The FBI Wednesday placed its hopes for resolving a 32-day standoff between a Waco cult and authorities in the hands of high-profile attorney Dick DeGuerin.
“At this point — he will become an opponent of the government, of course, once this process is over — but we’re wishing him nothing but great success,” said FBI Special Agent Bob Ricks at the daily press briefing.
DeGurein spoke Wednesday for the third straight day to Branch Davidian leader Vernon Howell at his Mount Carmel compound outside Waco. But the Houston attorney diminished hopes that a resolution to the standoff was imminent, saying his work was going “slowly, not as rapidly as I hoped.”
“We have a lot of things to discuss, a lot of points to cover,” he said. “I’m still optimistic. I still feel this could be resolved peacefully. He wants it resolved peacefully. He wants to tell his story.”
Both DeGuerin and the FBI stressed that no timetable had been set for his discussions with Howell, 33, also known as David Koresh.
“There’s no deadline,” DeGuerin said. “I think I’m going to have to meet several times with David. We have very important and substantive matters we’re discussing, and we’re making real progress.”
Howell and his followers have been surrounded by authorities since a Feb. 28 shootout that saw four agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms killed while trying to serve Howell an arrest warrant for possessing automatic weapons.
At least two Branch Davidians also were killed.
Ricks said negotiations between authorities and Howell have ceased in order to allow the cult leader to focus on his discussions with DeGuerin.
“We won’t put a definite time period on it,” Ricks said. “If after two days, we believe one more day might break the deadlock and they would be willing to come out, we would extend it one more day. We’re not saying you have 24 hours, 48 hours to get this done. But we do want assurances that he’s making progress.”
Bonnie Haldeman, Howell’s mother, hired DeGuerin.
He made his reputation as a sharp defense attorney in a series of murder trials. Most recently, he successfully defended Muneer Deeb in his January retrial. Deeb had been convicted in 1985 of masterminding the deaths of three teen-agers in Waco.
Another attorney, Jack Zimmerman of Houston, was allowed to talk to Steve Schneider, Howell’s lieutenant, by telephone Tuesday afternoon.
Schneider sounded “positive and encouraging,” he said.
Zimmerman said the biggest obstacle to the Branch Davidians surrendering is their mistrust of the federal agents keeping their compound under siege.
“We are trying to accomplish matters that will make it easier for the people on the inside to have confidence they will be treated in the appropriate fashion when they come out,” Zimmerman told reporters.
“That’s the only obstacle of substance. Mr. DeGuerin and I working to try to establish trust with them, that we are on their side, that their interest and — as much as we can as officers of the court — that we’re going to see that every right due them is given to them.
Ricks ruled out providing legal counsel to all cult members.
“We do not want to get in a situation where we have 100 different attorneys going into that compound,” he said. “We could be here until next fall. I don’t think any of us want that.”
The “guarded optimism” expressed by Ricks is a shift in attitude by authorities, said former cult member Marc Breault.
He said FBI officials talked to him recently about Passover and its meaning to Branch Davidians.
“They indicated that it was very unlikely that the standoff would end peacefully because of Vernon’s mental state,” Breault said. “The only way I think Vernon will come out is if he thinks he can beat this in court. I’m surprised the FBI took this long to get a lawyer involved.”
Ricks said authorities will allow DeGuerin ample time to discuss Howell’s legal options, but he said the attorney was not acting as a negotiator.
“We don’t want to act like we’re in sync with what Mr. DeGuerin is doing,” Ricks said. “He is trying to represent his client to the best of his ability. We’re not trying to interfere with the process. He is taking his best shot right now to get this over with.”
Belinda Ganem, mother of cult member David Thibodeaux, spoke with reporters after the press briefing.
Ganem said she thinks DeGuerin is negotiating in good faith and called his presence encouraging. But she questioned authorities’ negotiation tactics.
“These people have not been brainwashed,” she said. “They are the victims of mind control.”
If DeGuerin fails to bring cult members out, Ganem would like authorities to give the Chicago-based Cult Awareness Network, founded in 1978, the year of the Jonestown massacre, a chance to negotiate a settlement.
“The FBI and the ATF have people who are professionals when it comes to the Mafia, serial killers and terrorists, but I’m not sure they have experts on mind control,” she said.
A Cult Awareness Network spokesman said the organization would offer assistance if asked.
“If we could find someone who the authorities thought could help, who might offer a dimension other than what they have tried, we would do so,” said Cynthia Kisser, executive director.
“But we are in no position to say we can do better.”
Kisser said she, too, believes Howell’s followers have been subjected to mind control and not brainwashing.
“Brainwashing generally includes torture as part of the coversion process,” she said. “Mind control usually involves sleep or food deprivation, isolation, language manipulation — sloganizing — and public confessions that prove cathartic for those who take part.”
Those trying to arrange a peaceful surrender by the Branch Davidians say the cult and authorities must agree on a common goal and build trust.
Zimmerman said both sides are halfway there.
“At this point the FBI, Mr. DeGuerin and I have the same goal — let’s get everybody out of there, nobody else gets hurt, let’s take this fight to the courthouse,” Zimmerman said.
“What they want us to do is to assure these people that they will have someone to fight for them — for everybody, not just David Koresh and Steve Schneider,” he said.