Truth may lie in Waco rubble, specialists say Inferno's start is still unclear

April 26, 1993|By Boston Globe

WACO, Texas -- One apocalypse. Two stories.

Millions were watching as the Branch Davidian compound here went up in flames a week ago.

But in the days that followed, two radically different versions of the cataclysm emerged, confounding local residents and the global television audience that witnessed the event.

In the immediate aftermath of the blaze, which capped a 51-day standoff between federal agents and 95 members of the heavily armed religious cult, the FBI charged that Branch Davidians had lighted the inferno and that some cult members might have been murdered while trying to escape.

Yet cult survivors would soon tell their lawyers that Branch Davidians never planned a mass suicide and that the fire was ignited when government tanks ramming the compound overturned several lanterns.

According to arson experts and forensic specialists, investigators at the scene may find the truth in the smoldering rubble of the cult's headquarters and the remains of the estimated 86 fire victims.

An autopsy on two of the bodies pulled from the ashes has revealed bullet wounds in the head.

One of the two gunshot victims was identified yesterday as cult leader David Koresh's brother-in-law, David Michael Jones.

In the meantime, many of those awaiting an explanation of the disaster are attributing the divergent views that have surfaced to the disparate interests of those involved.

"An immense tragedy like this begs explanation, and those who took part naturally will try to cover their tracks," said Harold Osborne, a criminology professor at Baylor University. "I don't know if anyone is deliberately lying, but we're certainly getting some very different perspectives on what happened out there."

The differing accounts continue to vie for the public's allegiance in part because neither side has presented conclusive evidence to buttress its version of events.

The FBI, in the dramatic hours after the conflagration obliterated the compound, blamed the cult's self-styled Messiah for the tragic loss of life. "David Koresh gave the order to commit suicide," said FBI Agent Bob Ricks, adding that FBI sharpshooters had seen cult members setting the fire at more than one location.

But since then, federal officials have not explained how they came to believe that Mr. Koresh issued the order for a mass immolation. Nor have they produced the agents who are said to have witnessed cult members igniting the blaze.

The claims of Branch Davidians -- nine survived the fire -- inspire no greater confidence. Lawyers for cult members have said their clients believe the fire was started inadvertently when government tanks began punching holes in the facility so tear gas could be pumped in.

But they also have said that none of the surviving cult members saw a toppled lantern start the fire and that surviving Branch Davidians merely assume that the tanks caused the blaze.

"He did not see the lantern go over," said Dick Kettler, a court-appointed attorney representing Renos Avraam, a 29-year-old cult member. "He heard the tank crash into the wall, and very shortly thereafter he saw fire erupt from the room where a lantern was and the fire started."

Moreover, both sides of the dispute have been stymied in their efforts to mount compelling arguments because each has appeared less than truthful at earlier stages of the standoff.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms -- which initiated the standoff with a botched Feb. 28 raid that left four agents and several cult members dead -- has said its attempt to arrest Koresh on illegal weapons charges failed because cult members were tipped to the operation at the last moment, robbing about 100 agents of the element of surprise.

But an affidavit released last week by federal prosecutors shows that the ATF knew that cult members had been warned of the raid and that they decided to storm the cult compound anyway.

By the same token, Mr. Koresh lied to federal negotiators at several junctures during the standoff -- most dramatically during its first week, when the 33-year-old cult leader reneged on an agreement to surrender after authorities complied with his request to air a one-hour tape in which he offered a rambling account of his religious beliefs.

In this central Texas city, some of those here awaiting a resolution of the dispute say it is natural, to a degree, for participants in an explosive confrontation to see events differently. Others are angered by what appear to be premeditated attempts to control the story of the Branch Davidians.

"We seem to be living in an age when you choose the side you want and then try to find reasons to support your position without ever looking for the cold, scientific facts," said Ralph Strother, a former county prosecutor now in private practice in Waco.

Mr. Strother takes particular umbrage at attempts by Houston attorney Dick DeGuerin to portray the Branch Davidians as victims of an FBI cadre of negotiators who lost their patience and precipitated the deaths of 86 people.

"Most of the people I know were sickened by his ambulance-chasing technique," Mr. Strother said.

But Justice Department officials also appear to have gone to great lengths to "spin" the story of Mr. Koresh's demise in a direction favorable to the government.

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