Testimony in Mount Carmel land dispute begins, reviews Davidian church history

The Waco Tribune Herald, May 2, 2000
By Tommy Witherspoon

Jurors in the Mount Carmel land dispute lawsuit heard about 30 years worth of condensed Branch Davidians history Tuesday.

At stake is 77 acres east of Waco known as Mount Carmel, the former home of religious cult leader David Koresh and his followers.

But before Koresh made Waco synonymous with the 1993 Branch Davidian tragedy, Ben Roden was president of the church. He and his wife, Lois Roden, bought the land called Mount Carmel in 1973.

That's were the parties in the lawsuit began tracking Davidian history as testimony opened on Tuesday in Waco's 74th State District Court. About a dozen Koresh followers and three others are trying to prove to the jury that they are the rightful trustees of the Branch Davidian church and, therefore, should get clear title to the property.

"In spite of statements and protestations to the contrary, this is really a very simple case," said Houston attorney Percy Isgitt, who represents the Koresh followers. "Everyone believes this property belongs to the church.

The question is, who are the trustees of the church?"

Others claiming title to the land are Amo Bishop Roden, former common-law wife of ex-Branch Davidian leader George Roden; Thomas Drake, a former George Roden bodyguard who has aligned his pleadings with Amo Roden; and Douglas Mitchell, who lived on the land before Koresh took control.

Mitchell and Amo Roden both claim that they have received divine messages that they are the rightful owners of the land. Mitchell, Roden and Drake are representing themselves in the lawsuit, and each has asserted a claim to the land.

In opening statements, Isgitt told jurors that after Ben Roden's death in 1978, Lois Roden and her son, George Roden, became embroiled in a power struggle over control of the Branch Davidians. The group won an injunction against her son in 1979, preventing him from acting as a church officer.

"That was a permanent injunction and it is still in place today," Isgitt said.

Lois Roden died in 1986, and despite the court order, George Roden wrested control of the church and drove away many of its membership, he said.

Koresh, formerly known as Vernon Wayne Howell, and many of the Branch Davidians moved to Palestine, Texas, before trying to take back the property in 1987 during a gunbattle with Roden in which Roden was wounded.

In May 1988, Roden was held in contempt of court and jailed. Koresh and his followers were acquitted in the shoot-out and moved back to Mount Carmel while Roden was in jail, Isgitt told jurors.

After Koresh and 75 of his followers were killed in the April 19, 1993, fire at Mount Carmel, Clive Doyle and the others appointed trustees of the church. They have maintained the property, planted trees in memory of those who died, rebuilt a chapel on the property and held regular church meetings, Isgitt said.

Roden told jurors in opening statements that she can prove George Roden was president in 1987 when she was appointed a trustee of the church. George Roden died in a mental hospital in 1998.

"I will show that there are important theological differences in our church and Koresh's church," Roden said. "So different, in fact, that there was not one church, but two."

Drake agreed, arguing that Koresh established a "splinter movement" from the original church, thereby waiving his rights as part of the true church.

Mitchell told jurors that Koresh changed the name of the Branch Davidian association and violated church bylaws.

In opening testimony, Koresh follower Clive Doyle, who escaped the April 1993 fire, told jurors he has been a Branch Davidian church member since 1964, when he was living in Melbourne, Australia.

He said he has lived "off and on" in Waco since 1966 as a member of the church.

Doyle said the president of the church is selected by God, according to church bylaws. He said the "original church" has not existed since Lois Roden took over as president.

"When David Koresh came along, there was another advancement in truth," Doyle said.

The trial will resume this morning

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