Sheriff Jack Harwell

Excerpts from FRONTLINE interview conducted with Sheriff Jack Harwell on August 3, 1995. (As of November 1995, Jack Harwell was still McLennan County sheriff.)

Q: You knew them. Who was Vernon Howell? Who was Steve Schneider?

A: Steve Schneider had a degree in theology. Wayne Martin, I'd seen quite often here in the courthouse. He was an attorney. We weren't dealing with a bunch of uneducated people. For instance, Wayne Martin was recognized here as a good attorney. I don't know about all the people out there, but I know that there were some well-educated people there who, because of their religion, maybe were different, but otherwise, they were just normal, everyday good people.

Q: You knew Vernon Howell to some degree, didn't you?

A: Oh, I, I visited with Vernon on occasion. Most of the time I spent with Vernon was in a trial that they had on a previous shooting back in 1987, and I talked to him on the phone on several occasions.

Q: What was your take on him?

A: When I talked to Vernon, he was always level-headed, seemed nice, he was always courteous. He'd invite us out to his place to fish in his lake out there. The times that my people went out to the place on calls that we had out there, they were always courteous and I think he invited some of the other deputies who work for me out there to fish with him, and just come out and visit.
The way they kind of looked at the property out there---that was their, their own country. We'd, over the past several years, had been aware of how they protected their property out there. You could drive around the perimeter and you were just as safe as anyone could be, but there had been an occasion where a newsman had gone out to deliver newspapers one morning and he pulled into their driveway and a man came out with a gun.
There was another occasion where their main building out there burned. This was several years prior to the raid, and one of our fire departments went out to help put the fire out, and they turned them around at the gate, said it was their property, they could take care of their own business out there.
There was another occasion where some people were driving down the road and they wanted to turn around, I guess because they felt they were going in the wrong direction, and they pulled into the driveway and some people came out with guns.
So it was known that they were protecting their property and so this this was something that we were aware of all the time when we would get calls out there. We always sent adequate help to take care of any emergency that might arise, or any dispute that might arise in our going out to their property. Always felt safe when I went around the perimeter of the property. But if I went out there for any personal reasons, I would always call and let them know I was coming.
Vernon Howell sent word to me -- I didn't talk to him personally, but I received word, oh, two years prior to the raid-- that he had said that he would never be taken into custody again. From that time on, as I said, when we went out to the compound, and I don't like to call it a compound because that was their home,-- just for name's sake call it a compound--when we would go out there on any department business, we always had several units back over the hill somewhere close by in the event that there was any problems. So knowing that Vernon had made this statement, whether he meant it or not, I didn't know for sure, but we were going to have it from that standpoint.
And then this happened, the raid and all. Of course, it kind of proved what he had said, that he wasn't intending to be taken into custody again. This was a man who had everything he wanted inside that place out there, and nothing he wanted on the outside other than the freedom to come and go as he wanted to, but, "Leave me alone. I'm in my little country out here. I'm not in this country, and I don't want anyone coming out here interfering with what we're doing." And that's kind of the way he wanted things. It was the way I saw it.
It's kind of a frustrating thing to think about it. Here are people out there, and you know that most of them want to live, they're enjoying life. Those who I'd come into contact with seemed to be good people. Some of them worked in various areas here in the community, and one of them was the mail carrier, as has been publicized. And then, to have this kind of thing happen, it's kind of frustrating.

Q: Can you speak to the criticism that some people have for some of the FBI people involved?

A: I've been in law enforcement over 32 years, and there's many things you do that you're going to get criticized for. The criticism that has been directed toward the FBI, ATF, all the people involved out there-- it's easy to sit and say, "Well, they shouldn't have done this."
They were all well intended and they didn't want the outcome of this to be what it was any more than anyone else did. I can only praise all the people who were out there working. They really did everything they could, or that they thought was right to resolve this thing in a peaceful way. Until the last time that I heard them talking they were still working every angle they could, trying to get the thing resolved. They were very professional. The only thing I can say is that sometimes professionalism gets in your way. Rules and regulations.
Not to criticize anyone, but you need to let some common sense, some good ole' horse sense get mixed in there somewhere. It's like going out on a family disturbance. You can't set down a set of rules that you go by when you go out on a family disturbance, and not to say that there's any comparison between the two, but you're trained to do certain things. That training can only carry you so far. Then you have to get the feel of a situation, a feel of people, not "I'm a negotiator dealing with people." "I'm a human being dealing with another human being."
So let's get the rules and regulations out of the way and let's get down and talk where we can understand each other and show that we care for each other. We care what's going to happen, and I care about what's going to happen about you.
That's why I didn't fear them shooting me, or any of the other agents out there, unless there was some provocation to do it, because even though they had a religious belief that I don't agree with, maybe, or others don't agree with, but their religion didn't teach them to go out there-- I'm not talking about Vernon Howell now because I'm talking about the people. That didn't teach them to go out here and shoot other people or do harm to other people. They hadn't done that to any of their community out there, the neighbors.

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