Ten Years Later, Waco Feels the Weight of a Deadly Siege

City Tries to Put Tragedy in Its Past

Washington Post/April 18, 2003
By Lee Hockstader and Karin Brulliard

Waco, Texas -- Local boosters would be thrilled if this central Texas city were known for its proximity to President Bush's ranch in nearby Crawford. And they would settle for whatever renown is attached to the town's leading attractions: the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame, the antebellum mansions -- even a museum devoted to Dr Pepper.

But Waco is indelibly marked by an event that Dan Hetherington, for one, would rather forget: the assault by federal agents and fire at the Branch Davidian compound after a 51-day siege in 1993.

Like practically everyone in Waco, Hetherington has heard the cracks about "Wacko" and seen people's eyebrows lift when he mentions where he's from. The fire, in which 76 Davidians died, 21 of them children, "put Waco on the map, but not in the way that you'd like," said Hetherington, 57, who owns a downtown antique and bric-a-brac store called the Gossip Bench. "There's not much you can say. Just try to change the subject."

Changing the subject has not worked very well in the decade since the Davidian debacle, and these days it's proving next to impossible. Faced with the 10th anniversary Saturday of the April 19, 1993, fire that consumed the Davidians and their compound, Waco is being subjected to a season of remembrance even as it struggles to forget.

At the Davidian property, a windswept meadow outside of town known as Mount Carmel, hundreds are expected for a memorial service on the anniversary at a modest chapel that was erected on the ground once occupied by the compound. Among the scheduled speakers is Ramsey Clark, the former attorney general who unsuccessfully sued the federal government three years ago on behalf of the Davidians.

A steady trickle of tourists is making its way to the surviving Davidians' Visitors Center, a shack that faces out toward a stand of slender crepe myrtle trees planted to commemorate the dead.

In addition, the Waco Tribune-Herald has embarked on a nine-part series dissecting the event's legacy and the scars it has left on Waco's civic psyche.

None of this has delighted townspeople. They wish everyone would let the passage of time wash away the taint of an event that took place 12 miles beyond Waco's city limits, near a rural hamlet called Elk.

When the Tribune-Herald announced the series, the first caller pulled no punches. "I think everybody I know has [heard] all they want" about the Davidian episode, said the caller, whose complaint was duly recounted by the newspaper's editor, Carlos Sanchez, in a Sunday column justifying the series. "What good is achieved by reopening old wounds?"

"I think we get a bad rap," said Delores Maddux, 52, a civil servant who lives in Waco. "The truth is, a lot of people in Waco didn't even know [the Davidians] were there."

From the outset, though, Waco's leaders knew that the violence at the Davidian compound, which began with a Feb. 28, 1993, raid in which four federal agents died, would leave at least a temporary scar on the town of 113,000, and they debated what to do about it. Early on, there was talk of a public relations campaign to burnish the town's image, but that was dismissed. The decision was to do nothing -- and trust in Americans' short memories.

Thus, Waco's promotional literature, meant to attract tourists and business, spotlights the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame, the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, the Dr Pepper Museum, an old suspension bridge and a prominent collection of materials linked to Victorian poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The 77-acre Davidian property, scene of one of the most notorious spasms of violence in contemporary American history, goes unmentioned.

City officials insist the plan has worked, that Waco never lost business and that tourism is healthy. But even though the town lies midway between the high-tech magnets of Dallas and Austin, it missed out on the boom of the 1990s. Waco remains a drowsy place; just one major hotel began construction downtown since the Branch Davidian episode, a Marriott built in 1997 with 78 rooms.

Paul Stripling, executive director of the Waco Baptist Association, which represents 124 churches, said he adores the city but often finds himself defending it. Just a year ago, traveling in London, an Englishman heard his accent and asked where he was from.

Stripling told him, and, in an interview, recalled what happened next.

"He said, 'Is it true that everyone wears guns and they have gunfights right there in the city?' I said, 'No, sir.' And then he got up and wouldn't sit with me."

In fact, Waco had a checkered history well before heavily armed Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents stormed the Davidian compound.

As a Wild West cattle town after the Civil War, the confluence of rambunctious cowboys and unruly saloons gave rise to so much gunplay that Waco became known as "Six-Shooter Junction." A booming red-light district called "The Reservation" grew up in the 1870s, licensed and regulated by the city until the early 20th century. In the 1920s, Waco was fertile ground for the Ku Klux Klan, which exercised substantial control over city government and took part in lynchings and other white mob violence against blacks.

"People figured the [Davidian] event put a blot on the name of Waco, but they couldn't do anything to make it worse," Clive Doyle said.

Doyle, 62, an Australian-born Davidian who considers himself the group's spokesman and lay minister, leads weekly prayer services on Saturdays at Mount Carmel for a handful of Davidians who live in the area.

He survived the 1993 fire, suffering burns to his hands, and was acquitted of gun charges after spending nearly a year in jail. (Seven Davidian survivors of the siege, convicted on gun charges, remain in prison.) Since then, he has lived peacefully in a house built a stone's throw from the site of the ruined compound.

Doyle estimates there are fewer that 100 Davidians scattered around the world, not all of them disciples of David Koresh, the group's messianic leader, who died along with his flock in the fire.

He said he has a good rapport with locals in Waco, but acknowledged that the Davidians' property is a frequent target of vandals.

Some remaining Davidians broke with Koresh and left Mount Carmel years before the standoff. A few have since returned, blaming Koresh's legacy for bringing shame on the group.

"It is a curse," said Charles Pace, 53, an ordained minister. He leads a small group of Davidians who worship each week in a dairy barn on the property, hoping to restore the faith to "the way it was before David Koresh."

Leaning on a pitchfork to talk with a visitor who interrupted his yard work the other day, Pace said: "They look at you and say, 'Oh, you were one of those followers of David Koresh.' We didn't believe in polygamy or guns or rock and roll. We're not really a bunch of fanatics."

Tourists find their way to the property nearly every day. They tramp through the long grass that obscures parts of the compound's ruined foundation and poke around the tiny, ramshackle visitors' center. Its displays include a charred doll, its leg detached; a detailed chronology of the siege; and photographs of the Davidians who died in the siege and fire, as well as books about the episode.

The siege, fire and death toll at Mount Carmel are the subject of unresolved debates muted only somewhat by time. Many blame the government for bungling the affair and causing the deaths of innocents; others regard the Davidians and Koresh as responsible for the standoff and igniting the fire.

But the who's-to-blame controversy doesn't stir much passion in Waco, where most people regard the Davidians as a cult and just wish the whole affair would blow over.

Linda Ethridge, Waco's mayor, takes a world-weary view of the event's legacy and the lasting media attention it inspired.

"There was some stereotypical reporting -- it was Texas, it was guns, it was sex, it was cults," she said. "It didn't really happen in Waco, but whether it's fair or not, Waco owns the event."

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