Doing time: Branch Davidians still behind bars display hope, anguish
ReligionNewsBlog.com • Sunday March 9, 2003
Waco Tribune-Herald, Mar. 9, 2003
By TOMMY WITHERSPOON, Tribune-Herald staff writer
» Part 3 of a 9-part series. See FlashPoint in History: 10 years after Mount Carmel
Jaime Castillo, one of seven imprisoned Branch Davidians, likes to remember the good times at Mount Carmel when he played rock ‘n’ roll with David Koresh, rode motorcycles and studied the Bible.
He says he even dreams about how happy he and his friends were before government agents trying to arrest Koresh on weapons charges stormed their communal home in Central Texas and upended their lives.
“All my friends were inside the chapel area,” Castillo says, describing one of his dreams. “As I walked into the door and saw everyone, I was really happy. I was happy because they were happy. They all looked over at me as if they’d been waiting for me to arrive. That peace and joy was overshadowed by the thought that had entered my mind – that they had died but that they didn’t know they had died.”
The image jarred Castillo awake, he recalls, and he was consumed by bitterness.
“After considering the dream the next day, I just took it as a confirmation that they were at peace,” he says. “And me, still alive, would have to deal with the sadness and bitterness of the whole experience.”
Ten years after the federal siege on the Branch Davidians’ remote settlement 10 miles east of Waco, imprisoned followers of dead Davidian prophet David Koresh display hope, anguish and holy indignation about the past, present and future.
During a 1994 criminal trial in San Antonio, 11 Branch Davidians were acquitted of murder and conspiracy to commit murder charges. Five of the 11, however, were convicted of voluntary manslaughter and weapons charges. Three others were convicted of weapons charges.
Of those convicted, only Ruth Riddle – a Canadian sentenced to five years for carrying a firearm during a crime – has completed her time and gained release.
Koresh’s predilection for weaponry and his sexual claim over women followers he envisioned as “brides” still color public perception of the man who led the Branch Davidians. Yet, those Davidians still behind bars have largely kept faith in their vanquished prophet.
“If you saw David Koresh coming in a cloud of great glory, it would have you thinking, wouldn’t it?” Renos Avraam said after being found guilty of manslaughter and weapons charges in 1994. “He’s going to come in great majesty and glory, and he’ll be like a ghost rider in the sky.”
The seven prisoners’ incarceration is now nearing the end. Castillo, 34, and the other Branch Davidians serving federal prison terms have from three to four years remaining on their sentences before they are scheduled for release.
Castillo and Graeme Craddock, 41, are serving terms in an Oakdale, La., prison. Brad Branch, 44, and Avraam, 39, are in prison in Manchester, Ky. Kevin Whitecliff, 41, is serving time in Atwater, Calif., while Livingstone Fagan, 43, is in a maximum-security prison in Marion, Ill.
Paul Fatta, 45, the only one of the seven not at Mount Carmel when federal agents launched their raid, is in prison in Lompoc, Calif. He was found guilty of weapons charges, including helping Koresh gain unlawful possession of machine guns.
Of the six imprisoned Davidians involved in the siege, only Whitecliff agreed to Tribune-Herald requests for interviews. However, Castillo, Whitecliff and Fagan responded to written questions from the newspaper.
Fagan, always the most vocal of the imprisoned Branch Davidians, alleges he has been physically abused by prison guards, say Davidians who have kept in touch with him. Fagan, a British social worker, sent the Tribune-Herald a 47-page manuscript that he calls Weaned from the Milk & Drawn from the Breasts: A Tribute to David Koresh.
FLASHPOINT IN HISTORY
10 Years After Mount Carmel
Between rambling, Scripture-laden prose, three themes emerge: Fagan’s unwavering faith in Koresh, his belief that his friends died defending religious freedom and his assurance that Koresh and the Branch Davidians ultimately will be vindicated.
“(Koresh) will soon be known as he is truly known,” Fagan writes. “Then the mouths of many will be silenced, horror-stricken with shame and guilt at the knowledge of who it was they were incensed against.”
Whitecliff, a former police officer from Hawaii, spent most of a 15-minute telephone interview bitterly railing against the amount of money the Tribune-Herald was willing to spend to send a reporter to interview him while he remains destitute.
He says he is concerned he won’t be able to pay his share of the restitution that U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr. assessed in the criminal case. The restitution is to pay expenses to the families of the four U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents killed during the bungled Mount Carmel raid on Feb. 28, 1993.
“We owe restitution in the millions,” Whitecliff said. “I have never had anything in my name. I am going to get violated when I get on supervised release because my share is going to be something like $200,000. You understand the bitterness. I have lost everything I had to begin with because of somebody’s cowboy mentality 10 years ago. Instead of (the ATF’s) knocking on the door and saying, ‘Can we come on in?’ … well, you know what happened, and they have continued to do this throughout the entire process. I will be a slave. I won’t ever have anything of my own.”
