Davidians didn't expect to beat government

The Dallas Morning News, July 15, 2000
By Brenda Rodriguez and Lee Hancock

WACO – Branch Davidians accepted with a sense of resignation the news that a federal jury doesn't believe the government was responsible for the tragic events in Waco.

Citing what they call a history of victimization by the federal government, members of the religious sect said the verdict was consistent with the pattern.

"It's kind of like the Kennedy assassination: You have the official version and whatever everybody else believes," Branch Davidian Clive Doyle said Friday. "The American public needs to be thinking and praying that they are not next on the list."

His reaction to the verdict: "Ho-hum."

Mr. Doyle, who was badly burned on both hands during the April 19, 1993, fire in which more than 80 Davidians died, said he and others were prepared for such a verdict. "That's what we expected."

Before and during the trial, survivors said their religious practices and beliefs may be unorthodox, but they were a peaceful group living under the guidance of their self-proclaimed messiah, David Koresh, when federal agents tried to arrest him on weapons charges Feb. 28, 1993. A gunbattle erupted, leaving four agents and six Davidians dead on the first day of the 51-day siege.

During live testimony of seven current or former Branch Davidians and deposition testimony of 14 more during the wrongful-death lawsuit against the government, government attorneys questioned their religious practices, their stockpile of weapons and their faith in Mr. Koresh.

"They put more emphasis on the religion and what their beliefs are," said Sherry Burgo, whose father Floyd Houtman died in the fire. "As far as I knew, in this country, you have the right to believe in any kind of religion."

Outside of a miracle, Mr. Doyle said Friday, he doesn't see the judge deciding against the jury's verdict. Attorneys for the Branch Davidians and survivors of those who died had argued that the government was responsible for using excessive force as the standoff started, violating its own plan for ending the siege, starting the deadly fire and failing to have firefighting equipment on hand. The government maintained that the Davidians started the fire that ended the siege and ambushed ATF agents at its start.

"At least we have a chance to appeal ... Maybe the next time we'll be able to prove the case," Ms. Burgo said outside the federal courthouse in downtown Waco. "We got to be strong."

David Koresh's mother, Bonnie Haldeman, said the Branch Davidians didn't expect anything different, but she added, "God is still in control."

"We're fighting the government, my God, what do you expect?"

A last hope

The Davidians said they had hoped the trial was at last a chance to seek some vindication or balance to their image. But many are now sorely disappointed that the opportunity was lost as government attorneys battered apart their portrayal of life at Mount Carmel during the monthlong $675 million suit.

During the trial, government attorneys introduced testimony that Mr. Koresh systematically prepared his followers to be "God's army" against the "Assyrians," a reference to Old Testament "enemies" of God's chosen people. Those enemies, government attorneys argued, were the federal authorities who first arrived at Mount Carmel to search for illegal weapons and to arrest Mr. Koresh.

U.S. Attorney Mike Bradford, the government's lead lawyer, said that was the cornerstone of the government's defense because the sect's violence was driven by what Mr. Koresh taught. "The problem here is with the Branch Davidians. They purchased 300 weapons. About 50 of them were illegal, and they violated the law. And when ATF agents came to enforce the law, they killed them.

"Our complaint is not with their beliefs. It's with their actions. If the Davidians wanted to believe in David Koresh, that's certainly their right. But it doesn't give them the right to violate the law and resist arrest and burn that compound down and kill all those children."

Accusations of prejudice

But plaintiffs' lawyer Michael Caddell said that the government's presentation was aimed at prejudicing jurors.

"I do think religion has been put on trial here," Mr. Caddell said. "What the government is trying to do is create some sort of religious intolerance on the part of the jury ... The government is trying to justify their actions by demeaning [the Davidians'] religion."

Some surviving Davidians said they understand outsiders view their religion as strange. But they say their beliefs are simple and spring from Mr. Koresh's teachings about obedience to the word of God. "True, our religion may have been a little different from other people, but there are different religions everywhere," Ms. Haldeman said. "Anybody who knew us would say we were peaceful."

Ms. Haldeman said her son was portrayed unfairly. "He was the most loving person there was. He lived up to what the Bible taught him," she said. "He was following God's directions, not man ... I love David very much. I miss him very much."

Fond recollections

The plaintiffs' case included fond recollections by Davidian adults and children about their lives at Mount Carmel. Several children described their existence as a perpetual summer camp, and adults told of a special spiritual bond of shared lives and beliefs with people from all over the world.

U.S. District Judge Walter Smith abruptly cut off plaintiffs' lawyer Ramsey Clark when he tried to ask Mr. Doyle about the group's efforts to regroup and rebuild their church after the 1993 tragedy.

"What's the relevance?" Judge Smith asked. "It's to show that the faith goes on," Mr. Clark responded.

"What's the relevance of that?" the Judge demanded. "I think it's important to show that you can't crush religion," Mr. Clark said.

"That's not the purpose of this trial," the judge said.

But he did allow extensive testimony about how Mr. Koresh's brand of religion became increasingly militant in the months before the ATF raid.

Weapons training

Some siege survivors and former Davidians said Mr. Koresh trained followers to assemble and shoot weapons, even assigning women to learn how to use guns and undergo physical training.

Donald Bunds – an engineer who by chance left the compound only minutes before a gunfight broke out there with ATF agents – recalled bringing milling machinery and a lathe to the compound for Mr. Koresh in 1992. He said he used the equipment on Mr. Koresh's orders to make silencers and to machine parts to convert AR-15 assault rifles to automatic weapons.

"He was constantly going through a scenario where the enemy or the cops or the ATF ...were going to come down the driveway with rifles, and we were going to have to shoot back," Mr. Bunds said. "He thought this was an inevitable thing."

Some former sect members testified in depositions about Mr. Koresh taking girls as young as 12 and even wives of married followers in his total control over the group.

Dana Okimoto, who left in 1992 after an argument with Mr. Koresh, said she had two children with Mr. Koresh after joining "what he called the house of David" in 1987.

"It was part of God's plan. It had to do with the bride of Christ message at the time. It was an opportunity to be part of that," she said. "During the first year I was there it was a surprise that he had had other women, but once I listened to what – to how it all tied in, I accepted that. And there was nothing shocking after that for me during that time."

'Back on trial'

Mr. Doyle tries to be understanding of those whose testimony reflected poorly on the Davidians.

"I can understand why some of them talked the way they did. I can't understand all of it," said Mr. Doyle, one of nine survivors of the April 19 fire. "We're not supposed to be on trial, but they [the government] put us back on trial to defend themselves."

He is less understanding of Mr. Caddell, who has conceded that the Davidians may have started one of the fires on April 19 and has told reporters that Mr. Koresh was "an evil man."

Sheila Martin described the reading of the verdict as the "kind of thing where you held your breath and you waited." As the jurors deliberated, Ms. Martin said she hoped they could see that what happened at Mount Carmel was a "horrible tragedy."

"We're not going to give up. We still have our faith," she said. "Our trust is in God."

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