Cult leader Vernon Howell is speaking to authorities again, but he still isn’t saying what they want to hear.
Howell talked to FBI negotiators Sunday for the first time in four days.
“He was back into being a little bit more positive in terms of ending this,” FBI Special Agent Dick Swensen said Monday. “He was talking more in terms of mechanics of coming out of the compound. I would emphasize that that’s what he’s been saying. There’s been no activity or action on his behalf that would back that up.”
The Associated Press reported that an attorney talked face to face Monday with cult members, possibly even Howell, in what was believed to be the sect’s first meeting not involving federal negotiators.
A man rode up to the Branch Davidian compound on a motorcycle late Monday afternoon, knocked on the door and was greeted by a cult member. Television cameras showed the man sitting outside, apparently talking to people inside the heavily armed compound for about two hours.
A government source told AP that the man was an attorney allowed to go to the compound to talk to cult members who remained in a stalemate with federal agents. The source did not know the attorney’s name.
The attorney planned to talk to Howell himself. But the source who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not know if he did.
Howell and his followers have not talked to anyone but federal negotiators since officials took over their telephone communications.
On Saturday, FBI officials said they proposed letting an attorney talk to cult members in an unrecorded conversation, but the group had not taken them up on their offer.
FBI Special Agent Swensen said Monday that during the latest conversation between negotiators and Howell, the cult leader complained of pain. However, Swensen said authorities believe he is recovering well from wounds received in the Feb. 28 shootout that left four agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and at least two cult members dead.
Swensen said authorities furnished Howell batteries for a video camera.
Cult members filmed two adults and 16 of the 17 children inside Mount Carmel “to provide us with information about the condition of the children,” Swensen said.
Authorities have repeatedly said they are concerned about sanitary conditions and the children’s health.
“They seem relatively healthy although the factual circumstances of what’s going on in that compound in terms of water, food, cooped up, it can’t be healthy,” Swensen said.
David Troy, ATF’s chief of intelligence, continued to counter-attack critics of the raid.
He said Monday that ATF first intended to nab Howell away from Mount Carmel which is 10 miles east of Waco. However, Troy argued that the agency received information before the raid that Howell no longer left the property. Troy did not pin down the last time Howell left Mount Carmel, saying it was “weeks and weeks before the raid.”
However, the Tribune-Herald reported in early March that Howell had apparently been off the Mount Carmel property as recently as Feb. 22, when he was reported working on an engine at an auto shop five miles from the compound.
The manager of a local restaurant, Chelsea Street Pub, reported seeing Howell three weeks before the raid.
Troy, however, said ATF did not have the “option” of arresting Howell off Mount Carmel.
“We wanted to get him out,” Troy said. “We knew he had been out of the compound prior to our getting arrest and search warrants. However, once we received the information that he was not coming out any longer . . . our intelligence was that he wasn’t coming out of the compound. He’d become more paranoid. This man has spent literally years talking about somebody coming to get him, someday, every day. I think every day to him is Armageddon.”
Apparently, Howell had complained about ATF for a “long, long time,” Troy said.
“He complained about ATF on a regular basis,” he said.
The ATF director Monday defended the Feb. 28 raid and disputed accounts by some agents that it was replete with missteps and unheeded warnings that could have averted bloodshed.
“We did it in what we thought was the safest way, and we had a tragedy,” said Stephen E. Higgins, who has been director of the bureau since 1983. He appeared Monday on the NBC program “Today.”