Critics Call For Inquiry
Of Aircraft Role In
Davidian Raid
By Jennifer Autrey
Staff Writer
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
On a chilly February morning six years ago, a member of the Branch Davidians dialed 911 and began screaming that gunfire from military helicopters was raking the sect's Mount Carmel compound.
"Another chopper with more people -- more guns going off. Here they come," Branch Davidian Wayne Martin told the operators. Seconds later, he added, "More firing! . . . That's not us. That's them!"
The call came near the beginning of a 45-minute shootout that left six sect members and four agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms dead. A 51-day siege followed.
The siege ended April 19, 1993, when the compound went up in flames after the FBI tried to force out the residents by inserting tear gas. The bodies of about 80 sect members, including leader David Koresh, were found in the ashes.
Now, John Danforth, a former U.S. senator from Missouri, is investigating the FBI's conduct on April 19, pledging to answer the "dark questions" of whether the government killed people and covered it up.
But Branch Davidian survivors say the events of Feb. 28, 1993, deserve equal attention, particularly whether shots were fired from the helicopters into the compound.
Government officials have never wavered from their position that no shots were fired from the helicopters that day.
The government's version of events seemed credible to Congress. A 1996 congressional report issued after hearings in 1995 said, "The evidence presented to the subcommittees generally supports the conclusion that no shots were fired from the helicopters at the Branch Davidian residence."
But the government's account of the events near Waco has taken a beating on several fronts. Last month, the FBI disclosed after years of denials that it used pyrotechnic tear- gas canisters to help end the standoff.
Also, the ATF justified the use of military assistance in training for its initial raid by claiming that there might have been illegal drug activity at the compound, an allegation that a congressional report later called "deliberately misleading."
Critics of the government, as well as attorneys for the Branch Davidians, question whether officials are telling the truth when they say no shots came from the helicopters on the first day of the raid.
"Everybody we talked to, including old women who were clearly not threats, said they saw flashes coming from the helicopters," said Jack Zimmermann, a Houston lawyer who represented the Branch Davidians.
The helicopters flew in a triangle formation the morning of Sunday, Feb. 28. Two small OH- 58 Bell Ranger choppers were in front. A UH-60L Blackhawk, big enough to carry 14 soldiers, followed.
The Texas National Guard pilots flying the helicopters and the ATF agents aboard said the choppers had only one role: to serve as a diversion for ATF agents trying to deliver a search warrant to the compound's front door.
As the helicopters approached from the northeast, they drew fire about 300 meters from the compound, the pilots said. All three were hit and immediately veered north, away from the compound, they said.
Government officials say that the helicopters had no mounted guns and that the ATF agents aboard, although armed, did not shoot.
In a criminal trial brought by the government against some surviving Branch Davidians, the pilot of the Blackhawk helicopter, Jerry Seagraves, said the aircraft has a mount for an M-60 machine gun that can swing outside the aircraft.
But Seagraves told the court that no weapon was mounted on the chopper, although it was carrying eight armed ATF agents.
"The doors were closed. There's no way they could have fired out of the aircraft with the doors closed," he said. "The only opened area in the aircraft was the door gunner's window, which they were videoing out of."
The commander of the Texas Rangers at Mount Carmel, David Byrnes, said in a recent interview that there was no evidence to indicate agents fired weapons from the helicopters. Bullet holes were found in at least two of the choppers, but they came from "hostile fire from the ground," Byrnes said.
Byrnes, who has since retired, said he believes Koresh's attorney and others are sincere in their belief that shots were fired from the helicopters in the Feb. 28 raid. But he said he found "no evidence it happened . . . except for people saying that it happened."
The government's account differs greatly from versions given by survivors and Koresh's attorneys, who visited Mount Carmel before the April 19 fire.
David Thibodeau, a Branch Davidian who survived the fire, recalls the moment the roar of helicopter blades could be heard inside the compound.
Koresh ran to warn his followers to be alert for an attack as ATF agents tried to serve a search warrant for illegal weapons, Thibodeau said.
"Fifteen seconds later, all I could hear were all these shots. The people who were at the back of the building all claimed they were coming from helicopters shooting at the back of the building," said Thibodeau, referring to a part of the compound not visible to the media assembled outside.
Besides Thibodeau, who is publishing his memoirs, several other Branch Davidians said the helicopters fired on them Feb. 28. Marjorie Thomas testified by videotape at the criminal trial that she and two other women saw a person hanging from the helicopter. As the chopper approached, bullets came through their window, she said.
Another Branch Davidian, Kevin Whitecliff, said at his sentencing in the criminal trial in 1994: "There were three or four helicopters buzzing around shooting people. I thought I was going to die."
Although the government has said the helicopters were never closer than 300 meters from the Mount Carmel buildings, John McLemore, a reporter for Waco TV station KWTX, testified in the criminal trial that he saw the helicopters fly "very close" to Mount Carmel -- "within, oh, 100 or 200 yards of it before turning around," he said.
Further clouding the question is a statement from James Cavanaugh, an ATF agent who was negotiating with the Branch Davidians during the siege. According to a transcript of audio tapes, Cavanaugh at first said there were no guns on the helicopters but then reversed himself after Koresh called him a liar.
"What I'm saying is that the helicopters didn't have mounted guns. OK?" Cavanaugh said. "I'm not disputing the fact that there might have been fire from the helicopters. If you say there was fire from the helicopters and you were there, that's OK with me. What I'm telling you is there was no mounted guns, ya know, outside mounted guns on these helicopters. . . ."
Cavanaugh did not return recent phone calls to his office. Sheree Mixell, an ATF spokeswoman in Washington, said Cavanaugh could not comment because of pending civil litigation against the agency. However, she said, Cavanaugh's comments could simply be a negotiating technique.
"In that kind of situation, it's not uncommon to be in agreement with a suspect, particularly a violent suspect, to try to alleviate or diffuse the situation," Mixell said.
Dick DeGuerin, Koresh's attorney, thinks he knows whether Cavanaugh was telling the truth to Koresh about gunfire from the helicopters. DeGuerin visited his wounded client's bedroom, atop the 4-story observation tower at Mount Carmel, on March 28, 29 and 30 and April 1, 1993. Government officials allowed DeGuerin to enter the compound in hopes that he might be able to help end the standoff.
"The ATF on the first day fired machine-gun rounds from the helicopter into that room," DeGuerin said. "I saw the bullet holes."
DeGuerin said he saw that the Sheetrock was punched out and pieces of it were hanging from the ceiling, indicating that shots had come from almost directly above.
Zimmermann, who represented Branch Davidian Steve Schneider and who entered the compound with DeGuerin, said he also believes that the building was fired upon from the helicopters.
"I saw rounds that had come from the sky. If they didn't come from a helicopter, somebody was standing on the roof shooting," Zimmermann said.
DeGuerin said videotapes from the scene make clear that no one was on that portion of the roof during the raid.
"There's no way those bullet holes could have gotten there any other way," DeGuerin said.
Staff writers Jack Douglas Jr. and Michael D. Towle contributed to this report.
Jennifer Autrey, (817) 548-5476
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