Waco sect survives, waits

Chicago Tribune/June 14, 2004
By Howard Witt

The faithful gather every Saturday, the day they keep as their Sabbath, waiting for their messiah to return to the scene of his immolation here in a weedy field they call Mt. Carmel. They've been waiting for 11 years now, and they vow to go on waiting for as long as it takes until David Koresh comes back to lead them to the promised land.

There aren't many Branch Davidians left, their numbers having dwindled over the years due to death and dispersal and disillusion. Only half a dozen show up for the Saturday prayers; an additional 20 or so less fervent believers are thought to live in the area.

But most religious cults do not survive the deaths of their charismatic leaders, so the remaining Branch Davidians count themselves blessed to have endured this long, especially considering the apocalyptic ending so many of their relatives and friends met here on April 19, 1993.

On that infamous date, more than 70 Branch Davidians, 21 of them children, perished in an explosive fire that culminated a violent 51-day standoff with the FBI (news - web sites). The siege had begun with a botched federal raid on the group's compound to search for illegal weapons.

"Our hopes are that God will intervene prior to the rest of us dying," said Clive Doyle, caretaker of the Mt. Carmel site and the keeper of the flickering Branch Davidian flame. "But we do have to face facts: Eventually everyone gets old and dies. We worry that we will go the way of the Shakers and other groups that didn't get new members or have children."

There's not much left of the barnlike dormitory compound where the Branch Davidians made their last stand: just some chunks of concrete foundation, a flooded cellar and an old swimming pool half-filled with black water. A small chapel was erected on the site a few years ago in commemoration, and there is another outbuilding nearby that serves as a makeshift museum with artifacts from the siege, next to a trailer home where Doyle lives.

But this field surrounded by cattle pastures on the outskirts of Waco remains a mecca for a certain breed of American tourist, the kind who harbors anti-government suspicions and favors conspiracy theories about what happened here. Timothy McVeigh (news - web sites), the mastermind of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, was a prominent pilgrim.

One morning last week, a father walked his three school-age children through the ruins, but when asked he would not reveal the lesson he chose to impart.

Nearly everything that happened here 11 years ago remains a subject of dispute, so riveting was the siege and so cataclysmic was the conclusion. Scores of documentaries, books and Web sites were created to tell "the true story" of the Branch Davidian disaster, with the blame apportioned either to the overzealousness of federal agents or the fanaticism of the heavily armed cult members.

Most dispassionate observers have come to accept the evidence, gleaned from FBI recordings from bugs inside the compound, that in the final hours of the siege--after the FBI used tanks to knock down walls and deliver tear gas into the building--Koresh ordered his followers to set the fires that would consume them. Autopsy results showed that 20 victims had been shot to death, apparently at the hands of fellow members.

But whether that ending might have been avoided had the FBI chosen less aggressive tactics will never be known.

What's even less comprehensible to outsiders is the arcane theology of the Branch Davidians and the willingness of Koresh's followers to surrender themselves to his erratic rule.

Koresh, whose real name was Vernon Howell, arrived in Waco in 1981 as a 22-year-old high school dropout, drawn to a small community of Seventh-day Adventist believers who called themselves Branch Davidians. It wasn't long before the smooth-talking Bible expert seduced the group's 60-year-old leader and displaced her as the group's reigning prophet.

Koresh fancied himself a rock star, and he loved racing around on motorcycles and driving a beloved Chevrolet Camaro. Eventually he asserted the God-given right to take the underage teenage daughters of his followers as wives, while commanding everyone else in the commune to remain celibate. He justified his licentiousness by explaining that God had directed him to embody the most devilish human behavior as a test of his followers' faith.

"According to man's law today, what David did was statutory rape," said Tom Cook, a Waco hairstylist who joined the Davidians after Koresh died and who maintains the group's Web site. "But as God states in the Bible, a woman is of marrying age at her first blood issue. It's all in your frame of mind. People can say it's illegal, but it's God's word."

Koresh amassed automatic weapons, grenades and ammunition. Some of the weaponry, he told his followers, was to be sold at gun shows to raise revenue, and the rest was for defense in the final war against Satan.

Some in the group claimed to have seen through Koresh from the beginning.

"Vernon Howell was the means by which Satan came to impersonate the descendant of Christ," said Charles Pace, who broke from the group over Koresh's arrival and now leads his own tiny splinter sect on the Mt. Carmel property. "I saw him as a young punk coming here trying to make a name for himself. I thought surely most people wouldn't get taken in by him."

But far more of the Branch Davidians were like Doyle, who had joined the group in 1957 and became convinced that Koresh was the messiah.

"The people who were here were not hicks, they were not stupid," said Doyle, 63. "Some of them had letters after their names, graduate degrees."

Doyle became a church elder; his daughter Shari, 18, became one of Koresh's wives. She died in the fire; he was one of a handful of survivors, escaping with burned hands. He was jailed for a year on weapons charges and eventually acquitted.

Despite the terrible price he and his family paid, Doyle says he refuses to entertain any doubts about Koresh or the certainty of his resurrection.

"If it was all a deception, and yet we were convinced it was right, then how can we ever know the difference between good and evil, and right and wrong?" Doyle asked. "If I was misled by God, then how would I ever believe anything ever again?"

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