The Dallas Morning News
BYLINE:Lee Hancock

FBI agent suggests top aide killed Koresh
Evidence reportedly shows Schneider felt betrayed

The FBI has evidence that Branch Davidian Steve Schneider fatally shot cult leader David Koresh after seeing him trying to flee the sect's burning compound and apparently deciding that the self-proclaimed messiah was a fraud, according to FBI Agent Bob Ricks.

Mr. Schneider "had given up everything that he owned to this man," said Agent Ricks, who was the FBI's chief spokesman and one of the bureau's three commanders in Waco during the cult's 51-day siege this year. "In the end, we think he probably realized he was dealing with a fraud. After he (Mr. Koresh) had caused so much harm and destruction, he (Mr. Koresh) probably now wanted to come out, and Mr. Schneider could not tolerate that situation."

Agent Ricks made the comments in an Aug. 25 speech to a Tulsa civic group. His speech offered the first public suggestion by any official involved in the siege or investigation that Mr. Koresh's death April 19 was not either a suicide or part of a suicide pact.

Agent Ricks' account supports the contention of FBI siege commanders and senior FBI officials that Mr. Koresh was a fraudulent sociopath unlikely to commit suicide. The account also reflects most of the other key psychologicial theories that FBI agents emphasized during the siege.

Survivors of the standoff and attorneys who represented Mr. Koresh and Mr. Schneider, Mr. Koresh's lieutenant, during the siege have said the two men and other sect members would not have willingly caused their own deaths or the deaths of other Branch Davidians. Jack Zimmerman, who was Mr. Schneider's attorney, has contended that the FBI's accounts of what happened have been aimed largely at justifying what he called a poorly conceived action that led to the deaths of more than 80 people inside the compound.

Mr. Zimmerman could not be reached for comment Friday.

An FBI spokesman in Oklahoma said Agent Ricks, who heads the bureau's Oklahoma City office, declined to be interviewed.

Tarrant County Medical Examiner Nizam Peerwani, who performed autopsies on the two men's bodies and on more than 80 others recovered from the compound after the April 19 fire, said Mr. Koresh's body was too badly burned to determine whether the single gunshot to his forehead was self-inflicted or was a homicide.

But he said "it is possible" that the cult leader was killed by a vengeful Mr. Schneider, who also died of a high-velocity gunshot and whose body was found next to Mr. Koresh's. Although it is impossible to tell whether the two were killed by the same gun, he noted that Mr. Koresh was unarmed and that Mr. Schneider's body had a rifle next to it.

"The FBI has something we don't have: There were listening devices in there," Mr. Peerwani said. "I can't rule it out."

Several officials outside the FBI but familiar with the ongoing Branch Davidian investigation expressed suprise at the detail with which Mr. Ricks described Mr. Koresh's death. "I've never heard that," one said Friday. "It doesn't mean it didn't happen, but I've never heard that."

FBI officials have declined to comment on the Branch Davidian case, citing pending criminal prosecutions and an ongoing Justice Department review of the standoff.

In a recording of his Tulsa speech, Mr. Ricks stated that "evidence we have today" indicated that Mr. Koresh died trying to come out. The agent added that at least some of Mr. Koresh's followers also had been executed by fellow sect members as they tried to flee the compound.

"As we gassed, apparently, many inside decided they wanted out. Over 20-some-odd people were shot that day," he said. "As a warning to others, they were shot and executed."

Of 42 dead sect members identified so far, 17 suffered gunshot wounds - including 12 who died in the fire, according to McLennan County authorities.

Citing intelligence sources he refused to identify, Mr. Ricks said Mr. Koresh ordered his followers to saturate the compound with kerosene about 10 minutes after FBI agents began inserting tear gas into the compound on the morning of April 19.

Sect survivors have maintained that the fires were caused by lanterns inside the compound that were knocked over by FBI tanks. But independent arson investigators have determined that the fires were intentionally set by those inside.

