The Dallas Morning News
Gun dealer, Koresh called partners Man apparently helped Branch Davidians purchase weapons legally
A Texas gun dealer considered a major supplier for an embattled Waco cult described David Koresh as a business partner who bankrolled some of the purchases, federal officials and a Dallas firearms wholesaler said Tuesday.
The dealer., Henry McMahon of Hewitt, near Waco, helped Mr. Koresh, the cult's leader, legally acquire dozens of AR-15 assault weapons and a .50 caliber sniper rifle capable of accurately hitting targets more than a mile away, the sources said. The weapon is not a machine gun and would be difficult to modify into a fully automatic weapon, gun experts said.
Mr. McMahon, who has been questioned extensively by agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and has sought their protection in Florida, could not be reached for comment. He has not been charged with a crime, federal officials said, and is cooperating with their investigation.
"He is scared to death right now," one federal official said.
A spokeswoman for the .50-caliber gun's manufacturer, Barrett Firearms Manufacturing of Murfreesboro, Tenn., said the weapon is designed for military use and was used by U.S. forces during the Persian Gulf war to disable light Iraqi armored vehicles. Mr. Koresh paid about $7,000 for the weapon, the Dallas wholesaler said.
Federal officials who declined to be named said that weapon and most - if not all - of the other guns, chemicals, propellants, grenade hulls and ammunition stockpiled by the cult were obtained legally at gun shows and from dealers and manufacturers in Texas, Florida and Washington state.
Authorities suspect that many of the weapons stockpiled by the group in its compound near Waco have been illegally modified and that chemicals purchased in caseloads have been used to manufacture bombs, hand grenades and other explosive devices.
That cache has been described as the target of a raid Feb. 28 by ATF agents. They were confronted by armed cult members, and at least two of the more than a dozen ATF agents hurt in the firefight were injured by fragmentation grenades, authorities said.
Mr. Koresh does not hold a federal firearms license, a permit that allows anyone to deal in guns after a cursory ATF criminal background check.
Authorities said his relationship with a federal firearms license holder could ease his efforts to acquire guns, weapons parts and other items. Many arms components acquired by Mr. Koresh or his followers were legally purchased federal officials said. Buying most gun parts from a manufacturer does not require a federal firearms license .
From one Washington state manufacturer of AR-15s, an official said, Mr. Koresh got several parts shipments valued at more than $10,000 each.
Mr. Koresh was often seen at Texas gun shows working with Mr. McMahon's company, Hewitt Handguns, said a Dallas firearms wholesaler, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"We didn't know much about him. We understood he was involved in rock 'n' roll production," the wholesaler said. "He seemed to be a rich and eccentric guy."
Mr. McMahon described the 33-year-old Mr. Koresh as the financial backer for Hewitt Handguns, the wholesaler said.
A Waco-area gun dealer familiar with Mr. McMahon said the Pensacola Fla.-area man arrived in McLennan County about two years ago and started a gun business in his girlfriend's house. Florida records show that Mr. McMahon, 30, was vice president of a Gulf Breeze gun dealership before moving to Texas.
The Waco dealer, who also declined to be named, said some residents became suspicious of Mr. McMahon because he bragged about selling large quantities of assault rifles to Mr. Koresh.
The Dallas wholesaler said Mr. Koresh - using the name Vernon Howell - came to his Dallas gun dealership several years ago and tried use the Hewitt Handguns firearms license for a wholesale purchase of 12 Colt AR-15 assault rifles.
"He appeared to be in business with Mr. McMahon. We assumed he was a financial backer," the Dallas gun dealer said. "He had the dealer's federal firearms license, but we couldn't reach McMahon by telephone so we refused to make the sale."
Mr. Koresh immediately pulled out $7,100 in cash and bought the guns as a retail customer, the dealer said.
When he later reached Mr. McMahon by phone, the Dallas wholesaler said, the Hewitt gun dealer "verified that they were in business, that (Mr. Koresh) was his financial backer." The Dallas wholesaler said he later shipped another dozen AR-15 assault rifles to Hewitt Handguns to fill a $7,000 order placed by Mr. Koresh. He also sold several pistols to the Central Texas business that he understood were bound for Mr. Koresh, he said.
