STEVE SCHNEIDER WAS A DISAPPOINTMENT, IF NOT TO HIMSELF, THEN
TO some of the people who wanted to use him.
He made his initial public appearance in the unfolding Waco tragedy
as a substitute for a wounded David Koresh, grown weak after hours
of haranguing FBI hostage negotiators. The bureau told the press
that like his boss, Schneider enjoyed explicating Scripture, and
that he seemed moody. But his background and character were of
considerably more interest than they let on at the time.
Schneider, 43, had been reared, like some of the cultists, as
a Seventh Day Adventist. Unlike the others, he had been more
than a congregant. Since childhood the blond, outgoing Wisconsinite
had felt a calling. After earning a degree in religion from the
University of Hawaii in 1986, he tried for a while to start his
own church. He next applied for a job as a minister at the local
Adventist church. It was shortly after being turned down that
he and his wife Judge met Marc Breault, then a recruiter for the
Branch Davidians, an Adventist offshoot. Soon Schneider was gathering
converts as far afield as Australia.
Schneider was useful to Koresh, a ninth-grade dropout, vetting
his theology and advising him on finances. The relationship was
not one of equals, however. In 1989 Judy was one of Koresh's
first new "wives." Schneider was reportedly appalled.
When Judy had a daughter rumored to be Koresh's, Steve wrote
home saying the baby was his.
So Schneider had reason to be moody; and the FBI had hopes that
there was still a leader in him; or an anger they might parlay
into lives saved.
Those who dealt most closely with him doubted it. "He had
been elevated way above his capability or accepted the role in
that compound," says Byron Sage, the main FBI negotiator.
Before Feb. 28, the second in command was Perry Jones, the father
and the grandfather of several other Koreshians. "Perry
was killed, and all of a sudden you had the Messiah and a quantum
leap down to the next viable person, who was Schneider. He was
not highly respected. Plus, after giving up his worldly possessions
and his wife to David, it's a difficult thing convincing yourself
that, hey, you've made a mistake.
But Schneider was the only game in town. Early in March, when
he claimed he had 30 cultists ready to exit, the feds dutifully
produced a bus. Koresh nixed the deal. Schneider hired a lawyer
who, along with Koresh's, outlined an end-of-Passover surrender.
That never happened either. "We put a lot of pressure on
him that we hoped he could live up to," says Sage. "But
Schneider was by the phone on April 19 when FBI agent called to
announce their decision to use tear gas. He hung up on them,
and as they watched, he phone came flying out the door. The government
tanks advanced and were met by a fusillade from within. Then
the firing stopped for a moment, and Schneider scurried out and
got the phone.
Who knows what he wanted with it. Maybe he thought he could still
broker a peace. By that time, however, it would have been too
late for him even if he'd had the nerve.