Was It Friendly Fire?

The first shots were fired shortly after 9:30 on that bloody Sunday morning in Waco more than a month ago. An hour later, four agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms lay dead or dying. Sixteen others were injured. As the standoff between the law and the Branch Davidians continued last week, NEWSWEEK learned that some federal law-enforcement officials now believe that at least some ATF agents were brought down by friendly fire.

Although there will be no conclusive findings until the siege ends, a federal source involved in the Waco situation says that "there is evidence that supports the theory of friendly fire." During the assault, "there was a huge amount of cross-fire," he says. The official, who insisted on anonymity, believes that an investigation will show that agents were downed by colleagues: "I'm afraid it's inevitable."

These charges add more insult to the injuries ATF has already taken. For weeks, the agency has been charged with bungling the attack on the compound, named Ranch Apocalypse by the Davidians. Last week ATF spokesman Jack Killorin insisted that "the rules of engagement were extremely tight" because 38 children were inside. Twenty-one have since been released, along with 14 adults. "I don't know what we will find in two months," says Killorin. "But at this point, there's been no evidence to sustain the allegation of friendly fire."

The ATF wasn't the only party to the standoff on the defensive last week:

Local news organizations continued to endure persistent rumors that they had tipped off cult members to the impending raid. But NEWSWEEK has learned that a chance encounter between a cult member and a journalist may have given the Davidians advance warning.

In phone interviews with NEWSWEEK, jailed cult members who left the compound complained that the Branch Davidians have been unfairly demonized and that the ATF shot first.

Despite a huge number of law-enforcement personnel in the area, a 24-year-old Houston man, Louis Anthony Alaniz, described as a "religious fanatic," managed to enter the compound Wednesday night. A second man slipped in Friday.

How did the cult members learn about the initial raid? Almost since the day of the shooting, authorities have suggested that someone tipped off the compound 45 minutes before the raid and that shortly after that call, an undercover agent in the group decided to leave. Speculation in Waco has focused on the possibility of a deliberate press leak. But according to numerous sources interviewed by NEWSWEEK, the cult members probably learned about the raid by chance. As these sources tell it, the cult's suspicions may have been aroused by an apparently innocuous conversation between a journalist and a mailman named David Jones-who also happened to be a longtime Davidian.

Jones is the brother of Rachel Jones Koresh, David Koresh's legal wife. On the morning of the raid, Jones was driving in his mail car. As he returned to the compound, he noticed a parked white vehicle and asked the person inside if he was lost. Jones somehow suspected that the driver was a journalist. Sources say the journalist did not specifically tell Jones about the raid, but the conversation raised Jones's suspicions.

Jones drove into the compound and told fellow cult members about the journalist, sources say. The Davidians were already on edge because the day before, the Waco Tribune-Herald had begun publishing a scathing series on the cult. As Jones and the other Branch Davidians were talking, Koresh was meeting in another room of the compound with the undercover agent who, according to cult members, went by the name of Robert Gonzalez. Some cult members didn't trust Gonzalez because he had money and drove a nice car-even though he claimed to be a college student. They came up with a plan to get Koresh away from Gonzalez without alerting the agent. One cult member telephoned a relative and asked the relative to call Koresh. When Koresh left Gonzalez to take the call, followers told him about the journalist.

According to a telephone interview with Brad Branch, a Koresh follower who left the compound and is now in custody, Gonzalez went away shortly after the phone call, saying he was going to his home across the street to get breakfast. But he stayed in his house for only a few minutes-not long enough to eat-and that fueled the cult members' suspicions. Soon afterward, Branch says, he saw two trucks come speeding down the compound's driveway. Branch claims ATF agents in the trucks began firing almost immediately--a charge categorically denied by the ATF.

Meanwhile, cult members who have left the compound and are being held as material witnesses say they are refusing to cooperate with the FBI. "We were victims," says Rita Fay Riddle, 35, one of more than a dozen female Branch Davidian members who consider themselves "wives" of Koresh. Almost 100 of her friends remain under federal siege, but Riddle is not worried. "We've got God on our side," she says. What about Koresh, who has said he was injured in the attack? "He's remarkably well" despite his wounds, Riddle says. "He's got a Father taking care of him."

Riddle says the Davidians resent being called a cult. "If we're a cult," she says, "then all these churches are cults ... If I've been brainwashed, then anybody who practices the Bible's teachings is brainwashed. The difference is that we live the Bible. Other people go to church on Saturday or Sunday and the rest of the week do their own thing. We lived it."

Back at the ranch, Alaniz's "invasion" relieved some of the tedium. When he first entered the area, officials thought he might be trying to slip in new supplies of weapons or ammunition. The Branch Davidians apparently thought he was a Fed trying to infiltrate. The agents decided not to intervene as the unarmed Alaniz moved around the compound, peering into windows and finally knocking on the front door. Retrieving him would have been too risky, they said. He was still inside at the weekend.

The FBI says the Branch Davidians may have enough supplies to last for two years. As everyone waits, what was once a grassy hill three miles from the compound has turned into an impromptu carnival site. There are T shirts with Koresh's picture for sale, gospel singers and a huge barbecue grill. More than 300 miles away in Oklahoma filming has begun on an NBC movie of the week. The final scene is still unwritten.

Was It Friendly Fire? | News