SAN ANTONIO — Kathryn Schroeder, frequently brushing back strands of long brown hair and weeping, has been the government's chief witness against 11 Branch Davidian cultists charged with conspiring to murder four federal agents last February--an episode that culminated 51 days later in a conflagration that left more than 80 dead.
During the last month, Schroeder and more than 100 other witnesses for the prosecution have described in court for the first time events inside the compound: cult leader David Koresh's erratic behavior, his insistence on building up a cache of fearsome weapons--such as hand grenades and assault rifles--and his preachings that cult members must be willing to "kill for God" in any showdown with the government.
Although the prosecution's case has been built largely on eyewitness testimony, it has left some gaps for the jury to ponder, even as defense attorneys prepare to begin their presentation.
Schroeder, for example, testified that she saw eight of the 11 defendants on trial holding guns during the standoff. But she did not see any of them fire a weapon, she said.
Similarly, Bernadette Griffin, an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which raided the compound, said she saw defendant Jaime Castillo aim a rifle at her but never saw him fire at anyone.
But the witness who has drawn the most attention is the 31-year-old Schroeder. Widowed when her husband, Michael, was killed in the Feb. 28 shootout, she subsequently agreed to testify for the government in return for a reduction of the charges against her.
Her credibility has been attacked during cross-examination by defense lawyers.
Attorney Dan Cogdell asked Schroeder if she had told a cellmate before reaching her plea bargain: "I'm going to tell them (the prosecutors) whatever they want to hear. I've got to get out of prison to be with my children."
Schroeder's reply: "I don't remember."
Under questioning by Jeff Kearney, another defense lawyer, Schroeder acknowledged that she already has received an initial sum of money as part of a movie deal. Although not mentioning amounts, she said most of the money will come later.
In an effort to gain the sympathy of jurors, the defendants have been pictured by their lawyers as Bible-toting victims of Koresh who are nonviolent by nature. Schroeder partly contributed to this image. She tearfully told of being forced to serve as one of Koresh's wives in the compound and portrayed him as dominating his followers.
She quoted Koresh as telling the cult members: "If you can't kill for God, you can't die for God." She said many followed his orders.
Wounded in the initial shootout, Koresh predicted that he would die and developed a suicide plot for his group, Schroeder and other cultists said.
Former cult member Victorine Hollingsworth, 59, told jurors: "Everyone was happy that this was going to be the end . . . and we would go to our heavenly mother and our heavenly father." But Koresh recovered from his wounds and called off the plan, she said.
Cult members also testified that at least two of their wounded members were "finished off" by Koresh's close aides.
Robert Rodriguez, an undercover agent for the ATF, confirmed a key finding in a federal investigative report last fall by testifying that Koresh was tipped off to the raid and thus had his followers armed and ready.
"Neither the ATF nor the National Guard will get me," he quoted Koresh as saying.
Rodriguez said he immediately told his superiors that Koresh knew of their plan. But the raid took place anyway. Defense lawyers want jurors to doubt the credibility of ATF officials, five of whom later were reprimanded for lying in claiming that they thought they had preserved the element of surprise.
The Waco defendants, if convicted in the federal courthouse named for Wood, face up to life imprisonment. Under federal conspiracy law, anyone who contributes in any way to a group's criminal activity--in this case murder--may be found guilty.
Times researcher Lianne Hart in Houston contributed to this story.