Ten years ago, the Waco siege ended with 86 dead – most, including `cult leader’ David Koresh, burnt alive. Aaron Hicklin meets the survivors, the blood-trail tourists and the white-supremacists for whom 19 April 1993 was a day of revelation
The Independent on Sunday (England), Apr. 13, 2003
Clive Doyle rebuilt the church because he had to. Because he knew that David Koresh would come back. Because he wanted to show those who burnt it down that faith is stronger than fear. In prison for a year after the siege, watching endless golf matches just to see grass, trees, sky, Doyle looked ahead to the day when Mount Carmel would once again serve as a refuge for the faithful.
“People say, `Have you lost your faith as a result of this’, but why should I? Why should I lose my faith in God? In the Old Testament you have all these stories of tremendous deliverances, it’s true, but in the New Testament you’ve got the same God, you’ve got people who believe in him, going around getting crucified, getting eaten by lions, getting put on the stake. I’m sure they were praying for deliverance too.”
Ten years ago, Doyle, now 63, was one of the few who found an escape route from the burning pyre of Mount Carmel. On the other side the police were waiting with handcuffs and leg chains, and a charge of conspiracy to murder. “My jacket was all melted, skin was just rolling of my hands,” recalls Doyle. “Even today, if I make a fist it feels like I’m wearing gloves.”
Bonnie Halderman pulls open a photograph album and brushes out the crease on the page. “David was so cute,” she says, lengthening the word “cute” as much as her breath will allow. “He was always very active, always doing something.” She points to a photo that shows a handsome youth with a mop of unruly hair and remembers how her son wanted to be a rock star. “He used to play `House of the Rising Sun’,” she says, her face creasing into a smile as the memories tumble out: how David was good at fishing and loved to camp. How he once filled her brother’s petrol tank with water. How he made cookies for his school friends without mentioning that he’d put hot peppers in them. “I can see his smiling face, those dimples. He always said I was very special, though I certainly wasn’t Mary. It certainly wasn’t a virgin birth.”
Conflagration bookends Waco’s 20th-century history. In 1916 the city achieved international notoriety ` when a 17-year-old black man, Jesse Washington, was sentenced to hang for murdering the wife of a local farmer. Before he could be returned to his cell, onlookers dragged him to a bonfire on the courthouse lawn. Stripped and coated in coal tar, Washington was burnt alive, his charred body cut into pieces and sold off as souvenirs. Among the 15,000 spectators were the police chief and mayor of Waco.
For millions of Americans, the final assault on Mount Carmel – when federal agents brought a 51-day siege of the Branch Davidian commune to a horrifying conclusion, firing over 300 canisters of tear gas into the cluster of wooden buildings before ramming them with tanks – was little better than the lynching of Washington. Whether the fire that consumed 76 men, women and children (24 of them British), including Koresh, on 19 April 1993 was started by the Davidians or federal agents remains in question, but the tactics employed, and their tragic consequences, triggered a militant backlash culminating two years later in the Oklahoma City bombing.
At the time, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) claimed its staff had been ambushed as they arrived at the communion on 28 February, acting – they said – on allegations that Koresh was stocking weapons to wage war on the US. Although there were legitimate concerns about Koresh’s arms, the response seemed somewhat disproportionate. The Davidians raised money by purchasing arms and selling them at gun fairs, a legal activity. Most of the weapons found at Mount Carmel were boxed for sale.
In the ensuing shoot-out the ATF lost four of its men; six Branch Davidians were killed. Koresh was shot twice and badly wounded. That, in turn, set the scene for the brutal siege, during which the FBI took over. While the agency claimed its principal goal was to save the children, a 2001 report by the Washington-based Cato Institute was sceptical: “Does anyone doubt that, if the Davidian adults had been holding children of senators and congressmen hostage within the Mount Carmel buildings, the FBI’s tank assault plan would have been rejected out of hand?”
In the months and years that followed, the “official” version of events lost much of its credibility. Under pressure, the ATF admitted that it had lied to the Attorney General, Janet Reno, inventing stories that children were being beaten, in order to justify the assault. An Oscar-nominated documentary, Waco: The Rules of Engagement, showed that federal agents had fired at the burning compound, potentially preventing those trapped inside from escaping. Most damning of all, in September 1999, the Justice Department seized previously undisclosed video footage from the FBI in which one of its commanders is heard to authorise the use of pyrotechnic rounds, contradicting sworn testimony that no such rounds had been used.
Texas has always been home to mavericks and rednecks, people with a frontier mentality and a fierce sense of self-sufficiency. If post- 11- September patriotism obscured a culture of hostility towards central government, it hasn’t diminished it. The fissures in American society that produced Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh are still there, and the potent mythology of Waco continues to bind them and arm them.
“Waco was such a wake-up call,” says Martin Lindstedt, a self- confessed white-supremacist who helped form two militias in the aftermath of Waco. “People used to believe you could drop out of society and do your own thing, and what Waco said was, `If you try to drop out and form your own religious community, Uncle ZOG will go ahead and kill your ass.” (ZOG stands for Zionist Occupied Government, a crucial element in America’s rampant conspiracy culture.)
