Trial takes its toll on survivors

Davidian testimony unlocks painful past

Dallas Morning News, June 26, 2000
By Brenda Rodriguez

WACO – Day after day, Branch Davidian Sheila Martin sat quietly in the back of a federal courtroom last week, reliving the tragic events that brought her here.

It was the beginning of the long-awaited trial in the sect's wrongful-death lawsuit. She has been joined in court by other Branch Davidians and relatives of the dead, some who say they came for truth and justice.

Her daily presence in court has been to show that "this is very important to us and to the families that are not with us," she said.

The sect argues that government agents used excessive force in their initial 1993 raid on the group's rural compound and also helped cause the tragic ending of the ensuing 51-day standoff. But the government asserts that its agents acted properly and should bear no responsibility for the final fire that consumed the sect's home with more than 80 Branch Davidians inside.

For Mrs. Martin, like other Branch Davidians, the days in court haven't been easy.

"I guess little by little each day it gets more difficult," Mrs. Martin said a day after jurors were allowed to hear a 911 tape of her husband, Wayne Martin, screaming for federal agents to "back off" from the compound during the chaotic Feb. 28 raid at Mount Carmel.

She said it was rough to hear the recording, adding that her husband only wanted to help protect the women and children in the compound. He and their four children died in the fire that ended the standoff.

Mrs. Martin said she thinks of her husband while in court, often imagining how he would have handled the case. Mr. Martin was a Harvard-educated lawyer who had his law office at Mount Carmel.

Branch Davidians who testified last week were questioned closely by government attorneys on the teachings of leader David Koresh. Most disputed the government's claim that he preached regularly about guns and making war on the government.

Asked about government lawyers' assertions that Mr. Koresh taught followers that they had to "kill for God," Branch Davidian Anetta Richards said in videotaped testimony, "He never talked about that, God telling us to kill someone."

But she acknowledged that Mr. Koresh was considered "a messenger" who "spoke for God." She added that he was offering God's warnings in his preaching, which often focused on obscure Old Testament prophecies of "chariots and horses and weapons of war."

"He [God] would send his messengers to warn his people," she said. "God always gives messages to his people before he destroys them."

Another sect member, Rita Riddle, sat with others in court before she testified. She said she came out of the siege before it was over to tell her side of the story. Her daughter, Misty Ferguson, is expected to testify later in the trial. Ms. Ferguson escaped during the fire but sustained severe burns to her hands and face.

Ms. Riddle said that she was never taught to fire a gun and never heard Mr. Koresh teach about guns in Bible studies. She said the weapons she vaguely knew were in the building were simply an "interest" and a "moneymaker" for a few people who had them to buy and sell at gun shows.

Lawyers for the sect conceded during opening minutes of the trial that more than 300 weapons – including assault rifles, pistols, silencers, two .50-caliber rifles and 48 illegally converted machine guns – were found in the compound rubble after it burned. Along with the guns were hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition, some of it armor-piercing bullets, and a large array of paramilitary clothing and gear.

Asked if she ever entered into a suicide pact with others at Mount Carmel, which government lawyers have said was a cause of the final fire, Ms. Riddle smiled and said no.

"There were people from all over the world there: different personalities, different families, different interests, different likes and dislikes. We were all there for one purpose, and that was the Bible studies," she said.Mr. Koresh, who led most of the Bible studies, met Sherry Burgo's father, Floyd Houtman, during a trip to Massachusetts. Mr. Houtman also died in the fire.

Ms. Burgo watched the fiery siege unfold on television seven years ago, regretting that she hadn't visited her father at Mount Carmel.

"I miss him a whole lot. ... Him and I were the best of friends," Ms. Burgo said. "It brings back a lot of emotional memories."

The trial has also afforded some Branch Davidians the chance to see old friends with whom they had lost contact after the fire.

Clive Doyle, who now holds Bible studies at Mount Carmel and survived the fire, said it was good to see 16-year-old Jaunessa Wendel and 18-year-old Natalie Nobrega. Both girls lived with their parents at the compound. Ms. Wendel's parents and Ms. Nobrega's mother died in the Mount Carmel tragedy.

"There were tears in my eyes in the courtroom the other day when I heard the kids testify ­ Jaunessa and Natalie," Mr. Doyle said.

Ms. Wendel, 8 at the time of the raid, testified that her mother was fixing her hair in an upstairs bedroom when the gunfire erupted. Her mother hurried her and three siblings into a hallway and returned to the bedroom.

She never emerged alive. Four agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and six Branch Davidians died during the shootout.

Ms. Wendel conceded under government questioning that she told authorities in 1993 that her mother fired a gun after the gunbattle began. But she now insists that story was wrong, saying she was scared and confused when she made that statement and that she was only telling a Texas Ranger what she thought he wanted to hear.

The teenager said that before she left the compound during the standoff, she went back into her room to collect belongings and saw her mother's body on a bed covered with a blanket. Her father later died in the fire.

Ms. Nobrega, who turned 11 on March 2 when she left the compound during the siege, said she remembered her mother kissing her "between every sentence" as they said their goodbyes. Her mother also died in the fire.

"This is just not, shall we say, a constructed play on the jury to get their sympathy," Mr. Doyle said. "These things actually happened."

At his home at Mount Carmel recently, Mr. Doyle said he has learned to live with the tragedy that took the life of his 18-year-old daughter, Shari Doyle. She spent most of the siege with her father in the chapel area.

"It wasn't a horrible place," he said of the compound. "It was home."

He said he wants more than a victory for plaintiffs in the suit: He wants a full airing of what he and other Mount Carmel residents saw and heard in 1993. He disputes the government assertion that the Branch Davidians fired the first shots at the beginning of the siege and he says that Branch Davidians did not set fire to the compound.

But Mr. Doyle also said he is not going into court with his "head in the clouds" about the prospect of vindication.

"From what I know of Judge [Walter] Smith – how he operates, what he's done in the past – I would be very, very surprised if we got justice or a favorable settlement," he said. "That does not mean that it can't happen, because I believe in miracles."

Staff writer Lee Hancock contributed to this report.

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