A Texas Town Wishes Its 15 Minutes Were Up

Waco Journal, July 18, 2000
By Ross E. Milloy

Waco, Texas, July 17 --For this friendly industrial city of 100,000, whose name many people have come to associate with governmental or religious excess, or both, Friday's swift verdict by an advisory jury in the Branch Davidian civil case brought neither surprise nor relief.

Waco just wants to forget.

"We really want it all to just go away," said Bill Buzze, a music shop owner, over a lunch of Whataburgers and iced tea a few blocks from the federal courthouse where the case was heard.

Surrounded by brass horns and big bass drums, Mr. Buzze said, "It's gone on too long, cost too much money and hurt too many people."

It took the five-person panel just over an hour to decide that the federal government had no liability in the 1993 raid, standoff and fire that killed 80 followers of David Koresh and four agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Because the jury's role was merely advisory, the presiding judge, Walter S. Smith, will issue a final decision next month in the $675 million wrongful death lawsuit brought by survivors and relatives of Branch Davidians killed at the sect's Mount Carmel compound in Elk, near here.

But even with the seeming finality of the jury's decision, Waco residents sense that their deeply religious community on the banks of the Brazos River will be forever marked by the violence at the sect's compound.

"I think it will always be on Waco, the stigma," said Inez Bederka, who also works in the music shop. "People are still putting Waco down real hard these days."

"The outside world just won't treat you fair after a thing like that," Ms. Bederka said. The only good news to come out of the Branch Davidian case was that after all the publicity, she said, "at least people know we don't have horses and cows wandering in the streets down here."

"But it's a shame that something bad like that had to happen before people heard about Waco," she said.

Mr. Buzze, 58, complained that since the standoff seven years ago, visitors have acted differently toward Waco residents.

"People weren't curious about us before, but now when they call us they just want to talk about Koresh and the standoff and whether or not we have any more religious nuts with guns here," he said.

"The Chamber of Commerce has a tough job now," he said. "They have to reassure people that we're not going to shoot them if they come down to visit."

Jack Stewart, president of the Chamber of Commerce, bristles at the notion that Waco has become a symbol of excessive force by the federal government or religious zealotry.

"When people refer to Waco in that way they're talking about an episode that didn't even occur here. That doesn't describe Waco, the family-oriented community, the wonderful people, the thriving businesses. That's Waco," Mr. Stewart said.

He prefers that people think of Waco as the site of a Raytheon aircraft modification plant or as a home of M & M Candies, rather than the place where guns, government and God collided seven years ago.

Mr. Stewart said that residents were generally aware of the verdict but that it was difficult to characterize their feelings.

"This is not new news to us; we've been living with these events a long time," he said. "We view the verdict as part of the process. Mostly, people just want to get on with their lives."

Before the events at the compound, Mr. Buzze said, Waco was known primarily for its 200 churches, its many Baptists, and Baylor University -- a Baptist institution -- which together earned Waco the nickname Bethlehem on the Brazos.

"This was a good place to raise a family, to leave your bicycle laying in the yard and your doors unlocked. This is a nice place to live, but now people think Waco is where crazy people do crazy things," he said. "Now that it's over maybe the town can get back to normal."

Though Waco residents may want to put the events of Feb. 28 through April 19, 1993, behind them, outsiders fascinated by the tragedy continue to visit the wreckage of the compound.

David Combs of Paw Paw, Mich., found touring the memorial grove of crape myrtle trees and the chapel recently erected where the Branch Davidians' home once stood, said he had had a hard time getting directions.

"People don't even want to tell you where the compound is," Mr. Combs said, as he surveyed the grounds today with his wife, Judy. "The folks in Waco kept asking us: 'What do you want to go out there for? There's nothing there.' "

Looking out over the burned-out hulk of a school bus, a tangle of charred concrete and wire, and a battered motorcycle propped up among the weeds, Mr. Combs said he understood the way Waco residents felt.

"They don't want to be on the map for this," he said. "They don't want to be remembered for what happened here. It's too awful."

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