Last year, the Dallas wholesaler said, Mr. Koresh bought the .SO-caliber Barrett Firearms sniper rifle and about 100 rounds of .SO-caliber ammunition after seeing the weapon displayed in the Dallas dealer's booth at a Houston-area gun show.
"He came by and admired it, and about a week later, he bought it. He paid $7,000 for it," said the dealer, who added that he was not the only weapons wholesaler who did business with Hewitt Handguns.
Authorities have speculated that the weapon may have been converted to fully automatic after it was taken into Mr. Koresh's rural compound.
But both the Dallas gun dealer and a spokesman for the Tennessee company said the weapon would be difficult to convert. "It's designed as a rifle and not as an automatic weapon. Converting it would require major design changes," said the spokeswoman, who asked that her name not be printed.
If someone were capable of making such changes, the Dallas wholesaler said, the gun would be dangerously unstable. "You couldn't control it. The recoil is just too strong."
AFT officials could not be reached later Tuesday for comment on the possible conversion of the weapon.
The 32-pound weapon, which is mounted on a bipod, can hit targets as far as 5,900 feet - or more than a mile away.
In Hewitt, local police said they received complaints about Mr. McMahon more than a year before he came under federal scrutiny.
Mr. McMahon left Hewitt for Pensacola this year.
The Dallas Morning News
Cryptic sign at compound asks for help FBI negotiators unable to explain members' plea
WACO -- After nine days of staring through heat waves dancing up from the fields surrounding the Branch Davidian compound, reporters couldn't believe their eyes Tuesday.
Shortly after 4 p.m., a banner approximately 4 by 8 feet fluttered out of the compound watchtower. It was the first sign of life in the compound since the bloody shootout with federal agents Feb. 28.
Photographers and TV camera crews rushed to get film of the action, while reporters with powerful binoculars passed word to others gathered nearby that written in simple block letters was: "God help us. We want the press.'
About 2 1/2 hours after it went up, the sign was taken down.
No one, including FBI officials at the negotiating headquarters near the compound, could explain what it meant. Earlier in the day, an even more cryptic message was displayed from the same window when a single white sheet was hung out into the wind, and after about 45 minutes it disappeared as quickly as it appeared.
Dallas radio station KGBS (1190 AM) told listeners that it had asked cult leader David Koresh on the air to display a white banner if he wished to communicate with them.
The Dallas Morning News
MeLennan joins talks with cult leader
WACO -- McLennan County Sheriff Jack Harwell has joined federal negotiators in trying to persuade cult leader David Koresh to end his 10-day-old standoff with federal officers.
FBI Special Agent Bob Ricks said Tuesday that Sheriff Harwell was allowed to telephone Mr. Koresh on Monday after talks with federal negotiators stalled. Agent Ricks said Mr. Koresh has displayed split personalities in the telephone talks, from spewing profanities to portraying himself as a peacemaker.
"We had gone approximately three days with no positive conversation taking place, and we were looking for something that might get the conversations rolling back on a more positive note,' the agent said.
"The sheriff has had numerous contacts with David Koresh, and those contacts have generally been positive,' he said. "The sheriff is respected by Mr. Koresh, and it was our hope that by getting someone in there that he trusted, we could get the negotiations going back in a more positive vein.'
Agent Ricks did not say how long the telephone call lasted or release any details of the conversation. However, he said six gallons of milk were delivered to the compound as a result of the cult leader's talk with the sheriff.
In other developments Tuesday:
Custody hearings were held for the 21 children freed by Mr. Koresh. A judge awarded temporary custody of 18 children to state Children's Protective Services and ordered three released to their father.
Two elderly members of the cult who had been jailed were released to the custody of a "trusted individual' in an undisclosed location, Agent Ricks said. He did not name that person.
Margaret Lawson, 75, and Catherine Mattson, 77, left the cult's compound last week and initially were charged with murder, but the charges later were dismissed. Both women had remained in jail until Tuesday as material witnesses to the raid.
Gary Coker of Waco, Mrs. Mattson's lawyer, said the two women were released after they agreed not to speak with anyone but their attorneys. Mr. Coker said Mr. Koresh's mother contacted him Tuesday and asked him to consider representing her son.
Mr. Coker said he also has contacted Kirk Lyons, a North Carolina lawyer formerly of Houston who has been associated with cases involving white supremacist groups, such as the Aryan Nations.
