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INS Dropped L.A. Inquiry Into Koresh Activity : Cult: The investigation in 1990 uncovered evidence of 'questionable marriages' but was dropped when the sect leader and his followers moved to compound near Waco.

March 11, 1993|RICHARD A. SERRANO and J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Prompted by the Australian government, U.S. immigration officials in Los Angeles began an investigation of cult leader David Koresh three years ago, but then abandoned their probe when he abruptly moved with more than two dozen of his followers from a home in Southern California to his compound near Waco, Tex.

The Los Angeles investigation into possible visa fraud and other irregularities uncovered some evidence of "questionable marriages" in which Koresh was allegedly helping Australian women skirt U.S. immigration laws and enter this country illegally, Immigration and Naturalization Service officials said Wednesday.

There was also evidence that as many as two dozen women--many of them foreign nationals--were living with Koresh in a two-story home in La Verne, including a 14-year-old Australian girl, the officials said.

That evidence matches similar allegations in Waco, where several former members of the Branch Davidian sect have said Koresh engaged in sex with numerous women and underage girls in his compound, many of them from as far away as Australia and New Zealand.

A gun battle erupted at the compound 11 days ago when federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents attempted to search the 77-acre site for evidence of weapons violations. Four agents and two cult members were killed. The two sides have since been in a standoff, with federal law enforcement officers surrounding the compound and Koresh and his followers refusing to come out.

Immigration officials in Los Angeles were quick to deny any contentions that their investigation in 1990, had it not been aborted, might have averted the tragedy in Waco.

"We did everything we were asked to do," said John Brechtel, assistant district director for the INS in Los Angeles.

He said his office received an official inquiry from Melbourne wanting information on Koresh because he had made short trips to Australia in 1986, 1988 and 1990, and that an increasing number of Australians were moving into the La Verne house. Melbourne officials were equally concerned about allegations that Koresh was involved in sexual activities with girls there.

The Australian government particularly wanted information about any criminal conduct by Koresh, Brechtel said, "because he kept bringing people into the United States to engage in his cult."

Brechtel said that INS agents, working with the La Verne Police Department, set up a surveillance operation and learned that as many as 25 women were sleeping in two- and three-tiered bunks in the home there. But he said that before his agents could proceed, Koresh suddenly moved them all to Waco.

However, two INS agents, both of whom spoke anonymously, said the Los Angeles investigation was closed when it was abruptly taken from an African-American agent and reassigned to a white agent.

A group of black agents based in the Los Angeles area are now suing the INS, contending that African-American agents are constantly passed over for choice assignments and promotions. Their attorney, Davis Ross, said that he plans to use the 1990 Koresh case as an example of racism among INS managers.

"Just imagine if this guy had been arrested back then," Ross said. "A lot of the people who are in his compound now with the guns are the same Australians and New Zealanders he brought here."

But Brechtel vehemently denied that the case was reassigned for racial reasons. He said, rather, that both a black and a white investigator were handling the matter, and that it simply ended when Koresh went to Texas. He said his office notified Melbourne, and suggested they contact the INS office in San Antonio if they had further concerns.

In Waco, one of the cult members killed in the raid was identified as Peter Gent, an Australian who was buried in the compound on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, federal officials said they believed new, more rational leadership was emerging among the besieged Branch Davidians. Separately, a group of prominent Texas lawyers charged that the federal agents were acting as "kooky" as Koresh and called for an independent negotiator to seek an end to the standoff.

Bob Ricks, the FBI spokesman involved in the standoff with Koresh, said that a second cult leader, Steve Schneider, has emerged as someone more willing than Koresh to negotiate an end to the crisis. Koresh, 33, has stymied negotiators throughout the siege, peppering almost every conversation with quotes from the Bible. Ricks said Schneider was a Bible scholar with an uneven temperament, but much more rational than Koresh.

However, Ricks also said Schneider was "totally committed" to the ways of the compound. "He gave up his wife to David Koresh and that takes a lot of dedication," Ricks said.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for a group of prominent lawyers, including criminal attorney Dick DeGuerin of Houston and former McLennan County prosecutor Vic Feazell, filed a request for a temporary restraining order, asking among other things that an independent negotiator help resolve the standoff.

"Our attorneys want to represent them so we can show he (Koresh) is not giving up by coming out of there, but changing the battlefield from one of blood to one of words," said Dave Holloway, a spokesman of the Cause Foundation.

Ricks said efforts to persuade Koresh to release a group of children from the besieged compound are continuing. But he said Koresh had admonished negotiators that doing so "would violate our God-given views.

"You have to understand," Koresh told FBI negotiations, "I am dealing with God, not you."

Officials in Waco also announced that 62-year-old Woodrow Kendrick, another cult member, was arrested Tuesday evening near Waco and charged with attempting to kill an ATF agent in a skrimish a few hours after the Sunday raid. They said two semi-automatic pistols were found during the arrest. Kendrick had apparently slipped through the ring of law enforcement personnel surrounding the compound after the skirmish and was at large until the Tuesday arrest.

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