The Dallas Morning News
BYLINE:David McLemore

Release of 7 buoys hopes for end to cult standoff

WACO -- The release of at least seven adults from the Branch Davidian compound Sunday gave federal authorities added hope that momentum has shifted toward a quick, peaceful solution to the three-week standoff between cult followers and federal agents.

Since Friday, nine people have come out of the compound voluntarily. An FBI spokesman said that cult leader David Koresh indicated that 40 women, 39 men and 17 children remain inside the heavily armed compound 10 miles east of Waco.

"We remain very hopeful that a break is coming in this situation and that it will come sooner than later,' said Dick Swensen, an FBI agent. "We would like all of them to come out today. Mr. Koresh has said that he knows he will be coming out and that we will get this resolved soon. Those are his words.'

But one federal law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Sunday that the releases are welcome but still leave federal negotiators wary.

"We're still not seeing any of his children come out of there. For the most part we're just seeing old people, old ladies,' the official said. "In all honesty, we certainly prefer to get anybody. A flow of people is always better than none, but I don't read any trend to it.'

The federal official said there are some indications that the two men released Friday night may have been ejected from the compound for not obeying the sect's rules. Agent Swensen offered no explanation for the releases Sunday.

FBI officials announced during a morning news briefing Sunday that cult members Victorine Hollingsworth, 59, a British citizen, and Annetta Richards, 64, who claims Canadian citizenship, exited the compound about 1:20 a.m. in an ambulance.

Ms. Hollingsworth was taken directly to Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco for emergency treatment of a heart condition aggravated by extremely elevated blood pressure, Agent Swensen said.

Hospital officials said later that Ms. Hollingsworth's blood pressure had dropped but was still high. She was in stable condition late Sunday.

As the news briefing ended about 11:15 a.m. Sunday, federal authorities announced that two more women were being released from the compound at that moment.

Twenty minutes later, Rita Riddle, 35, a U.S. citizen, and Gladys Ottman, 67, who claims Canadian citizenship, arrived at the McLennan County jail in a red Mazda, accompanied by two agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

At 2:35 p.m., an additional three cult members left the compound, this time in a gray car driven by an ATF agent. They were identified by FBI Special Agent Sharon Smith in Washington as Sheila Martin, 46; James Lawten, 70; and Ophelia Santoya, 62. Nationalities were not available for Mr. Lawten and Ms. Santoya. Ms. Martin is the wife of lawyer Wayne Martin, a cult member in the compound who authorities say has been advising the group about their legal rights.

The most recent releases bring to 34 the number of people who have left the Mount Carmel compound since a Feb. 28 shootout. Four ATF agents and an unknown number of cult members were killed and 16 ATF agents wounded.

Ms. Hollingsworth is expected to remain at Hillcrest for five to seven days. The other six people released Sunday, as well as the two men released Friday, are being held at the county jail as material witnesses, the FBI said.

Affidavits on probable cause involving the released people were to be presented to the U.S. attorney's office Sunday, with initial appearances before a federal magistrate expected Monday, Agent Swensen said.

At the hospital, Waco cardiologist Michael Addas said Ms. Hol-lingsworth, a native of Guyana and a naturalized British subject, was being treated for hypertensive cardiomyopathy, a weakening of the heart muscle due to high blood pressure. The doctor said Ms. Hol-lingsworth showed no apparent ill effects resulting from the three-week siege of the compound.

FBI officials said Ms. Hollingsworth was not a cult leader and had apparently been bedridden during the siege.

Dr. Addas would not comment on whether Ms. Hollingsworth's condition was worsened by the stress of the siege. He said that there was no indication of dehydration and that she had stayed in bed because of a chronic arthritic condition in her left ankle.

In response to reporters' questions, Agent Swensen said federal authorities remain very optimistic that the siege, now entering its fourth week, will end peacefully.

"In the days since this began, there has not been one shot fired, no one has been hurt, and we've gotten people out on a steady basis,' he said. "That's the evidence.'

He added that a number of factors have led to what appears to be a change in the thinking of Mr. Koresh and his followers.

"We've had long-term negotiations that have led to building trust with Mr. Koresh. There is also an understanding on his part that we aren't going away, that he will be coming out of there,' Agent Swensen said. "Also, the wounds people have and the conditions inside the compound add to the pressures on this to end this thing soon.'

Federal agents continued psychological tactics Sunday night, illuminating the compound with bright lights and blaring tape recordings of past telephone negotiations over loudspeakers.

Mr. Koresh is still waiting for a message from God, as well as some vague astrological signs before he leaves the compound, Agent Swensen said.

Another factor in recent talks is the apparent revival of Mr. Koresh as the principal spokesman for federal negotiators to deal with.

In recent weeks, the lengthy late-night talks with Mr. Koresh receded as he apparently gave negotiating responsibilities to one of his lieutenants, Steve Schneider, setting off speculation that Mr. Koresh may be too weak to talk because of wounds suffered in the gunbattle.

However, federal authorities said Sunday that Mr. Koresh is again the primary contact for their talks, speaking with negotiators for several hours until 3:40 a.m. Sunday. Subjects ranged from his remarks on Biblical passages to extended negotiations about the two women released early Sunday.

Meanwhile, ATF Deputy Assistant Director Dan Conroy said federal authorities are prepared for an exodus from the compound should it occur.

Logistical plans have been formed to hold large numbers of people at the county jail, to begin moving them through the legal process and to provide any necessary medical treatment once the siege breaks, Mr. Conroy said.

Sunday afternoon, officials at Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center said they had coordinated with federal and local law enforcement agencies to provide for any cult members as they come out.

Staff writers Lee Hancock, Sylvia Martinez and Sylvia Moreno contributed to this report.