As dangerous as white bread

Graeme Craddock spent almost half his adult life in a harsh American prison for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The Sunday Telegraph, Australia/November 19, 2006
By Sandra Lee

Why? Because of his deeply held religious beliefs which were out of sync with those of the rest of society.

As a member of the Branch Davidian sect, he placed his faith in a self-declared "Messiah'' and Lamb of God - a dodgy polygamist named David Koresh, who was stockpiling an arsenal of weapons and ammunition as protection against the apocalyptic prophecies he taught at the cult's home on the wind-swept prairies of central Texas.

Craddock, a quietly spoken schoolteacher, who had never raised a hand in anger, was in Waco searching for answers. Instead, he found terror when federal agents backed by three Black Hawk helicopters raided the property on February 28, 1993, in a bid to arrest Koresh on illegal firearms charges.

Within an hour, 10 people were dead. Four were Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents. Six were Davidians. Others were injured. Fast forward through 51 terrifying days of siege to April 19 when another raid to force Koresh and his devotees out led to an inferno that killed 82 people.

Miraculously, Craddock survived and surrendered to authorities - the start of another ordeal. It's hard to see what happened to him as less than injustice. Forget evil Koresh, Craddock was doing nothing other than practising his religious beliefs on private property when his life was violently interrupted.

He was hauled before the Texas courts and charged with conspiracy to murder, aiding and abetting murder and various firearms offences for foolishly taking from Koresh a hand grenade he had no intention of using, and a 9mm Glock pistol to use on himself if need be.

I first interviewed Craddock behind bars in the Waco county jail four days after the fire. He was, and remains, a gentle man, polite and considered. There was nothing remotely dangerous about him and nothing's changed.

His Texan lawyer aptly described Craddock as being "as dangerous as white bread''. A jury in conservative Texas acquitted Craddock of the most serious charges, but convicted him on the weapons charges.

Before he was sentenced, the jury forewoman wrote to the judge saying that "five years is too severe a penalty for what we believed to be a minor charge''. She begged the court's "utmost leniency'' for Craddock.

Soon after in a court in San Antonio, Craddock's slight frame drooped with despair when he was sentenced to 20 years. In a later appeal, the forewoman signed an affidavit stating that "the wrong people were on trial''.

The two aggressive government raids were contentious and have long been debated as among the more distressing cases in US law-enforcement history. Craddock, who still questions the motives of the FBI and ATF, never gave up his fight for freedom.

"I lived in hope. You had all these things happening - something else to reduce your time or set you free - and for all I knew the Government might decide that they had messed up and would set us free.''

An appeal and civil suit for wrongful death against the Government failed. A contentious Justice Department report found Koresh and some Davidians were responsible for the Waco tragedy. Films pointed blame at the federal agents and Government.

In 1998, while Craddock was working in the prison's food division where he earned about $25 a week, he received a letter from a Harvard University law professor, Dr Alan A. Stone. "I believe the tragic events were the result of bureaucratic misunderstanding and incompetence,'' he wrote.

"I have written to President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno asking that your sentence be commuted. I strong believe you are unjustly confined.'' Craddock didn't take up Stone's offer to fill in the forms which could have led to his commutation.

"What good would it do? By then everything else had failed,'' Craddock said. He suffered nightmares about his decision to stay at the compound and pushed through depression. He survived the gang warfare of prison by keeping to himself and walking 16km a day.

Eventually, an appeal cut five years off his sentence. He had done eight hard years, made bearable by the four-page letters his devoted mother, June, wrote each week. (She confides that her son doesn't lock the doors at home these days - a vestige of his time in prison.)

"By the time all that was done with, I thought, 'Well, I've got five years left. I've done eight, I can do five more','' he said, factoring in time off for good behaviour. "I've been counting down the years for the past five years.''

Graeme Craddock finally stopped counting on May 15 when he was released from prison, put on a plane and deported from the US. He had served his time; an injustice done.

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