A flurry of talks between cult leader Vernon Howell and his attorney have left federal authorities somewhat optimistic that the month long standoff at Mount Carmel could end without a fight.
After two face-to-face meetings Tuesday, Houston attorney Dick DeGuerin said he is hopeful Howell, also known as David Koresh, will surrender peacefully.
In a press briefing Tuesday, FBI special agent Bob Ricks said DeGuerin, who was hired by Howell’s mother, has been holding talks with Howell since Sunday, but DeGuerin is not acting as a negotiator for the FBI.
DeGuerin visited the Mount Carmel compound Monday, marking the first in-person talks between a member of the compound and an outside attorney. DeGuerin entered the compound on Tuesday with permission from the FBI.
DeGuerin said he and Howell made progress toward ending the standoff.
“I’m hopeful, but it’s going to take a little while. I hope it doesn’t take too long,” he said.
Tuesday marks the 32nd day of the standoff that began Feb. 28 when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms tried to serve Howell with arrest and search warrants for illegal weapons. A gun battle followed that left four agents and at least two Branch Davidians dead.
Howell claims he is Christ and can open the Seven Seals mentioned in the biblical book of Revelation.
Thirty-five people have left the compound. The last one walked out March 23.
The talks between Howell and DeGuerin mark a change in the stance of federal negotiators, who have refused direct contact between attorneys and their clients inside the compound until now.
Ricks said the decision is a reflection of where the events have logically progressed and not one of frustration.
The change in policy also came about because of a change in Howell who in the past has not shown an interest in talking to his attorney, he said.
“We are cautiously optimistic that this will be one of the significant events necessary to bring this to a final resolution,” Ricks said.
But Ricks said negotiators have been disappointed twice in the past after Howell broke promises to surrender.
Howell’s recent cooperation played a part in allowing DeGuerin access to Howell to give legal advice. Howell also gave authorities a tape of 16 children and teenagers from the compound.
DeGuerin talked to Howell by phone for 45 minutes Sunday evening. On Monday, he talked to Howell by phone for more than an hour before going into the compound.
Once there, Howell spoke to him for two hours while DeGuerin sat at the porch of the compound.
On Tuesday, DeGuerin spoke to Howell for several hours, once at about 10 a.m. and then again in the afternoon.
Ricks said DeGuerin is not a go-between for federal authorities and his conversations with his client are privileged. Ricks said the meetings are about Howell’s rights and substantive matters.
Ricks also said authorities advised DeGuerin not to enter the compound Tuesday because they could not guarantee his safety. DeGuerin chose to enter the compound anyway, he said.
Authorities do not plan to let any other attorneys in at this time, Ricks said.
Another Houston attorney, Jack Zimmerman, said Tuesday that he asked the FBI to let him into the compound to speak with Howell’s top lieutenant, Steve Schneider.
Zimmerman said he’d offered his assistance since March 12 through the FBI and was hopeful he’d eventually be allowed in the compound.
“Their position this morning was no other lawyers are going in,” Zimmerman said. “Their position last week was no attorneys are getting in.”
DeGuerin said he is consulting with all the attorneys representing cult members inside the compound before going in again at 10 a.m. today.
After the afternoon session Tuesday, DeGuerin spoke with reporters, but he would not say anything about conditions inside the compound.
Balenda Ganem, mother of David Thibodeaux, who is inside the compound, called the development a positive one.
But, she said, the FBI should take a step further and let families and other professionals get involved in the negotiations by talking directly to those inside the compound.
Ganem, who says she represents five other families, said she has appealed to President Clinton for help.
She fears some sort of action will take place soon. Violence could be a factor even with the recent positive developments, she said.
“We, the families, are not going to stand back and say we waited too long,” she said, adding that she doesn’t want to interfere with the FBI, but she doesn’t “want a dead son” either.
Gamen also wants the FBI to stop “paramilitary tactics” such as using spot lights and loud speakers at the site. She said cult experts need to get directly involved in the process as well.
Gamen said she will hold her own press conference after this morning’s press briefing by federal authorities.
Meanwhile, Ricks said, at least one more person — Karen Wisdom, 37 — was arrested by authorities for trying to get inside the compound Tuesday morning.
Wisdom was in McLennan County jail Tuesday night. She is charged with interfering with a police officer; her bond was set at $1,200.