Negotiators got an early taste of the Branch Davidians’ obsession with airing cult leader Vernon Howell’s message but still underestimated the ordeal ahead, according to the last of the 9-1-1 tapes released by the Waco Police Department.
The tapes stem from a call to emergency number by cult member Wayne Martin on Feb. 28 — the Sunday that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms raided Mount Carmel. Four agents died trying to arrest Branch Davidian leader Vernon Howell, also known as David Koresh. At least five cult members also died.
“We’re in for the long haul,” an FBI agent negotiator says. “We’re talking about maybe a week.”
The standoff lasted 51 days and ended with an April 19 fire that killed more than 80 cult members.
Authorities kept the telephone line with Martin open for more than 24 hours because of their difficulties in talking with Howell and his top lieutenant, Steve Schneider.
The tapes clearly show that Martin from the beginning sought to carry out Howell’s aim — getting his theology aired on national radio and TV. Cult members believed Howell was the Lamb of God or Christ and could “open” the Seven Seals found in Revelation, ultimately bringing about the end of the world.
Branch Davidians used their children to buy the air time, at times quite coldly.
“How much do these kids mean to you, Larry?” Martin asked negotiator Larry Lynch of the McLennan County Sheriff’s Department on Sunday night.
“They mean a great deal to me,” Lynch said. “How much do they mean to you?”
“Every time that message is played, we’ll send out one child,” Martin said.
Lynch argued that the Branch Davidians had agreed to send out all their children if authorities got the media to play Howell’s message. The Branch Davidians eventually agreed to send out two children every time Howell’s message was played. Twenty-one children were sporadically sent out.
Howell, however, kept all his children by Rachel Howell, his legal wife, and by other women in the cult. They died in the Mount Carmel fire.
As authorities negotiated to get the cult’s children out, they had to deal with Branch Davidians upset over the media’s pronunciation of “Koresh” and the times it aired his message. Martin complained to Lynch that 7 p.m. Sunday was too late.
“That’s halfway through prime time,” Martin stressed.
“The amazing thing is that after all these thousands of years, suddenly someone appears on the scene and has a perfect understanding of the Scriptures,” Martin said. “What a great loss if he doesn’t have an opportunity to share what he knows.”
Although negotiators had early hopes for Martin asserting leadership in the crisis, it became obvious on the tapes that Howell completely controlled the cult. Martin emerges as a curious figure. A Harvard law School graduate, he defers to Howell, a high school dropout, saying, “Nobody’s ever spoken words like him.”
When Lynch pressured Martin to intervene in stalled talks to bring out the cult’s children, Martin said flatly, “I’m not willing to get involved in the negotiations.”
Lynch, however, continued to ask Martin to try to speed things up.
“We were told to leave negotiations to David,” Martin said. “And I think that’s reasonable.”
However, Martin also sought to earn negotiators’ respect. He charged that the media had depicted cult members as “dumbasses” to the public.
“You’re talking to a Harvard lawyer here,” Martin said. “Have they told you that?”
Martin also told Lynch and FBI agent Byron Sage that he was once a captain and knew how ATF’s field commander thought. Later, Martin elaborates to Sage on what he meant.
“I think I told Larry about my experiences as a captain,” Martin said.
“Was that in the military?” Sage asked.
“No, don’t laugh now,” Martin said. “It was the school safety patrol.”
Toward the end of the tapes, Lynch tried one last time to make a leader out of Martin. It had been several hours since a child was sent from the compound. Lynch urged Martin to do something. He argued that Martin had agreed that the children would be sent out.
“Sue me for breach of contract,” Martin said.