Whitecliff and Branch left Mount Carmel during the 51-day standoff, a month before the April 19, 1993, fire in which Koresh and 75 Davidians were killed, including 21 children. Today Whitecliff declines to discuss his law enforcement background because of his surroundings.
“That was just a small part of what I was,” he said. “I used to be a cook at Pizza Hut, I used to be a custodian for a time, I was in the Air Force at one time. I had many jobs. I hated that job (in law enforcement). I didn’t want that to get into my background because they don’t like ex-cops in prison. I am a private guy to begin with. I understand I am a public guy because of these events.”
Officials at the various prisons where Branch Davidians are being held say they cannot release information about the Davidians’ disciplinary records or discuss what kind of prisoners they have been without the Davidians’ permission, which was not forthcoming.
Waco attorney Stanley Rentz, who during the criminal trial represented Craddock, an Australian electronics engineer and teacher, is one of the few attorneys who keeps in contact with Davidian clients. Rentz says he goes to Louisiana about twice a year to see Craddock and talks with him regularly.
He says he believes Craddock, who survived the fire at Mount Carmel, has “fared fairly well” in prison because he keeps to himself and is more of an introvert than, say, Fagan.
“If we are spending money to keep people like Graeme Craddock in prison, we are wasting a lot of money because he is the most docile person you would ever like to meet,” Rentz says. “As far as I know, Graeme never hurt a flea. I go to see him just to keep him from getting so institutionalized. He has no family here and I just hate to see him get wasted.”
A California musician who was in the Branch Davidian compound’s chapel area on April 19 as tanks and tear gas overwhelmed the ramshackle sanctuary, Castillo today seeks to batter misconceptions about the Davidians and their controversial leader. He says one of the most common misconceptions about Koresh is that he purported to be Jesus Christ. That is not so, Castillo says.
“David never made this claim to us nor did we ever accept that he was Jesus,” Castillo writes. “When he made reference to being Christ, which means ‘anointed one,’ he was referring to his position as a teacher, or having been appointed of God to give a message.”
Another misconception about Koresh, Castillo says, is his interest in guns.
“As an American, David was prone to exercise his right to bear arms, which didn’t sit too well with mainstream Religious America,” Castillo says. “Add rock ‘n’ roll and polygamy to the cocktail and you’ve got a nation drunk on controversy. So these may have been and continue to be some of the stumbling blocks that have kept people believing lies.”
Branch Davidian Clive Doyle, 62, who survived the fire and was acquitted of criminal charges in San Antonio, remains at Mount Carmel and has tried to keep what’s left of the group together.
Doyle says he and other Branch Davidians have been thwarted in efforts to visit some of those in prison. They visit when they are allowed, which hasn’t been often, he says. Consequently, much communication with the prisoners is done by letter and phone.
“I think they have done remarkably well considering that some of them have been ill-treated, like Livingstone,” Doyle says. “They seem to have fairly decent attitudes. It’s not like they are hateful. I don’t find them super angry or wanting revenge. I don’t hear those kind of comments coming from them. I think they have taken what the Lord has allowed to happen to them pretty gracefully.”
Doyle says Fagan, an inmate of at least five federal prisons since 1994, has reported that he was beaten at a Leavenworth, Kan., prison, stripped naked, sprayed with a fire hose and placed in solitary confinement on occasion.
“They consider him non-cooperative because he won’t sign any of the fines the judge put on him,” Doyle says. “They were all asked to sign and he said he is not signing because he is not guilty and, therefore, he thinks that would be an admission of guilt.”
Doyle, who spent nearly a year in jail before his acquittal, says “our strong faith” has helped the Branch Davidian prisoners cope with life behind bars.
“Prison life tends to rub off,” he says. “If people are put in with hardened criminals, they tend to become like that and get into trouble the second they get out. That won’t happen to those guys. We have a strong faith and that has helped them through it.”
Avraam’s faith, in particular, has taken new turns since entering prison. He has produced a manuscript interpreting the Seven Seals – the same project Koresh labored on inside the Branch Davidian compound when the FBI led its April 19 assault.
However, Avraam’s claim as Koresh’s successor and his interpretations of the Book of Revelation have not won acceptance by all Branch Davidians, including those who still meet each Saturday afternoon at Mount Carmel for Bible study.
The Davidian prisoners’ spirits were buoyed in 2000 when the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned Judge Smith’s decision to accept the government’s recommendation and sentence most of the seven to 40 years in prison. As a result of the opinion, Smith was forced to reduce most of the sentences to 15 years.
Smith also felt compelled to reduce Fagan’s term, even though Fagan had chosen not to appeal his sentence and conviction for manslaughter and weapons violations.
For his part, Castillo is close enough to the end of his time behind bars to contemplate the future with more hope. He says he would like to see friends in Waco as well as visit Mount Carmel and reflect on the good times he had there.
Beyond that, his dreams are simple.
“At this point in life, I would like to just be left alone,” he says. “I’m a pretty quiet person when I’m not playing the drums or playing guitar, and would just like to continue educating myself and start preparing for whatever the future is going to offer.”
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