The night of Feb. 28, after his Branch Davidians turned back a raid by federal agents, Vernon Howell gathered his followers in the chapel of his sprawling Mount Carmel compound.
The plan was for Howell, also known as David Koresh, to strap on hand grenades and go out to surrender to authorities.
Once agents approached him to arrest him, Howell would set off the grenades, killing himself and as many federal agents as possible.
He bade his followers farewell.
He kissed the children goodbye.
But Howell lost his nerve — or “chickened out,” as FBI agent Bob Ricks put it during his news conference after a fiery inferno killed most of those still in the compound.
Ricks told the tale to illustrate how negotiators always knew there was a chance of mass suicide on their minds, although he and other agents did not say so in public.
As recently as Monday morning, Ricks hewed to the line developed early on — that suicide was a highly unlikely outcome to the siege.
“We have continually quizzed those coming out, and they as a general rule state that suicide, they believe, is not a possibility,” Ricks told reporters about an hour before the first flames appeared at the compound.
Ricks was even more emphatic during a March 8 press briefing.
“We have continually stated here that we have specifically asked Koresh whether he intends to commit suicide and whether his followers intend to commit suicide,” Ricks told reporters.
“He, on each of those occasions, has stated that is not his intention at all. In fact, we believe after many discussions with him that that would be completely contrary to his religious philosophy, that he does not want to fulfill his prophecy by taking his own life.”
But that’s just what the Branch Davidians did Monday.
Only nine of an estimated 95 people inside came out alive.
One of those survivors was a woman who, while set afire, inadvertently ran out of the blazing structure.
She was tackled by a federal agent as she sought to climb back inside the inferno.
“They had to make the decision — to come out and face the charges…or were they going to commit suicide?” Ricks said. “David Koresh, we believe, gave the order to commit suicide, and they all followed willingly his orders.”
Ironically, it was the threat of a mass suicide around Passover 1992, when Australian relatives started getting farewell messages from residents, that first brought the cult to the attention of federal authorities and the Tribune-Herald, which later produced a seven-part series on the cult.
During the siege, Kiri Jewell, who lived at the compound until her father won custody of her, told how she was instructed on how to place a gun barrel in her mouth to kill herself.
What Ricks said Monday, after flames had devoured the compound and the dozens of lives within, was that the picture always was more bleak than what he painted for the outside world.
“There was only one true leader in this whole operation and that was David Koresh, who from the very beginning said the people in there were going to be killed and they were going to do it in an armed confrontation with law enforcement,” Ricks said.
“It was to our benefit that we were able to prevent him from carrying out the second part of his prophecy, which was that he was going to kill as many members of law enforcement as he could before his members were killed.”
Ricks also said he believes the Branch Davidians were seeking to provoke a firefight, even as tanklike combat engineering vehicles pumped tear gas into their compound.
“We believe we frustrated that effort by not firing one single round,” Ricks said. “His desire...was he wanted to have as many people killed in that compound as possible. That was why it was called the Ranch Apocalypse.”
Ricks often spoke of the belligerence of cult members, of the provocative phrases they used, of their waving assault rifles in the windows, seeking a firefight.
Ex-cult member Elizabeth Baranyai explained why Howell believed his followers had to die. Baranyai and husband, Marc Breault, broke with Howell over the doctrine that all the women in the world belonged to Howell.
Baranyai explained how, in the fifth seal in the Book of Revelation, the souls of martyrs under the throne of God cry out, asking when their deaths would be avenged, and God replies, “When the number of the martyrs is made up.”
“Vernon believed that the number was close and that his group would be the last group of martyrs to die to make up that number,” Baranyai said. “Once that was done, they would be in the grave for a short time…and then they would be resurrected and come down and defeat the wicked and usher in the kingdom of God.”
As to why Howell might want to take down the maximum number of federal agents with him, Baranyai said simply, “They wouldn’t be martyrs. That’s just what would start if off, and he wouldn’t go down without a fight.”