A month before the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms stormed Mount Carmel, the Branch Davidians’ base 10 miles east of Waco, cult leader Vernon Howell was probing into computer bulletin boards.
He had only one thing on his mind.
Howell, who believes he is Christ, was searching for stories on government action against people charged with weapons violations, said Marc Breault, a former cult member.
Four ATF agents were killed last Sunday when they tried to serve an arrest warrant on Howell for possessing illegal weapons.
The ATF was driven back by a hail of automatic weapons fire.
The agency’s investigation into what happened has focused on a phone call allegedly made to Howell warning him that about 100 ATF agents hidden in cattle trucks and three National Guard helicopters were on their way.
An ATF spokesman Friday declined to comment on the cult member’s report or its significance.
A veteran law enforcement official, however, said Howell’s combing of computer files on weapons violations probably indicates that he wondered what kind of sentences were given out.
“I think he was paranoid about the ATF with all the stuff he was buying,” the official said.
Breault said he learned of Howell’s search for information regarding weapons violations through a cult member’s relative.
The relative, who did not want to be identified, confirmed that the cult member reported Howell was particularly interested in the Randy Weaver case. Weaver was a white supremacist who lived in Idaho. He and his family in 1991 holed up in their home after Weaver was indicted on a federal firearms violation after trying to sell a sawed-off shotgun to an undercover federal agent.
His wife, 13-year-old son and a U.S. marshal were killed in a gun battle.
Weaver is awaiting trial on murder charges.
Breault said he made the information on Howell’s computer searches available to the ATF before the raid.
“I got a strong impression that Vernon was looking at the government’s methodology and what they looked for in weapons violations cases,” Breault said. “I think Vernon was looking at all the possible angles that authorities could nail him on. I think he thought we couldn’t prove the child abuse accusations. He felt safe on that.”
Knowing such information ahead of time wouldn’t have affected the timing of the raid, the veteran law enforcement official said.
“I wouldn’t have given it a second thought,” the official said. “When anybody is doing something illegal, sometimes they’re going to be paranoid and try to find out what the punishment for their crime is. It’s not uncommon.”