Former Branch Davidians are wondering why they aren’t playing a more active role in negotiations to lure Vernon Howell and his followers out of Mount Carmel, as the standoff with authorities enters its sixth day.
“I can’t help but think they need an ex-member like myself at the site,” said Marc Breault, a former confidant of Howell, who claims to be Christ. “We could advise where he might be going. Vernon tries to get followers to do things by pushing theological buttons, like saying God told him to wait and not come out. That’s very common with Vernon. Negotiators, from what I Know, are trying to steer him away from the Bible. But if you focus away from his mission, I don’t think you’ll succeed.”
FBI negotiations have talked with former cult members.
But none have been brought out to Mount Carmel, 10 miles east of Waco, where Branch Davidians last Sunday repelled the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms’ attempt to arrest Howell for having illegal weapons.
The ATF continued Thursday to take heat for the raid in which four of its agents died.
An eyewitness at the staging area for the raid, at Texas State Technical College, told the Los Angeles Times that agents were casually preparing to move on Mount Carmel when one of the federal officials started shouting.
“He yelled it,” said the witness. “He said, ‘We gotta move. He’s been tipped off. He’s nervous and he’s reading his Bible and he’s shaking.’”
The witness, who requested anonymity, said the federal agents getting ready for the raid appeared relaxed.
“They were talking and joking around,” the witness said. “I don’t think they thought it was going to be hard at all.”
Wednesday, Dan Hartnett, an associate ATF director out of Washington, said his agency did not know the surprise raid had been compromised until the agents arrived and then later learned of the telephone call.
By Thursday, Don Conroy, a deputy associate ATF director from Washington, repeatedly refused to discuss details of the telephone tip, except to say the ATF and the Texas Rangers are investigating the matter.
Two more children were released Thursday, bringing the number of children out of the compound to 20. Anthony Jones, 14, and his 11-year-old brother, Kevin Jones, were released. They are the children of cult member David Jones, according to former cult members.
As with the other children released, they are not Howell’s children, former cult members said.
Man of many wives
Howell reportedly has at least 15 wives and more than 10 children by women other than his legal wife, Rachel Howell. The release of the children frightens former cult members. They said Howell teaches that his children will die with him.
“His children are the only ones with righteous seed,” Breault said. “The others were conceived out of adulterous relationships, since Vernon owns all the women in the world.”
The body of a dead man found in green fatigues about 300 yards from the compound was recovered about 8 a.m. Thursday. Authorities did not identify the body. Justice of the Peace David Pareya and several law enforcement officers recovered the body. Pareya ordered that the body be sent to the Tarrant County medical examiner’s office for an autopsy.
Pareya said officials used two armored Bradley fighting vehicles to make the recovery.
“We had to go right in front of the compound,” Pareya said.
Pareya said he was sitting near a port-hole in the tank-like vehicle but did not see any movement within Mount Carmel.
“I thought I would be somewhat nervous, especially when they put a bullet-proof vest on me,” Pareya said. “Everything went so quick.”
He added that he didn’t believe the group would be fired on since they were on a humanitarian mission.
Gas masks reported
Reporters at barricades set up several miles from Mount Carmel reported that when fresh law enforcement officers passed by Thursday afternoon they wore gas masks. However, no action had been reported by 11:30 p.m.
Howell reneged on an earlier promise to peacefully surrender. He told negotiators that he was “awaiting further instruction from God.”
FBI agent Jeffrey Jamar said Howell, who claimed in a radio interview to be gravely wounded, “seems to have recovered miraculously.”
Negotiators are discussing religion with Howell, who believes he is the Lamb spoken of in Revelation, who will open the Seven Seals, unloosing the catastrophic events that will doom mankind in the last days.
During the talks, “There’s long discussions regarding religion, long readings of the scripture,” Jamar said.
But former cult member Robyn Bunds, like Breault, wonders how effective negotiators can be discussing Howell’s theology.
“Someone who doesn’t understand the doctrine won’t know where he’s coming from,” she said. “I don’t think anyone can get him to do anything, but if anyone could, it would be someone who knows what he teaches, like Marc Breault.”
Breault has debated Howell before. In 1990, Howell traveled to Australia to try to keep a breakaway group of Australians in the cult. He was unsuccessful.
“His main point is that he is the Lamb,” Breault said. “I nailed him by showing that he is not the Lamb of God, which is the foundation of his message. I used Revelation 5. I showed that the Lamb was not worthy until it had been slain. I said, ‘So, Vernon, how could you possibly be the Lamb?’ It was pretty effective.”
Such an approach would be geared to Howell’s followers, not Howell, Breault said.
“You’re not going to change Vernon’s mind,” he said. “That’s like one and one are two. You have to focus on his followers. You have to hope you can put a doubt in their mind. Also, if Vernon has a time prophecy for martyrdom, if you can focus him away from that, you might could buy time.”
Special agent Joe Hanley in the FBI’s San Antonio office, however, told the Associated Press that allowing relatives to contact cult members wouldn’t be practical.
“It’s a process of building a faith between us and them,” Hanley said. “If we were to open up the phone lines, then everybody in the world would be calling and we would never get through. That’s just our policy.”
Bruce Gent, a former cult member along with his wife, Lisa, said in an interview with the Tribune-Herald that he talked with FBI agents Thursday.
He said they had little knowledge of the cult’s beliefs.
“They were asking some rather unbelievable questions,” he said. “There were lots of holes in their information. They didn’t know that Perry Jones (Howell’s father-in-law) was Mary Bell Jones’ husband.”
Jamar said life on the 77-acre fortress appears to be returning to some normalcy, despite the lengthy standoff. He said agents can see women drawing water from wells, people going to outside showers, and women and children being segregated from the male members of the cult.
Some critics of the raid have questioned why the ATF didn’t arrest Howell away from the compound. Harnett said Wednesday it was because Howell hadn’t left the compound for months.
But the Tribune-Herald reported Thursday that Howell had been seen in town as recently as six weeks ago. The paper also reported it was told Howell was away from the compound on Feb. 22 — just six days before the raid — when they tried to contact him.
Asked about the report Thursday, Hartnett said, “Our information — what he’s told people, beginning some months ago, two or three months ago — was that he was not going off at all anymore,” Harnett said. However, he conceded that federal agents were not keeping constant watch on the cult leader.
Late Thursday night, the ex-husband of a cult member again raised the concern that Howell and his followers might take their lives today. They note that Howell is 33, the same age Christ was when he died. And Howell teaches that Christ died on Friday, said David Jewell, whose former wife Sherri Jewell is presumably in the compound.