Federal officials appealed to cult leader Vernon Howell and his followers to end a seven-day standoff Saturday, but expressed doubt that anyone who wants to leave the compound can without Howell’s approval.
“If he is listening, we want to give him and his follower out assurance that he and everyone inside would be treated fairly and humanely if they come out,” FBI special agent Bob Ricks of Oklahoma City said during a news conference.
Some radio and television stations have been carrying the briefings live, and authorities have said they are monitored by Howell, also known as David Koresh, and members of his Branch Davidians sect inside the Mount Carmel compound 10 miles east of Waco.
Howell, 33, has told agents that 90 adults and 17 children remain inside the compound. So far, 21 children and two adults have left since a 45-minute firefight Feb. 28 killed four federal agents and at least three cult members.
Howell has said he is waiting for a message from God to leave the compound. He has said anyone else is free to leave, but Ricks said Saturday that authorities are skeptical members will leave without Howell’s blessing.
“We have information that a number of people would like to go out, but they still look at Mr. Koresh (Howell) as their leader,” Rick s said. “If he gave the word that they were free to leave, we believe that they would do so.”
Negotiations for Howell’s surrender have shifted somewhat, Ricks said, as Howell has asked recently about the judicial process and possible retaliation against him by federal agents.
“What we have seen is a change, a little bit, in the demeanor with regard to asking questions about the judicial process and the fairness of the judicial process and how, in fact, those inside, will be treated if they come out,” Ricks said.
Dan Hartnett, associate director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the agency that staged the bloody raid on the compound, shunted aside a report that the arrest of two elderly women released from the compound Tuesday angered Howell and negotiators, who felt the charges were ill-timed.
A federal prosecutor from South Texas who asked to remain anonymous said members of the U.S. attorney’s office prematurely jailed 77-year-old Catherine Mattson and 75-year-old Margaret Lawson on murder conspiracy charges without clearing the move with agents in charge at the compound or with negotiators.
The action angered the officials, who the source said were not notified, and temporarily disrupted negotiations with Howell, who was angry about how the women were treated.
“Those bozos just rushed in without talking to anybody, slapped these poor, old women in leg irons and handcuffs, charged them with murder and didn’t ask anybody about anything,” the prosecutor said.
“They may, in fact, be charged at some point in the future, but charging two old women with murder is not the first and foremost thing you want to do in this situation, which is extremely delicate, as you might guess. It embarrassed this office and the government in general,” he said.
The charges against the women were dropped Wednesday, but they are being held in jail as material witnesses.
“We are working very closely together and working with the U.S. attorney’s office in identifying individuals who should be charged. At the time, we felt it was best that they be held as material witnesses, as what’s occurred,” Hartnett said.
Reminded that they initially were charged in a murder conspiracy, Hartnett said, “That charge has been dropped after discussions. It was best it was dropped.”
He denied that incident created a rift between federal agencies.
“None at all, none at all. We are working very closely together,” he said.
Late Saturday night, an ambulance entered the compound, then left after about 10 minutes. Officials declined to comment on why it was there, but earlier in the day Howell and another cult member, Steven Schneider, asked negotiators to remove the body of an unidentified cult member who was killed in the gun battle.
Ricks said Howell didn’t seem to want to talk about the other bodies that might be in the compound and is unclear why the discussion involved the removal of only one.
“We have no idea why only one body is brought up and not the others,” Ricks said. “We have no information on how those bodies are being handled.”
Authorities have used Bradley fighting vehicles to deliver medical supplies to the group and to retrieve another body found Thursday 300 yards behind the compound.
Ricks said Howell had complete control over the sect, but that the FBI did not view the people inside the compound as hostages, in part because so many members apparently took part in the shootout last Sunday.