Almost a year before the bloody Feb. 28 shootout at Mount Carmel, McLennan County Sheriff Jack Harwell told a child welfare worker to back off an investigation of alleged child abuse at the compound, the worker said.

Harwell denies the allegation, saying he remembers no such conversation.

Joyce Sparks, former investigative supervisor of the Branch Davidian case for Children’s Protective Services in Waco, said the McLennan County Sheriff’s Department interfered with the investigations and may have seriously damaged the outcome.

“I had one conversation with Jack Harwell,” Sparks said in a phone interview from Austin last week. “He said whatever those people are doing, if they’re doing it inside the compound, it’s none of your business, and you don’t need to go out there.”

Sparks said Harwell spoke with her just before she and another case worker went for their second visit to the compound on April 6. She called Harwell after a second scheduled visit, in which law enforcement was to help, ran into problems, she said.

“As soon as I told him who I was, he hit me with that statement,” she said, adding that the conversation lasted only a few minutes.

“Well, I haven’t made a secret about my belief they sabotaged our investigation,” she said of the sheriff’s department.

A source close to the situation who requested anonymity knew of a phone conversation that took place between Sparks and Harwell.

The source said Sparks expressed disbelief over what Harwell was saying.

“She told me he said that whatever they’re doing out there, leave them alone,” the source said.

The CPS investigation was opened Feb. 26, 1992, and closed April 30, 1992. Sparks says the case should have remained open for monitoring.

In the Tribune-Herald’s series, “The Sinful Messiah,” former cult members said that cult leader Vernon Howell sometimes severely whipped children as young as 8 months old and had sex with girls as young as 12.

The series also reported that a former cult member said that when child welfare workers went to the compound, Howell hid some of the children at Mount Carmel as well as some of the underage girls that he reportedly had sex with.

And Sparks charges that her supervisor did not reopen a case on the Branch Davidian children when a new allegation of sexual abuse was brought forward by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms days before the raid — a move which might have allowed authorities to call Howell off the compound where he could have been arrested without incident.

Linda Edwards, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services in Austin, said Sparks does not speak for the agency. Edwards said she cannot confirm allegations against the sheriff’s department.

And Sparks’ former supervisor, local director of CPS Bob Boyd, said he never received a referral to open a new case.

Sparks, now an Austin resident and an instructor for the Governor’s Center for Management Development, said she was stunned by her conversation with Harwell and disagreed with the agency’s decision to close the case.

Visit expected

Sparks, whose job still falls under Protective and Regulatory Services, said she believes someone from the sheriff’s department called the compound to tell the residents that she and another case worker were coming on their first visit.

Unexpected first visits are important to make sure that interviews with the children are not compromised, she said. Subsequent visits are generally scheduled, she said.

In some cases, workers do make subsequent surprise visits. But because of problems with law enforcement, she did not think it would be possible, she said.

The Branch Davidians told her they were expecting them on the first visit, she said.

Harwell said he never told Sparks to back off the investigation.

“I don’t remember ever talking to Joyce Sparks myself,” Harwell said. “Maybe I have, I’m not saying I haven’t.”

But Harwell said the sheriff’s department probably did call the compound during the first visit to ensure the safety of the children, deputies and case workers.

Harwell said he let it be known that before case workers went to the compound for any reason they should tell the Branch Davidians that they were coming.

“Keep in mind I got word three years ago that Vernon Howell said he was not ever going to be taken into custody again,” Harwell said.

“If we went out there on the first visit, I’m sure they were notified,” he said. Harwell added that he personally didn’t call the compound to announce the visit and he doesn’t know who did.

“I won’t go on someone’s property without legal reason to be there. I have to comply with the law,” he said. “Just to go out and talk to them, what’s wrong with notifying them?”

While it may have been more difficult for the case workers to do their job by announcing the visit, it might have been dangerous if the Davidians weren’t notified, he said.

“It would have been more difficult for anyone to go out there and get to them without their cooperation or without a court order,” he said. “And you go out there with a court order — that’s what the ATF did . . .”

Boyd said he has no knowledge that Harwell ever told Sparks to lay off the case or that the sheriff’s department interfered in the investigation.

“I wouldn’t say ‘interfering,’” Boyd said. “I think the first visit out there, they probably didn’t want to stay all day long. To my knowledge, I didn’t know anyone who interfered.

“I personally do not feel the sheriff’s department did anything to hamper our investigation,” Boyd said.

Boyd also said he did not have any knowledge that the sheriff’s department called the compound to announce the first visit. CPS did not call the compound before the first visit, either, he said.

Sparks said that Howell, also known as David Koresh, knew private information she passed on to law enforcement officials. She remembers one incident where Howell called her after she talked with Texas Department of Public Safety officers.

“After having a meeting with law enforcement, by the time I got back to my office, David Koresh was on the phone and telling me about what I said,” Sparks said. “There are other things, other comments, that David Koresh fed back to me. Which was very puzzling.”

She said that in December 1992, Lt. Gene Barber with the McLennan County Sheriff’s Department was in her office and “at one point that deputy admitted there was a leak.”

Another person, who asked not to be named, confirmed the incident.

“As I recall, Joyce brought up the fact that the sheriff’s office had been a problem . . . he (Barber) looked down briefly and looked back up and said, “Yeah, we have had a leak,” the source said.

However, Barber said last week that he did not confirm a leak.

“I had no knowledge of a leak,” he said.

Barber said he did not talk to anyone at the compound about the CPS investigation.

