HOUSTON — In a conversation recorded a month into the 51-day standoff near Waco, Branch Davidian leader Vernon Howell defended his actions during the Feb. 28 shootout with agents of the bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
In a telephone interview taped by Houston attorney Dick DeGuerin on March 28 and made available exclusively to the Houston Chronicle, Howell, also known as David Koresh, said federal ATF agents came “cocked and locked” out of the cattle trailers in the moments before the raid on the compound near Waco.
Although it is the first such tape released, it contains little information that hasn’t already been made public.
“I don’t care who they are,” Howell said. “Nobody is going to come to my home, with my babies around, without a gun back in their face. That’s just the American way.”
The ATF agents were trying to arrest Howell for illegally manufacturing and possessing machine guns. At least 40 machine guns were listed in unsealed court records this week.
In addition, crime scene investigators for the Texas Department of Public Safety have found silencers, anti-tank rifles, pistols, sawed-off shotguns, a .51 caliber Barrett sniper rifle and parts for making grenades and pipe bombs.
According to the Tribune-Herald series “The Sinful Messiah,” former Branch Davidians have said Howell and his followers often practiced firing the weapons.
Howell, who said he suffered two gunshot wounds in the battle with more than 100 ATF agents, also told DeGuerin he planned to surrender after his health improved and after he was satisfied that federal agents would not plant evidence inside the compound.
“Once I do go out of here, I want to go out walking,” Howell said. “Once we leave the premises here and they come in, I’m just so concerned they are going to twist everything up so much. They’re just going to — nothing being illegal here — they’re going to put something illegal here.”
The Houston office of the ATF did not return several phone calls Thursday requesting reaction to the tape.
During the hourlong interview, DeGuerin repeatedly encouraged Howell to surrender before more bloodshed occurred.
“Let’s get this into court and get this in court safely, let’s get you to survive this,” DeGuerin said. “The bottom line is, we will be able to get a jury of people that don’t have any preconceptions.”
DeGuerin also offered his help in ending the standoff.
“I’ll be happy to come in there and walk out with you,” he said.
The telephone interview was the first conversation between Howell and DeGuerin, who was hired to represent the Branch Davidian leader by Howell’s mother, Bonnie Haldeman. DeGuerin later spent several hours inside the Mount Carmel compound talking with his client.
In contrast to other interviews and public statements made by Howell, in this recorded conversation he did not discuss his religious beliefs, concentrating instead on surviving the standoff. Howell also expressed irritation with the suggestion by some government officials that he and his followers were considering suicide.
“That’s not even sane, it irks me,” he said.
Throughout negotiations during the siege, officials were often frustrated by Howell’s lying. Former cult members have said Howell taught that it was permissible to lie to non-cult members.
In all, four ATF agents and six Branch Davidian members were killed in the Feb. 28 raid. On April 19, after a 51-day standoff, agents used tear gas in an attempt to force the Branch Davidians to surrender. Instead, the compound erupted in flames, killing Howell and as many as 96 other people inside. Nine people survived.
DeGuerin said the interview has not been turned over to federal authorities.
The Houston attorney said he decided to make Howell’s comments public because he believes the government is conducting “a massive cover-up, a whitewash” of its actions and Howell wanted his story to be told.
Although Howell sounds tired and weak during most of the interview, he often appears agitated by comments federal officials made to the news media.
His anger becomes most apparent when discussing the initial raid. “They said we were throwing grenades at them. I mean, for crying out loud, what is this stuff?
“You can’t believe anything they tell you.”
The documents released this week, however, show that investigators have found many grenades, fuses and other grenade parts at the site.
Howell also denied previously reported allegations that he and his followers fired on helicopters before the cattle trailers carrying federal agents arrived on the scene and challenged agents’ claims that no Branch Davidian members were shot from above.
“Darth Vaders were jumping out and were already all around the place by the time the helicopters came,” said Howell, referring to the heavily armed agents who were clad in combat gear.
Other witnesses said three helicopters arrived almost simultaneously with the agents in cattle trailers.
“They’re the ones that killed Peter Gent,” Howell said. “They shot him right in the top of the head. And it was fully automatic fire, too.”
Gent, 24, an Australian citizen who lived at the compound, was killed during the initial battle.
On the tape recording, DeGuerin tells FBI negotiator Clint Van Zandt before the interview begins that he plans to inform Howell that his only legal option is to surrender.
Van Zandt is captured on the recording discussing federal efforts to bring a “non-violent- end to the ordeal, then going into its second month.