Frustration and friction grow as standoff at Texas cult compound drags on

April 11, 1993|By Patrick A. McGuire | Patrick A. McGuire,Staff Writer

WACO, Texas -- It was one of those soul-jarring thunderclap that detonate out of the blue, forcing involuntary cries from throats and blasting a little hairline crack down the length of the most cast-iron of nerves. Even the unflappable Bob Ricks, a senior FBI official involved in trying to resolve the bitter 43-day standoff down here between federal agents and a heavily armed religious cult, stopped in mid-sentence and looked instantly to the heavens. "Oh, wow," he said, gulping, a most unusual display of emotion for an FBI agent.

He quickly laughed it off, and the assembled news corps, gathered for its daily briefing on the siege, nervously laughed with him. But the tension remained. After all, this whole standoff has hinged each day on the frustrating, though irreverent, question of when God will finally speak to cult leader David Koresh and tell him it's OK to surrender his 90-member flock to the army of federal agents camped outside his fortress.

Even more grim, the thunderbolt erupted last week just as Mr. Ricks was discussing the number of dead bodies believed to be inside the Branch Davidian compound -- bodies of cult members killed during the shootout Feb. 28 when four agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were shot dead and 16 others wounded as they tried to serve an arrest warrant on Mr. Koresh.

Since then, FBI agents, ATF agents, Texas Rangers and state troopers have ringed the castle-like compound, holding off on another assault in hopes of a negotiated settlement.

In its early days, there was reason to hope the siege would end peacefully, but Mr. Koresh has already reneged on one promise to surrender. And phone conversations between the FBI on one end and Mr. Koresh and his chief lieutenant, Stephen Schneider, on the other, indicate that the cult leaders appear to be waffling on their most recent pledge to their attorneys to give up after they celebrate Passover.

"That's very disheartening to us," Mr. Ricks said last week. "Not only do we have to wait for Passover, but now we still have to wait for David to get his message from God."

Throughout the ordeal, the FBI has repeated two themes: First, it wants to avoid further bloodshed, but second, as Mr. Ricks has said, the agents have "other weapons in our arsenal."

Earlier, the FBI suggested that it could outlast the cultists, but a senior ATF official said last week -- as the siege approached its 44th day tomorrow, when it would surpass the length of the Persian Gulf war -- that his men were growing impatient.

At the same time, whether for the benefit of Mr. Koresh -- who is said to monitor the news briefings on local television -- or out of impatience, the FBI frequently has repeated its threats of possible action.

"There are a lot of options we have available," another senior FBI official, Richard Swensen, said last week. "It could happen at any time. Clearly, we're not going to go on here forever."

Though they won't discuss their vaguely stated plan of "full containment," it could draw on the several tanks and heavily armed Bradley Fighting Vehicles available, the snipers posted at key positions and the elite FBI hostage rescue team that hovers regularly over the compound in helicopters.

Yet, in almost the same breath, Mr. Swensen stated the simple reason that no action has been taken and the source of most of the FBI's frustration: "As you all know, we've got a bunch of kids in that place."

The FBI says there are 16 children in the compound, including three fathered by Mr. Koresh by three women who became pregnant when they were 14 to 16 years old.

"Some of our tracked vehicles come very close to the house, and we've seen kids being lifted up in the windows," Mr. Swensen said.

"The evidence would indicate they are still hiding behind the kids. So as long as we think there's a chance of peacefully getting everybody out, especially with those kids in there, we're going to do that. But if the point comes when we decide that it's not making any more sense to wait, then we'll do other things."

As if tensions over the standoff itself weren't enough, other issues among the three law enforcement agencies involved have caused some friction. Most obvious is the awkward relationship between the FBI and the ATF.

The White House ordered the FBI put in charge of the negotiations after the raid's failure, and during daily media briefings, ATF spokesmen have had to defer to the FBI on most questions. But a week ago, in a clear move to bolster its image, the ATF sent David Troy, a smooth-talking division chief, to Waco. He has since managed to secure half of the daily news briefing solely for his own question-and-answer period.

Another jurisdictional matter is the investigation of the raid itself. The Texas Rangers -- the criminal investigative arm of the Texas Department of Public Safety -- are officially handling the inquiry into the Feb. 28 shootings, and they have been at odds with the FBI over the condition of the crime scene.

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