Texas cult, law agents in standoff High toll of raid raises questions at White House

March 02, 1993|By Sam Howe Verhovek | Sam Howe Verhovek,New York Times News Service

WACO, Texas -- Almost 400 federal agents and local police officers were massed last night near the compound of a religious cult where a shootout left six people dead the day before, while inside a man who says he is Jesus Christ remained in control of what the authorities described as a massive cache of legal and illegal weapons.

As the tense standoff continued in a gloomy drizzle, White House officials questioned yesterday the timing and the execution of the raid by federal and state agencies Sunday, and whether rivalries between them had contributed to the failed effort to arrest the cult leader, David Koresh. Four agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were killed, 16 agents were wounded, and two cult members were killed in the subsequent gun battle.

Law enforcement officials in Washington announced that they had begun an investigation into the deaths and expressed concerns that the federal and local authorities might have violated procedures in their approach to the sect's 77-acre compound along a rural road 11 miles northeast of here.

The officials also said they had reason to think that some local reporters had been told of the raid, which officials here deny, and that lax security about the operation might have given the cult the kind of warning it needed to mount the surprise assault that met the agents when they arrived there.

Officials here said they thought that from 70 to 100 members of the cult were still inside the compound. Late yesterday afternoon, an infant and an older girl were released through the compound's front door, the ninth and 10th children that Mr. Koresh has let go since the ordeal began.

He claims to have 19 wives and many more children by all of them, and the sound of children could be heard in the background as he spoke to a radio station yesterday. Both the local police and the federal authorities said they did not know how many children were still inside.

Among the weapons inside the compound were at least one tripod-mounted, .50-caliber machine gun, which is illegal for civilians to possess and may have been stolen from a military supply depot, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, lTC Tobacco and Firearms said. But many of the other weapons were semiautomatic assault rifles and other semiautomatic weapons purchased legally in recent months.

Before a cease-fire was negotiated by cult members and law-enforcement officers, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of rounds were fired.

One relative of a cult member said the member had been told by Mr. Koresh, who is 33, to purchase several handguns with her credit card in preparation for his apocalyptic vision of a bloody conflict that would amount to his crucifixion and would allow his followers to go with him to Heaven.

The cult leader spoke by telephone to a Dallas radio station yesterday and insisted, as he has since Sunday afternoon, that he was bleeding from a gunshot wound in the stomach.

"I've been shot," he said. "I'm bleeding bad. I'm going home. I'm going back to my father."

The authorities here said they had no idea how seriously he was wounded, if at all.

There were endless questions about the planning and execution of the raid, some from White House officials who discussed the raid with the Justice Department, an official said. Among the questions were why the federal officials decided to conduct it in the first place rather than apprehending the self-proclaimed Messiah during one of his occasional jogs outside the compound. It was also unclear why the raid was conducted at midmorning rather than the more standard time for such actions, usually early after sunrise, when the suspects are more likely to be sleeping.

Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, who said he had spoken to President Clinton and Gov. Ann W. Richards about the raid, was asked at a briefing yesterday whether the firearms bureau, a division of the Treasury, had handled the operation in the right way.

"I can't really evaluate this till we get through and see what's happened," he said.

Officials with the firearms bureau, some of whom said they were still stunned by the deaths, provided scant answers at a news briefing yesterday morning and canceled an update late yesterday afternoon.

As attention was focused on the events near this central Texas city, interviews with former cult members in California and Australia, where Mr. Koresh made two recruiting trips in recent years, revealed a portrait of a man who had gained near total control of his followers. He dictated what they could eat and wear and told many of the men that it was God's will that he have sex with their wives.

Mr. Koresh was born as Vernon Howell but changed his legal name to David Koresh two years ago.

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