Federal officials are trying to determine if a defiant, threatening letter that cult leader Vernon Howell claims came from God is the divine signal Branch Davidians said would end the 42-day siege with authorities.
“The letter is threatening and cites six biblical passages,” said FBI special agent Bob Ricks. “The gist of the letter, like the biblical passages, conveys messages of a powerful, angry God, empowering his chosen people to punish and harm those who oppose them.”
Steve Schneider, Howell’s top lieutenant, delivered the four-page letter Friday afternoon, after getting permission to light incense canisters in observance of Good Friday, a “high holy Christian holiday” for the cult, Ricks said.
The letter, addressed to “friends,” is written as if God wrote it and signed “Yahweh Koresh,” which Howell, who is also known as David Koresh, says is the true name of God, Ricks said. Federal agents are trying to confirm with cult members whether the letter is their long-awaited message from God.
In early March, Howell reneged on an agreement to leave the compound at Mount Carmel, 10 miles east of Waco, after being allowed to deliver a 58-minute sermon. Howell reported that God told him it was not yet time to leave and to wait for his signal.
Ricks said experts in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere were trying to determine what the letter means. He declined to release copies of the letter on Saturday.
“We do not know if this is the message from God,” Ricks said. “It is written in the first person. It was dictated by David to Judy Schneider. Schneider was the one who transcribed it for David and was written as a revelation, in effect, from God. So maybe, in fact, David has received it.
“If it is the message from God, then we have to know what the heck the message is,” he said.
Former cult member Marc Breault said the letter sounds suspiciously like an old letter Howell once wrote.
“I’m pretty sure it’s an old letter,” Breault said. “If he had written one now, it would probably be about the Seven Seals. I think he did this just to stall for time. Now the FBI will have to try to figure out where he’s coming from. It’s just throwaway theology. He used to use it whenever someone would confront him on his beliefs. It’s sort of a decoy.”
Another former cult member, Robyn Bunds, also thinks the letter is meant to mislead officials.
“He’s not going to tell them what he’s going to do,” Bunds said. “He’s going to do what he’s going to do. Then they’ll know what he’s going to do. He’s trying to play with their minds. He likes messing with peoples’ minds.”
In the letter, Howell is referred to as “my servant,” Ricks said.
Howell, 33, changed his name to David Koresh three years ago and has claimed he is Jesus. He has said he is awaiting God’s word before leading his Branch Davidian followers from the group’s compound.
The six Bible passages mentioned in the letter contain many references to violence and “an all-powerful God who is taking reprisals against his enemies,” Ricks said.
“It is completely devoid of any of the traditional Christian references of temperance, non-violence, that would be associated with what we normally interpret the Christian message to be.”
“We believe that he expects sometime during the Passover season that a cataclysmic event will occur which will fulfill his prophesies. If that does not take place, we assume that that means it is a message from God to come forth,” he said.
Biblical passages referred to in the letter include Psalm 18:37-40.
I have pursued mine enemies and overtaken them; neither did I turn again till they were consumed.
I have wounded them that they were not able to rise; they are fallen under my feet.
For thou hast girded me with strength unto the battle; thou has subdued under me those that rose up against me.
Thou hast also given me the necks of mine enemies; that I might destroy them that hate me.
Breault said he was a “little alarmed” at the passage from Psalms.
“Vernon used to teach that when it said it raised him up, it meant he was resurrected,” Breault said.
Howell also told federal agents to read Jeremiah 50:22-25.
A sound of battle is in the land, and of great destruction.
How is the hammer of the whole earth cut asunder and broken! How is Babylon become a desolation among the nations!
I have laid a snare for thee, and thou art also taken, O Babylon, and thou wast not aware; thou art found, and also caught, because thou hast striven against the Lord.
The Lord has opened his armoury, and hath brought forth the weapons of his indignation; for this is the work of the Lord God of hosts in the land of the Chaldeans.
The self-described apocalyptic prophet also included in his letter references to Isaiah 45; Revelation 18 and 10:7; and Psalms 2 and 18.
Breault said he and his wife, Elizabeth Baranyai, have asked the FBI to send the letter to them so they can help interpret it. By late Saturday, the FBI had not honored the request.
That aggravates former cult members like Bunds.
“I’m not saying you have to be Einstein to know what Vernon is saying, but it’s a lot simpler to ask questions of someone who knows Vernon, like Marc, someone who has sat through Bible studies with him,” she said. “The FBI doesn’t know where Vernon is coming from. Why not ask Marc and know exactly what Vernon is saying?”
In other developments Saturday, David Troy, intelligence chief for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, told reporters that his beleaguered agency, which has drawn wide-spread criticism since its abortive raid, would no longer participate regularly in daily press briefings.
“Over the last several weeks, we believe that we have literally answered every conceivable question posed by you in every conceivable way about ATF’s role in the investigation and the actual raid on the 28th of February,” Troy said.
“The only areas where we have not given information from a specific point of view were those that would adversely impact the homicide investigation and/or the subsequent prosecution of the people who murdered our four agents. And for that reason, we have decided that we are not going to participate on a daily basis in these press conferences.”
Howell and 95 others, including 17 children, have remained in the fortress since a violent shootout with ATF agents that left four agents dead and 16 wounded. Howell has said six cultists also died in the 45-minute firefight.
The standoff showed no immediate signs of ending Saturday. The cult reportedly considered Easter a pagan holiday and does not plan to observe it.
The FBI still is operating under earlier assurances from attorneys that the siege could end next week at the conclusion of the Branch Davidians’ Passover observance, Ricks said.
Houston attorneys Dick DeGuerin and Jack Zimmerman, who represent Howell and Schneider respectively, may be allowed to talk with their clients early this week, Ricks said, but won’t be permitted in the compound until the standoff is ending.
Before sending the letter, Schneider told federal agents Howell was upset over Ricks’ remark in a press briefing that Howell often uses four-letter curse words.
“All the other things that have transpired — four dead police officers and 16 people injured — does not seem to be of that much concern to them, and six dead inside. What did concern him was the fact that I said he used four-letter words on an occasion when he did not,” Ricks said.
Meanwhile, federal agents Saturday were repairing phone lines into the compound and erecting barbed-wire around the buildings to stop cultists from coming out and to “test the control of our perimeter,” Ricks said. The wire will also help control the large group when the siege ends, he added.