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Waco Cult Set Fire, Arson Probers Say

April 27, 1993|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HOUSTON — In a finding that lends credence to the FBI version of how the Branch Davidian compound was engulfed in flames, arson investigators on Monday said they believed followers of cult leader David Koresh set the fires that swept through the flimsy buildings, killing as many as 86 men, women and children.

"The team believes this fire was intentionally set by persons inside the compound," said Paul Gray, a Houston arson investigator who is heading up the examination of the charred structures where those inside held off federal authorities for 51 days before the April 19 fire.

The fire was ignited in "at least two locations . . . significantly distant enough from each other that they couldn't have been set by the same source at the same time," Gray said.

There have been two versions of how the fire started and spread. The FBI said that several snipers observed Branch Davidians starting the fires, while cult members who survived the blaze said the fire started when a federal vehicle knocked over a lantern.

In his preliminary findings, Gray said that large amounts of flammable liquids added to the unnaturally rapid spread of the flames.

Gray said all the investigators were independent of any federal law enforcement agency. However, a spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in Houston confirmed that Gray had in the past worked with that agency as part of a federal task force. And he also said that Gray's wife works for the ATF in Houston as a secretary.

The ATF was the federal agency that launched the Feb. 28 raid on the compound in an effort seize possibly illegal weapons. Four agents were killed and 16 others were injured. Since then, the ATF has come under considerable criticism for going through with the raid even after agents knew that the element of surprise had been lost.

Jack Zimmermann, a lawyer who has represented the cultists, took issue with the findings, particularly the conclusion that the fires were deliberately set.

"Based on what?" asked Zimmermann. "Until I see an opinion from an independent, impartial expert, I choose to believe the firsthand accounts of eyewitnesses who said there was no fire started by the Branch Davidians."

Zimmermann said he agreed with everything in the report except the key sentence about how the fire began. Other findings were consistent with what cult members told him or their own lawyers after they escaped from the inferno.

They included the conclusion that the compound was a fire hazard waiting to happen, with no fire walls, long passageways, unprotected vertical openings, large quantities of unusually hazardous materials that included baled hay, paper and ammunition.

The report also said the fire was enhanced by a strong wind that swept through the compound because of the large holes rammed into the walls by tanks. The report said the fire spread so quickly that firefighters would have been useless even if they had arrived on the scene when the buildings were engulfed.

Among those investigating the cause of the fire at the compound is William Cass, a senior investigator for the Los Angeles Fire Department's Arson Investigation Section.

The team's findings will be submitted to Attorney General Janet Reno, who ordered the independent report to answer questions about the FBI's responsibility in the fire.

Also in Waco Monday, another of the cult victims was identified and an autopsy showed she had a bullet wound to the head. Justice of the Peace David Pareya identified the cult member as Shari Doyle, 18. He said that besides the gunshot wound, other contributing factors to her death were smoke, carbon monoxide poisoning and heat.

In another development Monday, cult member Paul Fatta, who was away from the compound on the day of the raid, gave himself up to Texas Rangers in Houston. He was charged with conspiracy to manufacture and possess unregistered machine guns.

His lawyer, Mike DeGeurin, called the charges "vague," but said his client could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

Fatta, along with his 14-year-old son, were attending a gun show in Austin when ATF agents launched their raid on the Koresh compound Feb. 28. For about the first week, Fatta stayed in the Waco area, where the Rangers and federal officials searched for him.

It was later reported that he and his son went to Northern Idaho for a number of weeks as the siege dragged on. DeGeurin said Fatta was to give himself up on the same day that other Branch Davidians exited the compound. But after the fire, DeGeurin set a date with the Rangers for Fatta to give himself up.

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