WACO, Texas--Federal agents who tear-gassed the Branch Davidian complex in 1993 strayed from the plan approved by Attorney General Janet Reno when they used tanks to smash gaping holes in the building, former FBI officials testified Thursday.
Attorneys for Branch Davidian survivors and family members suing the government claim that the FBI's on-scene commanders ordered the dismantling of the Davidians' complex with tanks less than five hours into the tear-gassing operation.
The plaintiffs say the plan called for FBI agents to use tank booms to gradually insert tear gas in the building and permitted systematic destruction only 48 hours after a determination that the tear-gassing plan had failed.
In videotaped testimony in the $675 million wrongful death trial, retired deputy assistant FBI director Danny Coulson said he was surprised when he saw a tank deeply penetrating the cult's building on April 19, 1993, the final day of the Waco siege.
"I don't recall that the plan contemplated this activity," Coulson said. "It would appear to be inconsistent."
Coulson said he watched the events unfold on a monitor in Washington, D.C., and remembered saying, "I hope that's a bad camera angle."
Larry Potts, former assistant FBI director, said in a videotaped deposition that he wasn't sure what the tanks were doing. He said he wondered "Is there some kind of an emergency? I wasn't sure what the reason was."
Reno's videotaped deposition on the plans to tear-gas the complex was expected to be shown to the jury later Thursday.
Cult leader David Koresh and about 80 of his followers died when fire engulfed the rickety wooden building hours after FBI agents began the tear-gassing operation. The government contends the cult set the fire.
The plaintiffs' lead attorney, Michael Caddell, who expects to complete his case within a week, said he plans to present testimony about whether federal agents started the fire and whether the government was negligent by withholding firefighting equipment.
The jury will act only as an advisory panel to U.S. District Judge Walter Smith, who will deliver the verdict.
WACO, Texas (AP) - During the final day of the Branch Davidian standoff, federal agents had the discretion to do what needed to be done to insert tear gas to flush sect members out of the compound, Attorney General Janet Reno said in a videotaped deposition played for jurors Friday.
``But the discretion would have to be exercised within the limits of the plan,'' Reno said of the FBI commanders at the Mount Carmel site near Waco.
The Reno-approved plan called for FBI agents to use tank booms to gradually insert tear gas in the building. If after 48 hours the tear-gassing plan was ineffective, then agents could begin the systematic dismantling of the compound.
Reno's testimony was played during the $675 million wrongful death lawsuit brought by surviving Davidians and family members who claim the government is responsible for the deaths of some 80 people who died April 19, 1993, some from fire, others from gunshots.
Plaintiff's attorney Michael Caddell contends that federal agents violated the approved plan when they prematurely began tearing down a part of the building known as the gymnasium while agents in tanks launched tear gas into the compound.
Earlier Friday, Steve McGavin, an FBI supervisory agent who helped draft a proposal to remove the Davidians, told jurors that firefighting equipment was not on the ``inner perimeter.'' ``There was no plan to bring in firefighting equipment until we could secure the building and secure the safety of firefighters,'' he said.
Caddell later showed videotaped testimony of four former high-ranking FBI officials who said they believed Reno's instructions for on-site emergency crews included firefighting equipment.
The testimony came from former FBI director Williams Sessions, former deputy director Floyd Clarke, retired deputy assistant FBI director Danny Coulson and former FBI Assistant Director Larry Potts.
Reno said she didn't dictate details of the plan, such as where the tanks were or how tear gas would be inserted into the building. She told investigators in the Justice Department's 1993 review of the Waco tragedy that senior FBI leaders told her to ``butt out'' after she agreed to let them tear-gas the compound because she was not on the scene.
Also Friday, several tank-riding FBI agents testified they saw smoke wafting from the thin wooden walls of the complex shortly after canisters of tear gas were fired into the Davidian complex.
Government lawyers say sect leader David Koresh and some 80 followers intentionally started three fires that quickly engulfed the complex and ended the 51-day siege.
Agent Tom Rowan testified he fired as many as 80 so-called ``ferret rounds'' - plastic canisters containing tear gas - into the complex to force Davidians from the complex. Experts say ferret rounds are not considered incendiary devices.
But Caddell attempted to get the agent to talk about more incendiary munitions, asking if the FBI used ``military rounds,'' metallic canisters that potentially could be flammable devices.
Under cross-examination by government attorneys, Rowan and other agents said they observed what appeared to be muzzle flashes from gunfire in several windows before the fire started.
