Still seeking answers

10 years after the Branch Davidian siege, legacy haunts Waco, nation

The Waco Tribune-Herald/February 23, 2003
By Jason Embry

Ron Goins, caretaker of the Mount Carmel grounds where the Branch Davidian compound once stood, sorts through old windows from razed Davidian dwellings for construction of a greenhouse. (Photo by Rod Aydelotte/Waco Tribune Herald)

Branch Davidians who left their Mount Carmel compound before it burned have returned to Australia, New Zealand, Canada and faraway corners of the United States.

A girl who testified before Congress about sexual abuse at the hands of sect leader David Koresh is now a college student acting out dramas on a stage in Michigan.

A woman who once handed out ammunition and weapons to Branch Davidian sentries during the government's siege on the compound now waits tables in Florida.

And six followers of Koresh, three of whom stayed with him until the last of the 51-day siege, now serve sentences as federal prisoners in Louisiana, Kentucky, Illinois and California.

But while surviving players in the Branch Davidian saga have spread beyond Central Texas, Waco continues to bear the legacy of what happened at Mount Carmel a decade ago.

The court cases, the films, the investigations have answered some questions about what erupted 10 miles east of Waco in 1993. Other lessons reveal themselves more slowly.

The Branch Davidians convicted on weapons and manslaughter charges, dispatched to prisons across the United States, garner much attention, if only because they continue to pay a price for much of the conflict. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons projects each will be eligible for release in 2006 or 2007.

The judicial system has offered its own twists and turns. U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr. of Waco sentenced five of the six to 40 years in prison but later reduced the sentences to 15 years after the U.S. Supreme Court said he overstepped his authority.

For federal prisoner Jaime Castillo, now 34, arrested at the end of the approximately seven-week siege, the years haven't destroyed his faith. In a letter to the Tribune-Herald, he says he remains "committed to the Branch Davidians who continue to believe on the Bible as taught by David Koresh."

He also continues to view the incident as one involving great injustices - an opinion shared by many.

"I do consider my friends to be martyrs," Castillo says. "I'm not sure they would have wanted to be considered as martyrs, but given that they did die for their beliefs, willingly or unwillingly, they definitely stood their ground against the injustices perpetuated against us."

For others viewing the events of 1993 from the sober perspective of history, the Branch Davidian saga was fraught with missteps on both sides. Koresh was later attacked as - to quote the father of one underage House of David girl - a "gun-toting, Bible-thumping pedophile." And by most accounts, federal lawmen only aroused anti-government sentiments by failing to properly conduct their siege.

Compounding the tragedy, the Branch Davidian affair quickly became swept up in tornadic infighting on Capitol Hill.

"Unfortunately, the topic was held hostage by politics," says Stuart A. Wright, a Lamar University professor of sociology who testified before Congress on the Branch Davidian siege in 1995. "The (National Rifle Association) got involved in it, allied with the Republicans, in congressional subcommittee hearings. And on the other side, the Democrats were defensive because the Republicans were going after (President) Clinton."

Wright's conclusion: "I'm not sure the evidence was ever looked at in an objective light."

The bungled Feb. 28, 1993, raid on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco by U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents continues to overshadow federal law enforcement 10 years later. (Photo by Rod Aydelotte/Waco Tribune Herald) The events at Mount Carmel a decade ago are easily summed up. Agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms went to the Branch Davidian compound on Feb. 28, 1993, with an arrest warrant on Koresh and a search warrant for illegal weapons.

In the shootout that followed, four agents and five Branch Davidians died. Thus began the long standoff.

For many years, the Branch Davidians were viewed in McLennan County as a quirky, sometimes unstable, communal sect based on a stretch of prairieland that followers called Mount Carmel.

In more recent times, the Branch Davidians acknowledged a would-be rock star named David Koresh, formerly Vernon Howell, as the man who would lead them through an apocalyptic future to salvation.

In the year leading up to the siege, however, disenchanted former followers of Koresh raised louder and louder alarms about the child abuse and stockpiling of illegal weapons they said they witnessed at Mount Carmel.

The siege catapulted the Branch Davidians, the ATF, the FBI and much of Central Texas into a global spotlight none could easily endure. After a standoff lasting 51 days, the confrontation came to a fiery conclusion in which 76 people, many of them children, perished.

