'Someone Dropped The Ball'

Why didn't Texas child-welfare workers do something sooner to protect the children of David Koresh's cult? In retrospect, the whole tangled saga is a classic case of serious allegations falling through the cracks between federal, state and local jurisdictions and between state lines. Police in California said that at one point they had enough evidence to arrest Koresh for statutory rape, but they didn't have Koresh; he was in Texas at the time. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms heard charges of child abuse and underage sex but had authority only over weapons violations. Texas child-welfare workers heard allegations, too, but when they investigated they were met with a brick wall of denial from cult members and kids alike.

No one was more bitter in the aftermath than a group of cult defectors in Australia who had tried to alert authorities to life inside Koresh's world beginning in 1990. They swore out pages of allegations detailing child abuse, sex crimes and kidnapping and hired a private investigator, Geoffrey Hossack, to warn U.S. officials. Hossack met with federal, state and local authorities in Waco that September. "No one took any notice," he says. In early 1992 the Australians submitted similar statements to a Michigan court in a custody battle over Kiri Jewell, then 11, who lived off and on in the compound with her mother. Judge Ronald J. Taylor was alarmed enough by the allegations that he ordered Kiri kept away from Koresh. He didn't pass the charges on to Texas authorities because he believed the Australians had already warned them. "If that information was available in Texas ... then I think somebody dropped the ball," Taylor told NEWSWEEK last week. "This is an object lesson in poor communication between federal and state authorities."

There was poor communication between different states as well. In La Verne, Calif., where Koresh kept a house for some of his "wives," police Sgt. John Hackworth also heard from several former cult members that Koresh had had sex with at least six girls under 14. Hackworth even interviewed a 10-year-old girl who said Koresh was preparing her to become "a bride of Christ." That was in 1991, and by 1992, when the girl agreed to testify, Koresh had returned to Texas. Hackworth passed the information on to the ATF. "We thought it was wiser to just join forces," he says.

Officials with the Texas Child Protective Services won't say what finally prompted their investigation, only that they received information on Feb. 26, 1992, alleging a history of child abuse by Koresh. The next day, three CPS staffers and two local sheriff's deputies visited the compound. They met Koresh's one legal wife, Rachel, who refused to talk because Koresh wasn't present. In March and April, caseworkers returned and talked with children and adults; David and Rachel Koresh went to the CPS office for an interview. According to an official CPS statement, the children denied being abused in any way or knowing of others who had been. The adults denied abusing the kids, and examinations of some children showed no physical injuries. CPS closed the case on April 30, 1992.

Weren't caseworkers alarmed by the primitive sanitary conditions or the firearms around the compound? Wasn't the very existence of babies with young teenage mothers prima facie evidence that someone in the cult was guilty of statutory rape? CPS regional director Karen Eells said last week that there is no law against having guns in a home with children and that caseworkers had seen no young girls with babies. They didn't ask if Koresh was sleeping with 12-year-olds. "If we had asked pointed questions like that, we would have gotten only a yes or no answer, "Eells said. Even in hindsight, Eells maintained, "I think we did a real good job in this investigation. We had concerns like everybody else ... but we didn't have any evidence to justify continued involvement." CPS officials also stressed that what the psychiatrists learned came out during two months of painstaking interviews after the kids had left Koresh's control. "How could you possibly expect to elicit as much with one or two brief visits?" said Stewart Davis of the Texas Department of Protection and Regulatory Services,

Every law-enforcement agent involved in the Koresh case would probably do the same again, given the same allegations and limitations. Without more hard evidence, even the shocking report from the psychiatrists might not have been enough to prove child abuse in court.

Dayland Gent, 3; Cyrus Howell, 8; Star Howell, 6; Serenity Sea Jones, 4; Startle Summers, 1.

Bobbie Lane Koresh, 17 months; Lisa Martin, 13; Sheila Martin, 15; Melissa Morrison, 6; Aisha Gyarfas Summers, 17; Mayanah Schneider, 2; Rachel Sylvia, 13. Five Martinez children: Abigail, 11; Audrey, 13; Crystal, 3; Isaiah, 4; Joseph, 8.

Six with parents; 10 with other relatives; 4 in the Methodist Home in Waco; 1 in a foster home.