After the 'war' at Waco

St. Petersburg Times, February 28, 2000
By Susan Aschoff

In the seven years since Michael Schroeder died in the standoff between a religious commune and the U.S. government in Waco, Texas, the two women who loved Michael most have tried to let him go. His mother, from her home in Zephyrhills, badgers the government with questions about what happened. She hopes answers will bring her peace. His widow, in Tampa, presses forward with a family life. She believes she can outrun the past.

Seven years ago today, a 29-year-old son and husband was fatally shot by law enforcement agents as he made his way across the fields toward the complex of the Branch Davidians. He was at his job at a nearby auto body shop when he heard there was trouble. Almost 100 agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had arrived at the commune with a search warrant for illegal firearms, their weapons drawn.

It is unclear who fired first. In the ensuing gun battle, four ATF agents and six Davidians, including Schroeder, died.

The botched raid began a 51-day standoff between the Davidians and the FBI, which ended April 19, 1993, when fire devoured the building and the 58 adults and 21 children inside.

The embers of Waco smolder still. A federal investigation into what happened was opened last year when newly uncovered evidence showed that government agents used munitions that could have started the blaze and that they may have fired upon the Davidians to block their escape. The Waco tragedy has become a fierce parable for those who see the federal government as rogue cop. Michael Schroeder is one of their martyrs. He is also a son, husband and father who died seeking the meaning of life, says his family.

Searching for truth

The house with the two Lincolns parked outside and the cattle penned next door is brimming with decorative figurines and framed pictures of family. Slowly and steadily, the paperwork of a mother who will not be denied are taking over what little space is left.

Sandy Connizzo wants to know what happened to Michael, "my sweet soul." Anger has surpassed grief, she says.

She began by asking for single pages from the government. Her requests went unacknowledged. Now she wants it all.

"I want the file. I want the videos and the tapes. I want every little scrap of paper," says the 56-year-old mother of three.

When Michael was a teenager, Connizzo prayed her youngest son would find good people and a good church when he went out into the sinful world. After living with her in Zephyrhills, Michael finished high school in Illinois with his father, then moved to Miami to work with an older brother in landscaping and maintenance.

Michael was searching for more, his mother says.

"I think he was looking for answers."

Reared a Lutheran, later baptized again in the Baptist church, then attracted by the beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Schroeder read the Bible on lunch breaks and in study classes. He and his wife, Kathy, gave Kathy's three young children Bible lessons in Connizzo's cozily cluttered living room.

The couple met Steve Schneider, who told them about the powerful biblical interpretations of Vernon Howell, later known as David Koresh, in Texas. They drove cross-country to hear him, then piled the children into their beat-up van in 1989 and moved to Texas to live with the Branch Davidians. Connizzo worried the van wouldn't make it that far. She worried they would not come back.

In long conversations with her son, she tried to understand his faith. But there were things Michael would not share. "If you hear it, you're responsible for it. You are not ready," he told her. "What I hear," she would tell him, "is fear, fear, fear. What about the love? The Bible is a balance."

Kathy Schroeder says 9-year-old Bryan is the strongest of her five children. "He's the most adaptable," she says. The fourth-grader is in gifted classes at school and takes violin lessons once a week.

Michael told her that the complex had a fence with an armed guard. He did not tell her they had an arsenal. He was sent to California to enlist soldiers for God. He left his then-pregnant wife and stepchildren in Texas. He did not see his son, Bryan, until six months after he was born. Connizzo thought that wasn't right. She reminded him: "You always have a place here."

But he sounded so happy, she says, and at peace.

Then on a Sunday night in February 1993, Connizzo and her husband, Bill, returned home after dinner at the Melting Pot to see news reports of a bloody gunfight at the Texas compound of a "dangerous cult."

They placed dozens of calls to Mount Carmel but could not get through. The FBI had surrounded the complex with hundreds of agents. They learned that 2-year-old Bryan had come out and was in a group home. The Connizzos drove to Texas to get him. And find Michael.

The courthouse was teeming with press, who passed notes asking for interviews into the courtroom where relatives scrambled to legally grab hold of children swept away by events. Kathy Schroeder's ex-husband, an Air Force sergeant, took custody of their three children. The Connizzos got Bryan. There was still no word on Michael. The Connizzos drove toward Mount Carmel, but a uniformed man put a shotgun in the car window and told them to turn back. About 10 that night, 11 days after the raid, the Texas Rangers knocked on their motel door.

Michael was dead, the officers said. He was shot outside Mount Carmel during the raid. His body was left for four days in the gulley where it fell. Why did you leave him there? his mother asked. He was not a high priority, she said they replied.

Overwhelmed with grief, she did as a judge suggested and did not view the decomposed body of her son. The ashes were shipped to Florida four months later.

"I didn't get a chance to say goodbye," she says.

Bryan went back to Florida with Granny and Papa. A stranger to the outside world, he would watch the toilet flush because he had never had indoor plumbing. He drank only water. He tasted candy for the first time. "Do you remember how special a baby's first Christmas is?" says Sandy Connizzo. "Imagine it if the child is 3 and able to verbalize. Imagine the look on his face, all the glow."

