Prophesying about Waco: Waco’s future remains clouded by Davidian tragedy

Waco Tribune-Herald, Apr. 20, 2003
By BRIAN GAAR, Tribune-Herald staff writer
» Part 9 of a 9-part series. See FlashPoint in History: 10 years after Mount Carmel

On a chilly, overcast day, not unlike the day it all began, 18-year-old Matt Bowles of Dallas and his mother, Julie Bowles, turn off busy Interstate 35 near Waco and drive to a plain, out-of-the-way piece of Central Texas known far and wide as Mount Carmel.

The reason for the trip – they want to see the place where Branch Davidian prophet David Koresh and his Apocalypse-obsessed followers perished in a mysterious inferno following a 51-day standoff with federal lawmen.

“We decided to go see things we’d seen on TV but hadn’t seen in person,” Matt explains, leaning up against his vehicle near a small church where a handful of Branch Davidians inside discuss the Bible.

“After we’re done here,” he says, “we’re going to Mexia because Anna Nicole Smith is from there.”

They admit they’re surprised to see anything at Mount Carmel, considering the rubble that was left after the ramshackle Branch Davidian compound burned to the ground 10 years ago. But while the rustic, 3-year-old house of worship, a tiny museum nearby and a double-wide trailer on the property seem ordinary enough for rural Texas, Matt and Julie Bowles know this place is different.

“When we drove up here, it felt kind of eerie, spooky – almost like we were coming through a battlefield zone,” Matt says.

“Yeah, that’s because we didn’t know whether we were trespassing or not,” Julie says. “We wondered whether we were going to get shot.”

No one has been shot at Mount Carmel in recent years. Yet, the Branch Davidian history has not gone forward without violence, even before federal agents clashed with the group 10 years ago. Death hovers over this place.

While followers of David Koresh today are few, the immense tragedy in their past still resonates throughout Central Texas. Many in nearby Waco wonder if their city will ever emerge from the shadows of what happened in 1993.

Inside the church, the few disciples who still meet Saturday afternoons to study the Bible say they lament what has befallen Waco, even though 87-year-old Catherine Matteson warns of cataclysm for the city of 114,000.

She speaks of an apocalyptic scenario involving the resurrection of David Koresh.

“When David comes back, there’s going to be an earthquake so bad that Lake Waco, the shore, is going to drop 15 feet,” she vows. “When it does that, there’s going to be a flood here like you never seen.

“Between that and the earthquake,” she says, “what’s going to happen to Waco?”

Many people ponder that, both at Mount Carmel and in Waco.

Clive Doyle, 62, a Koresh follower who barely survived the fire and now leads the Bible studies at Mount Carmel, says he doesn’t hate Waco. Nor does Doyle believe God hates Waco, even though Koresh predicted the town famous as a fiercely Baptist stronghold would one day succumb to God-driven catastrophes.

“People think we’re predicting doom and gloom because Waco is a bad place,” Doyle says. “I think God loves Waco because he’s spent so much time working on it.

“I believe God wants to save Waco, and I believe God works every day to change the minds of the people in Waco.”

Meanwhile, many people in Waco hope that, with the passage of time, other minds will change. They hope that, whenever the word “Waco” is mentioned, they won’t immediately think of religious misfits fated to sorry ends.

But that day may not come until many others are dead and buried, and until heaven and earth have moved.

* * *

Ade Ifelayo was an elementary school student in Nigeria when he saw the Branch Davidian compound burning on TV on April 19,1993.

At the time, he didn’t know he would be coming to Baylor University. Only later did he realize the school was in Waco. Only later did he realize the very name “Waco” conjured up all kinds of bizarre and disturbing reactions.

“It was funny, coming here and just telling people you’re coming here, and seeing the different expressions on people’s faces when you told them,” the 20-year-old student recalls.

Ifelayo became the school’s first international student body president last year and is now getting ready to graduate. Talk of the Branch Davidian siege never swayed him from coming to Baylor.

“I think people have certain things that they associate with certain places,” he says. “When, in some places, those things don’t exist, they create them.”

Ten years ago Saturday, a fire of much-debated origin killed Koresh and 75 followers at their compound at Mount Carmel, 10 miles east of Waco, near a small Central Texas community called Elk. Twenty-one of the dead were children.

The fire climaxed a frustrating, weeks-long standoff between Branch Davidians who wanted to talk about the Bible and prophecy and FBI negotiators who wanted to talk about surrender and conditions. In the distance, vendors sold T-shirts reflecting the changing dynamics of the siege. Some passers-by urged FBI agents to end the standoff and kill Koresh.

Waco residents already knew something of the Branch Davidians for long-running infighting among the cultists and rumors concerning Koresh’s apocalyptic views. But the world beyond Central Texas knew nothing of the group until gunfire erupted at Mount Carmel on Feb. 28, 1993.

That morning began when nearly a hundred heavily armed U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents, hidden in cattle trailers, pulled up at Mount Carmel to serve search and arrest warrants on Koresh involving illegal weapons charges.

