The Dallas Morning News
BYLINE:Lee Hancock

Doctor says at least 22 in cult were shot
Forensics expert expected to finish work in few days

At least 22 of the 78 bodies of Branch Davidians recovered from the cult's charred compound and autopsied so far suffered gunshot wounds -- including two children, Fort Worth pathologist Nizam Peerwani said Thursday.

Forensics experts trying to determine the number of corpses fused together in the intense April 19 fire that consumed the Branch Davidian compound should complete their grisly task within a few days, Dr. Peerwani said. The effort includes the Tarrant County medical examiner's office.

Authorities suspected that the cult may have stockpiled some form of poison for a mass suicide, but toxicology tests on the bodies that have undergone autopsies have produced no traces of unusual chemicals or poisons, Dr. Peerwani said.

Five of the 22 gunshot victims were apparently killed Feb. 28 in a gunfight between cult members and agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

A number of the gunshots appeared to be self-inflicted. A majority were gunshots to the head, Dr. Peerwani said.

"Even in a badly decomposed or charred body, you can tell certain things from the wound's location. For instance, with a gunshot wound in the oral cavity, it's hard to shoot somebody else in the mouth,' he said.

"And fire may disintegrate tissue on the outside of the body, but inside the body tracts you can still pick up traces of powder residue. We've gotten some excellent readings of powder residues and primer,' he said.

Some former cult members, including children, have said that they practiced committing suicide by placing guns in their mouths.

Dr. Peerwani would not detail where the bodies of the children who suffered gunshots were found or the location of their wounds. But he said most of the children that have undergone autopsies were found inside a concrete bunker with their mothers.

FBI officials said they believe that many cult members donned gas masks and took refuge in the bunker after agents began ramming the compound with tanks and injecting teargas April 19 in an effort to end the 51-day siege.

The standoff began when the agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms tried to serve arrest and search warrants on the compound Feb 28. That action touched off a gunfight that left four ATF agents dead and 16 wounded.

The April 19 fire broke out after authorities managed to penetrate the bunker with teargas. An independent arson squad determined that the fires were set, and law enforcement authorities say that investigators are still trying to determine if some of the nine cultists who escaped the fire may have helped set the blaze.

But many of the survivors have said that the fires were touched off when FBI tanks injecting tear gas knocked over lanterns inside the compound.

Dr. Peerwani said the majority of bodies autopsied so far appear to have been overcome by smoke inhalation, based on high levels of carbon monoxide found in toxicology screening.

"We're picking up so many with high carbon monoxide levels. They were alive at the time of the fire,' he said.

That included some of those who suffered gunshot wounds, he and other authorities said.

"But in our toxicology, we haven't picked up anything unusual at all,' he said. "We have been doing all sorts of studies. For instance, we have been doing cyanide (testing) on every single body because people had been speculating on poisons as a cause of death. Nobody has come up with anything specific, but I think the popular thing that everybody had been pointing to was cyanide because of the association with the (Jonestown) Guyana cult.'

Investigators will continue screening for other, more exotic poisons and chemicals as the investigation continues, he said.

Authorities have suggested that poisons might have been used to immobilize some cult members who died in the fire because at least one cultist who left the compound during the 51-day siege had described plans to commit suicide by injecting herself.

Some of the bodies already autospied were determined to be gunshot victims only after painstaking reconstruction work, Dr. Peerwani said. And some of those still being examined may also be determined to be gunshot victims, he said.

Cult leader David Koresh, whose body was discovered in the kitchen area of the compound, died of a gunshot wound to the head, authorities said. But authorities determined his cause of death only after reconstructing his skull, which had been badly shattered.

"With some, it takes very tedious reconstruction,' Dr. Peerwani said.

Forensic specialists have used dental records and fingerprints to identify 35 of the bodies, he said. Only one body has been released for burial, and others will be released to family members after McLennan County authorities complete inquests, he said.

While the final autopsies are being completed, authorities in Waco have begun bulldozing the charred ruins of the compound -- a fetid swamp of human feces, rotting food and water-filled pits. Authorities have said the bulldozing effort is necessary to minimize the health hazard posed by the heavily contaminated 77-acre cult tract.

Lawyers for several Branch Davidians have complained that the demolition will prevent an independent probe of the compound fire.