Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms officials’ accounts of their Feb. 28 raid on Mount Carmel have been undermined by an unlikely source — court records filed by their own agents.
Sealed affidavits, released Tuesday and Wednesday by a federal judge, indicate that ATF officials knew that cult leader Vernon Howell was aware before the failed assault that federal agents were on their way to arrest him.
According to an affidavit by ATF agent Earl Dunagan, Howell told an undercover ATF agent that the “ATF and the National Guard were coming to get him.”
“Neither the ATF or the National Guard will ever get me,” Howell is quoted as saying in the document, “They got me once, and they will never get me again. They are coming; the time has come.”
Following Howell’s outburst, the agent left the compound, the document states. He went immediately to a staging area for the raid and spoke with his supervisors.
What he said has not been made public.
While court records make it clear that Howell had warning, ATF officials, in the days following the raid, staunchly denied that they knew the raid had been compromised.
ATF Chief of Intelligence David Troy told CBS’s “Street Stories” April 1 that the ATF would not have sent its agents into the compound area if they had known they had lost the element of surprise.
“That would have been a suicide mission,” Troy said.
ATF Special Agent Dan Conroy also maintained that the 100 agents who raided the compound would have been held back had officials in charge known of the tip.
“There is no contingency plan when you go into a raid with the people knowing that you are coming,” Conroy said in early March. “The plan is if you know about it advance, then you back out. There is no contingency plan. You back away.”
Also, ATF Associate Director Dan Hartnett said March 3 that the undercover agent, identified as Robert Rodiguez, did not realize that there had been a tip until after four of his fellow agents lay dead.
“When he left the compound, everything was normal. People were out in the fields and people were going about their work,” Hartnett said. “While he was there, a phone call was received…We are satisfied it was a tip.”
Waco attorney Scott Peterson, who represents cult member Kathy Schroeder, says the phone call was a ruse by cult member David Jones to get Howell away from the undercover agent. Once Howell was out of the room, Jones warned him of his suspicions.
ATF spokesman Bruce Snyder said Wednesday in Waco that he could not comment on the contradictions revealed in the affidavits, deferring comment to the U.S. attorney’s office.
Once it has been filed and it is in the court system, we can’t comment on any of that,” he said.
A federal source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Associated Press that ATF officials had been told Howell knew they were coming yet went ahead and gave the order to move in.
“It was a judgment call…a lot of people are going to question that judgment,” the source said.
The source added that the last-minute decision to go in will probably be viewed as the most important issue surrounding the raid. Cult members have said six people inside the compound also died that day.
However, the source said the tipoff ATF officials have said they believe the cult received that morning is the sole reason for the raid’s failure.
“If it hadn’t been for the tipoff, it would have succeeded; not a shot would have been fired,” the source said. “The damn tipoff cost us four dead agents and ultimately 86 other dead people.”
But another ATF official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Tribune-Herald that ATF director Stephen Higgins, Hartnett and others likely will lose their jobs as a result of the failure of the affidavits to support their varying accounts of the raid.