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Waco's 'Dark Questions' Elude Answers, Solace

Davidians: After 6 1/2 years, investigation into the siege is beset with conflicting reports, missing evidence, distrust.

September 26, 1999|JERRY SCHWARTZ | ASSOCIATED PRESS

What happened at Waco?

Why did Todd McKeehan, a 28-year-old Marine veteran of the Gulf War, die in a firefight on American soil? Why did Melissa Morrison, a 6-year-old with a charming smile, perish 51 days later in an inferno?

What explanation is there for some 90 deaths on a 77-acre spread in central Texas?

And why, after 6 1/2 years, are we still asking these questions?

The facts seem simple. On Feb. 28, 1993, agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms tried to serve members of the Branch Davidians, an apocalyptic sect, with search and arrest warrants. A furious gunfight ensued; four agents and six Davidians died that day.

The standoff began. On one side, the Davidians and their leader, David Koresh. On the other, the FBI.

On April 19, an FBI tank rammed the Davidian headquarters, knocking down walls and breaking open holes and then pouring tear gas inside. Around noon, fires broke out--ignited, the government says, by the Davidians--and the compound burned to the ground. Koresh died, along with about 80 of his followers. Seventeen of them were children.

End of story.

But it wasn't.

Since the moment the ATF sent 76 agents to storm David Koresh's home, there have been those who have accused the government of abuse of power, lying and even murder in Waco. Some are extremists, like Timothy McVeigh, who is said to have timed the bombing of the Oklahoma federal building to coincide with the anniversary of the Waco fire.

But others are less easily dismissed, and they were buoyed by the FBI's admission this month that it had, in fact, fired two pyrotechnic tear gas grenades at the Davidian compound, despite previously denying it had used anything that might have sparked a fire.

The FBI insisted the grenades were fired hours before the fire and bounced harmlessly off a concrete bunker. And it turned out the Justice Department had revealed the information to Congress in 1995, but it was buried in 100,000 documents, and even Atty. Gen. Janet Reno appeared unaware of it.

Reno appointed former Missouri Sen. John Danforth to examine the FBI's conduct at Waco--to answer what he called "the dark questions" of Waco.

But where Waco is concerned, there is nothing but dark questions.

For one: Was the government justified in its campaign against David Koresh--rock 'n' roller, polygamist and self-proclaimed Christ?

Born Vernon Wayne Howell to an unmarried 15-year-old girl, Koresh took full control of the Branch Davidians in 1988. The Davidians, an offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventists, have repeatedly predicted the end of the world from Waco, where they have lived since 1935.

It is widely known that Koresh had wives as young as 14 and had sex with others even younger. He had appropriated the wives of all the Davidian men; his children, he claimed, would rule the world.

But the ATF said Koresh was depraved in other ways. It alleged that he was running a methamphetamine lab. None was ever found.

David B. Kopel and Paul H. Blackman, in their book "No More Wacos," say the drug allegations were a ruse--the only legal pretext whereby the ATF could seek the military's help.

The military helped train ATF agents for the first assault on Mount Carmel, as the Davidian compound was known; it was revealed this month that three Army special operations officers were there on April 19, though the Pentagon insisted they were merely passive observers.

The main charges against Koresh and his followers were that he was breaking firearms laws--more specifically, converting guns into machine guns. The ATF said Koresh had spent $199,715 in the previous year to buy guns, gun parts and other components, enough to build a fearsome arsenal.

There were many guns at Mount Carmel, but Koresh's supporters and lawyers argue that most were made or bought for profit.

"All gun dealers stockpile weapons," Dick Reavis, author of "The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation," told a congressional hearing.

Warrants in hand, the ATF decided to arrest Koresh at Mount Carmel with a major flourish. The reason, agents said, was that he was a recluse, rarely seen outside the compound. But local newspapers and others reported that he had been seen at an auto repair shop, at two local bars, at a junkyard and jogging down the road.

At 9:48 a.m. on Feb. 28, ATF agent Roland Ballesteros approached Mount Carmel's door and shouted: "Police! Lay down!"

But the Davidians knew they were coming.

Earlier that day, KWTX-TV cameraman James Peeler encountered a postman and asked for directions to the Branch Davidians' place. Reportedly, Peeler told the mailman he'd "better get out of here because . . . they're going to have a big shootout with the religious nuts."

Peeler did not know that the postman was a Branch Davidian--David Jones, Koresh's brother-in-law.

An ATF agent who had infiltrated the Davidians, realizing that the secret was out, excused himself and reported that the ATF had lost the element of surprise.

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