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4 agents die in raid on cult; Standoff continues near Waco

By Lee Hancock / The Dallas Morning News

WACO -- Four federal agents were killed and at least 15 others were wounded Sunday morning in a gunbattle with members of a heavily armed religious group that says its leader is Christ.

Almost 18 hours after the initial firefight, law officers and cult members were at a standoff at the group's compound east of Waco. Authorities in combat gear ringed the main buildings, and several dozen cult members remained holed up inside as the two sides negotiated by telephone.

Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms officials in Washington said fighting erupted again about 6 p.m. when three cult members emerged from the compound, guns blazing. One was killed, one was injured and one was captured, they said.

Authorities were unable to confirm the number of casualties inside the compound. But the cult leader, former Dallas-area resident Vernon Howell, told The Dallas Morning News that he and other members were wounded and that a 2-year-old child had died.

Also, by late Sunday, four children had been released after KRLD-AM (1080) radio in Dallas played a religious message from Mr. Howell, who said more children would leave if the station continued broadcasting his recording.

A eight-vehicle convoy of vans and cars from Travis County, bringing "hostage negotiation equipment,' arrived at the compound just after midnight, said one of the drivers. A half-dozen tanks also were headed to the compound.

ATF agents led the massive raid shortly after 9:30 a.m. on the 77-acre compound of Mr. Howell's apocalytpic group, called the Branch Davidian. They were met with a wave of gunfire.

Reporters who said they been tipped about the raid-but declined to say by whom-said cult members appeared to be waiting for the agents, who were trying to arrest Mr. Howell on federal weapons charges. The agents intended to search the group's compound for submachine guns and homemade bombs.

"The shooting started before the agents even got out of the trailers' that brought them, said Waco Tribune-Herald reporter Tommy Witherspoon who was at the scene.

ATF Special Agent Ted Royster also said the cult seemed to know about the raid in advance.

Hours after the first round of shooting, in a telephone interview with The News, Mr. Howell said from the compound that several cult members were hurt in the barrage and that a child died. First he said the child was 3 years old, then later gave the age as 2.

Mr. Howell said that federal agents, not Mr. Howell's followers, fired the first shots and that they did so without warning. He also said that he will not surrender until he has a chance to detail his religious message through the news media.

In a later interview with The News, Mr. Howell said the group knew the raid was coming because an undercover agent who had infiltrated the group had left abruptly Sunday morning. The group had learned the agent's identity, he said.

"We were ready for those guys,' Mr. Howell said.

AFT agents declined to say whether they had sources in the group.

Mr. Howell, 33, also known as David Koresh, has claimed that he is

Christ and has bragged about assembling a huge arsenal at the fortlike compound. Neighbors have protested the frequent gunfire heard from the group's home.

Sunday's raid marked the worst loss and one of the biggest operations ever for the ATF, a branch of the Treasury Department.

More than 150 agents from five states, as well as Texas state officers and Texas National Guard support troops, took part in the [Binitial raid, which agents had rehearsed. The cult had been under investigation for eight months, authorities said.

"It appears that they knew we were coming,' Agent Royster said. "We practiced for it. We drilled over and over again. And we had our plan down. We had a diversion down, all put into effect, and they were waiting.'

About 70 cult members, apparently including several children, remained in the compound. Federal reinforcements arrived by plane from Washington. Agents at the scene had at least one armored personnel carrier.

The group apparently had its compound "very heavily fortified,' Agent Royster said, "because all of our forces, both approaching on the ground and the air, took fire from the compound.'

Television pictures showed a small-scale war: agents forcing their way into a large, blocklike farm house, smoke rising, bullets striking armor and people. Some of the agents carried large shields. They scaled ladders to gain the roof, then had to retreat.

Mr. Witherspoon and another reporter, Mark Masferrer, said they were among seven staff members of the Waco Tribune-Herald who arrived at the compound about 8:30 a.m. after receiving a tip that the raid would take place. They did not say who supplied the tip.

The two reporters said they pulled into the driveway of one of two ranch houses across from the compound. A man who appeared to be a federal agent ran from the house and ordered them to leave, they said.

They said federal agents appeared to have taken over both houses before the raid.

Helicopters appeared over the horizon just as two pickup trucks pulling gooseneck livestock trailers arrived at 9:40 a.m., they said. The trailers pulled up to the compound and the shooting began, the reporters said.

