Branch Davidian cult leader David Koresh was preparing to surrender when federal agents launched the final raid on his compound near Waco, Texas, attorneys for the sect told Congress on Tuesday.
The attorneys told a House inquiry that Koresh just wanted more time to write a religious essay.
“We were on the way to doing that. It would have ended peacefully,” said Dick DeGuerin, Koresh’s attorney during the siege of the Waco compound.
“We had a deal. We were going to do it,” said Jack Zimmermann, an attorney who represented Koresh lieutenant Steve Schneider. “Some desk-bound bureaucrat in Washington overrode all that.”
Under the plan, DeGuerin and Koresh were to leave the compound first to “show everybody they weren’t going to be executed,” Zimmermamn said.
FBI officials have said repeatedly that Koresh was using the request for time as another delaying tactic.
The attorneys also said federal agents worked at cross-purposes, with some FBI negotiators trying to earn the trust of the Davidians while some of their colleagues blasted the compound with loud music and noise, which had the effect of further uniting the group behind Koresh. The federal agents never understood the religion or sincere beliefs held by Koresh and his followers, the lawyers said.
“I have seen no credible evidence of a conspiracy,” said Zimmermann. “I think that it is an example of gross incompetence.”
The FBI assaulted the compound on April 19, 1993, using armored vehicles to spread tear gas inside.
A fire erupted, killing Koresh and 74 other sect members inside.
Tuesday’s testimony marked the first concerted effort by witnesses to paint Koresh in a favorable light.
Previous witnesses, including a 14-year-old girl who had lived in the cult compound, had described Koresh as a maniacal cult leader who coerced children to have sex with him, stockpiled illegal weapons and spoke often of a fiery death that would take him and his followers closer to God.
Under pointed questioning by Rep. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., both attorneys admitted that they believe Koresh probably was guilty of several criminal acts.
While DeGuerin said repeatedly that he was not at the hearing to defend Koresh, he described Koresh as reasonable, rational and “deeply committed and sincere about his religious beliefs.”
During one visit to the compound during the 51-day siege, DeGuerin said he was “treated to a Bible lesson by David.”
DeGuerin said he suggested that Koresh surrender to Texas Rangers rather than federal agents.
It was the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that launched the initial raid of the compound on Feb. 28, 1993, ending in a firefight that killed four ATF agents and six Davidians. The FBI took over the subsequent siege.
Koresh was “relieved” at DeGuerin’s suggestion that he surrender to the state police, the attorney said.
Zimmermann said Koresh and the attorneys worked out the plan for surrendering peacefully, although no date ever was set.
On April 14, Koresh told the attorneys he had received a message from God and that he would surrender after writing a religious essay. In it, he would interpret the Seven Seals of the Bible’s book of Revelation.
A scholar of religious studies said in written testimony submitted to the hearing that Koresh’s decision to write the lengthy essay gave him the ability to tell his followers he was following God’s will and then surrender without appearing to betray his and their beliefs.
“He had received his long-awaited guidance from God, who now instructed him to surrender,” said J. Phillip Arnold, a religious studies scholar at the Reunion Institute in Houston.
“We told them (the FBI) we would need another 10 to 12 days,” said Zimmermann. “We wouldn’t be here if the Justice Department had waited 10 more days.”
Arnold said federal authorities never adequately researched Koresh or the Branch Davidians’ religious beliefs or their absolute obedience to what they saw as God’s will.
“To ignore this factor was to invite disaster,” Arnold said.