For years now, Waco has been exhibit number one for those who see the government as the enemy, but in co-opting Waco into their militant, right- wing narrative, people like McVeigh and Lindstedt have reinforced the negative stereotypes propagated by the FBI. Then- President Clinton, only a day after the deaths, exhibited extraordinary insensitivity, telling reporters that he had no intention of accepting Janet Reno’s resignation “just because some religious fanatics murdered themselves”. It wasn’t true, but the media’s complicity in the FBI’s campaign of disinformation meant that the public and politicians alike accepted unquestioningly.
At the time of the siege the press largely ignored the civil liberties issues raised by the tanks, helicopters and psychological torture (high-pitched sounds, including the slaughter of a rabbit, were played over loudspeakers) deployed against 85 people who had committed no wrong. Speaking anonymously to the New York Times, agents likened their approach to “the Charge of the Light Brigade, laden with missteps, miscalculations and unheeded warnings” but few journalists questioned the tactics. One who covered the case for several years, Dick Reavis, was appalled by the lazy characterisation of the Davidians as a cult, and their flimsy centre as an “armed compound”. He sees the people who lived at Mount Carmel as having more in common with Shakers than with Charles Manson.
Before I flew to Dallas to meet with the surviving Davidians, I contacted Reavis who warned me against easy generalisations. “The way outsiders usually characterise it, Texas is all Anglo and Protestant,” he wrote in an e-mail. “The problem is that Texas is so big that it’s like the elephant that the blind man examined.”
Reavis is right. Southern Texas is as Hispanic and Catholic as western Texas is Anglo and Protestant. The road from Dallas takes you past an entire community settled by Czechs, and another by Lutheran Germans. Waco, however, is different. Home to the largest Baptist university in the world, Waco is prohibitionist and anti- rock’n’roll, and perhaps no less outlandish in its beliefs than the Davidians, a break-away group of Seventh Day Adventists, who for more than 70 years had lived peacefully on the outskirts of town since they arrived at the behest of their founder, Victor Houteff.
Of the string of prophets and visionaries who had lead the group, Koresh was the most charismatic, and disillusioned Seventh Day Adventists flocked to him. While he preached an apocalyptic narrative, in which he foresaw the end of the world, Koresh’s followers say his vision was benign rather than violent.
“We figured things were starting to come to a head, where God was going to do something special,” says Doyle, among the first to fall for Koresh when he wandered into Mount Carmel in 1981. “That’s what the Bible says: God won’t do anything unless he reveals it through his prophets. So the fact that David was in contact, that there was this back-and-forth contact, was pretty impressive.”
Clive Doyle peers at the Red Lobster’s menu. He wears a polo-shirt and grey trousers. His hair is thick and swept back in a style that suggests a 1950s Teddy boy. After more than 35 years in Texas, his accent still betrays his Australian roots. “The way we look at it,” ` he says, “most shellfish are scavengers, so they’re eating all the garbage people are dumping in the ocean.”
Like all Branch Davidians, Doyle – who arrived in Waco in 1966 after heeding the call of the religious community’s then prophet Ben Roden – is kosher. The Red Lobster, which specialises in seafood, is not. Doyle contemplates his options as a waitress waits patiently by the table, her Stay-Press smile betraying only the briefest flicker of agitation.
After leaving prison, Doyle was plunged into a bitter three-way battle over the ownership of the 77-acre Waco site. Douglas Mitchell, who described himself as the divinely appointed leader of the Branch Davidians, and Amo Bishop Roden, the widow of George Roden, Ben Roden’s son, each lodged counter claims. A court eventually gave the deeds to Doyle, who sees himself as merely a caretaker of the dwindling band of Davidians, anxiously waiting for a new prophet to emerge. By day he works in a local health-food store and lives at Mount Carmel, where he leads the weekly Saturday services in the rebuilt chapel.
Doyle eventually decides he’ll be safe with the broiled salmon and a baked potato, but holds off on the sour cream. He pats his stomach. “Most people who went through that siege lost 20 to 30lb,” he says. “I’ve put it all back on – anyway, where were we?”
We were discussing Madonna, I remind him. Specifically how God promised to bring her to Koresh for sex. Doyle nods. “The way I understand it, God would tell him, `I will give you so-and-so’, or `You go and be with so-and-so’,” he says, “and David made a statement one day that God had promised to give him Madonna, and he prayed to God, `Please don’t give her to me right now – I’ve got enough problems as it is. I don’t need Madonna around here.’”
In Waco I heard a lot of opinions about Koresh’s sex life. Having married 14-year-old Rachel Jones in 1984, and then taken Doyle’s 13- year-old daughter, Karen, as his second “wife” (they were never officially married) in 1986, he began claiming that God had promised him at least 140 wives. This self- gratifying doctrine crystallised in 1989 when he announced that God had made him the rightful husband of all the 100 or so women in the group, including those already married. He called this his “New Light” revelation. Thereafter the men were to abstain from sex and dissociate themselves from their wives completely.
