Vernon Howell, the leader of the Branch Davidians holed up in the Mount Carmel compound told negotiators Friday that he had no interest in suicide, and authorities turned their attention to the families sundered by the 6-day-old siege.
Meanwhile, a quiet Friday night was marred with a report of gunfire in the area of Old Mexia Road. But Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms public information officer Sharon Wheeler said agents in the field had no reports of gunfire.
She said the report might have been caused by a Bradley Fighting Vehicle backfiring as it started up.
Another child – the sister of the last two children released – came out of the compound Friday morning.
Authorities sent to the compound a videotape and individual photographs of the 21 children who have been released so far. FBI agent Bob Ricks said the videotape is designed to reassure parents that their children are being treated well.
“We are doing this to assure the families that they are receiving proper care and are being treated with kindness,” Ricks told assembled reporters. He said the tape assures parents that the children are being kept together, rather than being split up among foster homes as some reports stated.
Ricks also dangled the promise of reuniting the families in question.
“It should be noted that the children are expressing a strong desire to be reunited with their family,” he said.
The state’s Child Protective Services office in Waco has required reinforcement to handle the releases, which officials say may constitute the largest such burden in the service’s history. CPS executive director Janice Caldwell said 22 staffers from other offices in the region were brought in to help out.
Authorities also sent in medical supplies at the request of cult leader Vernon Howell, who said he needed to patch a wound in his wrist. Howell, also known as David Koresh, told negotiators that the wound is changing color, which could indicate blood poisoning or infection.
Meanwhile, The Washington Post reports the U.S. Embassy in Australia warned officials in Washington last year that a bizarre Texas cult with members from around the world was preparing for “mass suicide” and would kill authorities if they tried to enter their heavily fortified compound near Waco.
The Washington Post reported the ATF began developing its own information in early June, after a United Parcel Service truck driver became concerned about activities at Koresh’s compound.
The driver was worried that packages delivered to the compound contained firearms and explosives. During his deliveries to the complex, the driver noticed observation posts manned by armed guards.
When ATF examined shipping records, agents found they often contained firearms parts, which the cult used to assemble automatic weapons, and chemicals used in explosives, police sources said.
ATF also learned about reports of machine gun fire erupting from the compound during the night and a loud explosion at the complex witnessed by a deputy.
Subsequent ATF investigations revealed that cult members had obtained at least 45 AR-15 and M-16 assault rifles, grenades, a grenade launcher, four tons of ammunition and 260 magazines. Informants told ATF that a federally licensed dealer in Hewitt had bragged about selling large numbers of AR-15 rifles to Howell.
There also had been speculation that Howell might be tempted to kill himself or order the suicide of his followers on a Friday. That speculation was based on past preaching by Howell and his identification with Jesus Christ, who died on Good Friday.
With that information, ATF officials decided to stage a high-risk entry rather than surround the compound and demand the surrender of Koresh, said the ATF official, who declined to be identified.
“We did not believe we could besiege these people without the very real possibility of a mass suicide,” the ATF official told the Associated Press.
But FBI agent Bob Ricks said Howell denied that.
“He indicates there is no intent on his part to order a suicide, nor does he contemplate suicide,” Ricks said, adding that negotiations went “smoothly” Friday.
“We have various long conversations about various topics, including personal matters, matters of the Scriptures,” Ricks said. “He at times will become irritated when we get into areas he does not want to discuss...but the relationship is generally one of a bonding that has occurred at times. At other times it seems to separate when we try to press for the release of individuals whom he does not want to have released or in an effort to obtain his release from the compound.”
Although Howell has said that any adult who wants to leave the compound is free to do so, Ricks said, agents assume Howell is still calling the shots.
“We have always stressed that this matter would reach a swift conclusion if Mr. Koresh would leave the compound,” Ricks said. “We believe it is totally within his power to direct the others in the compound to walk out.”
Federal agents told reporters that while Howell says members are free to go if they wish he still exerts an influence over them.
Ricks said federal agents are not planning to set a deadline, even if they succeed in getting all the children out.
“We have no intention of setting any deadlines at this time,” he said.
Meanwhile, at the defensive perimeter surrounding the Mount Carmel compound, evidence continues to mount that authorities and media are in for the long haul.
Truckloads of building materials, utility equipment, generators and fuel have been going through the media checkpoint along FM 2491 in recent days. On Friday, Southwestern Bell began setting up permanent phone services, including a microwave telephone service and a switching station for press personnel.
More than a dozen trucks from Southwestern Bell and TU Electric were on hand to perform the installation.
Although some see this as an indication that the conflict could drag on for weeks, a Southwestern Bell spokesperson said the service is not an indication of how long it will last.
“They are well aware that it could last for five minutes or five days or even longer,” she said, referring to the media.