Former cult members feared the worst as the standoff between authorities and the Branch Davidians headed into its fifth day.
The Branch Davidians, a spinoff of the Seventh-day Adventists, repelled an assault by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in a hail of automatic gunfire Sunday. Four agents were killed.
After long negotiations, Vernon Howell had promised to come out Tuesday, if authorities let him air an hour-long sermon over several radio stations. But at a press conference Wednesday, FBI agent Jeffrey Jamar said that Howell, who believes he is the Christ, “stated he had received a message from God instructing him to wait.”
Marc Breault, a former cult member, said Howell taught that it was OK for Branch Davidians, who split off from the Seventh-day Adventists in the 1930s, to lie to unbelievers.
“We’re just Babylonians or unbelievers,” Breault said. “We don’t count. We’re just food for the fire.”
A former cult member, who left within the last year and asked not to be identified, fears the cult may commit suicide. The cult discussed ways to commit suicide, including taking cyanide or shooting themselves in the head.
Breault was also worried.
“This is not looking good at all,” he said.
What alarms Breault and other cult members is the 18 children who have been released. None are Howell’s children, they said.
“There is definitely a pattern,” Breault said. “Vernon teaches that his children are the only ones that are righteous seed, legitimate in God’s eyes. By releasing these children, I believe he’s saying that these children are not worth sacrificing. Only the righteous ones are worth sacrificing because they’ve been converted. By sacrifice, I mean becoming martyrs. There is a reason behind it. Normally, a person would want to get their own children out, wouldn’t they?”
Former cult member Robyn Bunds said she’s afraid cult members may be planning to die this Friday, if you go by Howell’s comparisons of himself to Christ.
Bunds said Howell taught that Christ died on a Friday.
“I know what they’re doing, but no one understands,” she said. “I’ve tried to tell authorities, but they can’t seem to understand.”
Authorities Wednesday afternoon appeared to be digging in as negotiations dragged out. Two portable office buildings were brought to the site in town, hospitals have been advised Tuesday to prepare for wounded were told they could relax security.
The families of cult members continued to express anger that negotiators won’t allow them to talk to relatives in the compound.
Belenda Ganem, mother of cult member David Thibodeau, came to Waco from Maine to try to contact her 24-year-old son in the compound. She bitterly denounced FBI negotiators Wednesday for not giving her the chance to talk to her son by phone.
“How could it hurt for our voices to come in?” she asked. “If only he could hear my voice before his life is over.”
She said the FBI has basically said it will remain in control of the situation. An FBI agent told her that the agency did not “have a precedent for that, but I’m sure this idea will be kicked sometime in the future,” she said.
But the future may be too late for her son, Ganem said.
She is trying to enlist the support of mothers of cult members in pressuring officials into letting them talk to their children, Ganem said.
As many as 110 people remain inside the heavily fortified compound, officials said at the press conference.
In continuing conversations with federal agents, Koresh has said his followers include 47 women, 43 men and 20 children, including residents of Australia and Jamaica.
Authorities have alleged that all cult members were responsible for the murder of four agents killed during Sunday’s assault at Mount Carmel.
Delroy Nash, 28, of Kingston, Jamaica, was taken prisoner and charged with attempted murder of a federal officer and weapons violations following a Sunday evening shootout. Nash is believed to be an illegal alien and is being held on an immigration detainer.
Charges were dropped Wednesday against two older Branch Davidians who left the compound Tuesday, along with some children. Margaret Lawson, 75, and Catherine Mattson, 77, were initially charged with murder, attempted murder, conspiracy and commission of a felony with a firearm, but the charges were dropped Wednesday at U.S. Attorney Ron Ederer’s request.
U.S. Magistrate Dennis Green said the women would be detained, however, as material witnesses.
ATF Special Agent Earl Dunagan had charged that all the Branch Davidians were involved in the shootout Sunday.
“The heavy fusillade of bullets that came from within the site was such that all of the conspirators were involved,” Dunagan said in an affidavit.
Dunagun’s affidavit said members of the cult “received and participated in live firearms training at the compound and shared armed guard duty at the compound; were taught to believe that they must be prepared to defend the site . . . and that amongst the weapons at the site were machine guns.”
But Robyn Bunds said Mattson, at least, never received firearms training in her time in the cult. Bunds left the Branch Davidians in 1990.
“She never received weapons training that I know of,” Bunds said. “I remember Catherine once came out to do target shooting with the women. We were shooting shotguns. Vernon was showing us how to use one. He said, ‘Catherine, what are you doing out here?’ because of her age. But Catherine was young at heart.”
Bunds said Howell may have released Mattson and Lawson because of his apocalyptic beliefs.
“I remember him saying that they would be transformed without dying,” Bunds said. “All this makes me nervous. I think he wants to die. I don’t know what will happen. But I’ll tell you this. He won’t give up his children. They’re supposed to be Godly seed. There is a significance to what Vernon is doing. I just hope the people in charge of the negotiations realize that significance.”