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Standoff and Negotiations with Howell Continue in Texas

By Mary Jordan
and Sue Anne Pressley

The Washington Post

WACO, Texas

On the second day of his deadly standoff with police, Vernon Howell, a man who claims he is Christ, turned this town into a war zone.

Armored vehicles waited at the edge of his cult's fortress-like compound. Hundreds of federal agents, some in camouflage and full military gear, flooded the area. Funerals were being planned for the first casualties -- four federal agents and two cult members who died in fighting Sunday.

As in war, nobody knew how long the 33-year-old religious leader would continue his seemingly suicidal crusade and who among Howell's followers would survive in the aftermath of one of the deadliest days in U.S. law enforcement history.

Monday night, federal officials said they believed about 70 men, women and children remained inside Howell's 77-acre fortress 10 miles northeast of here.

"I don't believe we were outmaneuvered or outplanned. The problem is we were outgunned," said Sharon Wheeler, a special agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), describing the Sunday assault that also left 16 federal agents wounded. Howell told CNN that he and several other members of the sect, known as the Branch Davidians, were wounded and a 2-year-old child was killed in the shootout.

The morning assault, involving 100 agents by land and air, came after a months-long investigation into Howell's alleged stockpiling of arms and abuse of women and children.

"From the holes in our vehicles and some of the helicopters and, unfortunately, the wounds suffered by our agents," authorities know the group had high-powered weapons, Wheeler said. They had "guns that could shoot through doors."

Police talked to Howell, who calls himself David Koresh, by phone throughout the day. His former attorney, Gary Coker, also managed to telephone a member of the cult, Wayne Martin, whom Coker decribed as a Harvard-educated lawyer.

Coker said Martin told him that a nurse was inside the compound attending to Howell's wounds, and that the other members of the group were "not particularly" tense. "These guys are real low-key," Coker said.

But Howell, his former lawyer said, is different from the rest. "He's hyperkinetic and real sure of himself. ... He never meets a person he doesn't want to convert."

As the negotiations continued, local residents and reporters from around the world were questioning ATF's method of attack.

Bob Ratley, pastor of the Grace Gospel Church about five miles from the sect's headquarters, said it was common knowledge that Howell routinely left the compound to jog and do errands. "Why didn't they get him when he was out alone?" asked Ratley. "Personally, I think they wanted a show of force. They underestimated a religious leader and that others would be willing to die for their leader."

As hours passed and nothing changed, this economically depressed town of 104,000 alongside the Brazos River was unnerved by rumors.

At Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center, where most of the wounded were taken on Sunday, Waco police officers Monday were frisking every visitor, as rumors flew that members of the cult would sneak in to kill those who had survived the attack. The Branch Davidians have more than 2,000 adherents worldwide.

Many residents feared that the worst was yet to come, predicting that a massacre similar to that in Jonestown 15 years ago was unavoidable. In 1978 900 followers of Rev. Jim Jones perished in a mass murder-suicide in the jungles of Guyana. Federal officials said worries that a smaller-scale murder-suicide would occur here prompted them to try Sunday's assault.

Preparing for more bloodshed, the Red Cross hastily posted signs around town, urging people to donate blood immediately.

"What I think's going to happen -- the guy don't see no way out," said Ricky Payton, 27. "He's going to kill everybody, like a Jim Jones thing."

Even Howell's parents held out little hope that their son would come out alive.

"Please, son, if you're listening, please give up. No more bloodshed," his father pleaded on a Texas television station. Asked if she thought she would see her son again, his mother cried and said, "I don't think so."

Howell did not offer any public messages Monday, unlike Sunday when he gave a bizarre address laced with visions of doom and passages of Scripture. "I ain't budging and I ain't scared of these people," he told a Dallas radio station. "What if I am the Messiah?"