WACO, Texas — Fierce gun battles erupted yesterday when more than 100 law officers tried to arrest the head of a heavily armed religious cult. At least four federal agents and two cult members were killed.
At least 16 agents were wounded at the isolated compound of the Branch Davidians‘ sect, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms reported. Two sect members were also killed and several wounded, authorities said.
As an uneasy standoff between the two sides followed the shooting, the sect headed by Vernon Howell began releasing the dozens of children believed held inside, letting them go two at a time. Eight had been released by early today as the standoff continued.
Meanwhile, scores of officers from police agencies around central Texas began converging on the area early this morning, and lights and communications equipment were assembled. As the officers arrived, authorities continued to try to negotiate an end to the standoff.
Howell, who says he is Jesus Christ, reported that a 2-year-old was among those killed in the fighting and that he was gravely wounded.
“I’ve been shot. I’m bleeding bad,” he told Dallas radio station KRLD as a baby could be heard crying in the background. “I’m going home. I’m going back to my father.”
Violence broke out at the compound yesterday morning when federal agents hidden in livestock trailers stormed the main home of the sect, witnesses said.
The agents had warrants to search for guns and explosives and to arrest Howell, who also goes by the name David Koresh.
“It sounded like a war zone, people were being hit, you could hear people screaming with the agony, the pain of it,” said John McLemore, a KWTX-TV reporter who witnessed the initial shootout.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said four agents and one sect member were killed in that battle, which raged for 45 minutes as hundreds of rounds of ammunition were fired.
The two sides then negotiated a cease-fire that lasted into the evening, and ambulances moved in to carry out the dead and wounded agents.
About 6 p.m., three members of the Branch Davidian sect came out of the compound and began shooting, said Les Stanford of the bureau in Washington.
One sect member was killed and one captured, he said. A third man apparently was wounded but retreated back to the compound, located about 10 miles east of Waco. Several sect members were also wounded in the initial gun battle, officials said.
The man captured during the second shootout was jailed on a firearms violation, sheriff’s Sgt. Jim Fry said. Another cult member arrested earlier in the day faces attempted murder charges, Fry said.
Authorities said they immediately came under fire upon arriving at the compound in the morning. But in a rambling interview with CNN last night, Howell said, “They fired on us first.”
Bureau spokesman Jack Killorin in Washington said the cult received a telephone tip just as the agents were moving into place.
“There was subsequently a statement from Mr. Howell that the ATF and National Guard were on the way,” he said.
He said the agency also had information that some cult members wanted to leave before the assault but were held against their will.
Authorities said about 75 people were at the compound, but Howell said there were many more, including children of all ages.
“There are a lot of children here,” he told CNN. “I’ve had a lot of babies these past two years. It’s true that I do have a lot of children and I do have a lot of wives.” In past interviews, Howell has denied he had more than one wife or two children.
He told CNN he would release two children each time a radio station broadcast a lengthy statement on his religious beliefs. The statement was played and the first two children were released about 9 p.m., Stanford said. The statement was played several times more through the night, and children continued to be released in pairs about an hour apart.
The assault came one day after the Waco Tribune-Herald began publishing a series on the cult, quoting former members as saying the 33-year-old Howell may have abused children of group members and claimed to have at least 15 wives.
Killorin said the assault had been planned for several weeks.
The cult’s fortress, called Mount Carmel, is dominated by a tower with lookout windows facing in all directions. Guards reportedly patrol the 77-acre grounds at night.
Witnesses said the law officers stormed the compound’s main home, throwing concussion grenades and screaming “Come out!,” while three National Guard helicopters approached.
For a moment, there was no response. Then the shooting began.
“It was a large barrage of gunfire from several places in the house at once,” said Dan Mulloney, a KWTX-TV news photographer who followed the agents onto the compound.
Two helicopters were hit by gunfire during the shootout, and a TV news van and a newspaper photographer’s car were also hit.
McLemore said two agents were shot inside the compound, whose walls were riddled with bullet holes.
Late yesterday, the bureau identified the dead agents as Steve Willis, 32, of Houston; Robert J. Williams, 26, of Little Rock; and Conway LaBleu, 30, and Todd McKeehan, 28, both of New Orleans.
The Branch Davidian sect claims to be an offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, but that denomination has renounced any connection to the sect or Howell.
The sect moved its base from Los Angeles in 1935, the year after it was formed in a dispute over interpretations of the Bible.
In its report Saturday, the Tribune-Herald said the group was known to have a large arsenal of high-powered weapons. Howell told The Associated Press on Saturday that the group did have guns but they were “regular, legally bought” weapons.
“If the Bible is true, then I’m Christ,” Howell told the newspaper. ”But so what? Look at 2,000 years ago. What’s so great about being Christ? A man nailed to the cross. A man of sorrow acquainted with grief. You know, being Christ ain’t nothing.”
Yesterday’s shootout was the second at the compound. Howell and seven other cult members were accused of attempted murder following a 1987 gun battle with a former leader. The seven followers were acquitted, and charges against Howell were dismissed after his trial ended with a mistrial.
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