Before the day was done, four ATF agents and six Branch Davidians were dead. Many more were wounded. The standoff quickly drew the glare of the national media.

Much of the subsequent drama played out on TV, making nearby Waco a household word, initially conjuring up gun-toting, Bible-quoting religious crazies. Before the ashes had cooled after the FBI’s disastrous tank and tear-gas assault on April 19, 1993, several authors and a film producer were scurrying to capitalize on the spectacle.

Today, a new generation admits benign ignorance about the tragedy, including those students who in March attended a lecture series about the topic at Southwestern University in nearby Georgetown. Some readily confused the Branch Davidians with other religious cults of the 20th century.

“All they know is something happened, but they aren’t really sure what,” says David Stewart, assistant professor of religion and philosophy at Southwestern and coordinator of the event. “It’s like one of them said: ‘Now, is that the group that poisoned themselves?'”

While surviving Branch Davidians say college students from nearby Waco used to steal stone markers honoring the dead from Mount Carmel and decorate dormitory rooms with them, many students today admit they know next to nothing about the Davidians.

At best, Mount Carmel is a place they visit out of curiosity. At worst, it’s a place they visit in order to scare their dates.

“I think it’s the fact it was so long ago and is such a negative thing associated with Waco and Baylor,” says 21-year-old Baylor student Dana White of El Paso. “Here they try not to stress the bad stuff. But I think it’s something we need to learn if you’re going to be in this area.”

Yet, such blissful ignorance – if it continues – may one day quell the fears of Waco residents, say college administrators and city leaders.

“Time has a wonderful way of curing things,” says Derek Davis, director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor. “My guess is that as time passes, the name ‘Waco’ – so indelibly marked in the minds of most Americans for a time – will begin to fade.”

Some Waco residents fervently hope Americans have already forgotten the episode and Waco’s proximity to it.

“I don’t think people give it much thought,” city leader Bob Sheehy says. “It’s an event that happened outside of Waco. I think we’ve got about as bright a future as we ever had.”

Like many others, Sheehy, Waco’s mayor during the siege, believes his city got a raw deal when major newspapers and TV news programs linked it with the complicated, R-rated Branch Davidian saga unfolding. He and others are quick to point out that the siege happened well beyond city limits.

Today some grouse that President George W. Bush’s nearby ranch is readily associated with the town of Crawford, while Waco is immediately identified with the long-gone Branch Davidian compound and self-styled messiah David Koresh. While the Elk community is closer to Mount Carmel than Waco, Elk is more state-of-mind than town – and, thus, Waco was fated to be linked to the siege.

The tie between city and compound is something every Waco resident must eventually confront. Baylor students even get teased about it by counterparts from other Texas schools, even if the tragedy’s complexities elude them all.

“It’s certainly something that’s mentioned anytime you say you’re from Baylor in Waco,” says White, a Baylor journalism student. “They say things like, ‘Don’t talk to any guys named David’ and ‘Are you going to live in a dorm or a compound?'”

Ifelayo says most students deal with it: “We just laugh it off.”

Others take it more personally.

When Janet Reno, the U.S. attorney general who approved the FBI-led assault on the compound, announced plans to speak at Baylor on Sept. 13, 2001, some student groups howled in protest.

In the end, it mattered little. Reno canceled her engagement after terrorists attacked New York City and Washington, D.C.

Strong feelings about Mount Carmel are rare today among students. But while younger generations from Waco and elsewhere know little of the siege, those with the benefit of age and knowledge recall the event clearly. And the episode reaches far beyond Central Texas.

Bill Pitts, a Baylor religion professor and an expert on Davidian history, voices surprise at how fresh the incident remains for some. During a recent trip to London, Pitts told a taxi-cab driver where he was from.

The cabbie’s reaction was automatic: “Oh, David Koresh.”

* * *

City leaders insist Waco has moved on. They say the past is unimportant because present conditions in Waco are the envy of many cities.

City Councilman Bill Carden, a business consultant, readily points to Waco’s positives – the proximity of President Bush’s so-called Western White House, Baylor’s inclusion in the Big 12 athletic conference, the growth of Texas State Technical College and new sporting facilities throughout the city.

Along with Baylor’s numerous athletic offerings and the Waco school system’s high-tech football stadium, the city has become a natural venue for sporting events, Carden says. And when groups come, they inevitably are impressed.

“We understand just what an incredibly wonderful place this is,” he says.

The problem: “We’re not yet really telling our story as effectively as we might tell it.”

Raime Gerardy, a freshman at Southwestern University, about 70 miles south of Waco just off I-35, likes to stop at Fazoli’s Italian Restaurant in Waco when she’s driving through. That’s one thing she thinks of when Waco appears before her on the interstate.

“For the longest time, I did associate, ‘Oh, Waco, that’s where David Koresh happened,'” Gerardy admits. “But not anymore. I more think of it now as, ‘Oh, that’s where my friends go to school at Baylor.'”

That’s a connection Baylor officials would like to see more of. As the school implements its 10-year vision, designed to vault it into the top tier of American universities, officials say Waco will benefit greatly.

