The Dallas Morning News
BYLINE:Lee Hancock

U.S. to help identify cult members' bodies
Tarrant County cites crowding in morgue

The U.S. Justice Department will build a temporary storage freezer and provide military experts to help identify the bodies of 42 Branch Davidians, a McLennan County official said Monday.

More than 2 1/2 months after 82 cultists died in a fire that consumed the Branch Davidians' heavily fortified compound near Waco, about 57 badly burned and decomposing bodies remain at the Tarrant County medical examiner's office. Of those, 42 remain unidentified, said McLennan County Justice of the Peace David Pareya.

Tarrant County authorities asked last week that the bodies be removed as soon as possible from the medical examiner's office, citing severe overcrowding at the county morgue.

But forensics experts feared that burying the unidentified corpses in McLennan County paupers' graves would hinder efforts to identify the cultists who died in the April 19 fire, Judge Pareya said.

"They notified us that it would be beneficial to keep the bodies on the surface instead of burying them so they would be readily available if needed for more testing,' he said.

FBI officials indicated last week that experts from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology will perform DNA tests on the unidentified bodies, he said.

On Monday, Judge Pareya said, the county received a letter from U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno offering federal funds for construction of a temporary freezer at the Tarrant County medical examiner's office to store the unidentified bodies.

A Justice Department spokesman confirmed Monday that the agency has offered federal help in storing and identifying the remaining dead.

Tarrant County Medical Examiner Nizam Peerwani praised the federal move.

"We do have a small freezer space already, but it's not sufficient to store 40 or 50 bodies,' he said. "We simply do not have the ability to keep them in storage without help.

"It is better to hold onto all the bodies until everything is done that can be done to find out who they are,' Dr. Peerwani said. "We prefer it done this way rather than releasing the body, burying it and then exhuming the body if it is identified and a relative claims it.'

He said the freezer will be about 10 feet by 15 feet and will chill the corpses to about minus 30 degrees, a temperature that will virtually stop further decomposition.

At least 15 identified bodies from the cult compound remain at the Tarrant County medical examiner's office, and McLennan County authorities are still trying to find relatives for most of those, he said.

Judge Pareya said the identified bodies will be buried in paupers' graves in a south McLennan County cemetery if letters to known relatives and public appeals for help do not produce anyone willing to claim the remains within the next few weeks.

The body of one cultist, whose family claimed pauper status, was buried in the cemetery several weeks ago, Judge Pareya said.

Relatives of five others are in the process of applying for paupers' burials, he said.

The fire that killed cult leader David Koresh and most of his followers ended a 51-day standoff with federal authorities. The siege began Feb. 28 when agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms tried to serve arrest and search warrants alleging federal firearms violations.

The raid disintegrated into a massive firefight in which four ATF agents died and 16 were wounded.

Federal authorities have maintained that cultists deliberately fire to the compound after FBI agents began pounding it with tanks and injecting tear gas in an effort to force a surrender.

Some of the nine cultists who survived the fire have said that the fire began when lanterns inside the wooden structure were knocked over by an FBI tank.