The Dallas Morning News
BYLINE:Lee Hancock

Tapes tied to cult indictments
Lawyer says prosecutors asked member to explain conversations

Tapes from FBI bugging devices inside the Branch Davidian compound were used to help convince grand jurors to indict 12 cultists on charges of conspiracy to kill federal agents, an attorney for another cult member said Thursday.

Tulsa lawyer Gary L. Richardson said federal prosecutors asked his client, David Thibodeau, to explain taped conversations between cultists during a lengthy Aug. 6 appearance before the Waco federal grand jury.

Mr. Thibodeau, one of nine Branch Davidians who survived an April 19 fire that destroyed the sect's rural compound, has not been charged in the case.

Mr. Richardson said he could not reveal the exact nature of the tapes, which apparently were used to bolster prosecutors' charges of a conspiracy between Branch Davidian leader David Koresh and many of his followers to wage war on federal authorities.

But Mr. Richardson said he saw "no correlation" between the tapes that his client described hearing and charges in the Aug. 6 indictment that Mr. Koresh and his chief lieutenant decided one day before the compound burned to set the building afire if FBI agents tried to force a surrender.

The 10-count indictment charges that Mr. Koresh instructed cultists about his plans, then ordered followers to spread flammable fuel April 19 after learning the FBI was preparing to lob tear gas into the compound.

The tapes that Mr. Thibodeau was asked to interpret contained "conversations going on inside" the compound during a 51-day siege, Mr. Richardson said.

"Based on what I understand, I don't see any real significance to them," he said. "The tapes are really not all that clear."

Documents filed by federal prosecutors indicate that FBI agents made 263 tapes during their 51 days of negotiations with the Branch Davidians. The filings do not indicate how many tapes were from negotiations and whether any came from bugging devices planted inside the compound.

Some government documents filed in federal court also suggest that prosecutors have obtained some information in their ongoing investigation from cooperating members of the sect.

The Branch Davidian standoff began Feb. 28 when 100 agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms tried to serve search and arrest warrants on the cult's compound outside Waco.

Federal investigators say cultists were tipped off to the raid from an apparently inadvertent exchange between a Branch Davidian and a cameraman for a Waco television station sent to cover the raid, and they prepared an ambush that left four ATF agents dead and 16 wounded.

Although ATF officials and some journalists who witnessed the firefight said the cultists opened fire on the agents as they arrived at the compound, the Branch Davidians have insisted that they began shooting in self-defense after federal authorities fired first.

In the ensuing siege, some federal sources have said, FBI agents trying to negotiate the cult's surrender sent bugging devices into the compound with shipments of milk, videotapes and other supplies.

Federal officials have refused to acknowledge the existence of the bugging devices.

After the compound burned, FBI officials said an unidentified survivor recounted conversations in which cultists discussed "using lantern fuel" to accelerate the fires. FBI officials also told of a cultist shouting, "The fire has been lit, the fire has been lit," just before the compound burst into flames.

But federal sources said at the time that bugs inside the compound had picked up sounds of cultists preparing to set the fires.

The blaze broke out several hours after FBI agents began using tanks to inject tear gas into the compound, trying to force a surrender.

Although federal authorities say they have evidence that the cultists deliberately set the fires, surviving Branch Davidians have insisted that they were started when tanks battering the compound's walls knocked over lanterns.

Whatever its origin, the fire was fueled by high winds that began gusting up to 40 mph even before FBI agents began gassing the compound.

In the indictment returned last week, federal authorities charge that "an unidentified co-conspirator . . . did give instructions at about noon on April 19, 1993, to start the fires within Mt. Carmel," the name of the Branch Davidians' compound.

The indictment raises questions about whether FBI agents teargassed the compound even after obtaining information that Mr. Koresh might respond by setting the compound afire.

If they had such information before April 19, that also would raise questions about why the FBI did not assemble firetrucks or make other arrangements for fighting a fire before mounting the tear-gas assault.

Waco-area fire departments did not receive the first emergency call reporting the fire until eight minutes after it broke out and were not allowed near the burning building for more than 30 minutes after the blaze began.

Immediately after the fire, FBI agents insisted they never suspected the compound might be burned by those inside until the fires erupted.

Prosecutors and FBI officials have declined to discuss the case, citing pending prosecutions.

Even if FBI officials had advance warning and had tried to assemble firefighting crews to battle a possible fire, Bellmead Fire Chief James Crawford said, there probably would have been no way to save the cultists.

FBI agents approaching the compound in tanks were fired on repeatedly as they tried to inject tear gas into the building, and many of the cultists - including Mr. Koresh, his chief lieutenant and some of the 17 children - apparently killed themselves or were shot before the flames consumed them.

"It would have been nice to know it and get the operation all set up to try to save those people," said the chief, whose crews responded to the fire. "But even if we had things set up and ready to go, as many places as they set that thing on fire, as windy as it was that day, that still might not have saved the building.

"They didn't come to us and say, `Be prepared, they were talking about burning the place down.' But if they had and we had gone up there, what's to say they were not going to shoot us? . . . I just can't see putting (firefighters) in jeopardy.'