As the tense standoff between Branch Davidians and federal agents enters its ninth day, leader Vernon Howell’s flashes of irritability and mistrust of federal authorities began to emerge as a key stumbling block.
FBI spokesman Bob Ricks told reporters Sunday that Howell, also known as David Koresh, had rejected an offered deal to end the stalemate. He said talks had taken a turn for the worse, with negotiators unable to make progress on getting more children released or just about any matter of business between the two sides.
“What we see more and more underlying the discussion with David Koresh is a state of irritability. It pops up almost without notice, then it goes back to a normal state,” Ricks said.
The FBI also refused another Howell request as part of a strategy to try to drive him out of the compound, the Washington Post reported in today’s editions. Officials declined to remove a second corpse from the compound, as Howell has asked. As many as eight other bodies are believed scattered throughout the headquarters of the Branch Davidians.
A major sticking point in the negotiations, Ricks said, is that Howell doesn’t trust authorities to let him get his story told. Ricks said Howell is frustrated because he can no longer reach media outlets directly — the FBI is controlling the telephone lines — and believes the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which initiated last Sunday’s bloody raid, will conspire to hide the facts.
“We have assured him, based on our judicial system, that he will have ample opportunity — that, in fact, he will probably have greater exposure once he goes into the judicial process than he has ever had before in his history,” Ricks said. “The nature of our judicial system is to have full and complete discussion of the facts that we have before us.”
But Howell himself and one of his former top lieutenants have said the cult leader doesn’t trust the court system.
Howell had one previous brush with the law — when he and seven other followers were tried by then-McLennan County District Attorney Vic Feazell’s office for attempted murder after a 1987 shootout with cult members. A hung jury freed Howell after acquitting his followers, and charges against Howell were later dropped. Feazell is now offering to represent the group in federal court if they surrender.
In a Feb. 22 interview with the Tribune-Herald, Howell said he didn’t think much of being able to get his message out as a defendant.
“When people put me in a court of law like they did in 1988 … I couldn’t say nothing. I couldn’t say nothing,” Howell said.
He added, “My consolation is that there comes a time when people are going to have to answer my questions. There comes a day when there’s going to be a judge who is going to sit on a throne, and that day is at hand.”
Former Davidian Marc Breault said Howell was scarred by his 1988 trial and by a child custody dispute in Michigan. In that case, a judge ordered the daughter of cult member kept away from Howell in a child custody dispute.
“It’s Vernon’s assessment that the justice system is corrupt, even though he got off,” Breault said. “The courtroom isn’t concerned with theological issues. It doesn’t let you air your beliefs. It just wants to know what happened. He felt it wasn’t fair that he couldn’t say what he wanted to say.”
Breault testified against Howell in the child custody case. He said Howell thought he could win the case by painting Breault as a rival prophet.
During Saturday night, reporters heard loud music from the direction of the compound. Although press reports have predicted loud, continuous music would be used to unnerve the Davidians, Ricks said the music was in fact from the compound itself.
“We have reason to believe that is the music that was previously recorded by David Koresh,” Rick said. “In discussions that we had this morning, we had with his representatives, they indicated it was their effort to harass the people out at the site.”
Ricks said the negotiators have tried literally everything to get things moving again.
“We have thrown out to Mr. Koresh: ‘Tell us what we can do get those negotiations moving forward again. Give us something specific,’ ” Ricks said. “We’re not going to jeopardize our people — but we would do almost anything in our power to resolve this situation.”
But Ricks said that when offers like that are made, Howell becomes evasive. “He then goes into a discussion of Scripture or he will completely ignore it or go into another tirade regarding the facts and circumstances surrounding the raid. Or sometimes he will go into a discussion of his childhood. He may do almost anything to distract us from the business we need to do to get this matter resolved,” Ricks said.
For the second day in a row, Ricks used Sunday’s press briefing to appeal directly to those inside the compound about an unspecified deal that apparently fell victim to that contrariness.
“We want Mr. Koresh to know how serious we are,” Rick said. “This is not something we’re throwing out there to induce discussions between us and Mr. Koresh. We want this matter settled.
“I’m not part of the discussion team. By me coming in and repeating that we take these issues very seriously, we hope he will also take these matters seriously,” Ricks said.