She began to put the pieces of the puzzle of her son's death together. She learned there were not three agents involved, but 14. They said he shot first. A man with Michael who was later arrested said the agents fired first. An autopsy report acquired after more than a year's wait said her son was shot six times, including twice in the head. She believes the head shots were inflicted as he lay on the ground.

At the local Fourth of July parade, she turned her back on the American flag.

"I was so patriotic. Our government wouldn't do anything to hurt us," she says. "All of a sudden, I lost my son, and my government." She says she lost God.

Flying bullets

Kathy and Michael met at Zephyrhills High School. She played flute and he played drums in the school band. He moved to Illinois, but they stayed in touch. He proposed on the roof of the Tampa airport parking garage, pulling his guitar from the trunk to sing to her under the stars.

When their devotion to the Bible brought them to the Branch Davidians, they found a home where the father, Koresh, banned drugs, alcohol, smoking, pork and soft drinks. The first few months there were difficult, Kathy Schroeder says. The children all got pinworms and colds. Everyone, even the babies, attended daylong lessons. The women cooked and cared for the children. The men got jobs.

When Koresh received "the new light," the men and women were separated. "The message was that mothers were babysitters -- everyone is a child of God -- and fathers should not be close to their children or boastful about their fatherhood," she explains. Michael slept at the auto body shop, several miles from the complex. When he visited his family, Kathy would send Bryan over, sneaking them time together.

Bryan called his 9-year-old brother, Jake, "Baby Daddy" because Jake took care of him.

On the morning of the raid, Kathy cooked breakfast for the Davidians, as she usually did, then took food back to her children in the room they shared. She and the other women were told not to come out. Watch out the windows. And wait.

"I saw (Davidian) men with guns and I knew, "Someone is coming to my home' and I'm thinking, "How can I protect my children?' But I'm not as stressed as you would have been, because I had (Scripture) behind me." The children dressed and put on shoes, in case they would have to run, she says. She and Jake were changing and dressing Bryan when the ATF raid began. "I saw the cattle (trucks) pull up out front and the men coming out. They're all in black, and they have guns. Then I heard shots and I ducked down." She and the children began frantically pulling out the belongings stored under the beds so the children could crawl underneath. Kathy laid down on the floor. She did not realize bullets were flying into the room until she heard running water and saw the jugs kept on a waist-high shelf leaking from bullet holes.

They were crying. The shooting lasted "forever." Bryan fell asleep under the bed, she says.

Michael was at the auto body shop. In a phone call, one of the Davidians told him to come home. After the shooting stopped, Kathy heard on the radio that three men came out of Mount Carmel, "guns a-blazin,' " during the raid, and that one of them had been killed. She knew immediately it was Michael. "I knew Mike was dead. He's very obedient. If (he was told) to get here, Michael's not going to give up. I don't know how I told the kids. I don't remember."

She remembers thinking Michael's devotion to God was stronger than her own. That night Kathy carried blankets and pillows into the concrete storage room, and she and the children slept there. "None of them (the children) really wanted to leave. But David (Koresh) said children under the age of 12 are not accountable. It was David's decision for them to leave.

"It was different for me. Even if we had died, we would all die and be eternally together. I thought, "I'm sending my kids out to Babylon,' " to a world full of evil.

She left a few days after the children did, on March 12. She was worried about what would happen to Bryan. And she had been caught smoking. Koresh suggested that such "reckless disregard for God's laws was going to cause the whole group to be held back." So she and a handful of other "transgressors" walked away.

She was arrested and charged with murder and conspiracy to commit murder. She spent three years in prison for impeding federal officers with a deadly weapon after testifying for the government at the trial. Others convicted are still serving 20- and 40-year sentences.

"I never really wanted to be there," she says of the Branch Davidian family.

"But you are judged by what you know," she says: If David Koresh was a true prophet, then she would have eternity if she followed him. If he was a false prophet, then her blood was on his hands and she was still innocent. But if she chose not to follow God's true messenger, the blood was on her own hands.

She has never gone back to Mount Carmel.

'I'm a survivor'

When his mother was in jail, Bryan would explain to those who asked: "You know the war that killed my father? She's in jail because of the war." Sandy Connizzo pledged she would keep Kathy and Bryan connected to each other. She brought Bryan to visit his mother at least every other month during the three-year sentence.

"The one goal I met in life is the thing that hurts the most," says Sandy. Bryan went back to live with his mom four years after Waco. He lives with his 14-year-old and 2-year-old halfsisters as well. Bryan, 9, visits his grandparents on weekends.

He has his father's smile.

Sandy does not go to church anymore. "It's hard for me to think he's a just God with what he let happen.

"I learned that I'm not as strong as I thought I was." Kathy, 37, wants to live with Charlie, the father of her 2-year-old. She loves him. And she has never had a father for her children. "I'm a survivor," she says. "When something bad happens, I just throw it away."

She has kept a "a little bitty bag" of Mike's ashes.

On one of Bryan's photo albums, she used glue and green glitter to spell Schroeder on the cover. When the glitter wore away, Bryan pasted white scraps of paper with green marker letters in the blank spaces.

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