An arson report by Houston Fire Department investigator Paul Gray indicates that several "pour patterns" - distinctive charring left when gasoline, kerosene or other fuels are ignited in arson fires - were found in the compound, one law enforcement official said.

"That building was just saturated," the official said.

Mr. Gray could not be reached for comment Friday.

Although FBI commanders repeatedly have refused to confirm their use, federal officials have acknowledged that listening devices sent into the compound during the siege picked up sounds of the cultists planning and setting the compound fire.

When FBI commanders allowed the tanks to push 20 feet inside the compound to inject gas into a concrete-block room where they thought Mr. Koresh and his chief lieutenants were hiding, "the order went out to light it up," Mr. Ricks said.

Mr. Koresh then screamed, "Don't light it up" as he realized that the FBI was not launching a tactical assault, "but at that time it was too late," he said.

Mr. Koresh then decided to try to escape, Mr. Ricks said.

"His second lieutenant, Steve Schneider, shot him and then put the gun to his own head and killed himself," he said.

McLennan County Justice of the Peace James Collier, who is still trying to determine the cause of Mr. Koresh's death, said he had no information to suggest how the cult leader might have suffered his fatal gunshot wound.

"I think probably the devil came out of hell and killed him," he said. "I don't think we'll ever know."

Dr. Peerwani, who said he plans to present detailed findings of his Branch Davidian investigation to the National Association of Medical Examiners convention in Fort Worth next weekend, also noted that the bodies of Mr. Schneider and Mr. Koresh were found outside a concrete bunker where many of the bodies of cultists were recovered.

Both were in a small area dubbed "the communications room" between the bunker and the compound's kitchen. Someone trying to flee would have had to go about 25 yards to get from the bunker through the communications room to an exit in the kitchen area, Dr. Peerwani said.

He said at least some of the cultists whose bodies were found inside the burned compound had been shot by others.

"There's no doubt," said Dr. Peerwani. "For instance, there was one particular person with a gunshot wound to the back. That's a highly unlikely place for a self-inflicted gunshot wound."

He said it was difficult to tell whether those shot had been trying to flee but said there were indications that damage to the building caused by FBI tanks may have prevented at least some of those inside the compound from escaping.

In one instance, a body was found at the edge of one of several staircases bashed in by the tanks on the morning of the fire.

"The question is, was that person trying to go down the staircase to flee or where they trying to go up," he said.

The report by Mr. Gray, who investigated the cause of the fire for federal officials, stated that the destruction of two of three staircases leading to the compound's second floor may have cut off some main escape routes for the cultists, a law enforcement official said. The report said, however, that at least some of those who died in the fire might have been able to escape.

Dr. Peerwani said he also saw evidence suggesting that some people died trying to get to the underground school bus where FBI agents had said the cult's children could have survived the fire.

"We found several bodies lined up literally one after another in what used to be a hallway downstairs. There's a strong possibility that they were trying to get to the underground bunker," Dr. Peerwani said. "They were near the trap door leading underground, but the trap door had collapsed because the exterior wall had been knocked down onto the trap door.

"They couldn't have gotten through that door," Dr. Peerwani said.

That calls into question statements by FBI officials that 17 children who died in the fire might have survived by being sent into the underground bus.

It is not the first FBI assertion called into question in the months since the fire.

A recently published book, The FBI: Inside the World's Most Powerful Law Enforcement Agency , states that one of the FBI's behavioral-science experts wrote a psychological profile warning that Mr. Koresh would lead his followers in mass suicide if confronted by the FBI.

In the days after the fire, FBI officials and U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno flatly stated that none of the bureau's in-house or outside psychological experts thought that Mr. Koresh was likely to commit suicide.

The agent, a 24-year FBI veteran, confirmed that after two weeks in Waco at the beginning of the siege, he wrote a psychological profile warning that Mr. Koresh was capable of a mass suicide if confronted.

"I was concerned about the possibility of a lot of deaths occurring," the agent said, declining further comment because of the pending Justice Department review of the Waco standoff.