Byron Sage

Excerpts from FRONTLINE interview with Byron Sage conducted August 8, 1995 in Austin, Texas. (As of November 1995, Byron Sage was still supervisory senior resident agent in the FBI's Austin office.)

A Pivotal Conversation with Koresh---

Q: Let's go to what Jeff (Jamar) called the "Dutch Uncle conversation." What was that all about--what was its genesis?

A: Jack Harwell and I had gone out to the forward area for what we hoped to be our second face-to-face. I had accumulated all of this paperwork that I had told them two days before I was going to get. We had been scrambling around getting copies of the search warrant, arrest warrant, because Wayne Martin had indicated that he thought that those didn't exist or they were unlawful or what have you.
Again we had addressed every poignant issue, meaning that, "If you can't come out until these five things are done and I've just completed--we've just completed those five things, time to come out."

Q: Right.

A: So we're prepared to go down and, and address every single issue in finite detail. And it needed to be done face to face because of some of the subtle nuances and the paperwork and so forth. When I call in, Steve gets on the line and initially he's very reluctant to come out, and I read this immediately. And you could hear him being prompted in the background.
And I finally said, "Is David there?" And he said, "Yes." And I said, "Then let me talk to David." Parenthetically, "If you can't get this done, let me talk to somebody who can." So we get David Koresh on the line. And David becomes very much an obstructionist. "Well, there's no reason why we really need to meet face to face." And I explain to him, "David, I've got all this documentation. I've been scrambling around here. I'm prepared to present it to you. I thought we had made significant inroads two days ago. Let's continue in that vein. Let's get this done. We're both working for the same objective." Obviously we were not.
I think what had happened is he had shown his hand, that he was concerned that Steve Schneider maybe had been won over a little bit too much and this might have been progressing a little bit faster than he was comfortable with. At that point in time, I'm forward with my two coaches, if you will, negotiation coaches, as the on-scene commander, Jeff Dumar, and the head of HRT. I didn't take a negotiation coach with me because I didn't anticipate negotiating over the phone. That's a critical role, to have somebody keeping you on line and feeding you new ideas and concepts, and that's really probably a more challenging role than the primary negotiator. But the only note that I get basically is that it's time to step this up.

Q: Who is that from?

A: That's from the on-scene commander. And I think that's an appropriate decision because it's now very obvious that Koresh has no intention of moving forward in good faith with the second face-to-face, ergo, moving towards a resolution.
Up until this point we've negotiated at about--again on that 1 to 10 scale--we've negotiated at about a four, three to four. The decision is made in my mind at the direction of Jeff Dumar, and with the concurrence of the negotiation team, that we're going to move this up to about a seven or an eight. Get in his face a little bit--that he can't continue to just waltz us around here without some demonstration that he's trying to meet us at least halfway. We would have been satisfied with the 35 yard line, you know. But just meet us somewhere. We weren't even on the field.
So I commence a discussion with him and I try to hold him accountable. Some of the conversation gets rather pointed. But he begins to get into an area where there had been some question in the behavioral scientists' minds and the theologians' minds and the negotiators' minds: "Can we pin this down? Are we dealing with a delusional personality or are we dealing with a con man? Does this guy think he's Jesus Christ, or is he just a con man who is using religion to deceive all the rest of the people inside?
There comes a point--there comes actually two points in the conversation where he begins to berate me to some extent about, "I don't hold you accountable for your ignorance" and he's referring to my ignorance of Scripture. Well, I'm not ignorant of Scripture. I'm certainly not as well versed--and I say this to him--not as well versed in the ability to recall specific Scriptures as he was. But I tell him matter of factly that I am absolutely confident in my salvation, and he's not in a position to challenge it. Now, if anyone was in a position to challenge my faith as a Christian, it would be someone that perceives himself to be Christ. He does not assume that posture. From that point forward, from the 17th, it was absolutely patently clear in my mind, and I think in the behavioral scientists' minds, what we're dealing with.
This guy is not delusional. He is not a Messianic complex. He does perceive, or allows himself to roam in the environs of believing that he might be some sort of a prophet. But he does not buy off on his own con. The fact that he did not come back on me I think was a very significant time during that conversation.
I think it was a pivotal time in the negotiation process. We are not committed to tactical because of that. That was not a sign-off on negotiations. But it heralded a change, that we were now maybe going to assume a little, little tougher posture, accountability. That if they expected us to meet them at some area on the field, it had to at least be between the lines. They need to at least venture out to try to, to accommodate in good faith some sort of an understanding.
Some of those tactics began almost immediately after the conversation on the 17th, the Dutch Uncle conversation. And that was to play that very tape, where all of a sudden David Koresh, the alleged Messiah of the Branch Davidians, was held accountable and really didn't know how to handle being--not talked to offensively; it wasn't, you know, I wasn't trying to insult him in any fashion at all. But I was holding him accountable.
He was not used to that; he was out of his realm. We played that tape over the loudspeakers and I think it had a significant impact, at least the feedback from some of the witnesses was that the two most significant tapes that they heard was Kathy Schroeder, when she came out and said she had been treated well because of her position. That meant a lot. And the second one was the 17th when they heard me talking to David Koresh and holding him accountable to some of these issues and challenging him as far as his status.

About the 'Surrender Plan'---

Q: Did you believe in what has come to be known as "The Surrender Plan" or "The Peace Plan?"

