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Degrees of faith: Sheriff recalls Waco seige

By Brian Knox | Published Wednesday, April 18, 2018
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The Fire That Still Smolders

THE FIRE THAT STILL SMOLDERS – When Wise County Sheriff Lane Akin reflects on the events at Mount Carmel 25 years ago, he still gets mad when he thinks about how no one was prosecuted for the deaths of the 75 Branch Davidians – including 25 children under the age of 15 – following the devastating fire. This flag that hangs on his office wall is one that flew from an FBI armored vehicle during the fire. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

Two small puffs of smoke.

It caught the eye of Sgt. Lane Akin and his fellow Texas Rangers stationed about 400 yards south of the Branch Davidian Compound around midday on April 19, 1993.

Within what seemed like seconds, Akin said, flames appeared.

“It was like someone had just struck a match and the whole thing was engulfed,” he said.

After being at Mount Carmel for nearly every day of a 51-day standoff, Akin still wanted to believe that a positive ending to the longest armed standoff in U.S. history was possible for the estimated 80 to 100 people still inside the compound.

“In a way I was happy because I thought now all these people would come out, nobody would be hurt. They have time to escape,” he said.

“But as we watched it, I don’t see but about eight or so people leave the compound. I really couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I thought maybe they had gone underground and somehow they’ll survive this.”

Fanned by strong south winds on the flat plains east of Waco, the inferno reduced the compound that had been seen on countless televisions and newspapers around the world to a smoldering pile of rubble.

Except for nine people who escaped the burning building, the other 75 Branch Davidians – including 25 children under the age of 15 – perished in the blaze.

The task of recovering those bodies and seeking answers about what they and the world had just witnessed fell to Akin and his fellow Rangers.

Twenty-five years later, some of those answers still don’t sit well with now-Wise County Sheriff Akin.

Lane Akin

Lane Akin. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

Each morning as Akin walks into his office, he passes a framed United States flag hanging on the wall opposite the door. It might not seem to have any particular significance if not for a small photo tucked into the bottom right corner.

The picture shows part of the Branch Davidian compound engulfed in flames, and in the foreground is that very flag attached to one of the FBI’s armored vehicles.

Once the fire was extinguished, the FBI moved out and turned the crime scene over to the Rangers. In their haste, an FBI officer had lashed the flag to the side mirrors of a bus belonging to the religious sect.

Akin and his partner, Johnny Waldrip, were sitting in their vehicle around 2 a.m. the next morning when Akin noticed the flag.

He got out of the car, walked over, and untied the flag from the west coast mirrors.

“It wasn’t like I was tampering with evidence,” the long time criminal investigator said. “It was left behind by the FBI, so I just thought I’d take it. We both signed it. I said, ‘You know? This might be a memorable occasion even though it was as devastating as it was.'”

Fifty-one days into their assignment, Akin and the Rangers had only just begun to see the full scope of that devastation that lay in front of them.

Dark Day

DARK DAY – Front pages across the country carried news of the April 19, 1993, fire at the Branch Davidian compound east of Waco. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

Feb. 28, 1993.

Akin was on the road, returning home to Decatur from a hunting trip in West Texas with his 13-year-old son, Ty, when he got a phone call from a fellow Ranger asking if he knew what was happening in Waco.

“I didn’t have a clue,” he recalled.

A failed raid at Mount Carmel by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms over possible illegal weapons had resulted in a heavy exchange of gunfire that left four ATF agents dead and 16 more wounded. Investigators later determined that six Branch Davidians were also killed in the gun battle.

The next day, Akin received a call from Ranger Captain Bobby Prince, explaining that Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Johnston in Waco had requested the Texas Rangers investigate the deaths of the four ATF agents.

Akin was to be in Waco the following day.

“He said I needed to get enough clothes together for two weeks – that’s how long he thought it would take for the standoff to be over,” he said.

Things got off to a rough start right away, Akin recalled, after the Rangers suspected ATF supervisors had not told them the whole truth about the raid.

Many of the Rangers, Akin included, had known many of the ATF agents involved with the operation for years, and those agents told them what actually happened. The Branch Davidians had been tipped off about the raid, and an undercover ATF agent, Robert Rodriguez – who Akin knew from his days when they were both narcotics investigators for the Texas Department of Public Safety – warned the ATF supervisors the element of surprise had been lost.

Agents had been training on the campus of Texas State Technical College in Waco for this day. The raid went ahead as planned.

Only nothing went as planned.

Young Lives Lost

YOUNG LIVES LOST – Near the front entrance to the New Mount Carmel Center at the same site as the destroyed compound, a stone memorial includes the names of those killed in the April 19, 1993, fire. The memorial includes the names of many young children, including sect leader David Koresh’s children. Messenger photo by Brian Knox

As the standoff began, and the FBI took over the responsibility of bringing about a peaceful surrender, Akin and the Rangers began their task of interviewing all of the ATF agents involved in the raid as well as the few Branch Davidians whose release had been negotiated by the FBI and leaders of the sect inside the compound.

