The Dallas Morning News
BYLINE:Victoria Loe

Officials cut off talks with Koresh

WACO -- Jews commemorate Passover as a day on which the angel of death passed over their homes, sparing their children.

Friday, federal negotiators said they can only hope David Koresh will not make the approaching holy day a festival of death.

An FBI spokesman said the agency has suspended all talks with Mr. Koresh after four days of marathon meetings between him and his lawyer, Dick DeGuerin of Houton.

Mr. DeGuerin and Jack Zimmermann, a Houston lawyer representing cult member Steve Schneider, said Thursday night they expect the Branch Davidians to surrender peacefully, but on Mr. Koresh's timetable. The two attorneys said they will return to Waco when their clients call to say they are ready to emerge.

Friday, the FBI swallowed those assurances with a palpable grain of salt.

"We've heard all of this before,' said Special Agent Richard Schwein. "If the attorneys can go in there and bring them out, God bless them. That would be ideal.'

For now, Agent Schwein said, the government is instituting "a cooling-off period.'

He said negotiators have no plans to reinstitute talks with Mr. Koresh, whom he referred to as "this man whom we want for murdering federal officers.' However, negotiators will respond if sect members call them.

He said federal officials believe that Mr. Koresh may be waiting for Passover -- which the Branch Davidians reportedly celebrate beginning at sundown Tuesday -- to bring the standoff to an end. But he said only Mr. Koresh knows whether that end will be peaceful or bloody.

Also Friday, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms fended off questions about whether ATF commanders knew in advance that Mr. Koresh had been tipped to the Feb. 28 raid.

Some agents have anonymously told reporters that raid commanders made statements during final raid preparations indicating that they knew that the action was fatally compromised.

The agency has said that an undercover agent in the compound just before the raid overheard Mr. Koresh being summoned to a telephone call that is now believed to have alerted him to the impending federal action.

A second tip apparently came to cult member David Jones in a face-to-face meeting with someone on a road leading to the compound, law enforcement officials have said.

ATF intelligence division chief David Troy declined to discuss those reports, citing a pending Texas Rangers' investigation of possible leaks.

Four ATF agents and an unknown number of Branch Davidians were killed in the 45-minute gunbattle that erupted between ATF and cult members.

Agent Troy said the ATF undercover agent reported to raid commanders that Mr. Koresh returned from the call agitated and reciting Scripture. Agent Troy said the commanders were not alarmed because his behavior was not abnormal.

One agent told The Dallas Morning News Friday that officials sensed that Mr. Koresh knew something was amiss, but surveillance did not indicate any threatening activity in the compound.

"We knew he suspected. But there were management people on the scene. They ended up getting shot at like everybody else. They wouldn't have gone in had they thought anything like that would've happened,' said the agent, who participated in the assault. "You can always second-guess anything. Based on what I knew, the decision to go in made sense at the time.'

In an interview Friday, Agent Troy said: "We still take the position that our tactical plan was viable at the time we executed it. We were not looking at a situation where we had a shrinking window of opportunity. We didn't say, "This thing is turning bad, so let's go in before it does.' '

He said agents could not abort the raid after they began taking fire because they had nowhere to take cover. The last possible opportunity to abort was the moment at which the truck-drawn trailers pulled onto a long driveway connecting the compound with FM2491, he said.

Even the raid team that tried to enter the compound's upper windows could not pull back from taking the cult's weapons room, he said, because: "They had no place to back out at that point. They were out completely in the open.'

"The team kept going, quite frankly, because they knew that the isolation and capture of that arms cache was even more important during a firefight,' he said. "If they didn't capture that room, Mr. Koresh's followers would have even more firearms available to use against our agents.'

Agent Troy also said that authorities had long known that Mr. Koresh feared an impending law enforcement action and was paranoid about law officers in general.

Early in their investigation of the cult, he said, ATF agents learned that Mr. Koresh apparently had befriended someone in the local law enforcement "willing to assist him in inquiries.'

The source was thought to be willing to supply the cult with police information, such as computerized criminal background checks and license plate records, Agent Troy said.

He would not identify the suspected source but said that the ATF did not believe that it could have compromised its investigation because few local law officers were fully informed of the ATF case.

While waiting for Mr. Koresh to resume negotiations, authorities will continue to bombard the compound with lights and loud noises.

"It will give them many hours of wakefulness to ponder many things,' Agent Schwein said.

The government will not beef up its arsenal as Passover approaches, he said, because it already has sufficient personnel and armaments on hand to meet any contingency.

If Mr. Koresh does not end the standoff next week, Agent Schwein said: "We will stay as long as it takes to do it. . . . We are patient people. We can outlast them.'

Staff writer Lee Hancock contributed to this report.