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Mayhem at Mount Carmel

Excerpt from
TIME OF THE RANGERS
From 1900 to The Present


by Mike Cox

On any given Sunday morning in Waco, home of the largest Baptist university in the nation, a lot of the city’s residents are sitting in church. That was where Company F Captain Bob Prince could be found on the morning of February 28, 1993. As he listened to the sermon, he noticed a fellow church member, Waco-based FBI agent Bob Seale, leaving the pew with his pager in hand. Moments later, the agent walked briskly back into the sanctuary and motioned to Prince. Outside, Seale told Prince a Texas National Guard helicopter had been shot down and numerous federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents killed and wounded while attempting to serve a search warrant at David Koresh’s Branch Davidian ranch.

Prince already knew the back story. The day before, the Waco Tribune-Herald had published the first installment of a seven-part series on Vernon Wayne Howell, soon to be far better known as Koresh, a long-haired zealot who considered himself the messiah returned, and his fellow Davidians, a cult-like spin off from the Seventh Day Adventist Church based near Mount Carmel ten miles east of Waco. While religious practice is Constitutionally protected by the first amendment, the ATF had reason to believe that Koresh had stocked his two-story wooden compound with a cache of illegal automatic weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Too, the state’s agency charged with enforcing child welfare statutes had concerns about the treatment of the Davidian’s children. Worried that the newspaper would tip their hand, ATF officials had decided to stage its raid that Sunday morning.

But when seventy-plus agents in blue fatigues marked with the yellow letters “ATF” emerged from cattle trailers pulled up in front of the compound at 9:45 that morning, Koresh and his “Mighty Men” had opened fire on the federal officers.

Back in Waco, Prince whispered to his wife that he had to leave immediately and drove home to get his state car. From there, he sped to Mount Carmel. He arrived to find chaos. Koresh had agreed to a cease fire so the dead and wounded could be removed. Though the report of the downed helicopter had proven unfounded, the ATF had lost four agents killed and sixteen wounded while killing five of the Davidians.

Prince had known the ATF had an investigation under way and planned a raid, but the agency had declined his offer of state assistance. Now he and other rangers who had arrived did what they could by way of support. About 4:30 p.m. a second shoot-out erupted when a Davidian showed up at the entrance to the compound and pointed a pistol at ATF agents manning the perimeter. The rangers did not participate in the confrontation, which left another Davidian dead.

Killing a federal agent is a federal offense, but any homicide in Texas is also a state crime. The following day, after consulting with Senior Captain Cook and Colonel Wilson, Prince offered to assist the FBI and the Justice Department in the investigation of the slayings. But he told them that his agency did not have the manpower to conduct the investigation solely. The day after that, the ATF’s second-in-command, having flown in from Washington, insisted that the Rangers handle all of the investigation because of their credibility. Prince firmly but politely said no.

Not settling for that, the Washington official asked who the top man at the DPS was. When Prince told him he asked the captain to get Wilson on the phone. After talking to the colonel privately in an adjoining room at the Fort Fisher Ranger headquarters, the ATF official returned and told Prince that Wilson wanted to talk with him. When Prince got on the line, Wilson said, “Captain Prince, do it all, whatever manpower it takes.” Prince and other Company F rangers worked the case for about three weeks before Cook called in Company B Captain David Byrnes to take over the investigation. Prince had earlier told Cook he planned on retiring later that year and did not want to spend years after that getting subpoenaed as a witness for the state concerning the events at Mount Carmel.

With an army of FBI agents surrounding the compound and negotiations under way with Koresh, the situation at Mount Carmel settled into a tense standoff. Rangers took statements from ATF agents and the Davidians who left or fled from the compound but they could do little more in developing a criminal case until they could work the crime scene.

Unknown to the hundreds of reporters who had descended on Waco from all over the world to cover the standoff, Koresh told Houston attorney Dick DeGuerin, who had injected himself into the negotiations as Koresh’s lawyer, that he would surrender peacefully—but only to the Texas Rangers. DeGuerin passed that information on to Cook, who in turn consulted the FBI. The agency said no. If Koresh surrendered, it would be to the FBI.

