The Branch Davidian seige, 20 years later

Houston Chronicle/March 12, 2013

Waco - Twenty years after his death, David Koresh still haunts this Bible-conscious town.

At the site of the Branch Davidian compound, where a 51-day standoff between the FBI and Koresh's followers ended in the fiery deaths of 80 people, tourists snap pictures while neo-Davidians debate theology.

In vehement terms, law enforcement officers present at the siege, but now insisting on anonymity, denounce Koresh as a charismatic pied piper in a souped-up Camaro who led his disciples to the grave. Meanwhile, quietly, and generally out of public view, ever-faithful Koreshians await the self-proclaimed messiah's resurrection.

In Waco and the nation, the Branch Davidian tragedy spawned controversies over God and guns that continue to rage and raised concerns over proper government conduct in such crises that not even a congressional investigation could quell.

The group's beliefs, history and legacy again will be scrutinized on April 18 as experts in religion, sociology and law enforcement gather for a symposium sponsored by Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religions.

Among the speakers will be J. Gordon Melton, a Baylor expert on fringe religions; Gary Noesner, retired chief of the FBI's negotiation unit; and Loyola University religious studies Professor Catherine Wessinger, who assisted Branch Davidian survivor Clive Doyle in writing an autobiography.

Deadly encounter

Koresh's Branch Davidians were an apocalyptic splinter of a splinter sect of the Seventh-day Adventists. Although the pre-Koresh Davidians featured charismatic leaders given to prophetic proclamations, Koresh stretched faith to the limit: He claimed to be the flesh-and-blood embodiment of God.

Koresh was rumored to have child wives; his followers, high-powered illegal firearms.

The siege began on Feb. 28, 1993, when Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents arrived at the cult's Mount Carmel compound about 14 miles east of Waco to search for weapons. A gunfight left four agents and six cult members dead and launched the standoff that ended on April 19 with efforts to inject tear gas into the structure.

Shortly after noon on that day, the building, a makeshift sprawl of scrap lumber, burst into flames in multiple locations. Eighty people, about 20 of them children, perished in the fire or from gunshot or knife wounds. Koresh, 33, was among them.

Historian Philip Jenkins, also a member of the Baptist university's religious studies institute, said the siege helped sow national discord over guns and religion.

"Waco is the gift that keeps on giving," he said.

Controversial legacy

Reviews of police action at Mount Carmel found that FBI negotiators and tactical commanders sometimes were at odds, and in the tragedy's aftermath, ATF and FBI protocols for such incidents were revised.

"Waco was enormously important," said Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks American hate groups. "It was viewed by a huge segment of the American population as evidence of what the government was willing to do to politically heterodox groups. Virtually all the groups on the radical right saw the confrontation as heralding an upcoming battle between the government and its citizens."

Today, the Mount Carmel site, with its ruined Koresh compound, rebuilt Davidian chapel and commemorative monuments to the dead, has become a tourist attraction. Many residents of Waco, a Baptist stronghold, find the attention disconcerting.

"I think most people want to forget about it," said county historical commission chairman Van Massirer, who adds that his group passed on the idea of erecting a plaque at the site.

One recent afternoon two Plano women, both in their early 20s, prowled Mount Carmel, cameras at the ready.

"It's like walking in a battleground," said Linzie Moss, 20. "You know so much happened. You can just feel something."

Nearby in a small box at the reconstructed chapel, a flier addresses the legacy of "Waco - one of those things that EVERY one remembers seeing on television."

The lessons of the tragedy, it asserts, are twofold.

"We have a government that has gone awry ... (and) God is here in judgment - to judge the denominations and nations."

It is tantalizing to ponder how Koresh would respond to his cult's notoriety.

Born Vernon Howell to a 14-year-old unwed Houston woman, the future Koresh moved to Waco in 1981. Soon, he joined the Davidians, playing guitar at the cult's chapel, wooing the group's 77-year-old leader and claiming the gift of prophecy.

Along the way to power, he challenged the leader's son to a corpse-reviving contest, then to a shootout.

Charles Pace, the current president of the Branch Davidian congregation, watched Koresh's rise with alarm.

"Just like Adam and Eve, they were duped," he said of Koresh's followers. "Lucifer put a spin on God's word ... Adam and Eve made a choice and so did these people. I didn't have to go along with David, and I didn't."

Survivor's story

Clive Doyle did.

Now 72, Doyle was among the Davidians who escaped from the burning compound. His 18-year-old daughter, one of Koresh's wives, died in the building.

"I still believe he was led by God," Doyle said. "I didn't join David because of his charisma or because he was a good speaker. I accepted him because I thought he had a message from God."

He acknowledges that many were repelled by the cult's sex and guns.

But, he said, "Every religion has its horror stories."

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