WACO A tank-riding grenadier with the FBI testified Friday that he launched as many as 80 canisters of tear gas into the Branch Davidian complex but could not recall shooting any potentially flammable devices on the final day of the Waco siege.
From Friday's Dallas Morning News: Sect could have been coaxed
out, FBI official said Tom Rowan said so-called "ferret rounds'' plastic canisters containing tear gas were launched from tanks into the complex on April 19, 1993, in an attempt to force Davidian leader David Koresh and his followers from their wooden complex. Experts say ferret rounds are not considered incendiary.
The lead attorney for the sect's survivors and family members, who are suing the government, tried to get the agent to talk about more incendiary munitions. The attorney asked whether the FBI used "military rounds,'' metallic canisters that potentially could spark a fire.
"I don't recall if we had military rounds ... or not,'' Rowan said. "I don't believe I've ever fired a military round.''
Plaintiffs in the $675 million wrongful-death lawsuit against the government allege that flames consumed the structure minutes after the last canisters landed in the kitchen area and possibly knocked over kerosene lanterns.
The entire building ultimately burned to the ground, ending the 51-day standoff. Some 80 people inside died.
The government maintains that suicidal sect members set the three fires that engulfed the complex and are responsible for their own demise.
Several FBI agents, including Joseph Servel and Michael Sackett, have said a fire erupted in the kitchen less than 30 seconds after they saw a tank insert tear gas into the room.
"We were in the ... (tank) and I was observing the area of the kitchen or dining room," Rowan testified. "Some smoke was coming from in between the clapboards from what was designated as the kitchen area.''
On Thursday, Servel, a tank commander, said other FBI agents also noticed smoke coming from the structure. "We saw smoke within seconds. We saw flames and then the smoke started getting really thick,'' Servel said.
Under cross-examination by government attorneys, Servel and Rowan said they observed what appeared to be muzzle flashes from gunfire in several windows before the fire started.
"I saw muzzle flashes, curtains moving and glass breaking,'' said Rowan.
WACO, Texas (AP) - A tank-riding FBI agent testified Friday he launched as many as 80 canisters of tear gas into the Branch Davidian complex but could not recall shooting any potentially flammable devices on the final day of the Waco siege.
Tom Rowan said so-called ``ferret rounds'' - plastic canisters containing tear gas - were launched from tanks into the complex on April 19, 1993, to try to force David Koresh and his Davidian followers from their rickety wooden complex. Experts say ferret rounds are not considered incendiary devices.
But the lead attorney for the sects' survivors and family members suing the government, Michael Caddell, tried to get the agent to talk about more incendiary munitions, asking if the FBI used ``military rounds,'' metallic canisters that potentially could be flammable devices.
``I don't recall if we had military rounds in our (tank) or not,'' Rowan said, under questioning by Caddell. ``I don't believe I've ever fired a military round.''
Other FBI agents, including Joseph Servel and Michael Sackett, have said a fire erupted in the kitchen soon after they saw a tank insert tear gas into the room.
``We saw smoke within seconds. We saw flames and then the smoke started getting really thick,'' Servel, a tank commander, testified Thursday.
Sackett said he saw flames in that area about 15 minutes after seeing the smoke.
Under cross-examination by government attorneys, Servel, Rowan and Sackett said they observed what appeared to be muzzle flashes from gunfire in several windows before the fire started.
``I saw muzzle flashes, curtains moving, and glass breaking,'' Rowan said Friday.
Attorneys representing survivors and family members in a $675 million wrongful death lawsuit against the federal government contend agents started the fire through the use of potentially incendiary tear gas canisters or by knocking over kerosene lanterns.
Government lawyers say sect leader David Koresh and some 80 followers intentionally started three fires that ultimately engulfed the complex and ended the 51-day siege.
In other testimony Friday, Steve McGavin, an FBI supervisory agent who helped draft proposals to remove the Davidians, said agents had several rounds of the military-style canisters in their possession - handed over by local law enforcement agencies when supplies of the ferret canisters became low - but he didn't know if the military rounds were returned unused.
Before testimony resumed Friday morning, U.S. District Judge Walter Smith excluded testimony of one of the plaintiff's expert witness, Frank Johnson, an engineer. Smith said his testimony over whether exits to the compound were blocked by debris left in the wake of tanks penetrating the building would confuse jurors.
At midmorning, Smith's growing impatience with repetitive questioning became evident when he imposed a 40-hour time limit on both the plaintiffs' and the government's lawyers.