A federal magistrate postponed a detention hearing for Delroy Nash, a cult member captured after a shootout with federal agents Feb. 28. Mr. Nash remained jailed without bail.
In Washington, Stephen Higgins, director of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said on the NBC-TV Today show that federal agents are prepared to wait out Mr. Koresh.
"We're prepared to stay there for a long time. Indefinitely,' he said.
In LaVerne, Calif., federal investigators searched a home owned by one current member of the cult and occupied by two former followers of Mr. Koresh.
ATF agents were looking for documents, business records and other information, said John D'Angelo, an ATF spokesman in Los Angeles.
"We're going to be taking a fair amount of materials,' Agent D'Angelo said. He said that the sealed warrant did not seek any weapons.
In the first visible sign of life at the Branch Davidian compound for several days, a white banner appeared at an upper-story window.
Radio station KGBS (1190 AM) in Dallas said the banner appeared moments after radio show host Ron Engelman suggested that a white flag be displayed if Mr. Koresh wanted the station's legal and medical help.
Later Tuesday afternoon, another banner was hung from a window. It bore the words: "God help us. We want the press.'
Throughout the day, armored vehicles cruised the perimeter of the Mount Carmel compound. One, and sometimes two vehicles, would approach the compound, then quickly race away. Federal authorities would not explain the maneuvers.
At the daily news briefing in Waco, Agent Ricks said Sheriff Harwell had been brought into the negotiations because he has gotten to know Mr. Koresh well during his 20 years as the county's chief law enforcement officer.
According to some news accounts, it took just a telephone call from the sheriff to get Mr. Koresh to turn himself in after a 1987 shootout with a rival cult leader.
Agent Ricks said the sheriff may be called on again to help with the negotiations, depending on the circumstances.
Sheriff Harwell was at the besieged Mount Carmel compound Monday -- as he has been every day since the Feb. 28 shootout that left four ATF agents dead -- and was unavailable for comment, said Sheriff's Lt. Truman Simons.
Lt. Simons said Mr. Koresh and his followers might be "more amenable' to surrendering to someone they know and trust. "It would be a good outlet for them to save face,' he said.
Agent Ricks said Mr. Koresh indicated once again to negotiators Tuesday that he is prepared to surrender peacefully when he receives a message from God.
The day before, Agent Ricks had painted a darker side of Mr. Koresh, saying he was spoiling for a fight and was even trying to provoke officers into a confrontation.
Those conflicting positions have surfaced throughout the negotiations, Agent Ricks said.
"We have a dual track going in our discussions with Mr. Koresh where we go from discussions of belligerency to one of he wants to be a peacemaker,' he said.
He also said that those inside the compound tend to lead a Spartan life and that Mr. Koresh keeps late hours. "Generally, he's the last one to get up,' Agent Ricks said.
Agent Ricks said he has sufficient personnel and equipment to handle the situation and has no plans to call on the military for help.
"We have sufficient firepower if we chose to completely neutralize the situation at any moment,' he said.
At least four unarmed Abrams tanks were dispatched to the area Monday after Mr. Koresh boasted that he had weapons capable of destroying the smaller Bradley armored personnel carriers at the site.
Federal authorities conceded Tuesday that they may be overestimating the amount of firepower at Mr. Koresh's command. "If we make a mistake, we have to overestimate their capabilities,' Agent Ricks said.
Mr. Koresh "has not specifically described the weaponry he possesses,' Agent Ricks said.
ATF spokesman Dan Conroy warned reporters to exercise caution in dealing with members of the cult or their relatives. He said shots had been fired at reporters in Palestine, Texas.
Spokesmen for the Palestine Herald-Press and the San Antonio Express-News confirmed that reporters had heard what sounded like small-caliber arms fire as they departed after an unsuccessful attempt to interview residents of a parcel of land Mr. Koresh owns near Palestine.
In Austin, Gov. Ann Richards said Tuesday she is "worried to death' about the standoff and particularly about the fate of the children still inside the compound.
She said that if she could talk to Mr. Koresh, she would appeal to him to "remember the children, and remember their lives and remember their future. . . . I hope very much that he will keep them constantly in mind and that he will release them.'
Staff writers Victoria Loe and Lee Hancock in Dallas, David McLemore in Waco and Christy Hoppe in Austin contributed to this report.