Right till the last, the compound was transfixed by Koresh, 33, the mesmerizing, Houston-born doomsday prophet who claimed to be the next Christ, a man with the power to open the Seven Seals. But in the end, he lay among the Branch Davidian dead.

Questions lingered long after the ashes cooled and news teams headed for home. Many questions still loom, underlying a frustrating lack of closure about the Branch Davidians and how they conducted themselves, as well as law enforcement's ability to handle a confrontation that ultimately became a conflagration.

The most sympathetic figures in the Branch Davidian saga were the children who lived at Mount Carmel. Some left before the ATF raid, some left during the standoff and 21 died during the April 1993 fire.

Kiri Jewell, now 22, who caught the nation's attention with her 1995 testimony of Koresh's sexual abuse, is finishing her degree work in political science and economics at a state university in Michigan. She recently acted in a civic theater production.

Scott Mabb, 11 when he left Mount Carmel, is now in the Air Force, following in the footsteps of his father. And Landon Wendel, now 15, is working to become an Eagle Scout in Spokane, Wash.

Yet, for all their commendable, all-American strivings, the children of Mount Carmel remain overshadowed by David Koresh and his sect.

While federal officials may have won the battle of Mount Carmel, few escaped searing scrutiny over the operation. Much criticism was leveled at the ATF, an embattled agency in danger of extinction even before its leaders bungled through one of the worst days in law enforcement history.

Poor intelligence, flawed plans, suspect execution, errors in judgment, misleading statements, lies, coverups and more lies bedeviled the agency and toppled some of its leadership. But blame went beyond the ATF, tarnishing everyone from local lawmen to the FBI, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and President Bill Clinton.

Today little more than debris remains of the compound on the 77-acre Mount Carmel property near the community of Elk. Sometimes just a few Branch Davidians meet for the Saturday Bible studies held inside the chapel the group built a few years ago with $93,000 raised by an Austin radio talk-show host.

Branch Davidian Clive Doyle, 62, who lives nearby, leads the group in its afternoon Bible discussion, which typically lasts two to three hours. He uses a King James Bible.

About 100 Branch Davidians remain in the world, Doyle says. But he claims no interest in gathering them to live communally again. Besides, he says he lacks the vigor, stamina and commanding presence to hold such a group together.

That Koresh could do so while he lived, Doyle says, is a testament to the man's inner strengths.

"As far as saying, 'Give up your houses and apartments and live out here with what little we have,' there's no guarantee they're going to do that," Doyle says of today's followers. "You've got to have some kind of force who takes control and also takes the flak when things don't work out. I'm just not leadership material."

Derek Davis, director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University, gave about 100 media interviews during the 1993 incident. But he says the media largely missed the opportunity to answer the public's questions about the Branch Davidians' beliefs and motivations, as well as larger questions about nontraditional religious groups in the United States.

Most reporters asked Davis about the government's handling of the case and whether he knew any members of the group.

"The only message that was coming across to the people around the world," Davis says, "was, 'Here's a bunch of crazy religious people, and the government doesn't know what to do with them. And they're dangerous and they're violent and they've got guns in there and they want to kill people.' Well, that doesn't help anybody."

In the years just after the fire, Waco became a rallying cry for those distrustful of the government. Dozens of books and videos followed, as well as Web sites that closely followed Branch Davidian court cases and government investigations.

Many of them came with definite points of view.

"It became a cottage industry," recalls Mike McNulty, who made two full-length documentaries and one short film critical of the government's actions at Mount Carmel. "Although they may not be able to articulate it, people know something is wrong. They know it when they see FBI officials driving heavily armored vehicles into a building, tanks in a building full of women and children."

McNulty's first film, "Waco: The Rules of Engagement," was nominated for an Oscar, won an Emmy and had two lengthy runs on HBO. Such acclaim is proof that the film's message went beyond the margins and reached into the mainstream, he says.

And more Americans have become "appropriately distrusting of their government" since 1993, McNulty says.

