Former Branch Davidians gave the government renewed warnings about a possible suicide by the cult days before the April 19 fire that destroyed Mount Carmel, the Tribune-Herald has learned.
The fire killed more than 80 cult members, including cult leader Vernon Howell.
After the fire, Attorney General Janet Reno told reporters, “Obviously, if I had thought the chances were great of a mass suicide, I never would have approved the plan. Everything that we were told, every indication of the reactions to the pressure up to that point, was that that would not occur.”
Spokesman Bob Ricks said the FBI ruled out suicide as a serious possibility before tanks began ramming Mount Carmel, inserting tear gas canisters.
Later, a noon-hour fire classified as deliberate leveled the compound.
“We have continually quizzed those coming out, and they as a general rule state that suicide, they believe, is not a possibility,” Ricks told reporters about an hour before the first flames appeared.
But former cult members like Robyn Bunds — who has a son, Shaun, 4, by Howell — find such statements puzzling.
“Why did the take Vernon’s word on what he was going to do?” asked Bunds, who left the cult in 1990. “Why did they believe he would not commit suicide just because he said he wouldn’t? They hadn’t believed him before. I think they just wanted to believe what they wanted to believe. We tried to warn them, but I feel like, what was the point?”
Former cult members in the spring of 1992 told authorities that they feared the Branch Davidians might commit suicide during Passover. Those fears sprang from cult members giving fervent farewells to friends.
Sherri Jewell, who apparently died in the fire, urged a friend in California to join her in Mount Carmel. Soon, she said, she would be going away for “a little season,” Jewell told the woman — referring to a text found in Revelation, the last book of the Bible. In it, believers are martyred, then return to slay the unbelievers.
“Sherri told a friend, ‘Please join us. Don’t make me have to come and kill you one day,’” said David Jewell, the ex-husband of Sherri.
Federal officials knew of that suicide scare. But days before the Mount Carmel fire, they received new reports of a possible suicide from former cult members, including Bunds.
She reported an alarming conversation with a former cult member.
The woman told Bunds that one reason she left the cult in 1992 was that Howell had begun talking about suicide in his Bible studies.
“She said he used to ask, ‘Would you follow me to the other side?’” Bunds said. “That was when everyone started looking up ways to commit suicide, such as taking cyanide, trying to find the least painful way to kill themselves.”
Jewell said he told the FBI of his daughter’s statements.
“Even if Kiri was the only one talking about possible suicide, they should have been prepared,” Bunds said.
FBI Special Agent Jeff Jamar of San Antonio, who handled negotiations, was not available for comment Friday.
But FBI Special Agent Dick Schwein of El Paso, a spokesman for the agency during the 51-day siege, said authorities got mixed messages about the cult’s intentions concerning suicide.
“Some people said they would,” he said. “Some said they wouldn’t. I don’t know. I don’t know who did.”
Reno told a Senate panel in April that she would seek advice from “every police expert I can find” to find “improved, non-lethal means for ending something like this.”
“All the experts they had, and they couldn’t save anybody,” Bunds said.
“They had people who had lived through this hell with him,” she added, referring to Howell. “They knew him better than anyone. But they didn’t even use them. I sometimes wonder if they really wanted to save them. They were so ticked off about the four men who died. These people were not real to them. The never saw them.”
Bunds said she wishes the FBI had contacted her before they decided to insert tear gas canisters inside Mount Carmel. Federal officials said they had hoped that the maternal instinct of the women in the cult would cause them to flee the compound with their children.
Instead, the mothers stayed inside Mount Carmel. And they and their children died.
“Why didn’t they call the women who had children by Vernon?” she asked. “We would have told them that if we had been there, we would have just sat there and trusted in God. I know when I was in the cult my loyalty to Vernon would have outweighed any maternal instinct. That’s just the way it was. But they didn’t ask us.”
Despite her questions, Bunds primarily blames Howell for the tragedy of Mount Carmel. But she does want the government to examine its actions.
David Jewell, too, said he holds Howell responsible for the deaths of the Branch Davidians.
“There comes a point where you have to say, ‘This is the end,’” Jewell said. “Maybe what happened just speaks to the impossibility of the task given the government. I absolutely do not blame authorities for the deaths. If you can’t rely on a basic human instinct, then anything can happen.”