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Federal Officials Blamed as Waco Cult Trial Opens : Justice: Defense says government is responsible for death of 4 agents. Prosecutor contends the 11 defendants engaged in a deliberate ambush.

January 13, 1994|ROBERT L. JACKSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN ANTONIO — In opening statements Wednesday, defense attorneys for surviving members of the Branch Davidian cult argued that federal firearms officials caused the death of their own agents last February by forcibly invading the "peaceful, religious life" of the group near Waco, Tex.

But the prosecutor in the case, while making no attempt to defend the wisdom of a raid on the cult's headquarters by agents from the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, argued in return that the "ATF is not on trial here." Rather, he said, the 11 defendants deliberately ambushed the agents in accordance with leader David Koresh's "theology of death."

The statements--which painted a widely different view of the cult and its members--launched testimony in the trial of 11 cult members charged with conspiring to murder four ATF agents killed during a Feb. 28 raid on the compound.

Besides determining the guilt or innocence of the accused, the trial also is expected to provide the first clear picture of what occurred inside the compound during 51 fateful days last spring. A key prosecution witness in the case will be former cult member Kathryn Schroeder, who has agreed to testify in return for facing a lesser charge.

The ill-fated ATF raid led to a 51-day standoff between federal agents and the cult members that ended only when FBI agents, using armored vehicles and tear gas, stormed the headquarters on April 19. More than 85 people ultimately died when a fire--allegedly set by cult members--consumed the compound shortly after the final assault began.

U.S. District Judge Walter Smith Jr. impaneled a jury here after moving the trial 180 miles south from Waco on grounds that he would find a less-biased group of jurors.

Defense attorneys Jeff Kearney and Dan Cogdell charged that in ordering the raid--ostensibly because weapons were being stockpiled at the compound--ATF officials were seeking "a dynamic event" that would draw attention to the agency's work. They noted that the episode occurred shortly before Congress was to consider its annual budget and at a time when some ATF officials feared that their agency was losing its identity and might be merged into the FBI, an idea that has since been dropped.

The ATF could have chosen quietly instead to serve arrest and search warrants on Koresh during one of his trips outside the fenced compound, Kearney said.

But prosecutor Ray Jahn argued that the killings occurred as a direct result of the cult's philosophy.

"David Koresh taught that, 'if you want to die for God, you must be willing to kill for God,' " Jahn told the jury. "This trial is about a physical act--murder. This is not a trial about religion."

Jahn went on to say that the government's evidence "will put a firearm in the hands of each defendant."

If convicted of the murder charges against them, the defendants could face life in prison.

Some of those on trial left the compound early in the ensuing siege, while others escaped during the April fire. Three are British, one is Australian and one is Canadian. All except one are men.

A harsh report by an investigative panel in October criticized the raid's planning and execution. ATF director Stephen E. Higgins abruptly retired on the eve of the report and five other agency officials took early retirement or were suspended.

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