A Waco justice of the peace on Wednesday officially listed the cause of death for seven Branch Davidians, including cult leader Vernon Howell’s top lieutenant.
Three Branch Davidians died of gunshot wounds.
John Cabaniss became the first justice of the peace to officially declare how a cult member died. His rulings come almost seven months after the April 19 fire that destroyed Mount Carmel, the cult’s compound 10 miles east of Waco.
More than 80 cult members died that day.
Steve Schneider — who emerged as Howell’s top spokesman after a failed raid on Mount Carmel by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms — died of a gunshot wound to the mouth, according to Cabaniss, who relied on an autopsy by the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s office.
There was also evidence of carbon monoxide inhalation.
Schneider, 43, was from Wisconsin.
James Riddle, 32, of North Carolina died from a gunshot wound, Cabaniss ruled.
Riddle’s autopsy showed a wound to the middle of the forehead. Soot was found in the wound as it was with Schneider, indicating that the gun was placed to his head before it was fired.
Neil Vaega, 37, of New Zealand was listed as dying of a gunshot wound to the right part of his forehead.
Cabaniss listed the manner of each death — such as homicide, accidental or suicide — as undetermined for all the Branch Davidians.
“Even Steve Schneider, who was shot in the mouth,” Cabaniss said. “That usually indicates suicide, but not in this case. One of the others might have held him before he was shot.
“There’s really no way to determine what happened out there, in my opinion. Everything is sheer conjecture.”
“A witness can testify what he saw and heard,” Cabaniss said. “But no one was really in the heat of this about 12:20 p.m. on April 19 who saw what happened.”
Jennifer Andrade, 20, of California died of smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide inhalation, Cabaniss ruled.
There was no evidence of a gunshot wound.
Cabaniss also listed causes of death for three unidentified women. Federal officials are trying to identify the women through DNA testing. All three women, listed as MC Doe 16, 24 and 29, suffered smoke or carbon monoxide inhalation. Two women apparently also suffered extensive burns before they died, according to the autopsy.
Justices David Pareya of West, Cindy Evans of Waco and James Collier of Mart have said they will wait to hold inquests into how the Branch Davidians assigned to them died. The inquests should start after criminal trials of 11 surviving Branch Davidians, set for January. They are charged with killing four ATF agents trying to arrest Howell for allegedly possessing automatic weapons.
Cabaniss said he had enough evidence to declare how the cult members assigned to him died.
“Someone could try to armchair out how it happened,” he said. “But I don’t think it would add much. My brethren think it needs to be looked at closer. So be it. But I think there comes a time when you need to wrap it up.”