted to know that, I think it will be helpful in the long run to settle people’s nerves as to what happens.”
Let’s make a deal
Despite the assurances of fair treatment, Swensen said, authorities have not offered Howell and the other cult members any type of deal to bring about an end to the standoff.
“Once he gets into the legal system, he has access to the press, and he can spread his word, which I think is one of his main reasons to exist,” Swensen said.
On Sunday night, however, cult members seemed to express doubts about the progress of the talks, using flashing lights and Morse code to let the outside world know that not all is well:
“SOS SOS SOS SOS. . .FBI broke negotiations. Want negotiations with the press.”
The message was a repeat of one written on a banner unfurled by cult members Sunday afternoon.
Former FBI agent Wiatt said negotiators are unlikely to let that happen.
Authorities, he said, are probably telling cult members, ‘We still give you very strong assurances that no harm will befall you . . . but we are not going to allow anyone to talk to you.’”
Swensen said Howell may believe the standoff has already served him well.
“I think he’s looking for, on the one hand . . . an audience and the other hand, he’s looking for way to spread his word.
“And I think this is accomplishing that,” Swensen said.
Early on during the negotiations, that seemed to be a clear part of Howell’s strategy. FBI spokesmen have talked about the lengthy exchanges on the Bible, especially the book of the Revelation and the importance of the Seven Seals.
Swensen said the authorities are ready to move beyond such talk.
“For a long, long period, we listened literally for hours and hours and discussed the various points of view, but after a cumulative period of time, it became obvious that was about as far as it was going to go.
“That was not lead to anything. That was not leading to a peaceful resolution,” Swensen said.
The tougher stance on the religious discussions, Wiatt said, “shows the people in the compound that the negotiators are in control of the situation.”
Wiatt, who in 1974 helped end the longest prison siege in Texas history, said it was difficult to tell whether more religious discussions would lead to a quicker end to the standoff.
“You’re looking at people who, in some cases, might be called megalomaniacs,” he said. “They have a different agenda than you and I might have in a normal situation.
“You can’t look at it through your eyes,” Wiatt said.
He said the new FBI tactics could cause cult members to break off the negotiations “but where else would they have to go if they back off.”