As a standoff between Branch Davidians and authorities moved toward its fourth week Saturday, another person reportedly left the Mount Carmel compound, but a federal official denied the report.
An official who did not want to be named said the person left the area in a blue van. But late Saturday, a spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said no one had been released and that negotiations with the Branch Davidians were continuing.
On Friday night, two cult members – Brad Branch, 34, and Kevin Whitecliff, 31 – came out in a red Jeep Cherokee escorted by a Department of Public Safety car.
The two men were scheduled to be arraigned Saturday at the McLennan County Jail by U.S. Magistrate Dennis Green.
ATF spokesman Dan Conroy said the pair will be held as material witnesses.
Branch and Whitecliff originally sought to come out with Oliver Gyarfas, who left the compound March 12, but they were held up for an unknown reason.
Former cult members identified Whitecliff as a former prison guard from Hawaii who at one point left the cult.
According to cult leader Vernon Howell, also known as David Koresh, 103 people, including 17 children, remain in the compound where ATF agents attempted to serve search and arrest warrants Feb. 28. That turned into a gunbattle that killed four agents and wounded more than a dozen.
Swensen said Branch and Whitecliff have been cooperative with authorities, but he declined to say what they told them. He did say they, like others released from Mount Carmel, did not say how many dead there might be inside the compound.
“That is a question they have all avoided or they say that type of thing is separate from the bulk of the people inside the compound,” Swensen said. “The truthful answer is that right now, we don’t have any idea how many are dead, there are any.”
Swensen said the two are not considered leaders among the Branch Davidians, and those still in the compound will be watching closely to see how they are treated.
Federal agents remain hopeful the siege can be wrapped up soon.
Special Agent Richard Swenson of New Orleans said Saturday that’s partly because negotiators have finally gotten across the idea that “we’re not going to walk away from this thing.”
Swenson said Howell spent four hours talking with negotiators Friday. He said Howell is talking about resolving the standoff “in the near term, not the long term” and that negotiators continue on the same hopeful level they reached before Friday’s press briefing.
“This appears to be one of the first times that he is alluding to the final end of this thing, and he’s talking in terms of some large numbers – not this trickle,” Swensen said, referring to two men allowed out late Friday. “He is addressing this ending fairly soon.”
Swensen said Howell is even interspersing his Bible studies on the telephone with negotiators with references to his desire to get the standoff resolved.
Swensen credited a face-to-face meeting Tuesday between top Howell Heutenants Steve Schneider and Wayne Martin and FBU negotiator and McLennan County Sheriff Jack Harwell with the breaking the “logjam” that had developed in negotiations.
Swensen credited a growing sense of reality with focusing Mount Carmel residents on the future.
“I think (it’s also) the clear indication that we’re not going away and that this will end here,” Swensen said. “And I think that realization is setting in, that ultimately they’re going to come out of that compound.”
Swensen said he doesn’t know if that attitude I being helped by a lack of water.
During a heavy downpour Friday, residents were seen outside setting our pots, pans and other containers to catch water. Swensen said those familiar with the compound have given conflicting accounts.
“There has been word that water was being trucked in from a neighboring ranch or farm.”
“There’s also been word that there’s a well on the ground that they have access to,” Swensen said. “Frankly, I don’t know.”
When asked previously about the state of water in the compound, FBI agents always said the residents have access to water well and that availability of water was not a problem.
Electricity remains cut off at the buildings, and Swensen said bright lights will continue to be played on the compound at night to protect agents.
He said playing taped conversations through loudspeakers at the compound was halted Saturday in deference to the group’s Sabbath observation.
Meanwhile, helicopters were seen landing and taking off nearby in what was described as practice for a possible medical emergency in the area.