The 35-day occupation by heavily armed federal agents around Vernon Howell’s compound near Elk has not resulted in significant damage to McLennan County property, county officials say.
A building owned by an area businessman and a Tribune-Herald company car did sustain extensive damage during law enforcement action early in the standoff, however.
After the Feb. 28 raid on Howell’s Mount Carmel compound by agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the agents around the compound were reinforced by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
After a shootout between agents and cult members, agents brought in tanks and Bradley armored personnel carriers from Fort Hood in Killen in preparation for a siege.
County Commissioner Lester Gibson, whose precinct includes the area around Mount Carmel, said federal agents for the most part have confined their tracked personnel carriers and tanks to Double EE Ranch Road, the unpaved gravel road that runs along the front of the compound.
“I could have that road up and running in two or three days as the situation stands now, not if the situation drags out for a few more months,” Gibson said. “Those Bradleys haven’t been on any of my paved roads.”
Costs to repair Double EE Ranch Road after the siege could be as high as $1,300 for materials and equipment, although Gibson said that figure is a “liberal estimate.”
The greatest cost of the standoff has been the inconvenience area residents face, Gibson said.
“People have moved into that area for the rural lifestyle,” he said. “With the roadblocks set up, basically it’s disruptive.”
Officials with the state transportation department did not know of any instances where tracked vehicles used FM 2491, which runs from East Loop 340 to Double EE Ranch Road.
McLennan County Justice of the Peace David Pareya rode in a Bradley one night to confirm reports of a fatality near the compound, he said.
Pareya said the vehicle’s driver kept it on Double EE Ranch Road, backing onto FM 2491 only for a moment “in process of rolling out.”
Gary Welch, the owner of the Mag Bag, two buildings on FM 2491 leased by Branch Davidian Paul Fatta for about two years, has filed a claim with ATF headquarters in Washington for damages his buildings sustained when they were rammed by a Bradley during the execution of a search warrant early in the siege.
The ATF has an arrest warrant for Fatta, who was away from Mount Carmel at the time of the raid.
Welch, president of First State Bank of Riesel, said that he offered ATF agents the keys to his building but that they declined, citing possible risk.
“I’m not going to second-guess them,” he said. “Obviously I feel they could have gone in with less damage, but they’d had men killed and didn’t want to take any chances.”
Agents suspected there might be weapons hidden in the buildings, but Welch said they housed nothing except automobiles and parts.
“I wasn’t conscious that this guy was a member of the group, but then it wouldn’t have made any impression back then,” he said. “They were Chevrolet nuts — everything they had in there was Chevrolet.”
Welch was not present when the warrant was executed.
The reimbursement claim he filed with the ATF asks for $50,000 for damages to the buildings, he said.
“They hit the first one from the front and side,” he said. “The other building, they hit it virtually dead center at an angle, in the front and out the side.”
Welch offered agents the keys on March 4 or 5, he said. After his initial offer, he told agents he would open one of the buildings to release a dog and a cat that lived inside, but agents again declined, entering forcibly on March 8.
The dog and cat were not harmed, Welch said.
Welch telephoned the ATF’s Washington office March 22 to check the status of his claim, he said. The employee he spoke to confirmed that his claim had reached the office.
Jack Killorin, ATF chief spokesman in Washington, told the Tribune-Herald last week that he was not aware of Welch’s claim.
1990 Chevy Crepe
A 1990 Chevrolet Cavalier owned by the Tribune-Herald was crushed early in the siege when an FBI agent reportedly tried to move it from the side of Double EE Ranch Road by pushing it with a Bradley.
Tribune-Herald photographer Rod Aydelotte saw the car when he was taken by FBI Special Agent Wayne Appelt to a Waco impound lot used by the Department of Public Safety.
Aydelotte’s car was also taken to the lot after it was damaged by gunfire during the raid.
Tribune-Herald reporter Mark England, who drove the company car near the compound on the day of the raid, said he had to leave it behind when those outside the compound were forced to retreat under heavy fire from cult members inside.
“During the shooting someone shot out the right front tire,” England said. “We knew we weren’t going to drive it out — it was undriveable, basically.”
England left the car where he had parked it, he said. After settling in and receiving reinforcements, the ATF cordoned off the area and restricted media access.
The car was crushed sometime within the next two weeks. Neither ATF nor FBI agents would reveal the details to the Tribune-Herald.
The car can wait
Agent Carlos Fernandez, FBI media contact, told the Tribune-Herald this week that his agency had “more important things to worry about” and advised the newspaper to pursue the matter when the siege was over.
Bruce Gatti, legal counsel for the FBI’s San Antonio office, told the Tribune-Herald that any damage claim for the car should be filed under Title 28 of the Federal Tort Claims Act.
Such a claim would be filed as an act of negligence, Gatti said.
“We have made no decision at the present time whether to proceed,” said Dwight McKenzie, Tribune-Herald general manager.