The Dallas Morning News
Waco dispatch chief assails 911 tape of cult talks
She says editing is misleading, asks how panel got copy
A congressional committee's copy of a tape that was to depict the first tense minutes of negotiations with the besieged Branch Davidian cult was incomplete, inaccurate and misleading, a Waco police communications supervisor said Monday.
"It gives a false impression of how the event occurred,' said Maria DeMarco, who supervises the Waco Police Department's 911 system. "I was disappointed they (members of the House Appropriations treasury subcommittee) didn't have the real-time records available to them.'
Ms. DeMarco, whose dispatchers spent more than 27 hours helping a McLennan County sheriff's deputy and federal agents negotiate with cultists after the Feb. 28 raid on the cult complex ended in a firefight, also questioned how the committee obtained and released the tape. She noted that the only copies released by Waco police were given under grand jury subpoena to the U.S. attorney's office in Waco.
Jesse Jacobs, a spokesman for Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., chairman of the subcommittee, said the congressman was concerned that the panel was given an edited tape -- obtained by committee investigators from an anonymous source -- after being told that it was an accurate recording of the first 30 minutes of 911 conversations with the cult.
"It raises some concerns because he wants to review the whole issue as part of the whole execution of the operation,' Mr. Jacobs said.
The tape's release was the focus of news coverage of a two-day hearing by Mr. Hoyer's subcommittee into the failed raid.
News organizations asked for copies of the tape under the Texas Open Records Act but, until the subcommittee's tape was released, the Waco Police Department had refused the requests because of an ongoing investigation, Ms. DeMarco said. She said department workers considered the tapes' contents so sensitive that "we didn't even talk to family' about them.
The department reversed its decision and released the tape after the excerpt was made public last week by the committee, she said.
"Our concern is we've essentially been gagged. We haven't been able to talk about anything,' Ms. DeMarco said. "The way we heard something had been released was from an attorney for a newspaper. So I looked at what was published, and said, "Where did they get that?' '
The U.S. attorney's office in San Antonio, which is overseeing the Branch Davidian investigation, referred questions about the congressional tapes to the U.S. Justice Department.
Justice Department spokesman Carl Stern said the agency had no idea how the edited tape was made available to the committee.
"The 911 tape was obtained under subpoena. It's not supposed to be given out. We have no idea how the committee obtained a copy,' Mr. Stern said. "Whenever materials are distributed in violation of the rules, of course we're concerned.'
But one senior federal law enforcement official said the leak of even a portion of the 911 tapes may be a serious criminal violation. "I don't believe we're talking about a violation of rules. I believe we are talking about a violation of the law. It's a felony to release grand jury materials.'
Mr. Jacobs said Mr. Hoyer will try to determine the source of the tape and is concerned that it may have been released in violation of federal grand jury law.
But he said a transcript of the Police Department tapes, provided by The Dallas Morning News, confirms misgivings by some committee members that agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms did not speak with the 911 dispatch center until 40 minutes after the firefight began.
ATF officials said during the hearing that they were equally concerned about the communications but were surprised that the deputy never called the agency's Waco command post, instead finally sending a sheriff's squad car to pass a message to the ATF.
Four ATF agents were killed and 16 were wounded during the first 10 minutes of the firefight, which began after federal agents tried to serve search and arrest warrants on the heavily fortified compound. The warrants alleged federal firearms violations.
The shootout was followed by a 51-day standoff, which ended with an April 19 fire in which cult leader David Koresh and more than 80 of his followers were killed.
The congressional subcommittee tape does not include conversations between McLennan County sheriff's Lt. Larry Lynch and an ATF agent coordinating negotiations with the cult.
It does not include Lt. Lynch's nerve-racking, simultaneous talks with an ATF agent and cultists to work out a tenuous cease-fire and arrange for the evacuation of a wounded agent before he bled to death. The agent, wounded six times, ultimately was rescued and survived.
The congressional tape also does not include include hostile and often threatening remarks made by cultists during the emotionally charged first half-hour of discussions with 911.
In one such outburst, cultist Wayne Martin told the sheriff's deputy: "If they don't back out, we're gonna have to sweep 'em off!'
The congressional tape suggests that a conversation between Mr. Koresh and Lt. Lynch came about 15 minutes before it actually occurred. The congressional tape leaves the impression that even Mr. Koresh had called 911 before ATF agents had responded to Lt. Lynch's repeated pleas for radio communications.
Ms. DeMarco, who said she has spent 75 hours listening to the first day of Branch Davidian 911 tapes, said she was especially frustrated by what was released by the committee because she had prepared a detailed timeline outlining the first two hours of taped conversations.
"It's giving a false impression of what the situation is,' she said. "It was a really volatile situation.'