The Dallas Morning News
BYLINE:Lee Hancock

Tapes show ATF unsure of casualties after firefight

WACO -- More than an hour after the raid on the Branch Davidians became a firefight, federal commanders could not tell how many of their agents were hurt or even where most of them lay wounded, according to 911 tapes released Tuesday.

"They're out there somewhere,' Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Special Agent Ted Royster told a McLennan County sheriff's deputy at the 911 center in Waco. "Even we don't know exactly where all our people are. We just need their (cultists') assurance that they're not going to fire. We just want our guys to get the hell out of there. We're not going to fire at all.'

At one point, Agent Royster, in charge of the ATF's Dallas district office, could be heard asking the deputy whether three wounded people reported by Branch Davidians to be in the sprawling compound were "his people or our people.'

The two tapes, the latest released from 27 hours of talks recorded by the Waco Police Department 911 center, also provide new details of the chaotic, frustrating effort Feb. 28 to negotiate an evacuation of wounded ATF agents.

The tapes indicate that ATF agents continued taking sporadic gunfire from cultists for almost two hours after the raid began -- even after cultists had repeatedly agreed to a cease-fire.

And after one cultist agreed to terms for evacuating the wounded, cult lieutenant Steve Schneider could be heard rejecting those terms and demanding a complete ATF withdrawal before any wounded were rescued.

Four ATF agents were killed and 16 were wounded during the raid, an effort to serve search and arrest warrants for federal weapons violations at the heavily fortified compound. ATF officials have said most of the casualties occurred within the first 1 1/2 minutes after the raid.

The first 911 tapes, released earlier this month, included the initial efforts by McLennan County Deputy Larry Lynch to open negotiations after cultist Wayne Martin dialed 911.

The newly released tapes indicate that the ATF reached Lt. Lynch within 30 minutes after the first cult call, and the senior ATF raid commander, Phil Chojnacki of Houston, immediately began talking with the deputy.

Within minutes, coordination between the ATF and the 911 center was being conducted by Agent Royster.

Agent Royster can be heard relaying information to ATF commanders and to an ATF negotiator in an undercover house near the compound.

Some members of Congress have questioned whether the ATF's communications plan was faulty, alleging that the 911 system could not reach anyone but field ATF agents and that 911 operators never reached the agency's Waco command post.

When Lt. Lynch told ATF officials that Mr. Martin demanded complete withdrawal of ATF agents from the cult's 77-acre property, an unidentified ATF agent responded, "Tell Wayne that ATF will cease fire if they will cease fire so we can get the injured officer out, and we'll pull back.'

ATF officials continued pleading for an evacuation of wounded agents, and Lt. Lynch spent the next hour hammering out details for an ATF rescue.

Within the first hour, Lt. Lynch also received a telephone call from cult leader David Koresh. Lt. Lynch described Mr. Koresh as irrational and "very upset' as he rambled on about theology.

But the ATF's repeated efforts to call Mr. Koresh directly apparently were fruitless.

Agent Royster could repeatedly be heard on the 911 tape telling Lt. Lynch that the cult leader's cellular phone line was busy.

After more than 45 minutes of agonizingly slow talks, Agent Royster said: "Tell 'em we got one guy who's dying. We need to get him out of there right now.'

The agent, Kenny King of Little Rock, Ark., who was shot six times, eventually was rescued and survived.

After Mr. Martin agreed to allow an evacuation, Lt. Lynch could be heard warning Agent Royster not to let his agents begin moving prematurely.

"If we start making some movement I'm afraid they'll . . . open up on you again,' Lt. Lynch said.

Mr. Martin finally agreed to terms for an evacuation, but then startled Lt. Lynch with the statement that he only "hoped' other cultists would honor an agreed cease-fire.

After hearing that, Agent Royster stated: "I want a firm deal from them. I can't expose my guys. That guy is dying.'

After Mr. Martin appeared confident he could impose a cease-fire, Lt. Lynch told Agent Royster: "Boy I just, I hate this. . . . God almighty, this is just like damn ducks in a gallery. There's no cover there at all, is there?'