A federal grand jury Tuesday indicted three Branch Davidians for their part in the Feb. 28 shootout that left four federal agents dead.
Kathryn Schroeder, Brad Eugene Branch and Kevin A. Whitecliff were charged in the indictment with conspiring to kill federal agents and carrying a firearm during the commission of a violent crime.
The trio could face life in prison without parole if convicted.
The indictment came just before hearings on whether to continue to hold Branch and Whitecliff as material witnesses or to release them from McLennan County jail.
Branch’s attorney, Richard Ferguson, called the indictment “a tactic to keep these people in jail.”
“I think the strategy is, ‘These folks are going to start walking, and if the judge is letting them out as material witnesses, what can we do to keep them in jail?’” Ferguson told reporters outside Waco’s federal courthouse after the hearing.
Schroeder was charged over the weekend with conspiracy to attempt to kill federal officers. Federal authorities say she held a position of authority within the compound. Branch and Whitecliff had not been charged before.
U.S. Magistrate Dennis Green also ordered Livingston Fagan held in McLennan County jail as a material witness but agreed to allow Sheila Judith Martin to be released to a halfway house.
Martin is the wife of Wayne Martin, who has emerged as one of cult leader Vernon Howell’s British recruiters. British officials have estimated there are more than 30 British subjects still inside the compound.
Although Green ordered Branch and Whitecliff held because of the indictment, at least until a Thursday hearing, he allowed Ferguson to present testimony from Branch’s brother and an old Navy buddy in advance so they could return home.
James Farris told Green that his brother had injured his right hand last year and was barely able to bend the fingers. Farris said Branch, who is right-handed, had had one surgical procedure on the hand and was due to have a second operation to restore its function. He also said Branch had detested firearms as a child.
“I know in my heart that he went in there to do what he’s wanted to do since he was 9 or 10 years old, and that is to study the Bible,” Farris told Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Johnston on cross-examination. “In my mind, no one will ever convince me that he handled a firearm.”
Stephen Sparks, who served with Branch on board an aircraft carrier in the late 1970’s, said Branch was “just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“It was basically a place for him to be while his hand healed,” Sparks said. “He basically believed that what was going on there was good because it was about studying the Bible and learning about God.”
Both men said they would offer Branch a place to stay and find work for him if released.
Ferguson said the government’s treatment of his client sends the wrong message to those still in the compound who might be contemplating coming out.
“Common sense would tell you it has to,” Ferguson said. “He came out to see what kind of justice they would get. I think you’d have to judge they didn’t get much.”
In that same vein, Fagan’s attorney Brad Cates charged that federal agent broke promises made to his client to help induce him to come out, including the promise to allow him to see his 4-year-old and 6-year-old children.
“I think the worst thing about this is that a man is being held as a material witness and not being allowed to see his children,” Cates said. He called Tuesday’s action “a back-door attempt to hold someone without going to the trouble of charging him.”