A huge construction boom continues on campus, entailing everything from parking facilities to a $100 million science building that will be the biggest and most expensive facility in the area. Coupled with that are the school’s efforts to bring President Bush’s presidential library to Waco.

The prospect of a growing Big 12 campus with a Bush presidential library suggests the promise many see for this historically rich city along the winding Brazos River. But others nonetheless wonder how many years will pass before the city outlives its irksome identification with the Branch Davidians.

For their part, the few Branch Davidians who remain in Waco say they understand how reputations can go awry. They say they have had to worry about distorted perceptions for years – far more years than Waco has grappled with

“When I first came to Waco in the ’60s, the first rumor (about Mount Carmel) was that this was a nudist colony,” recalls Doyle, who came from his native Australia to join the Branch Davidians in 1966. “People used to drive out here to see if they could see something.”

Critics say the Branch Davidians have plenty to answer for, including Koresh’s stockpiling of weapons, his divine sexual claim over other men’s wives at the compound and allegations – some proven by DNA testing – that he had sex with underage girls, some of whom became pregnant by him.

The Branch Davidians weren’t the only ones tainted. Many questions remain about the government’s handling of the unconventional religious group, including why ATF agents didn’t simply serve their arrest warrant on Koresh during one of his trips into Waco and why FBI negotiators seemed to work at cross-purposes with FBI tactical units during the long siege.

Waco has garnered criticism, too, including questions about why local lawmen didn’t do more to address allegations of child abuse and sexual abuse among the Branch Davidians when they had the chance. Some also suggest Central Texas culture furnishes a breeding ground for warped religious movements and doomsday zealots.

Baylor University’s Derek Davis would like to see the city build a permanent memorial, or perhaps a more elaborate museum at Mount Carmel, to better explain the story of the Branch Davidians and the siege. He says scholars – particularly those from foreign shores – are well aware of the Branch Davidians and interested in seeing the site.

“When I have visitors, they all want to go out and see this place,” he says. “I bet I’ve taken 25 trips out there in the past 10 years. It’s never my idea to go out and see it, either. It’s theirs.”

Doyle says he understands the fascination – and so he finds it odd that many leaders in Waco are eager to distance themselves from Mount Carmel when so many visitors are eager to tour the remote grounds.

“Look, Waco wasn’t even known till this happened. It’s not what we wanted to happen, but since ’93 Waco has benefited. People stop at gas stations to fill up. They eat at local restaurants. Baylor homecomings aren’t the only reasons for people to come to Waco.”

While an exhibit about the Branch Davidians was set up at the Helen Marie Taylor Museum of Waco History – since closed – Davis says it is important to preserve the site at Mount Carmel for future generations. He also concedes the idea might prove unpopular with many Waco residents.

“It’s not something we want to necessarily glorify, but it is something we want to remember as an important event concerning American religious freedom,” he says. “There could at least be something out there that gives some sort of factual representation of what happened without prejudicing people toward one conclusion or the other.”

Waco’s former mayor, however, fears any such memorial or museum involving the Branch Davidians might link Waco too closely to the events of 1993.

“I think it would connect Waco firmly to it,” Sheehy says. “My hope is that one of these days it will die out.”

Doyle, who continues to live at Mount Carmel, says Waco’s history and identity will always be interwoven in the Branch Davidian past, which extends all the way back to 1935, when Seventh-day Adventist outcast Victor Houteff led a handful of followers in settling near Waco. Their group eventually evolved into the Branch Davidians.

“We’re part of this community,” Doyle insists, “whether we’re a weird cult or a lunatic fringe group.”

Yet signs suggest even the Branch Davidians are weary of trying to grapple with their place in posterity. Organizers of Saturday’s annual memorial service marking the 10th anniversary of the assault say this will likely be their last, owing to dwindling resources, a decline in interest and a paucity of Davidians.

The service at Mount Carmel attracted its smallest crowd ever, numbering only a hundred or so.

Meanwhile, Baylor University sociologist Larry Lyon, who aided Sheehy and other city officials in their struggles to battle negative perceptions about Waco in the thick of the Branch Davidian siege in 1993, today sees great hope in the way Waco is perceived.

“When Waco was mentioned eight years ago, 10 years ago, it meant crazy people,” Lyon says. “It used to be a place where people had strange interpretations of the Bible. Now it no longer means religious fanaticism. Now it’s a place where the government overreached. It’s a place where there are lessons to be learned.

“Now Waco is shorthand for a great miscalculation by the government, almost a Waterloo. Waco is beginning to stand for the actions of the government rather than the Branch Davidians. And for those of us living in Waco, I think that’s a positive thing.”

For many of the old guard, however, the idea of Waco becoming a cradle of religious liberty in connection with the Branch Davidian tragedy seems inappropriate if not sacrilegious. While some of them are today involved in an ambitious public memorial recognizing a tornado that killed 114 people and leveled downtown Waco 50 years ago, the very human maelstrom of Mount Carmel 10 years ago remains too painful, too entangled and too dark to truly contemplate.

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