Jurors get grim details of the deaths of Branch Davidians and their children

February 13, 1994|By New York Times News Service

SAN ANTONIO -- Jurors in the trial of 11 Branch Davidians were told last week that some sect members, terrified and trapped in the flames that were destroying their compound, killed their children, killed one another and killed themselves.

Still others, crammed in a concrete bunker under wet blankets and sleeping bags, suffocated or died from the heat as the fire turned their refuge into a kiln.

Gruesome details of the final moments in the compound, presented as arson experts and a medical examiner outlined the results of their investigations, clearly left some jurors shaken. The testimony came in the fifth week of the trial of 11 members of the Branch Davidian sect on charges of murdering four agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms on Feb. 28 during a botched weapons raid on the cult's compound near Waco, Texas.

Six cult members were also killed, and a standoff with authorities began that ended 51 days later when fire broke out as tanks

operated by FBI officers pumped tear gas into the compound.

One of the counts the defendants are charged with accuses them of setting the fire April 19 that destroyed their compound. The bodies of the cult's leader, David Koresh, and 80 of his followers were found in the rubble. On Thursday, the medical examiner who investigated the deaths, Nizam Peerwani of Fort Worth, Texas, testified that Mr. Koresh, 33, died from a single gunshot wound to the center of the forehead.

His chief lieutenant, Steve Schneider, died near him in the compound's communications room from a gunshot wound in the mouth.

Seventeen other sect members died of gunshots, including five children. At least one woman was shot in the back, and a 2-year-old boy died of a single stab wound to his left chest.

Dr. Peerwani, who led teams performing autopsies, said that 36 corpses, including those of all of the children, were found inside a concrete bunker in the center of the compound.

Seven women died in a hallway that held a trap door leading to an underground bus. "If they were headed for the underground bus, they couldn't access it because the trap door was covered by debris" from a wall that collapsed during battering by the tanks, Dr. Peerwani said.

Most of those in the concrete bunker died of smoke inhalation or suffocation, but several were killed when the roof of the bunker collapsed, Dr. Peerwani said.

Arson investigators used charts and videotapes to support prosecutors' assertions that the Branch Davidians themselves started the fire, but the defense quickly counterattacked.

William Cass, a senior arson specialist with the Los Angeles Fire Department, testified that a four-member group led by an arson expert, Paul Gray of Houston, had determined that the fires started simultaneously in three sections of the compound.

But defense lawyers contend that the fire started some time earlier, in the gymnasium, when FBI tanks knocked over gas lanterns that cult members had scattered throughout the compound.

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