A Chester woman whose son died in the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound hopes the truth about the disaster will be told during a lawsuit now in its second week.
And the truth, as Filomena Hipsman sees it, is that the federal government - not Branch Davidian leader David Koresh or his followers - bears full responsibility for the deaths of roughly 80 people, including her son.
"The way justice would be served for me," she said, "would be for them to tell the truth." The government says Branch Davidians - acting on Koresh's orders - set fire to their compound near Waco, Texas, as federal agents moved in after a 51-day siege that began with a botched attempt to arrest Koresh.
But the Davidians and their supporters insist the blaze was caused by federal agents - perhaps through incendiary devices fired into the compound on the siege's final day, April 19, 1993.
Hipsman, whose 28-year-old son Peter died not from the fire but from bullet wounds, knows Koresh was obsessed with the Apocalypse, but she does not believe he would have ordered a fiery end for himself or others.
"He believed in life," Hipsman said. She also doubts anyone would have complied, whatever their devotion to Koresh.
"Who would want to die like that?" she asked.
Hipsman and her husband, Eugene, are among the bereaved families and siege survivors represented in a $675 million wrongful-death lawsuit against the government.
Among the issues in the case is whether agents indiscriminately shot into the compound when the siege began on Feb. 28, 1993, and whether they violated a plan approved by Attorney General Janet Reno when they ordered tanks to punch holes in the compound walls.
Hipsman does not blame Reno for the deadly outcome of the two raids.
"I think she was misled," she said. "I don't think she was given enough information on what was happening there." Hipsman and her husband went to Texas in September to see where the youngest of their six boys, a 1983 Monroe-Woodbury High School graduate who lived for six years at the Branch Davidian compound, lost his life.
After the conflagration, Peter Hipsman's body was found buried with four others in a cellar. The cause of death was listed as gunshot wounds to the head and abdomen. An autopsy later revealed the shots to the head were fired at close range.
Filomena Hipsman said she met a Branch Davidian at the site who said her son was badly wounded during the government's initial raid and then shot by fellow Davidians to relieve his suffering.
She and her husband saw the cellar where her son's body, now buried in a cemetery in Monroe, lay for weeks in a shallow grave.
Being there, she said, gave her a final contact with her son.
"It was like, OK Peter, I'm here," she said. "I wasn't with you when you died. But I'm here now."
WACO, Texas - "I heard screams. I could hear crying. People were praying."
With those words, Marjorie Thomas, a fire-scarred survivor of the government siege at Waco, described the last moments of the Branch Davidians as flames engulfed their complex in 1993.
"I stayed where I was," said Thomas, who was in a bedroom on the second floor when the complex caught fire. "Then, things got quiet. I thought maybe they found a way to get out."
In fact, most of the people had died. About 80 Davidians - including 20 children - died April 19, 1993, during the final day of the government's siege. Some died from gunshots, but most succumbed to the effects of the fire. Thomas, 30 at the time of the siege, was one of nine to get out alive.
Her testimony Monday in federal court was the most compelling so far in the week-old trial of the Davidians' wrongful death case against the government. It was also the most conflicting, because it was sometimes at odds with sworn statements she gave seven years ago.
For example, Thomas testified that government helicopters fired on the complex during a raid by federal agents Feb. 28, 1993. But in a sworn statement she made shortly after the event, she said she did not know the source of the gunfire.
Thomas, who was burned on about half of her body, still suffers from her injuries. Her hands are scarred from the flames, and she used a cane to walk slowly into the courtroom. She spoke in a soft voice for more than 90 minutes.
A Briton, Thomas joined the Davidians about a year before the government siege began. She was there during the initial raid by agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and when the FBI attempted to evict the Davidians with tear gas. After six hours of the gas attack, three separate fires broke out.
Thomas said thick smoke had kept her from seeing a way out of the building. At one point, she stepped on the hand of a person lying on the floor.
"I felt along the wall. You could hear the flames roaring. Things were popping. It was noisy. I could feel the jacket I was wearing melting."
Thomas saw a bright spot in the smoke and worked her way to it. She found an open window and jumped out.
Thomas is one of the plaintiffs in the case, which was brought by survivors and relatives of those who died. They are seeking millions of dollars in compensation, claiming that actions by federal agents contributed to the deaths and injuries.
The government has denied responsibility for the fires, which it says were set by the Branch Davidians.
