McLennan County Sheriff Jack Harwell has become the first outside voice allowed into negotiations to convinced Branch Davidians and their leader, Vernon Howell, to end their standoff in the Mount Carmel compound.
Meanwhile, inhabitants of the compound displayed a message — “God Help Us We Want The Press” — apparently in response to a Dallas radio station’s broadcast questions.
FBI spokesman Bob Ricks said Harwell sought to speak with Howell, also known as David Koresh, at a point when negotiations seemed on the verge of breaking down.
“We were of the opinion that we had gone three days with no positive conversations taking place. We were looking for a way to get those conversations on a positive note,” Ricks said.
“The sheriff has had numerous contacts with Mr. Koresh, and those contacts have generally been positive. The sheriff is respected by Mr. Koresh, and it is our hope that by getting someone in there he trusts, we can get negotiations going in a more positive fashion.”
Ricks said talks had deteriorated to the point that he feared hostile action from those inside the compound.
Attorney Gary Coker, who represented Howell and seven co-defendants in a 1987 attempted murder trial, said that relationship may have come about through visits Howell has made to the sheriff’s office seeking help.
“I know they always went to the sheriff’s office whenever they felt they were being abused, that criminal acts were being committed,” Coker said. “He’s (Howell) always said he was willing to cooperate with the sheriff’s office. I guess maybe he likes the sheriff. Maybe he trusted the sheriff.”
Harwell could not be reached for comment.
The tactic seems to be working. Authorities were able to deliver six gallons of milk for the remaining children in the compound late Monday.
Ricks earlier Tuesday used the impasse over milk as an example of what had gone wrong in negotiations. He said the compound’s inhabitants initially asked for the milk, then rejected it. Earlier Monday, Ricks said negotiators were told to “go make yourselves a milk shake.”
That banner, along with an earlier one that a gust of wind blew away, apparently was a response to an on-the-air appeal by a Dallas radio station, the Associated Press reported.
The first banner appeared moments after host Ron Engelman asked during his talk show Tuesday on Dallas station KGBS that cult leaders hang a white sheet from a window if they were listening to the station and wanted the legal and medical assistance that had been offered by cult sympathizers.
After enjoying almost unlimited telephone access to the media in the first 24 hours of the standoff 10 miles east of Waco, Howell for the last week has been able to talk only with negotiators.
Ricks said those speaking on the telephone with Howell and his lieutenants have noticed profanity creeping into their conversations. He also described the cult leader as “mercurial,” liable to change from peacemaker to warrior without warning.
“We have a dual track going in our discussions with David Koresh, where we go from discussions of belligerency to him wanting to be a peacemaker and spread his message of peace throughout the world,” Ricks told reporters. “So we have two irreconcilable tracks with which we are dealing.”
That two-track approach was mirrored by Howell’s explanation of his last name, as relayed by Ricks. According to Howell, the name “Koresh” is either God’s surname from the book of Isaiah or translates as “death.”
Ricks also said agents decided to let out Howell’s dark side after progress stalled.
“It was, in fact, a strategy on our part. We did withhold the dark side. We tried to present him as a person who was potentially a peacemaker. But because of the provocations that were occurring, we thought it was necessary that his other side be demonstrated,” he said.
Ricks also promised to release a list of the 33 people who have talked with FBI negotiators.
Federal authorities continued the mental game of cat-and-mouse with Howell and his followers. When asked if FBI agents would return fire if fired upon, Ricks said, “I would like to have that point remain in doubt.”
Ricks also said that the FBI, ATF and other agencies don’t need to call on the military for more than material help.
“We have the firepower, if we choose, to completely neutralize the situation. We are choosing not to do that,” he said.
In southern California, several dozen armed agents and police officers with search warrants raided a house where several followers of Howell live, the New York Times reported.
An ATF official in Los Angeles said Tuesday afternoon that the agency was not prepared to say what, if anything, they had uncovered at the house in LaVerne, 30 miles to the east.
He did say that results of the search would be forwarded to the officials here who are hoping to end the standoff with Howell.