David Jewell, a Michigan disc jockey, called CPS during the summer of 1992 to discuss possibly filing statutory rape charges against Howell. His daughter, who had lived in the compound with her mother, was brought to Austin by the ATF for an interview in February. During that visit, he said, there was concern about a leak in the sheriff’s department.

“I was told that the reason we were flown into Austin and driven by ATF to and from Waco was because there was a concern of the integrity of local law enforcement,” Jewell said, noting that the concern was the sheriff’s department.

Sparks said that while clients are entitled to a copy of the finished report on the CPS investigation, she did not want Howell to know about the on-going investigation.

“You don’t want them to know what your strategy is while you’re doing your investigation,” she said.

Boyd, Sparks’ former boss, said a “leak” was not an issue because anyone who is investigated is entitled to a copy of the report.

Sparks said that on the first visit Feb. 27, she was able to interview only one child and was interrupted by a deputy.

“They just said, ‘You have to go now,’” she said.

Sparks said that when the second visit occurred, case workers were able to interview more children, but the deputies interfered again.

“It was distressing that before . . . we were through, I had a deputy in my face saying we have to go,” she said.

But two deputies at the time, Richard Stroup and Johnny Liendo, say they do not tell like they interfered. They also said they did not call the compound before the visits.

Liendo, who is now an investigator for the attorney general’s office in Austin, said Sparks did a good job, but he isn’t sure she realized the seriousness of the situation.

“I may have told Ms. Sparks, “. . . I think we should go,” he said, but added that was because Howell, after hours of conversation with him, was getting tired of talking and kept looking over at case workers with the children.

“I could tell he was tired of all this pretending,” Liendo said of Howell.

Sparks said case workers went alone on the third visit “out of utter frustration.”

No evidence of abuse

In the end, case workers were able to interview 12 children, according to the Protective and Regulatory Services in Austin. The agency says the investigation did not verify allegations of any type of abuse. Sparks said physical negligence was documented.

But Sparks said she and other case workers didn’t get to access to children they needed to determine if allegations of physical and sexual abuse were true, nor did they get the time needed to monitor the situation until needed repairs were made — such as getting running water at the compound.

Sparks said she signed off on the case when she was told to close it. She disagrees with the decision.

Edwards, the spokeswoman for Protective and Regulatory Services, said there is no record of Sparks’ disagreement over closing the case.

“The reason the case was closed is because there was no validation of any physical or sexual abuse,” Edwards said. “They had nothing.”

But Sparks says the case was closed before workers could adequately assess the situation.

“We had indications that babies were being spanked and food was being withheld as punishment,” Sparks said.

“I personally felt like we should have monitored that situation longer than we did,” she said, adding that some of the problems that CPS documented were not followed up on after the case was closed.

A source who didn’t wish to be identified said Howell made comments during the CPS investigation that it was the responsibility of his followers to deceive the Babylonians and that the government and CPS were part of Babylon.

Child paddlings

The source said the children at the compound talked about a paddle called the “Helper.” The paddle was also mentioned in a report by Dr. Bruce Perry, associate professor of psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine, who examined children released from the compound during the 51-day standoff. His report said the children were hit with the wooden paddle for minor offenses, such as spilling a drink, and girls as young as 11 were inducted into wifehood with Howell.

Sparks said that her supervisor, Boyd, failed to act when the ATF brought a young girl in for an interview.

In an affidavit filed in federal court, the girl alleged that when she was 10 years old, her mother took her to a motel room in Waco where Howell was waiting in bed with no pants on. She said Howell sexually molested her.

The girl said sexual contact between Howell and young girls was understood as “what happens.”

The child told officials that Howell said during a Bible study that he had sex with Michelle Jones when she was 14.

An Aug. 29 Houston Chronicle story reported that CPS caseworker Jeanne Byrd wrote in a letter that the order was not to open the case for investigation came from Sparks’ supervisor.

The interview with the girls was done as “a courtesy” to the ATF and with the understanding that it would not be investigated, the Chronicle story said, adding that the supervisor was aware that this courtesy interview was conducted and that he reminded them that the child was not a “protective issue,” meaning not under CPS’s jurisdiction.

In response, Boyd said last week he would not have made a referral or done any investigation on this particular child since the child had been out of the compound for more than a year and was in no present or future danger.

Sparks said she thinks the account constituted a legitimate referral and it could have been possible for her to then call Howell off the compound if another case had been opened.

“I don’t see it as a decoy,” she said of the girl’s account that was never turned into a case.

Read the Tribune-Herald's 7-part investigative series on the inner workings of the Branch Davidians. Hours after Part 2 appeared in print, the ATF raided the group's compound.

Read the Tribune-Herald’s account of the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound on Feb. 28, 1993. Four ATF agents and six in the compound were killed in the gunfight.

Read the daily news accounts of the 51-day siege at the Branch Davidian compound near Elk, which began Feb. 28 and lasted until April.

April 19 and beyond: FBI agents began inserting canisters of tear gas into the Branch Davidian compound in the early morning hours. By noon, it was on fire.

Federal officials left the compound site in late May 1993. As identifications of bodies continued, questions about the survivors, the compound and the cult itself began to emerge.

As the world began to take a critical look back at the events and legal proceedings continue, the ATF's bombshell report forces a shakeup at the top after the raid gone "tragically wrong."

In 1994, the surviving Davidians went on trial in San Antonio. Over six weeks, more than 140 witnesses testified, with the verdict coming just two days prior to the anniversary of the ATF raid.

The Rodenville shootout and the 1988 trial, the end of the world in 1959 and more stories from deep in the Trib archives.