The judge noted at Friday's lunch break that the plaintiffs already had logged in more than half their time.
WACO , TEXAS -- "A live witness? My goodness!" U.S. District Judge Walter Smith exclaimed Thursday after lawyers in the Branch Davidian wrongful death suit against the federal government ended a showing of videotaped depositions that ran for nearly five hours.
The video witness, Joe Servel, an FBI agent who commanded a Bradley fighting vehicle during the 1993 Waco siege, remembered little and cast only a slim light on the fatal events of April 19, when the home of cult leader David Koresh and his followers burned to the ground.
Koresh and 75 others died in the fire. Survivors and families of the victims are seeking $675 million, saying the government agents are responsible for the fiery end to the 51-day siege.
The FBI Bradley commander's testimony provided human touches. The deposition videos had left jurors and three dozen spectators--half as many as on Wednesday--yawning.
The premature partial destruction of the Branch Davidian compound with tanks deviated from the Washington-approved plan to end the 51-day siege at Mount Carmel, two former top FBI officials testified Thursday.
The fourth day of the multimillion dollar wrongful death trial against the government focused on the morning of April 19, 1993, and the FBI's plan to use tear gas on David Koresh and his followers and drive them from their sprawling home.
Danny O. Coulson, former deputy assistant FBI director, testifying by videotape, said he and his Justice Department colleagues in Washington were surprised as they watched on television as a tank plunged through a wall of the compound.
Coulson said an FBI official seated next to him uttered a shock-induced expletive, and he said, "I hope that's a bad camera angle," as the tank rammed through the wall.
"I was hoping it didn't go into the building as far as it looked," Coulson said.
Before playing the videotaped depositions of Coulson and former assistant FBI director Larry A. Potts, lead plaintiffs' attorney Mike Caddell of Houston distributed copies of the FBI's proposed operational plans to end the siege and Attorney General Janet Reno's briefing book to the seven-member advisory jury. Caddell told jurors the plan underwent at least five revisions before Reno approved it.
Coulson said the FBI's dismantling of the gym on the back side of the compound with modified tanks known as combat engineering vehicles was "inconsistent with what I understood the plan to be."
In response to questions from Caddell, Coulson said he "never contemplated" that under Reno's plan the gym would be demolished with the roof collapsed within the first five hours of the operation.
Potts said he, too, was surprised to see the tanks taking out huge chunks of the building.
"I thought, 'What are they doing going into the building? Is there an emergency? I wasn't sure what the reason was, absent an emergency," Potts said.
Caddell showed Potts a letter from the FBI on-site commanders in Waco that recommended a tank crew for the FBI Shield of Bravery. The letter says that the crew "slowly and methodically began dismantling the gymnasium in a very deliberate and surgical manner" at great personal risk to themselves.
Potts said he was surprised by the language in the letter of commendation, saying that the destruction of the gym was inconsistent with the approved plan of operation as he understood it "unless there were exigent circumstances."
Although tank crews reported taking heavy gunfire from Branch Davidians, Potts said he was not aware of any conditions that would have required the on-site commanders to change the plan without conferring with Justice Department officials in Washington.
In other videotaped testimony, former FBI director William Sessions and former deputy director Floyd I. Clarke both testified that FBI agents in charge at scenes are given wide latitude to use discretion when emergency situations arise.
"Once a plan is in place, the people at the scene have a tremendous amount of discretion," Clarke said. "I don't think there was a decision made to destroy the building," Clarke said. "If there was a decision to do that, I would expect notification from Waco."
However, Clarke acknowledged that in 30 years with the FBI, he never told an on-site commander that he could deviate from an approved plan without permission from Washington.
The plan approved by Reno called for the slow and deliberate introduction of tear gas through compound windows, if possible, using booms on the military vehicles. No weapons would be displayed by the agents and a loud speaker would announce that the moves were not meant to be threatening or constitute an assault.
Caddell asked several of the former FBI officials, including Sessions, if they couldn't see a conflict in announcing that the tear-gas operation was not an assault as a tank "is driving into your living room."
Sessions conceded that under those circumstances, "I would assume it was an assault."
The plan Reno approved called for the systematic destruction of the building only 48 hours after it was determined that the tear gas had failed.
Koresh and 75 followers, including 21 children, died later than morning after a fire swept through the compound.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit also are alleging that the government failed to have a plan to fight the fire and held back firefighters once it began.
