Branch Davidian compound still alluring Visitors are trickling in 6 years after

Visitors are trickling in 6 years after blaze that leveled Waco complex

The Dallas Morning News, June 27, 1999
By Tony Plohetski

Waco -- The curious still come

Tourists still travel down unmarked winding rural county roads near this central Texas city to see the pasture where more than 80 members of a religious sect met a fiery death.

Six years hasn't erased the tragedy's pull.

"People are still curious," said Amo Roden, the widow of one of the sect's former leaders, George Roden. "Others come to pay their respects to the dead."

To sociology and psychology experts, it will be no surprise if more people visit what's left of the McLennan County site as tourists travel through the area this summer.

The experts said there's more to the 77-acre spread's allure than mere curiosity. They think the spectacle captured by news reports during the standoff is hard to forget.

People across the country watched live television in horror when the compound burned April 19, 1993. "Part of it is just people wanting to have a connection with things that are famous or infamous," said Philip Zimbardo, a Stanford University psychology professor and cult expert. "That may be an urge to better understand it."

Ms. Roden has a different theory about why people are still captivated by the site. She believes they're drawn to learn what she calls the truth about the standoff: that government leaders were responsible for the fire that killed about 80 Branch Davidians.

Government officials have repeatedly denied the accusation, saying the fire, which marked the end of the 51-day standoff, was set from within the compound.

It ended the longest standoff in U.S. history, which began when federal agents tried to serve search warrants on weapons charges. Four federal agents were killed.

Ms. Roden lives under an oak tree on the sect's property and awaits tourists entering the site off Double EE Ranch Road.

"Some people aren't touched by it at all, and some people are touched very deeply," Ms. Roden said. "There's not a whole heck of a lot left," said Dyron Smith of Austin, who visited the property with his wife, Christie, and their two infant children.

They walked across the field, saw what remained of the compound - two slabs surrounded by tall grass and weeds - and talked about the infamous day.

The Smiths drove 25 miles out of their way from Marlin, where they had attended a funeral.

"It's just curiosity," Mr. Smith said. "I wanted to see the rubble and the aftermath of what happened." Ms. Roden said she believes the number of tourists will increase. As people pass through on their way to their summer vacation destinations, about 10 cars visit the property each day, she said.

An opened guest book on a counter at the Branch Davidian's Visitors Center lists 42 names from states as far away as Iowa, Wisconsin and South Carolina during the first half of June. Others came but didn't register, say the Branch Davidians who run the center and still call the pasture theirs.

Many who visit during peak summer times of 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. drive along a gravel road that cuts through the pasture. Others park and walk the 77 acres.

Some people grappling to understand the Branch Davidian religion are lured to the site, said John Alston, a professor of sociology at Texas A&M. They want to know why such strong religious beliefs could lead to such an awful end, he said.

At the Branch Davidian property, there is more than one viewpoint.

Ms. Roden doles out information about what she calls the original Branch Davidian religion, led by her late husband until he was overthrown by David Koresh, who was in charge of the group when the standoff took place.

Twenty feet away, as they stand on the porch of the visitors center, Edna Doyle and other followers of Mr. Koresh hand out information about his beliefs.

Mr. Koresh's followers have custody of the property, although a man who says he is the divinely appointed leader of the religious group has filed suit for its ownership. A state district court judge has said he will dismiss the suit.

Parts of the compound are dotted with crape myrtles and stone memorials noting each Branch Davidian who died in the blaze. Photographs of dead sect members and federal agents who besieged the compound line the walls of the Branch Davidian's Visitors Center.

"Some people come in and say nothing," said Ms. Doyle, whose granddaughter, Shari Doyle, was killed in the blaze. Her son, Clive, was one of nine sect members who escaped. "Some ask questions because they don't believe what happened was right."

Melquidec Chan points no fingers at the government or the Branch Davidians. But like many others, Mr. Chan of McAllen said he came to the property as part of his visit to McLennan County.

His friend Tom Gutierrez of Waco has driven friends such as Mr. Chan through the site four times in six years in his black Ford pickup.

"Everybody talks about how peaceful it is now compared to then," Mr. Gutierrez said. "They've always heard about it, and they want to see it for themselves."

Knowing the twists and turns of the rural county roads is no problem for Waco residents such as Mr. Gutierrez . Others have to stop for directions.

For six years, Dan and Paulette Pechacek have watched cars roll past theirhome on Elk Road about a half-mile from the site.

As he mows his lawn on weekends, Mr. Pechacek is still occasionally interrupted by people asking how to get to the property. Five years ago, they'd get questions every weekend. Now, it's only about twice a month.

Like many who live near the site, the Pechaceks are unable to explain the field's pull. "We expected it for months afterwards, but it surprises us that people still come," Ms. Pechacek said.

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