Early in their standoff with the Branch Davidian religious cult, authorities portrayed the sect’s members as hostages of doomsday prophet Vernon Howell.
Later, they said cultists were there of their own free will.
It is one of several mixed messages the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms have sent about Howell, his 103 followers and their own efforts to end a three-week-long siege.
Some of the most basic questions about the situation, such as how many cultist died in the Feb. 28 gunfights that preceded the standoff, have been muddied by comments federal agents make to reporters under guarantees of anonymity.
Other times, mixed signals have occurred because information has been slow to flow from the cult. In still others, such as the regard paid to injuries of cultists, agents descriptions’ appear to be directed at Howell rather than the public.
Authorities have anonymously given reporters various figures, as high as 15, for the number of cultists killed in the gunbattles. But FBI agent Richard Swensen on Saturday for the first time acknowledged that no more than the two previously accounted for may be dead. Not even the six adults who have left the cult said they know, Swensen said.
There has even been a contradictory explanation of what happened at the beginning of the gunbattle that resulted in the death of four ATF agents.
Five days after the event, ATF associate director Dan Conroy said he could not confirm a newspaper report that quoted an ATF agent saying Howell slammed the door on agents just before the volley of gunfire.
But Wednesday, ATF agent Dan Hartnett said an unidentified cult member slammed the door on a agent who had identified himself. Gunfire then began from “40 to 50 positions.”