For a short time, the Branch Davidians broke through a communications wall erected by the FBI and talked to the outside world.
Houston attorney Dick DeGuerin confirmed that Steve Schneider, one of cult leader Vernon Howell’s top lieutenants, called his sister, Sue Johnson, in Wisconsin long after authorities cut off the cult’s communication capabilities.
Schneider, and perhaps even Howell, enlisted Johnson’s help in arranging a call to a Dallas radio station during their 51-day standoff with authorities that ended in a deadly blaze.
Jack Zimmerman, Schneider’s lawyer, said the matter was privileged, though his client is presumed to have died in the raging fire April 19.
But DeGuerin said Schneider voiced fears of the FBI taking retribution against cult members if they left the compound.
“He was very fearful of the FBI,” said DeGuerin, who represented Howell and entered the compound during the siege. “The assurances that Jack Zimmerman and I gave him were able to reassure him somewhat. But he was still worried about everyone coming out safely.”
Johnson confirmed her brother’s call.
She said he expressed fears of the FBI, but she declined to elaborate.
“He thought the FBI would find some excuse to shoot him,” DeGuerin said. “But I told him that if Jack and I accompanied them, ‘How could they explain they shot me?’”
Richard Schwein, FBI special agent in charge of El Paso, said the agency provided the Branch Davidians with batteries for a video camera that might have been used to power up a cellular phone.
Schwein said that regular and cellular phone service was disconnected from the compound early in the standoff, but it is possible a phone could have been listed under another name and not have been turned off.
However, he added, he doesn’t think any outside communications would have caused the FBI tactical problems.
Howell complained about his isolation from the media, and FBI negotiators used his desire for attention to try to lure him out of the compound.
But Schneider succeeded in breaking the silence.
DeGuerin said he acted as a go-between to try to hook up KGBS’ radio host Ron Engelman of Dallas and Schneider.
“He wanted to talk to Ron Engelman,” DeGuerin said. “He wanted to get his home phone number.”
Schneider called his sister, who called Zimmerman. Zimmerman got in touch with DeGuerin, and he got in contact with Engelman, DeGuerin said.
Engelman said a 1 a.m. phone call from a station manager woke him up at his home. The manager said that DeGuerin was trying to reach him. Engelman said he talked to DeGuerin, who was at the Waco Hilton, and gave the attorney his home phone number.
DeGuerin told him he didn’t know what was going on but that Engelman should expect a call from Howell or Schneider.
Engelman said he waited hours on the morning of March 22 for the call.
“I mean, how do you go to bed?” he asked.
The wait was for nothing.
“They never made the call,” DeGuerin said.
DeGuerin said he doesn’t know what Schneider wanted to tell Engelman. But Schneider did tell him that he was unable to make the phone call because the batteries powering the cellular phone went dead.
Johnson said her brother and other cult members listened to Engelman’s program.
“They said he was fair and more favorably inclined toward them,” she said.
Engelman said that Howell and the cult had attempted to communicate with him on several occasions by hanging signs from the compound—including one on March 23 that said “We want Ron Engelmond” — and other signals.
“He asked for me very specifically,” he said.
Engelman said he doesn’t know why Howell kept trying to contact him.
“I didn’t know David even listened to me before they were assaulted,” he said. “All I know is I had communications with them.”
He called the FBI to offer his help in resolving the situation peacefully, Engelman said, but he never got a response from the agency.
Could he have brought cult members out peacefully? Possibly, he said.