A: It's almost taken on more of a life of its own since the hearings. This was never an agreement. I mean, we would have jumped on an agreement with any tangible possibility of success.
What this was was a continuation of the surrender plan formulated on the evening of the 1st of March, early 2nd March. The only difference was that we plugged the attorneys into the equation to give David Koresh and Steve Schneider the assurance that nothing was going to happen to them. The media was to be present to document that there wasn't going to be any kind of mistreatment or anything else.
Koresh would come out--now that he could walk--he would come out with his attorney, surrounded by his kids. Then they would come out piecemeal, approximately two minutes apart. We orchestrated the exact route and everything that would be taken to the medical attention and so forth. And then the last person out was to be Steve Schneider, accompanied by his attorney Zimmerman.
That's no departure from what we had in place, except we plugged the attorneys in. For them to claim that this was some grand new plan, let alone an agreement, is absolute falsehood. And it's to allow David Koresh to continue to perpetrate deception on the American public. It didn't happen.

Q: It sounds like a plan.

A: It sounded like a plan. It sounded like a plan on the 2nd of March. When the letter came out, and it was brought to our attention, we then made that a top priority to continue to query Steve Schneider and anyone else that we had on the phone regarding the progress of this manuscript, this alleged manuscript.
If we would have had the slightest demonstration of any kind of progress, tangible demonstration, send out a copy of it, we'll get it typed for you, we'll facilitate it, we'll do whatever, then we would have taken it to heart. The fact of the matter is, the bottom line fact of the matter is, there was absolutely none. In fact, to the contrary, there was a very significant quote in the negotiation where Steve Schneider, on the evening of the 18th, wherein he basically says he hasn't seen the first page of the first chapter of the first seal. And he was the primary editor.
When they brought this concept forward, we said "That's fine." In fact, all of us had told David all along, that he had a significant message that he needed to get out to the public we would help facilitate that, and we stood ready to do that.
But when he talked about trying to write down the secrets of the seven seals, unlock the seven seals, we offered to provide typists and word processors and everything and have it available to him as soon as he came out. We could have facilitated it and stood ready to do so.
We had talked to the sheriff, Jack Harwell. He was prepared to facilitate that as well. I am absolutely convinced, regardless of what the defense counsel says, that that was just another delaying tactic.

April 19, 1993.....The Final Minutes---

Q: When do you know that this place is on fire?

A: Dick Rand and I broadcast to them all morning long. We took turns basically during the course of the six hours. We have a monitor in the back room fixed on the compound. At approximately 12:07, 12:08, Dick Rand comes in--he had been up forward with one of the spotters, and he says, "Somebody has lit a fire."
I hand him the microphone and he makes a broadcast into the compound that someone inside the compound has lit a fire. "You need to get out of there immediately." And then he turns it back over to me and I continue with the broadcast.
During the course of the morning we had given them specific instructions, the same instructions from the 2nd of March, "Exit the front door," and so forth. As the day progresses, they become requests. When I first hear about the fire it becomes a plea and continues to a very pointed plea towards the end of what ultimately was a half hour of just anguish. I can't express the emotions that goes through you.
I had to physically turn around away from the monitor to keep my mind focused on what I was trying to broadcast to those people. Because not a person had come out up until this time. Now, the teargassing operation had gone on allegedly for six hours. But it was very sporadic. We had not seen one person come out, which was amazing to me.
I fully anticipated those people would come pouring out of there. I'd been through CS teargas on numerous occasions. And I would move heaven and earth to get my kids out of that kind of an environment. And that's frankly what we were banking on. That at least the parents would remove their children from that kind of situation.

Q: When that fire started--what is the description you would use of how you felt?

A: "Betrayal" was probably a good word. I had talked with these people for 51 days. I had established what I thought was a relationship. We all had, all of the negotiators. And when the fire initially lit off, or indications of the fire, my first--there was almost a relief because I thought that this heralded at the worst that they were destroying the crime scene and that they were all coming out. Crime scenes will come and go; people won't.
When they didn't come out, that's when the instructions became pleas, not only to everybody inside but specifically to David. And if you listen to the transcripts, I just implore him to lead those people out. I can't tell you the myriad of emotions. To this day it's as if I'm right back there again. It's very difficult.

Q: Did you fix on somebody burning up in there?

A: No. You pray that the kids are down in the bus. That's what we had hoped. If I fixated on anyone, it was David, and I just hoped that he wouldn't lead all those people to perish and then he himself at the last minute escape unscathed. That may seem vindictive, but by this time I did feel betrayed. I felt that, that all the effort that everybody had made--and I mean everybody; hundreds of officers and agents, support people and the community of Waco and everybody, had gone into one focused effort, and that was to resolve it.
By him intentionally lighting that place afire and consuming the lives of 78 people, including over 20 young children, was just inconceivable to me. In 25 years of law enforcement I've never been faced with someone that was capable of doing that.

Q: When did you know that the kids were dead?

A: At approximately 12:30, there was HRT operators out of their track vehicles, rescuing people and a decision was made. I called back into the negotiation cell and told them that I was terminating negotiations, because I didn't want the loudspeaker bank to interfere with instructions being given on the ground.
At that point in time, I walked over to the site in shock, basically. And, uh, the first thing I asked is, "Where are the kids?" "Nowhere."

Q: What do you mean, 'nowhere'?

A: They had not come out. They had been consumed.

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