Thomas said that on the day of the raid by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, she and her roommates were looking from a window at approaching helicopters.
"I could see the gun from the helicopter, and then he fired," said Thomas. "The bullet came through one of the other windows in the room. We all got down on the floor. By this time, some more of the bullets were coming through the sheet rock and coming across the room."
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has long denied that shots were fired from the helicopters. During cross-examination by government lawyers, Thomas was confronted with a sworn statement she made in 1993. She said then that she didn't know whether the man in the helicopter was armed and that she didn't know whether the shots came from the helicopter. In her testimony Monday, Thomas said she didn't remember giving the statement.
In other testimony Monday, Patrick Kennedy, a fire investigator hired by the Davidians, challenged the government's claim that the Davidians had started the fires. Kennedy said it could not be determined whether the fire was arson or an accident. He said the cause is unknown and called the government's fire investigation inadequate.
"They don't know the cause, and they don't know who is responsible," Kennedy said. He said there was "no doubt" that the damage to the complex from FBI tanks ramming it to insert tear gas caused the fire to burn faster, hotter and spread farther.
When the tanks plowed into the wooden structure, he said, walls were broken up into fuel, and more ventilation was developed that would feed air to the fire.
"Not that somebody did that on purpose, but the effect is the same," Kennedy said. "You make it kindling, and you blow on it. It's like starting your campfire out in the woods."
Earlier Monday, Graeme Craddock, a Davidian survivor, said in a videotaped deposition that he had heard another sect member talking about spreading fuel and calling on others to start a fire.
Davidian lawyers won a major concession when U.S. District Judge Walter Smith Jr. allowed them to enter into evidence warnings that FBI negotiators gave to on-scene commanders.
"If the compound is attacked, in all probability, David Koresh and his followers will fight back to the death to defend their property and their faith, as they believe they did on Feb. 28, 1993," said an internal memo written six weeks before the gas attack. The memo was written by Peter Smerick and Mark Young, FBI psychological profilers.
"If that occurs, there will have to be an HRT (hostage rescue team) response and the possibility of a tremendous loss of life, both within the compound, and of Bureau personnel," the memo said. It went on to say that the news media, the public and Congress will ask, "Why couldn't you just wait them out?"
Federal assertions that the Branch Davidian fire was arson are unacceptable because they sprang from an "incompetent" investigation that missed many potential fuel and ignition sources for the 1993 blaze, a fire investigator for the sect testified Monday.
The government's examination of the Branch Davidian fire failed to identify dozens of propane tanks as potential fuel sources and failed to find burn or pour patterns in any of the three areas where government investigators contended that sect members deliberately set the compound fire, plaintiff's fire investigator Patrick Kennedy said.
"You can't say it's arson; it's not arson, it's accidental. The investigation is insufficient and inappropriate," said Mr. Kennedy, a private consultant who has helped investigate more than 2,500 fires and helped write nationally recognized fire investigation standards. "I'm just saying they didn't do their job right."
Offering some of the most animated testimony presented so far in the trial of the Branch Davidians' wrongful-death lawsuit, Mr. Kennedy said government investigators were particularly remiss in failing to examine how FBI tanks might have contributed to the blaze that leveled the compound on April 19, 1993. More than 80 Branch Davidians died.
The fire broke out about six hours after FBI tanks began ramming the building and spraying in tear gas to force the sect to end a 51-day standoff. The blaze also began less than an hour after FBI tanks smashed deep into the front of the building and demolished much of its rear.
Mr. Kennedy noted that one tank smashed into an area where government investigators said the first fire began and left within only a minute after the first heat from that blaze was spotted by an airborne FBI infrared camera. "That could have released fuel" by crushing propane tanks or lanterns known to be scattered throughout the compound, he said.
Smashed into 'kindling'
"The tanks' actions . . . made the fire burn hotter," he said. "It made the fire burn faster. It made the fire spread further. Those incursions cannot be ruled out as being a cause of the fire."
The tanks smashed compound walls into "kindling" and opened up massive ventilation flues for the day's 25-mph winds.
"Make it kindling, and then blow on it: It's like starting your camp fire out in the woods," he said.
The $675 million wrongful-death lawsuit filed by surviving Branch Davidians and relatives of those who died alleges that government tanks contributed to the spread of the blaze and that FBI commanders violated a Washington-approved plan when they sent the tanks deep into the building.