"I remember seeing bullets hit the pond that's just in front of the compound,' Mr. Masferrer said. "We expected the worst, and the worst happened.'

Agent Royster said he was in one of the three Texas National Guard helicopters. "My helicopter took (gun) fire,' he said. Two helicopters were hit, he said.

Mr. Masferrer said reporters heard constant popping over their heads for about 10 minutes as they hid in the ditch amid drizzling rain. Shooting stopped and resumed several times, then more shots came after a half-hour lull.

"It sounded like a war zone; people were being hit; you could hear people screaming with the agony, the pain of it,' said John McLemore, a KWTX-TV reporter from Waco who witnessed the shootout.

During a tense cease-fire negotiated by phone between the two sides, helicopters retrieved some wounded agents. Others were dragged to safety by their uninjured colleagues. Some were taken away in ambulances or television news trucks.

ATF identified the slain agents as Steve Willis, 32, Houston;

Robert J. Williams, 26, Little Rock, Ark.; Conway LeBleu, 30, New Orleans; and Todd McKeehan, 28, New Orleans.

Other agents, including a Dallas man, Steven M. Steele, were treated and released, mostly for gunshot wounds. Some were hospitalized at Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center and Providence Hospital.

Agent Royster said two agents were killed on the roof of a building. A third, who was on the ground, might have fallen from the roof, he said. The circumstances of the fourth death weren't immediately known.

After 2 1/2 hours, agents began retreating down the road. Some were helping the wounded. All appeared stunned.

At Hillcrest, where many of the wounded were taken, doctors found that all had been hit by large-caliber, high-velocity bullets, shrapnel or ricochets.

Many were also bruised, apparently where bullet-resistant armor had stopped bullets, said Dr. William Daney, emergency medicine director.

Many victims appeared to have suffered "well-aimed' wounds to the head or neck, Dr. Daney said. "We had to start thinking in terms of who we could save and what we could do,' he said. "Those who died received such grave wounds that they never had a chance.'

The agents who were not wounded were grim and quiet, Dr. Daney said.

"There was not a lot of crying and wailing,' he said, "but you could see the anger in their eyes.'

Agent Royster became emotional while reading a statement from ATF Director Steven Higgins.

"We are deeply saddened,' the agent read. He had to pause, his voice cracking. He resumed the statement.

"Our hearts go out to these brave agents who died today in the line of duty, and to their families.'

In the start of a series about the cult in Saturday's editions, the Waco Tribune-Herald quoted a former group member as saying the members "were thought of as God's marines.'

"If you can't die for God, you can't live for God,' the former member was quoted as saying. Other former members accused Mr. Howell of polygamy and of having sexual relations with children. Mr. Howell confirmed the polygamy Sunday, but denied any child abuse.

The newspaper's editor, Bob Lott, said Sunday that federal agents asked the newspaper a month ago to delay publication. The articles were held for other reasons, he said.

He said the newspaper told the ATF on Friday that the series would start Saturday. "That did not force us to go today,' Agent Royster said. "We had known about the articles for quite a while.'

One former group member told the newspaper that the arsenal at the compound, called Mount Carmel, included .50-caliber weapons, Russian AK-47s, AR-15 semiautomatic rifles, Israeli assault rifles, 9mm handguns and other weapons.

The shootout Sunday was not the first violent incident at the compound.

Mr. Howell and seven other group members were charged with attempted murder after a 1987 confrontation with a rival cult leader. The seven others were acquitted, and charges against Mr. Howell later were dropped.

The group was founded as an offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1930, but the church has disavowed the sect. Branch Davidian members have said that when the world ends, the Seventh-day Adventists will be judged and destroyed, religious scholars said.

Mr. Howell said that he was chosen to open seven secret seals that are referred to in the biblical book of Revelation.

"There's no rational basis for anything they are doing, scripturally or otherwise,' said Dr. Bob E. Patterson, professor of theology at nearby Baylor University. "Whatever this guy is espousing, it comes from a delusional reading of the book of Revelation.'

Staff writers Todd Copilevitz and Aline McKenzie in Waco and Randy Lee Loftis, Victoria Loe and Daniel Cattau in Dallas contributed to this report.

      © 1996 The Dallas Morning News
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