Government attorneys have said that the Davidians started the fire and died in a fulfillment of Koresh's apocalyptic prophecies. The fire trucks were held back because of the Davidian gunfire earlier in the day, government officials have said.
Sessions disagreed with Caddell's characterization that the tanks had embarked on a course to intentionally destroy the building. He said some damage to the building was necessary to insert the gas and to create what the government thought would be escape routes for the Davidians.
"There is no way anybody contemplated anything other than to get those people out safely. It was not the beginning of the systematic destruction of the compound in a way that was not consistent with the plan," Sessions said.
He said that FBI commander Jeffrey Jamar and other FBI officials in Waco had "implied authority" to order demolition of portions of the compound without higher approval if they thought that was necessary to the situation.
Caddell called FBI agent Joseph Servel Jr. to the stand in the afternoon session, a move that pleasantly surprised U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr. after a day of videotaped deposition testimony.
"A live witness?" the judge asked.
Servel said he was the leader of a tank team that fired about 65 "ferret rounds" of tear gas into windows on the back side of Mount Carmel. While he later learned that some military pyrotechnic tear-gas devices were fired that morning, Servel said his crew fired only non-explosive ferret rounds.
Caddell presented a snippet of an April 7, 1993, video taken by an FBI SWAT team member. It captured a briefing by a supervisor who had spoken with negotiators and Jamar the day before. The supervisor noted that plans to punch holes in the building had been rejected.
"... The reason headquarters rejected that is because it would be perceived by the Davidians, the people inside, as an act of aggression or an attack," the supervisor said. "They're using that as a defense already, that they were attacked by the ATF. So for us to go in and punch holes in and throw gas in there, they're gonna perceive that as an attack and they will retaliate, with gunfire..."
The supervisor said instead a fence would be put around Mount Carmel and tear gas rounds would be lobbed into the building.
"They're accomplishing the same thing by getting gas in there ... in a less aggressive manner."
An agreement to drop a government claim that 76 Branch Davidians contributed to their own deaths by staying inside a burning Mount Carmel will shorten the civil trial, both sides said Thursday.
"I think their decision will shorten the case significantly," said Houston attorney Mike Caddell, lead attorney for the plaintiffs. "I think we'll be able to finish our case sometime next week."
The government would then present its defense.
Government co-counsel Michael Bradford said the stipulation to not press a contributory negligence argument will undoubtedly shorten the trial on the Davidians' wrongful-death lawsuit against the government.
"It could have been weeks or longer if we had dug into everything that happened those 51 days," Bradford said.
The agreement won't hurt the government's defense in the case, Bradford said. The lawsuit deals with four issues: whether agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms fired randomly during their raid on Mount Carmel; whether the FBI demolished Mount Carmel prematurely and not in accordance with U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno's directive; whether the government should have had a plan to fight a fire; and whether the government contributed to the cause and spread of the fire.
"It would have been something of a sideshow on issues already dismissed from the case and would have prolonged the trial," Bradford said. "We don't need the contributory negligence argument. That's why we abandoned it."
Legally, contributory negligence is when the actions of a plaintiff in a lawsuit contributed to his injury. According to the law, the government couldn't have argued that anyone less than 5 years old was guilty of contributory negligence.
There were 13 children less than 5 years old who died at Mount Carmel.
Caddell had been prepared to argue that the government's actions during the Feb. 28, 1993 raid on Mount Carmel and the resulting 51-day siege led the Davidians to remain inside while their building burned to the ground almost two months later.
To Caddell, the agreement with the government is telling.
"What that tells you is that the government is terrified of having the American people judge their conduct from Feb. 28, 1993 to April 19, 1993," Caddell said.
Bradford, however, denied that accusation.
"That's certainly not true," Bradford said. "The truth of the matter is that it probably could have been a strong argument for us. There's a tremendous amount of evidence that the FBI practically begged the Davidians to surrender and send their children out."
Caddell said the government's concession is a victory for the plaintiffs.
"We may have limited the issues going to the jury to one issue," Caddell said. "Was the government negligent? If the answer is yes and there's probable cause, it's over."
James Brannon, the Houston attorney representing David Koresh's legal children in the trial, isn't so sure.
"It was a good move on the government's part," Brannon said. "They didn't want all that testimony about shooting and gassing. We were going to make the argument that the government might have been shooting at them or gassing them to the point they couldn't come out. That's particularly true of the people in the vault. They shot four bottles of gas in there. I doubt anybody in there was able to walk out."
Waco, FBI and the Branch Davidians: Updates
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