Lead plainttiff's lawyer Michael Caddell fought off vigorous government objections Monday and introduced internal government documents in which top FBI negotiators vigorously condemned the decision to send in tanks. Among the documents were a memo written to FBI commanders during the first week of the siege that warned violence would result from any attack on the compound.
A second 1993 document detailed post-siege statements by the FBI's highest-ranking negotiator and included his assessment that the FBI's commanders were acting out of anger and frustration. The agent, Gary Noesner, added that the decision to send tanks deep into the compound was "a fundamental flaw" that violated the bureau's operational plan.
"Any negotiator would have told them that dismantling the building would provoke a violent response," said Mr. Noesner, head of the FBI's crisis-management program. "That is what triggered the starting of the fires and shooting of the children."
Government lawyers have maintained that the sect alone started the fire and caused the final tragedy. In addition to citing the fire investigation, they have pointed to recorded conversations captured between Branch Davidians by FBI bugs that included talk of spreading fuel and setting fires. They have also cited testimony of Branch Davidian Graeme Craddock, an Australian who was among eight Branch Davidians convicted in a 1994 criminal trial that arose from the standoff.
Quotes from compound
Lawyers for the sect played parts of a video deposition for jurors on Monday in which Mr. Craddock acknowledged hearing others in the compound discussing spreading fuel and yelling to start a fire.
But he said that the Branch Davidian he heard discussing pouring flammables was actually yelling for another sect member to pour it "outside, not inside."
He added that another sect member whom he heard calling out orders to start a fire gave those instructions only after others had yelled that the building was ablaze. He said that he later heard a Branch Davidian yell, 'Don't light the fire.'"
Government lawyers questioned Mr. Kennedy closely Monday about Mr. Craddock' stestimony and a laboratory finding that traces of flammable liquids were found in wreckage of the chapel where Mr. Craddock was at the time.
Mr. Kennedy said that was worth considering but did not justify the arson finding.
He noted that the government's investigators found acccelerants only in that area and found no traces of any flammables in a downstairs dining room identified as another ignition point for the compound blaze. He added that the kitchen was full of propane tanks that could have been crushed by FBI tanks but were never even identified as potential fuel sources.
Also Monday, jurors heard testimony from a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper who described stopping a local volunteer department's truck manned by a lone firefighter from going to fight the compound blaze.
Sgt. David Keys said a call came over his DPS radio ordering all firetrucks to be stopped from going near the compound for more than 30 minutes after the fire started, adding , "We were told later it was for the security of the agents near the [Branch Davidian] building."
Lawyers for the sect have contended that the government should be held negligent for failing to let any firetrucks near the building until it was gutted. Government lawyers have argued, however, that FBI commanders acted properly because Branch Davidians had been firing at tanks that morning and posed a deadly threat to firefighters.
The afternoon's testimony ended with a videotaped deposition from a Florida man who offered remote-controlled, armored firefighting equipment to the FBI.. Myra Slovak testified he was working with a Czech manufacturer to market rebuilt, Soviet tanks as armored fire equipment when the Branch Davidian siege began in 1993.
An émigré who said he had previously leased airplanes to another federal law enforcement agency, Mr. Slovak said he called an FBI agent in California to offer free use of one of the firefighting tanks in the Waco siege.
He said he spoke several times to agents in the two weeks before the Waco fire, but never heard back from them after an initial round of calls and faxes.
The second week of the Waco trial began Monday with a fire survivor's graphic description of the chaos, smoke and noise of the compound blaze.
British subject Marjorie Thomas, one of only nine sect members to survive the fire, recounted feeling her way through smoke and flames, hearing others inside scream and fall silent, and finally jumping to safety as her burning legs gave way.
"I could hear rushing, screaming, crying, people praying. ...Then it went quiet," she said, adding her legs collapsed from the impact of burns and her jacket melted around her before she escaped.
"I looked out of the window. I looked back into the building. ...I don't like heights, but I thought, it's either I live or die," testified Ms. Thomas, one of only nine Branch Davidians to survive the compound fire.
Pressed by government lawyers, the soft-spoken, frail woman insisted that she couldn't remember much else of what happened in the sect's 51-day standoff with the federal government.
She acknowledged to U.S. Attorney Michael Bradford of Beaumont that Branch Davidian leader David Koresh taught his followers before the 1993 siege that they would go to war and their enemies would be from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the FBI.
She also acknowledged that she once was ready to kill herself at Mr. Koresh's command.
