In their toughest denouncement so far of cult leader Vernon Howell, federal authorities Wednesday said Howell demonstrates “selective morality” and is “cowardly” for possibly using children inside the compound as a shield.

FBI spokesman Bob Ricks said authorities are concerned that Howell, also known as David Koresh, refuses to discuss the children.

“We believe the sanitary conditions in there are deteriorating,” Ricks said. “We are very concerned about how those children are being treated.”

“We believe either he does not care about those children, or he is using them as a shield, which is cowardly,” Ricks said.

Ricks said authorities are frustrated because Howell keeps breaking his promises. On March 2, Howell promised to surrender after a Dallas radio station broadcasted a speech by him. Last weekend, Howell was supposed to gather cult members and tell them the situation was going to end in a matter of days.

“It appears that keeping one’s word does not necessarily apply to Mr. Koresh,” Ricks said. “He has selective morality, it appears, when he is willing to abide by promises he makes.”

“So, yes, we are put off,” Ricks said. “We thought we were working toward some sort of resolution. What we get today is, ‘We’re not even going to talk with you.’”

Wednesday marked the 25th day of an armed standoff between members of the Branch Davidian cult at Mount Carmel and federal authorities. The standoff began after a failed raid by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that left four agents and at least two cult members dead. Agents were trying to serve Howell with an arrest and search warrant for illegal weapons.

Howell has claimed to be Jesus Christ and leads about 100 people who believe only he can interpret the book of Revelation, which discusses the end of the world.

Ricks said negotiations were at a standstill Wednesday because the religious cult was observing a holy day between sunset Tuesday and sunset Wednesday, triggered by the new moon.

He warned that authorities do not have limitless patience.

“There has to be some point where we decide that if there is no resolution in sight that he still has this moving toward an agenda, toward an artificially created Armageddon,” Ricks said. “We’re going to have to deal with that. . . .”

Ricks said authorities thought Livingston Fagan’s release was a sign of change in the type of people coming out of the compound, but they are now disappointed. Negotiators had hoped Howell was going to start sending out people who were strong and capable of combat.

So far, 21 children, nine women and five men have been released. Howell says 17 children, 40 women and 38 men remain.

Fagan left the compound Tuesday, the 34th person released.

Ricks said Fagan was unusual in that he did not want to call back to the compound or make a tape like others who have been released.

“Immediately, he says, “I’m not making any tape.” He was very confrontational and refused any cooperation at all. So again, I think there was a signal, but it was not the one we are looking for.”

Ricks said Howell may be letting some people go who he doesn’t have complete control over. Some of those who left have been punished in various ways for conduct not pleasing to Howell, Ricks said, such as drinking alcohol during the standoff.

Meanwhile authorities continued to play music. The selection has been broadened beyond Tibetan chants, Ricks said.

“There were some Christmas carols that were played, “ Ricks said. “We also played ‘Reveille’ this morning. We thought it would be nice to wake them up.”

On Tuesday, Howell let a noon deadline pass that would have allowed him air time on the Christian Broadcasting Network and access to followers if he had surrendered as long as their attorneys agreed.

The FBI released a letter Wednesday signed by McLennan County Sheriff Jack Harwell and Jeffrey J. Jamar, special agent in charge at the scene, that guaranteed him the provisions.

“You will be afforded the opportunity to appear live on ‘America Talks’ on the Christian Broadcasting Network, hosted by Craig Smith,” according to the letter. “This is an extraordinary opportunity for you.”

In related matters, U.S. Magistrate Dennis Green freed cultists Gladys Ottman, 67, and Anetta Richards, 62, from jail on unsecured bonds after an agreement between government prosecutors and their attorneys.

Waco attorney Gary Coker, who represents Ottman, said his client was released because she is not a flight risk and not dangerous.

“Just look at her, “ Coker said.

Ottman will be housed in an undisclosed “halfway house type of facility,” Coker said, and will not be free to come and go as she pleases.

Coker indicated that he had struck a similar agreement with prosecutors for the release of Shelia Judith Martin, 46, as soon as officials find alternative housing for her.

Two other women who left the compound have been released from jail as material witnesses.

Three other cult members who made court appearances Wednesday for detention hearings said the compound was fired upon first by ATF agents, who stormed out of the back of cattle trailers.

“Absolutely no doubt about it,” said cultist Livingston Fagan, a 33-year-old British man.

But ATF associate director Dan Conroy has said that when agents went to the door that Sunday morning and announced their presence, “the door was slammed in our face and we were immediately met by gunfire from numerous places and windows.”

Fagan said the standoff is “working out fine.”

“It’s right on schedule. It’s God’s schedule,” Fagan said while leaving the federal courthouse.

Tribune-Herald staff writer Mark England and the Associated Press contributed to this story.

Read the Tribune-Herald's 7-part investigative series on the inner workings of the Branch Davidians. Hours after Part 2 appeared in print, the ATF raided the group's compound.

Read the Tribune-Herald’s account of the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound on Feb. 28, 1993. Four ATF agents and six in the compound were killed in the gunfight.

Read the daily news accounts of the 51-day siege at the Branch Davidian compound near Elk, which began Feb. 28 and lasted until April.

April 19 and beyond: FBI agents began inserting canisters of tear gas into the Branch Davidian compound in the early morning hours. By noon, it was on fire.

Federal officials left the compound site in late May 1993. As identifications of bodies continued, questions about the survivors, the compound and the cult itself began to emerge.

As the world began to take a critical look back at the events and legal proceedings continue, the ATF's bombshell report forces a shakeup at the top after the raid gone "tragically wrong."

In 1994, the surviving Davidians went on trial in San Antonio. Over six weeks, more than 140 witnesses testified, with the verdict coming just two days prior to the anniversary of the ATF raid.

The Rodenville shootout and the 1988 trial, the end of the world in 1959 and more stories from deep in the Trib archives.