The Dallas Morning News
BYLINE:Lee Hancock

Cult property quarantined; officials cite sewage, vermin

The Texas Health Department declared a quarantine Friday at the ruined Branch Davidian compound near Waco, citing rotting food, a swimming pool awash in sewage, and vermin and other health hazards.

The quarantine order restricts access to the 77-acre site until authorities can assess the level of contamination and clean it up, said Susan Tennyson, a Health Department attorney in Austin.

State and federal crime scene technicians finished a 3 1/2-week search for evidence in the compound Friday, said Laureen Chernow, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Public Safety in Austin.

"They completed it today. They were simply making sure that the site was secure, that all the evidence was gathered, that the buildings we had brought out there were taken away,' Ms. Chernow said.

The massive array of evidence -- everything from arson data to more than 200 weapons, including a number of illegally converted automatic guns -- was boxed into military cargo carriers for shipment to forensics labs in Washington, D.C., she said.

With the crime scene examination complete, however, authorities still face a huge environmental mess -- a fetid, burned swamp of refuse, feces and stagnant water that Health Department officials say poses a significant disease threat.

To keep gawkers away, state troopers will maintain roadblocks around the compound at least through the weekend.

"There's a lot of household garbage, a lot of foodstuff decaying, and I know we're talking a bunch of sewage. I think we've estimated that there's like 10 feet of it in the (cult's partially completed) swimming pool,' Ms. Tennyson said.

"There's a cistern that's full of what our engineer is calling black water -- a mixture of wastewater, sewage and rainwater. There's another hole that has black water in it. There were underground rooms that have sewage and garbage and whatnot in them,' she said. "We're just going to have to figure out where all of it is and how to get rid of it.'

The compound, which once housed more than 100 people, had no indoor plumbing or running water. Cult members who left the compound described collecting human waste in buckets and simply dumping it outside the cult's headquarters.

On Wednesday, contractors hired by the state began bulldozing the remants of the compound, which burned April 19. The fire began hours after FBI agents began using tanks to knock holes and inject tear gas into the heavily fortified structure in an effort to force a peaceful end to a 51-day siege.

Authorities have recovered 78 bodies from the ashes of the compound -- those of cultists who died in the fire as well as the remains of five Branch Davidians killed during a Feb. 28 firefight that began the cult's protracted standoff.

Four agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms also died and 16 were injured in the firefight, which began after the agents tried to serve arrest and search warrants on the cult's headquarters.

Autopsies indicated that 22 -- including the five people killed Feb. 28 -- sustained gunshot wounds, authorities said. Among those with gunshot wounds were two children, authorities said.

Cult leader David Koresh and his chief lieutenant, Steve Schneider, died of gunshot wounds in the head, according to Tarrant County Medical Examiner Nizam Peerwani, who is in charge of the autopsies.

A Pittsburgh forensic pathologist best known for volunteering his services on high-profile or controversial death investigations will go to Fort Worth on Saturday to examine the bodies of Mr. Schneider and Mr. Koresh.

Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, who was involved in reopened investigations of President John F. Kennedy's assassination, said he will give the results of his autopsies to two Houston attorneys who represented both men.

"I've been told that Koresh's body was charred but some of the internal organs were intact. The medical examiner did say it was a gunshot wound to the forehead, so I'm going to try to get an idea about the direction, angle, trajectory, proximity of the gun to the head, the kind of weapon, whether the person was alive or not when shot,' Dr. Wecht said.

The lawyers, Dick DeGuerin and Jack Zimmermann, have said they want the independent examination to ensure that their clients' relatives know how the two men died.

Ms. Tennyson said health authorities will meet Monday with officials from the Texas Water Commission to begin planning cleanup of the site, which has been fenced and is secured by the Texas Department of Public Safety.

"Our concern is basically that we don't want people getting sick,' she said.

Health Department officials said violation of the quarantine is a third-degree felony, punishable by up to two to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.