But she testified that she "could not recall" many key details of her post-fire statements to authorities about the sect's apocalyptic beliefs, including her 1993 testimony that Mr. Koresh plotted a group suicide early in the standoff and taught followers that they must kill for God.
She said she was under heavy medication and was still hospitalized for third degree burns over half her body when she gave a videotaped deposition for federal prosecutors in November 1993.
Her testimony veered even under gentle questioning from Mr. Caddell. At one point, she said she never saw anyone with a gun when the standoff began with a gunfight between the sect and federal agents.
After Mr. Caddell played videotaped excerpts from her 1993 deposition, Ms. Thomas acknowledged that three other women in her bedroom handed guns that day to others in the compound. But she testified she never saw anyone fire a gun.
Before Monday's testimony began, Judge Smith announced that a second juror had been excused for personal reasons, reducing the remaining panel of jurors to five. A juror was also excused last week for undisclosed personal problems.
The jury is serving as an advisory panel and the judge will render final judgment about whether the government shares blame for the 1993 tragedy. Judge Smith will separately decide a final issue that he decided earlier this month to separate from the Waco jury trial: whether government agents fired at the compound during the last hours of the siege.
An expert witness for the plaintiffs on Monday attacked the government's contention that the Branch Davidians started the fire that destroyed Mount Carmel.
And two Davidians, Marjorie Thomas and Graeme Craddock, described their narrow escapes from the flames to U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr. of Waco and the advisory jury hearing their $675 million wrongful-death lawsuit against the government.
Patrick Kennedy, a Chicago investigator who helped write the industry standards for fire investigations, told Houston attorney Mike Caddell that the government can't prove the Davidians set fires in three locations simultaneously. Caddell is the lead plaintiffs attorney.
Kennedy said the government's reliance on an infrared video to prove arson is completely erroneous.
It's never been used before, Kennedy said. It's never been used since. There's no scientific evidence that you can tell anything from a FLIR (Forward-Looking Infrared video). There is no literature in fire investigation about using a FLIR.
Kennedy said the government also can't prove that accelerants were used in the three locations dining room, chapel and southwest corner of Mount Carmel where fires seemed to start simultaneously on April 19, 1993, leading to the deaths of David Koresh and 75 followers.
Samples were taken from all three areas to test for arson, Kennedy told Caddell.
A dog trained to alert at the smell of accelerants made 100 alerts going through the rubble of Mount Carmel, Kennedy said. Thirty hits came back positive for accelerants. Not all three areas, however, tested positive for accelerants, Kennedy said. The dining room, for example, tested negative.
The (fire) code is clear, Kennedy said. If you don't get a lab test, you don't get a positive for accelerants.
Kennedy said the government counted the dog's alerts as a positive indication for accelerants.
We don't even know how the dog works, said Kennedy, noting that gasoline has 400 different compounds. We do know this: He's not always right..
Kennedy rattled off several explanations for the simultaneous fires: arson; the leaking of fuel throughout Mount Carmel from the numerous propane cylinders, many of which were crushed; and the lack of firewalls, which can cause a fire to race through a structure's walls.
Showing a photograph of the stove in the ruins of the dining room at Mount Carmel, Kennedy noted the presence of one 100-pound propane cylinder and several smaller propane cylinders.
How can they rule them out if they never examined them? he asked.
The cause of the fire at Mount Carmel can only be labeled as undetermined, Kennedy said.
But there is no doubt the plowing of tanks into Mount Carmel accelerated the fire, according to Kennedy.
It made the fire burn hotter, Kennedy said. It made the fire burn faster .. . . Those incursions cant be ruled out as the cause of the fire.
Marjorie Thomas, who suffered third-degree burns on half her body, gave the court a harrowing description of her escape from the Mount Carmel fire. She walked to the witness stand actually a chair placed on the floor with the help of a cane and sat on a cushion, still recovering from a March operation to remove scar tissue.
On the day of the fire, Thomas said she felt the building shake as a frog, her name for tanks, delivered tear gas into the building.
The roof of the building lifted up and dropped back down, Thomas said.
A ferret round shot into Mount Carmel hit one woman, grazing her forehead, she testified. Thomas said she tried to throw the tear gas canisters back out.
It was really hot, Thomas said. I made a few attempts. I was able to throw one out of the building.