Koresh’s attitude to sex gave weight to claims the Davidians were brainwashed. Certainly, few seemed to find his behaviour odd enough to leave. David Thibodeau, who joined Mount Carmel in 1991, saw Koresh’s attraction to young girls as reflecting a “cowboy obsessions with ravaged innocence”. By his estimate, Koresh slept with 15 women and fathered 17 children in the New Light years. Thibodeau remembers one of the community telling him, “Not every women is worthy of Koresh’s loins”, considering it an honour.
Doyle is oddly coy on the whole subject, as if to concede that Koresh was flawed would bring down the edifice of his belief. “He had only one wife, but he had children with some others, and then they started saying that some of these women were underage, so that’s where they twisted the child abuse thing.”
“Were they underage?” I ask.
“There were some that were fairly young.”
“Did you feel comfortable with that?”
“Let’s put it this way – David used scripture and the Bible to say that God would direct all his ways. He showed over and over again in the scriptures that nearly all the prophets were asked to do some pretty weird stuff – stuff that was against the church laws of the day, against public opinion, things that were totally unacceptable.”
Our waitress approaches again. “Would you like desert?” she beams. “We’ve got chocolate cake; we have a banana cheesecake; we have a Key lime pie; we also have what’s known as an apple overboard.”
“Covered in salt water?” Doyle suggests, pleased with his joke, anxious to change the subject. The waitress stares blankly. “Not that I’m aware of,” she says.
Today there is not much left to show what was here before April 1993. The swimming-pool is green and stagnant. Of the gymnasium, all that remains are a few concrete blocks. “The original Davidians had pear orchards here,” says Ron Goins, a self-described “messianic Jew” who came here five years ago as an act of solidarity, and now lives in a mobile home on the site.
From the road, Mount Carmel is easy to miss. The tourists pull up cautiously, not sure if this is the place, or not. At the gate they find a man dressed in black, and hurling abuse at Doyle – a weekly routine. He calls himself the Watchman. His placard reads, “The Cover-Up Church”, a reference to a conspiracy theory, propagated on the Internet, that Doyle is a government agent covering up FBI atrocities. Christ is coming from the sky, he says. With many soldiers. And spaceships. Curious tourists slow down as they enter the gates to take one of his leaflets. They look perplexed, unsure who’s who in this parlour game. The Watchman, who gives his real name as Andrew, accuses Doyle of faking his injuries in an elaborate FBI plot to disenfranchise the real inheritors of Koresh’s kingdom. “Zionism is the whore that sits upon the beast,” he says. “She’s drunk with the blood of the martyrs. These people are not going to tell you that.”
Up near the pool, 22-year-old Kevin Jones, who was in the compound through much of the siege, is telling Scott and Brenda Smith from Kansas that his father, a postman, had been the first to alert the Davidians of the impending assault. His grandfather was among the first victims of the gun battle that erupted on 28 February. His father died with most of the others on 19 April. “Wow, I’m so sorry,” says Brenda, “You just got to have a strong faith.” Scott remembers watching the buildings burn on television. “It was kind of like that feeling when you saw the World Trade Centre,” he says. Kevin nods, “Yeah, I remember that, definitely.” Suddenly Scott thrusts out his arm. “Can I shake your hand?” Kevin shakes the hand awkwardly.
At the door of the reconstructed chapel Doyle is biting his lip. “Why is it these people can’t accept the truth?” he asks. “I don’t have to make this thing up, it’s bad enough. The thing is, these people are reaching a bigger audience than the truth is, and you get people coming here with all kinds of attitudes and weird ideas and what have you, and it’s just such a shame.”
At noon, Doyle shuffles into the stark, undecorated chapel and takes a seat at the front. The congregation today is small, just five, including Bonnie, Ron and Sheila Martin, who lost her husband and two of her children in the fire. We read from Matthew 26, a passage about the betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot, intended to remind us of Koresh’s betrayal by Mark Breault, a former Davidian who reported Koresh to a cult-busting organisation. “I don’t think the Pharisees needed Judas,” says Doyle, “but it’s the fact that he could do it that’s the sad thing.”
Betrayal hangs heavy over Mount Carmel. Not just the betrayal of individuals like Breault, or the bigger betrayal – by the sheriff’s office, the police, the State Department – but also the betrayal of their own ideals. The history of the Branch Davidians is the history of visionaries and prophets, and without one they seem defeated, tired, lost. “A lot of people can be full of faith and gung-ho, but the survivors are like the people who survived the Titanic,” says Doyle. “Every year they get older, and eventually you run out of survivors. It’s just a matter of time, if God doesn’t step in and change it.”
The congregation sits slumped. Two of them are dozing. Outside, Bonnie’s dogs yaps furiously. She gets up to quieten him and pauses at the chapel door. Below her, the day-trippers walk along the lines of trees – crepe myrtles, planted because myrtles appear in the Old Testament – taking in the names of each of the victims, lingering just a few seconds longer when they reach the tree named for her son.
“It will never be what it was under David,” she says. “A church is not just a building, it’s people, and now, well, there’s not many of us left.” She pauses.
On the lawns the tourists come and go, reflecting the brooding silence with a brooding silence of their own. Down at the gate the Watchman looks defiantly at the church and waves his flag.