Scientology Crime Syndicate

21 Jun 2000

Agents Caused Davidian Deaths, Waco Jury Told

Lawsuit: Trial begins in wrongful-death case against government over 1993 siege at cult's compound. Government blames the group's leader.

Staff Writer

WACO, Texas--It was the failure of federal agents to control or extinguish the conflagration that caused the destruction of the Mount Carmel religious compound seven years ago, and the government should be forced to pay for its negligence, a lawyer representing Branch Davidian survivors and relatives told jurors Tuesday.

Michael Caddell, opening the trial in a $675-million wrongful-death lawsuit, said the government is responsible for the deaths of about 80 people, including about 20 children, who died in the FBI's April 19, 1993, assault on the compound, 10 miles outside this city.

"This case is about truth and responsibility," Caddell said. "The truth about what happened at Mount Carmel and the responsibility for what happened." The start of the trial opens a new and perhaps decisive phase in the long-simmering controversy over exactly what happened that day and who is to blame. The fiery, deadly ending of the 51-day standoff between federal agents and the Branch Davidians has inspired numerous conspiracy theories and anti-government militants, including Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

Anti-government sentiment related to the case was fanned last year when federal officials acknowledged that, despite previous denials, FBI agents had fired pyrotechnic munitions at a bunker near the compound on the final day of the siege.

A key issue of the trial will be whether that helped ignite the fire.

But the government's principal lawyer, U.S. Atty. Mike Bradford of Beaumont, Texas, told jurors that the pyrotechnic tear gas canisters had not come close to the compound's frame structures.

Bradford insisted in his opening statement that David Koresh, the messianic leader of the Branch Davidian cult, bore full responsibility for the destruction of his compound and the deaths of his followers.

"One thing is clear," Bradford said, "the Branch Davidians did set the fire that did burn the compound to the ground." Government officials have said Koresh and his top aides deliberately set the fire and shot many Branch Davidians to fulfill Koresh's prediction of an apocalyptic confrontation with the government.

"Responsibility for that tragic event should not be placed on the shoulders of brave members of the FBI and ATF," Bradford told jurors, referring to the Treasury Department's Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms unit, which had sought, unsuccessfully, to serve a warrant on Koresh for firearms violations on Feb. 28, 1993.

Four ATF agents and six Davidians were killed when agents exchanged gunfire with heavily armed Branch Davidians that day. Bradford reminded the jury that "the burden of proof for all their claims" rests on Caddell and his clients--15 survivors and 85 relatives of the dead Davidians.

Caddell, however, said that "frustrated and angry" FBI field commanders violated a "gradual" assault plan approved by Atty. Gen. Janet Reno by ordering armored vehicles to penetrate and topple frame living quarters. Although Reno, at the time newly installed in her post, ordered that emergency crews stand by in case of fire, "the evidence will show the FBI didn't do that," Caddell said.

"FBI on-scene commanders decided there would be no plan to fight a fire, should one

develop," he said. Driving home the point that small children were among the victims, Caddell showed the jury family videos of more than a dozen of the children. They ranged in age from 14-month-old Kara Little to 17-year-old Misty Ferguson, he said as a large screen showed their images.

Pointing to each one, he told jurors the children "never broke the law, never hurt anyone, never held a gun." Joining Caddell in representing the plaintiffs was former U.S. Atty. Gen. Ramsey Clark. In a separate statement, he told jurors, "What we have our government for is to protect people, not to assault them."

Bradford said he agreed with Caddell and Clark that "the loss of life at Mount Carmel is a tragedy for all of us." However, were it not for Koresh's stockpile of automatic weapons in the compound, the FBI could have sent in firefighters to quench the flames, he said.

"Automatic weapons in the hands of Branch Davidians could pierce armored vehicles," Bradford said, adding that Reno had delegated on-site decision-making to FBI supervisors. "There also were fears that hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition could go off in the fire. There was simply no way to fight that fire," he concluded.

The trial jury will only advise the judge in the case. U.S. District Judge Walter Smith Jr. will deliver the verdict. The trial, which continues today, is expected to last about six weeks.


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