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Custody Efforts Begin in Waco Siege : Cult: Relatives flock to Texas offering homes to children released by sect. Judge orders all but three of 21 youngsters to remain with protective agency for now.

March 10, 1993|LOUIS SAHAGUN and J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WACO, Tex. — About 20 relatives from as far as England and Australia converged at a Waco courthouse on Tuesday seeking custody of 21 children released from the Branch Davidian cult compound since the firefight there Feb. 28.

They arrived in State District Court Judge Bill Logue's sweltering courtroom wiping tears from their eyes, clutching pocket-sized Bibles and hoping to take home the children ranging in age from 5 months to 12 years.

But most were disappointed when Logue ordered that all but three of the children remain in protective custody pending studies to determine which relatives would provide the safest home for the youngsters, who were watching 10 days ago as bullets smashed their windows and cut down adults around them.

Meanwhile Tuesday, heavily armed federal agents searched a two-story house in the Los Angeles suburb of La Verne, where David Koresh, the cult's leader, once lived. They said they were looking for documents.

About 17 children are still believed to be inside the sect's compound outside of Waco, which was engulfed in the 45-minute gun battle when federal agents attempted to arrest Koresh on firearms violations. The aborted raid left four federal agents dead and 15 wounded--two of them hurt by fragments from an explosive device, authorities said. At least four cult members were also killed in the gun battle.

Since then, well-armed federal officers backed up by armored personnel carriers and tanks have surrounded the compound where the increasingly belligerent Koresh has been trying to provoke another firefight, authorities said.

In court testimony Tuesday, Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services Investigator Joyce Sparks said the released children have "talked about bullets coming through the windows and people being injured."

"According to the children," she said, "their parents made no preparations to protect them from gunfire."

Mindful of the relatives' concerns for the children's well-being, Logue ordered that all of them be allowed regular visits and urged protective services officials to expedite their cases when possible.

"A lot of the folks I've been seeing here are good people," Logue said, "so let's not have any delays at all."

In one case, William Mabb, 32, a ground operations technician at Ellsworth Air Force Base in Rapid City, S.D., was awarded immediate custody of his daughter, Christyn, 7, and sons, Jacob, 9, and Scott, whose age was not available.

"I feel great, and very happy for the children and my family," said Mabb, whose former wife, Kathryn Schroeder, the mother of the children, was among more than 90 adults still holed up inside the compound.

Trying not to cry, Mabb, who has remarried, said: "My wife and I have been preparing for several years to get those children back. They have been through a lot."

Ursula Gehrmann, 25, of Honolulu, Hawaii, remained hopeful of being awarded at least temporary custody of her 7-year-old half sister Jo Ann Vega, whom she was allowed to visit Monday.

"I hugged her for about five minutes," said Gehrmann, whose 46-year-old mother is one of Koresh's 15 wives. "Then I asked Jo Ann if she wanted me to put her down. She said no and hugged me harder."

However, Gehrmann testified that the child's aunt, Nese Veaga, of New Zealand, also "wants to have her at home." Veaga, she added, took an airplane Monday night with a camera crew bound for Waco.

In an interview later, Logue suggested that many of the relatives, win or lose, face a possibility that some of the cases may be prolonged.

"They've all got a right to come back and be litigated by a judge or a jury," Logue said.

In Southern California, Tuesday's raid on Koresh's former home in La Verne involved 35 federal agents and 10 police officers equipped with assault rifles, helmets, protective vests and other gear.

After the house was surrounded, the three occupants, described by authorities as persons who have disassociated themselves from the cult, came out voluntarily and handed over the key. They were placed in protective custody.

Jim Adamcik, assistant special agent in charge of the Los Angeles office of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said the house was searched under a federal warrant. He said agents did not expect to make arrests or find weapons, but were simply looking for "documents that might be helpful to us to understand more about the religious cult."

Koresh, who once lived in the La Verne house with 18 female members of the Branch Davidian sect, left La Verne in the spring of 1991, according to La Verne Police Officer Chuck Ochoa. The house, occupied by two women and a man, has been under surveillance by federal agents since the Waco standoff began.

In Waco, at a news conference Tuesday, federal agents said Koresh seemed to be moving on "two irreconcilable tracks," that of an affable man and another who would think nothing of ordering an attack on those surrounding his 77-acre Mt. Carmel compound.

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