She stood guard duty the night before the fire, Thomas testified. That prompted government co-counsel Michael Bradford to ask if she would have shot an FBI agent trying to enter Mount Carmel.
I wouldn't use the word shoot, Thomas said.
What word would you use? Bradford asked.
Protect, Thomas said.
Smith later instructed the jurors they were only to use that portion of Thomas' testimony in considering whether the government acted reasonably in not allowing firefighters to enter Mount Carmel.
Thick smoke hampered her efforts to escape once the fire started, Thomas said.
I could hear rushing, screaming, crying, people praying, Thomas said. . . .. I stopped where I was. I couldn't see anyone. I didn't know what had happened until it got quiet. I thought maybe they had found a way out, and I was still there.
Fire pushed her back after she entered a hallway leading to the dining area, Thomas said.
I was making my way to the dining area, but the flames blocked my way, she said. My foot touched someone.
Caddell asked whose foot she touched.
Sheila Jr., Thomas said, referring to the daughter of Davidian Sheila Martin, who left Mount Carmel during the siege to care for three other children.
The fire eventually caught up with Thomas, she testified.
I could feel the jacket I was wearing melting, Thomas said.. By this time, my legs were moving out of control. They were burning.
Feeling her way along the walls, she got lost, Thomas said. Then she saw a little flicker of light, actually daylight, coming from a room. She entered and escaped through a window.
Thomas denied that the Davidians made suicide plans on April 19.
However, Thomas told Bradford there had been a plan to commit suicide if Koresh died. His body was to be put on a stretcher and taken outside, accompanied by his wives and children. Grenades would be taken, too.
What were the grenades going to be used for? Bradford asked.
It was going to be used to end our lives, Thomas said.
Outside court, Bradford said Thomas' testimony gave credence to government concerns of another Jonestown situation. However, Caddell dismissed the stretcher plan as a fantasy.
Graeme Craddock, serving a prison sentence for possessing an unregistered destructive device (grenade) at Mount Carmel, said he was in the chapel when the fire started, according to a videotaped deposition. He heard Mark Wendel yell twice that Mount Carmel was on fire, Craddock said. The first time, he didn't see the fire. The second time, however, debris was falling like black snow, Craddock said.
Craddock also said he heard a Davidian at one point yell, light the fire. However, he said he didn't see anyone light a fire and was not aware of plans to start a fire.
Craddock escaped and hid for three hours in a cinderblock structure, but not before searching for a way upstairs. Craddock testified that he wanted to see what other Davidians were doing.
I really didn't know what to do at the time, Craddock said.. David Koresh had told people, had told negotiators he wasn't going to come out. Whether that meant he wasn't going to come out because a machine was pushing through the building or he wasn't going to come out because of fire, I didn't know.
Caddell said late Monday that he expects to wrap up his case today.
Former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark, representing Davidians such as Clive Doyle, filed a motion Monday protesting time limits set by Smith on presentations. However, Clark said he thinks Smith is going to work with us on that.
WACO, Texas (AP) - The federal agent who ordered the use of tanks to fire tear gas into the Branch Davidian compound was warned that sect members would ``fight back to the death'' if confronted, lawyers argued in a wrongful death lawsuit against the government.
The attorneys on Monday presented what they called ``the best piece of evidence from the government'' - a March 1993 memo from FBI criminal profilers Peter Smerick and Mark Young to on-scene commander Jeffery Jamar.
The memo warned Jamar that if the FBI attacked the compound to end the standoff, sect leader David Koresh and his followers would battle back. It also stated that if FBI agents ``physically attack'' and children are killed, the agents ``will be placed in a difficult situation,'' even if Davidians are to blame.
Still expected to testify for the plaintiffs is Misty Ferguson, one of 10 people who survived the fiery raid that ended a 51-day standoff.
Ferguson, who was 17 at the time, fell or jumped two stories as plumes of fire and smoke swept through the complex. She was severely burned and lost her fingers.
The plaintiffs are seeking $675 million in damages. They contend government agents fired indiscriminately during the raid; violated a plan approved by Attorney General Janet Reno when they punched holes in the building to spray tear gas; contributed to or caused at least some of the three fires that engulfed the compound; and failed to have firefighting equipment at the scene.
The government maintains the Branch Davidians started the fire that enveloped the wooden building on April 19, 1993. Koresh and about 80 of his followers died that day, some in the fire, others from gunshots.
Waco, FBI and the Branch Davidians: Updates
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