For 16 hours a day, Akin interviewed all possible witnesses. Still, the investigation couldn’t be concluded because they couldn’t get to the crime scene.

Two weeks came and went, and the standoff continued.

“It droned on and on and on,” Akin said.

During some lulls, Akin would return to Decatur for a day or two, but it would always be a short-lived trip. Most of the contact he had with his family was through phone calls. He had a habit that began in his days as an undercover narcotics investigator to call his family each day to let them know he was OK.

When he would return home after a long law enforcement operation, he also had a certain routine he would adhere to.

“I always had a habit when I first came in the house, one of the first things I’d do is go check on my kids,” Akin said. “Even if it was late at night – it didn’t matter if my kids were babies or teenagers – and see that they were safely in bed and that I could see them breathing.”

Being away from home for weeks and months at a time made Akin, who was 40 at the time, realize how much he was missing, particularly in his children’s lives. He recalled being surprised when he called his home one evening and an adult male’s voice answered the phone.

“I said, ‘Who is this?’ He said, ‘Well Dad, this is Ty.’ I said, ‘This doesn’t sound like the Ty I know.’ His voice had changed while I was gone, and for that split second I thought, ‘My goodness, there’s a man in my house with my wife and I’m down here in Waco.’

“So you miss some of those things when you are off doing an investigation like that that you can never get back. But still, they provide some memories, and they provide some appreciation for those times you can be home and that you can be with your kids and your grandkids.”

Akin was at home April 18, 1993, when he received another phone call from a supervisor saying he needed to get back to Waco as soon as possible.

U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno had approved the FBI’s plan to introduce tear gas into the compound in hopes it would force those inside to come out and end the standoff.

The plan would be put in motion the next morning.

Memorial

MEMORIAL – One of the memorials at the New Mount Carmel Center was given to the Branch Davidians by a Texas militia group. “For 51 days, the Davidians and their leader, David Koresh, stood proudly,” it says in part. Messenger photo by Brian Knox

April 19, 1993.

Akin doesn’t talk too much publicly about the fire or the investigation that followed. Many of the memories are still painful to recall 25 years later.

As he began to describe the initial search of the scene, he cleared his throat and paused many times as he recalled how he helped search for any survivors among the rubble, some of which was still on fire.

With the exception of two people found in a silo structure on the back side of the compound, it became clear that those inside had not made it to safety.

The only item left standing in the compound’s remains was a haydite block structure that Akin said was used by the Branch Davidians to store their cache of weapons.

It was there, buried under rifles and thousands of rounds of ammunition that had cooked off during the searing heat of the fire, that the Rangers found the bodies of the children.

Akin said it appeared like the mothers had ushered the children into that structure, possibly to try to survive the fire.

It’s the memories of what happened to those kids that stand out the most in his mind, 25 years later. State-mandated counseling for all those who took part in the investigation helped him better understand and deal with those painful memories.

“One of the things the counselor pointed out to me is if you can connect something from that environment back to your home life, that’s when it affects you,” he said. “Most of those kids were burned beyond recognition, but there were some of their effects that were left untouched – tennis shoes, dolls, things along those lines that we saw – and made me want to connect with my own daughter. So they gave us the ability through the counseling to recognize what’s normal and what’s not. And making such connections are normal.”

Evidence Collection

EVIDENCE COLLECTION – Then-Texas Ranger Sgt. Lane Akin was asked by Dr. Andrew Armstrong of Armstrong Forensic Laboratory in Arlington to pose for a photo among some of the boxes of evidence from the Mount Carmel crime scene. Each box contains four paint cans with debris to be tested for the presence of accelerant. Photo by Andrew Armstong

After the fire, the FBI left the scene.

Once the final refrigerated truck transporting the remains of the Branch Davidians drove off down the country road, the rows of television cameras left as well.

Akin’s job, however, was just beginning.

He was part of the arson investigation team that also included fire marshals from Houston, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Allegheny County Pennsylvania. Those teams brought accelerant detecting dogs that would help them determine how the fire began.

The remains of the entire compound were sectioned off into a series of 1-square-yard grids. Investigators began the painstaking task of examining every square inch, one layer at a time, all the way to the ground floor and in some cases even beneath the ground in tunnels that had been dug underneath the compound.

“It was rather claustrophobic,” Akin said.

Each day, the team would begin their work not long after first light and continue until late in the day. As April gave way to May, rising temperatures and the smell of rotting food were unwelcome yet constant companions.

“We’d all be so danged nasty and burned up by the sun,” Akin said. ” It stunk like nothing had ever smelled. They had stacks of MREs (meal, ready to eat) on one side of that haydite block structure, and those things heated up and exploded and putrefied. The smell was horrid.”

Among the pieces of evidence collected were around a dozen cans of Coleman lantern fluid with holes stabbed in the side.

Those would turn out to be key pieces of evidence that indicated the fire began intentionally inside the compound.

“It kind of reminded me of when I was a kid and I’d change the oil in my car,” Akin said. “The cans were metal, and I’d take my hunting knife and stab the top of it and twist it, so it was kind of a pie shape hole in the top, which was exactly what I saw in those Coleman lantern fluid cans.”

