Kathryn Schroeder, nicknamed “Sarge” and reportedly a dominant figure among the women in Vernon Howell’s religious cult, pleaded guilty to a lesser federal charge Thursday in exchange for her testimony against 11 Branch Davidians charged with killing federal agents.
Schroeder, 34, pleaded guilty to one count of forcibly resisting federal officers during the failed Feb. 28 raid on Howell’s religious compound. She faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison but probably will get far less because of her cooperation with the government, officials said.
She had been charged with murdering officers, conspiracy to murder officers and weapons charges and faced two life prison terms plus 30 years, said her attorney, Scott Peterson of Waco.
Prosecutors agreed to dismiss those charges at sentencing.
U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr. accepted her plea, but postponed sentencing until after a report is completed by probation officials.
She becomes the first cult member convicted in connection with the shootout in which four Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents were killed and 16 others were wounded. At least five cult members were killed in the raid.
Schroeder’s husband, Michael, was shot by ATF agents as he and two other men tried to enter the compound on the evening of Feb. 28.
She left the Mount Carmel compound March 12, more than a month before a fire ended the 51-day siege and resulted in the deaths of 85 cult members.
Peterson said Schroeder was in her room with her four children during the raid. She left the cult out of concern for her children, who were released during the siege, and then volunteered to give information to negotiators during the standoff “in an attempt to save lives,” he said.
Three of the children were placed in the custody of their father, Schroeder’s first husband. The fourth is living with relatives in Florida.
Court records filed in the case Thursday indicate that Schroeder did not have a weapon during the initial raid. But later she armed herself with a semi-automatic AR-15 rifle and an AR-15 that had been converted into a fully automatic machine gun while she served as an “armed lookout” during the siege, records said.
While other attorneys were critical of Peterson’s willingness to work out a plea agreement for Schroeder, Peterson said she is not just a “government witness.”
“She will be testifying to the truth, and that truth could very well be useful to both sides,” Peterson said. “She will say what she saw, but then again, she can question their tactics and offer a different perspective. Was this an example of religious freedom being overrun by overzealous agents? Kathy has the ability to look at the world in different ways and different perspectives, unlike so many of the others.”
The other defendants are scheduled to go on trial Nov. 8 in Waco. They include Brad Eugene Branch, Kevin Whitecliff, Clive Doyle, Jaime Castillo, Paul Fatta, Woodrow Kendrick, Norman Washington Allison, Renos Avraam, Livingstone Fagan, Graeme Craddock and Ruth Ottman Riddle.
Houston attorney Dick DeGuerin, who represented Howell, also known as David Koresh, before he was killed in the fire, was critical of the plea bargain.
“This has been expected. Peterson told me the first time I ever met him that he was trying to get a deal for her. He was trying to do that before he ever met his client,” DeGuerin said.
“My own philosophy is to fight cases where people are innocent rather than making witnesses out of them. The temptation to color your testimony in order to please the government is so great that I won’t have anything to do with it,” he said.
Schroeder has failed an ATF polygraph test, DeGuerin said.
“Peterson had her talk to the ATF agents about what guns they had and who had guns on the inside, and she told them a story and then failed a polygraph test on it. Her credibility is somewhat in question, according to the government’s own standards,” he said.
Dianne Murray, a Dallas woman who counsels abuse victims, began writing and talking to Schroeder after Schroeder was jailed. She thinks she is a woman abused by Howell and the system.
Murray said the only advice she gave Schroeder was to trust her own ability to make a decision.
“To me, out here, this thing is beatable, doggone it,” Murray said. “But if I knew the full power that the government could bring to bear on a person, no matter what was true, and if I had learned that by a devastating experience, I don’t know how I would see it.”
Schroeder is not selling out, Murray said.
“She’s not an anti-social personality who only looks out for herself. That’s not Kathy. What she did, she did after painful reflection,” he said.