"People that I've talked to that have seen the films come from a great cross-section," says McNulty, who lives in Colorado and is working on a lawsuit seeking to tie Iraq to the Oklahoma City bombings. "There are always those that are ultra-conservative, right-wing crazies. But I think they're way outnumbered, 100 to one, by just plain folks who saw it and found it to be disturbing."

Historian H.W. Brands says an event's historical significance is judged by what follows it. For example, the stock market crash in 1929 is considered significant because it in part led to the Great Depression. But historians do not consider a similar one-day crash in 1987 a significant event because the market recovered and the economy stayed on the same trajectory, he says.

The Texas A&M University-based writer and researcher says the Mount Carmel events increased suspicion among people who were already skeptical of the government.

"The so-called militia movements that developed in the '90s could point to Waco as evidence that government has this grand desire to crush the freedoms of the American people," he says. "Frankly, though, that idea never really caught on with the American people at large."

One reason the events had limited traction, Brands says, is that Americans were busy in the 1990s watching the technology boom and the growth of the stock market. He also says the Davidians were not sympathetic characters to most Americans, in large part because of stories of abuse inside the compound.

Koresh himself garnered most of the criticism, partially because he claimed divine right to have sex with all women at the Branch Davidian compound - a privilege he sometimes extended to underage girls. According to DNA testing after the fire, Koresh was the father of 13 children who died at Mount Carmel.

Meanwhile, the Branch Davidian siege generated little in the way of sizeable, bona fide political movements.

"When historians are writing history books 60 years from now, 100 years from now, I'd be quite surprised if any of them mention Waco and the Branch Davidians," Brands says. "It was an event that made news at the time, but it didn't make any lasting connection in American life."

Yet the Branch Davidian events did cause some changes in behavior, some experts believe.

Baylor's Davis criticizes federal officials for their handling of the standoff, recalling that they directed bright lights and loud noises at the compound in an apparent attempt to unnerve members of the sect.

"They treated them like they were terrorists, literally, the whole time," Davis says. "It was a poorly planned strategy from day one as to how to deal with this group, and it was because they did not understand that this group was a millennial group that had a particular worldview that was heavily informed by their understanding of the Bible."

The FBI took a less coercive approach during a 1996 standoff with the Montana Freemen, Davis says. Freemen members, who rejected the authority of local, state and federal governments, held agents at bay at their ranch on the plains of Montana for 81 days - a month longer than the Branch Davidians held out.

Freemen members who surrendered during the standoff were treated more humanely than the Davidians, Davis says. The standoff ended without a single shot fired when 16 members of the group surrendered.

"The television cameras were able to see that these were real human beings and they were being treated in a very humane way," Davis says.

While some lessons were learned on the national level and other major events soon moved into the headlines, the Davidians' legacy proved lasting for Waco. Area residents who knew little, if anything, about the sect before February 1993 found themselves defending the city from the stigma that the incident created.

The city that was once famous for historic cattle drives, its suspension bridge and its preponderance of Baptists - "Jerusalem on the Brazos," some jokingly dubbed it - now garnered a darker, more highly charged reputation.

"Everybody got a black eye," recalls Paul Stripling, executive director of the Waco Baptist Association. "Some thought we were part of the Branch Davidians or the Seventh-day Adventists. They put us all in one salad."

Stripling still cannot preach out of state without hearing mention of the Branch Davidians. In a London train station last year, a man got up and changed benches because he heard Stripling say he was from Waco.

"All of you wear guns in downtown Waco," the man said.

A popular complaint voiced in the growing city of nearly 114,000, lying on one of the busiest interstates in the nation, halfway between Austin and Dallas, is that Waco has not caught nearly the same amount of fame for being near President Bush's Crawford ranch, which sits about 25 miles from the city.

At the dawn of the second decade after the Mount Carmel events, some Waco residents remain hopeful time will finally weaken the American public's connection between the city and the Branch Davidians.

But only events of the future will determine how much of the past is remembered, let alone how that past is perceived.

"For a five-year period, anytime I talked with anybody who knew I was from Waco, the Branch Davidian connection was made," says businessman Curtis Cleveland, an industry recruiter for the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce at the time of the siege. "But recently, I was in Pasadena, California, and we brought up the subject, and we had to remind the people there who David Koresh was.

"It was comforting to see that the memory is going away."

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