The cans were one of three main pieces of evidence that pointed to the Branch Davidians starting the fire, he said. The FBI also used wire taps to record people on the inside saying, “light the fire” just before the blaze started. A forward looking infrared radar (FLIR) camera mounted on a plane flying overhead also showed fires starting simultaneously at three different locations in the compound.

He’s heard the theories in the years since the fire that the FBI started the blaze – perhaps by unintentionally knocking over a Coleman lantern can as one theory goes – but Akin said the evidence points in a different direction.

“It wasn’t the FBI that started the fire – it was the Branch Davidians. If I believed (the FBI) had started that fire, I’d tell you in a heartbeat, but I just don’t think that’s the case. The evidence just doesn’t show it.”

Lantern fluid was also found on a number of items of clothing recovered at the scene, including on the sleeves of some who were among the few who escaped the burning compound.

Akin interviewed those survivors, and he believes some of those people are responsible for setting the fire, possibly at the request of the sect’s leader.

New Mount Caramel

NEW MOUNT CARMEL – Some remaining Branch Davidians still live on the property where the doomed compound once stood. This chapel was built a few years after the fire on the spot of the former compound. Messenger photo by Brian Knox

As he talked about the events of spring 1993, Akin rarely mentioned the name of the Branch Davidian leader. When he did refer to the man, it would often be as “Vernon Wayne Howell” rather than the name Howell had later given himself – “David Koresh.”

Koresh was known to have taken several wives, some reportedly between the ages of 10 and 14, and had fathered many of the children whose bodies Akin helped recover in the fire’s aftermath.

“The guy was nothing but a sexual predator, and he was in a target-rich environment and he was taking advantage of that,” he said. “He was a guy who had a lot of charisma, and he preyed on people who were looking to belong.”

But many of the Branch Davidians had complete faith in Koresh, even as their world went up in flames. Akin made several trips to the burn unit at Parkland Hospital in Dallas in the weeks after the fire to interview one such devoted follower, Marjorie Thomas, about what life was like inside the compound and about their leader.

“They all believed that Koresh was basically the second coming of Christ,” Akin said. “They called him ‘the lamb,’ and they believed that in 48 months, he would return from the dead and they would all find their reward because of their belief in him.”

Koresh’s body was among those recovered from the ruins of Mount Carmel. Akin said his skull had a bullet wound in the forehead. Next to him was another man’s body with injuries consistent with a gun being placed in the mouth with the exit wound at the back of the skull. Between them laid a rifle. Investigators believe one of Koresh’s lieutenants shot the Branch Davidian leader and then himself in those final moments.

A month after the fire, Koresh’s remains were buried at Memorial Park Cemetery in Tyler.

“His grave’s not empty. He’s still there,” Akin said.

—–

What began in early March as an investigation into the deaths of four federal agents finally concluded in mid-June with the completion of an investigation of the deaths of 75 civilians in the April 19 fire.

All the reports and evidence were turned over to federal prosecutors. In August of 1993, five of the nine people who survived the fire along with seven other sect members were indicted by a federal grand jury with conspiracy to murder federal agents.

Akin testified at the trial that was held the following February in San Antonio.

From the witness stand, Akin faced multiple defense attorneys and a front row full of courtroom sketch artists, all with eyes on him.

It was a little unnerving, he admitted.

“They all had those little opera glasses looking at me and sketching me. This is a little intimidating for a country boy from Decatur.”

When asked if he remembered the outcome, Akin expressed frustration: “I think someone got convicted. I don’t know. I don’t really care.”

The source of that frustration was the federal prosecutors’ decision to not charge any of the surviving Branch Davidians Akin suspected of starting the fire for the civilian deaths inside the compound.

That decision still burns within the 44-year law enforcement veteran.

“We were played as pawns,” he said. “To this day I resent it. If that wasn’t the case, we would have prosecuted the people who were responsible for setting that fire. I never walked away from a capital murder case before.”

—–

Between the children’s lives that were lost on April 19, 1993, and the lack of prosecution of those Akin feels were responsible for the deaths, many memories of that time period bother him.

In the years since the fire, Akin’s been asked by other law enforcement officers who were not there about how he dealt with the emotional toll of such a tragic loss of life.

“I’m convinced those children are in a better place,” he said. ” You have to wonder what kind of chance those kids had in this life. And I truly believe they inherited a better world that day. So in my mind, I can rejoice for those kids. Otherwise, I think I’d have difficulty dealing with the things that happened.

“The thing I lean on is Vernon Wayne Howell’s grave is still inhabited by his body, and I put my faith in an empty tomb.”

It’s part of what allows Akin to pass by the framed United States flag each morning. For him, it’s not a reminder of what has been lost. Instead, it represents a hopeful future.

“There was a lot of bad that happened beneath that flag, but the flag still flew, and to me it signifies life. It signifies the future and that good can triumph over evil, and that’s what there was there. Vernon Wayne Howell was nothing more than a pedophile, and he used that whole platform to satisfy his unwholesome desires, and to me, that flag signifies victory over that.”

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