Hundreds of hours of phone conversations and intensive psychological warfare (around-the-clock bright lights and blaring annoying sounds) having failed to dislodge Koresh and his followers, the FBI got approval from U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno to use heavy military equipment from nearby Fort Hood—tank-like M728 combat engineering vehicles and M3 Bradley armored vehicles—and clouds of CS gas to end the siege. The final assault began the morning of April 19, the fifty-second day of the stand-off. As soon as FBI-driven military vehicles began punching holes in the walls of Koresh’s wooden fortress and injecting the eye-burning gas, the Davidians began firing at the vehicles and any agent they spotted. At high noon, flames could be seen licking from the structure. Aided by a strong north wind, fire soon engulfed the entire building. Only a handful of its occupants escaped the conflagration.

The ruins of the compound still smoldered when the Justice Department asked the Rangers to take control of the crime scene and proceed with a state investigation. Now, the rangers not only had the deaths of the four ATF agents to investigate, but the violent demise of most of those who had remained in the compound, seventy-six men, women and children—including Koresh. Captain Byrnes coordinated the protracted effort, while Prince oversaw the day-to-day activities of his own company. Thirty-five rangers, more than a third of the service, would work the crime scene along with DPS crime lab personnel and FBI forensic personnel. Over the next several weeks, in the most extensive criminal investigation to that point in their history, rangers presided over the photographing and removal of bodies while collecting and cataloging some 2,000 pieces of evidence ranging from three hundred fire-blackened firearms to buckets of fired bullets. The evidentiary items gathered at the crime scene weighed some twelve tons. So that the evidence could more easily be used in federal court, the rangers had been issued U.S. Marshal deputations. By the end of May, most of the rangers pulled in from across the state had returned to their normal duties, but the criminal case that became generically known simply as “Waco” would involve the Rangers for years to come. [9]

Copyright Mike Cox 2009
See Mike Cox's "Texas Tales" Weekly Column

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9. Cox, Mike, Stand-Off in Texas: “Just Call Me a Spokesman for DPS...”, Austin: Eakin Press, 1998, pp. 48-70; author’s interview with Bob Prince, September 22, 2008. A University of Texas graduate student, Jody Ginn of Austin, Texas, finally brought to light that Koresh had offered to surrender to the Rangers in a research paper titled “Texas Rangers Historical Footage Research,” prepared for Professor Caroline Frick, PhD, University of Texas at Austin, Summer 2008. Ginn wrote: “It has long been rumored in Texas law enforcement circles that David Koresh had agreed to…surrender to the Texas Rangers and that the FBI refused [to] cooperative with that plan…However, www.footage.net documents a segment available from CNN Image Source of the 1995 [Congressional] hearings during which Koresh’s attorney, Dick DeGuerin, testified in detail to his negotiations with the then-Chief of the Rangers (Maurice Cook), to Koresh’s agreement to the plan, and to the FBI’s unwillingness to go along with it.” Retiring Captain Barry Caver also confirmed the Koresh surrender offer in Campbell, Bob, “Ranger captain reflects on Waco, Fort Davis,” Midland Reporter-Telegram, June 2, 2008. Additional insight into the Branch-Davidian siege can be found in Stuart A. Wright, editor, Armageddon in Waco: Critical Perspectives on the Branch Davidian Conflict, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995; Sergeant George L. Turner to Senior Captain Bruce Casteel, “Branch Davidian Evidence,” June 30, 1999; Sergeant Joey D. Gordon to Casteel, “Review of Evidence Related to the Branch Davidian Investigation,” September 10, 1999 and Gordon to Casteel, “Branch Davidian Report #2,” February 16, 2000, Texas Department of Public Safety; and John C. Danforth, Final Report to the Deputy Attorney General concerning the 1993 Confrontation at the Mt. Carmel Complex, Waco, Texas, Washington, D.C., November 8, 2000.
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