Vernon Howell and his armed Branch Davidian followers will surrender sometime after they celebrate “the high holy day” of Passover, attorneys for Howell and his chief aide said Sunday.
The lawyers, however, said they do not know when that might be. It appears, said Jack Zimmermann, that the cult does not observe Passover the same way millions of Jews will staring today at sundown.
“For the Branch Davidians, they have a different emphasis that they place on Passover. So if you grew up with what Passover was in the Jewish faith, there is a totally different emphasis in their faith,” said Zimmermann, the attorney for Howell lieutenant Steve Schneider.
Dick DeGuerin, Howell’s attorney, said he is “too secular” to know when the cult’s observance would start or how long it would last.
The feast of Passover commemorates the escape of ancient Jews from Egypt. Despite its Jewish roots, the holiday also has special significance for Branch Davidians, according to the lawyers, the FBI and former cult members.
“I think it’s pretty clear that were we not on the eve of Passover, they would be out by now,” Zimmermann said.
On Sunday, Zimmermann and DeGuerin spent more than five hours meeting with their clients in the besieged Mount Carmel compound. The armed fortress has been surrounded by hundreds of law enforcement officers since Feb. 28, when four federal agents were killed attempting to serve search and arrest warrants.
At least two cult members also were slain during the 45-minute long gun battle with agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Soon after the lawyers ended their meeting Sunday, a man left the cult compound about 5:40 p.m., the first person to come out since March 23.
Jesse Amen, a California man who slipped past authorities to enter the compound March 26, was being held late Sunday at the McLennan County Jail without bond on a charge of interfering with the duty of a police officer, a jail spokesman said.
Another man who managed to get into the compound March 24, Louis Alaniz of Houston, remained there.
DeGuerin and Zimmermann, who were hired by relatives of the two top cult members, last spoke to their clients face-to-face a marathon session Thursday.
After the meeting, they said they would return only to observe the cult’s surrender.
“I forgot some stuff,” said DeGuerin when asked why he and Zimmermann returned. Both lawyers said they will return to Houston to wait for word from their clients that they are ready to leave the compound peacefully.
They both left open the possibility of returning to Waco before then.
Zimmermann told The New York Times that plans for a surrender were hammered out Thursday before he and DeGuerin left the compound. “Up until 4:30 that afternoon,” he said, “I thought they were walking out with us.”
The Branch Davidians decided instead to talk among themselves about the precise timing of their exit and promised to arrange a surrender with their lawyers once they settled upon a date.
The details of the surrender include a plan whereby Koresh and DeGuerin walk out together, followed by other sect members. At the end would be Zimmermann and Schneider, the Times reported.
“They want the two leaders on either end with Mr. Koresh in front, so that symbolically everyone inside understands it’s OK. Everyone else comes out single-file and gets processed humanely one at a time. Mr. Schneider stays to the end with me and once we’re out, everyone knows everything is safe and clear and they can come in with their search teams,” Zimmermann said.
The attorneys said Sunday they felt encouraged that the standoff, now in its 37th day, will end soon.
“We’re more convinced than ever that this is going to be resolved peacefully, and more convinced than ever of the depth of devotion to their religion,” DeGuerin said.
FBI negotiators, whose talks with the cult have all but ceased during the attorneys efforts, said they are willing to let the lawyers try to work out an end to the siege.
“We have told them that if they’re making progress – and again, progress is getting this thing resolved – we’re not going to put a time restriction,” said FBI Special Agent Bob Ricks.
“We don’t want the FBI to be perceived as a roadblock to getting this resolved,” he said.
DeGuerin said he didn’t want to put a deadline on when Howell, also known as David Koresh, would end the standoff.
“I’m convinced that he is, and if I thought that he was not, I wouldn’t be his lawyer,” said DeGuerin, who earlier this year successfully defended the accused mastermind of the Lake Waco tripl murders of 1982.
When Howell surrenders, DeGuerin said, he will do so without a fight.
“My belief . . . is that there is not going to be a violent end, at least as far as David is concerned. There’s not going to be anybody hurt.”
“They’re ready for this to be over, but they have a very important agenda with their Passover and their holiday,” he said.
DeGuerin said Howell’s health has declined since he was shot during the Feb. 28 raid, and that he will have to be hospitalized after he surrenders.
In other developments, McLennan County Justice of the Peace David Pareya, who has reviewed autopsies on two of the dead, said the bullets that killed the agents did not come from weapons used by the ATF during the raid.
Also, none of the 16 wounded officers were hit by other agents.