The Dallas Morning News
BYLINE:Lee Hancock

Tragic Spectacle
Branch Davidian site draws tourists, controversy six months after raid that led to deadly inferno

WACO -- A TV station helicopter circles lazily overhead, and heat waves dance off the prairie as a wild-eyed T-shirt vendor startles gawkers with his vow to fight anyone who tries to remove him from Branch Davidians' land.

Six months after the firefight ended, the spectacle of Mount Carmel still draws equal parts curiosity and discomfort.

Many Waco residents said they would like to forget the Feb. 28 tragedy and ensuing 51-day standoff that has bound their town's identity to the apocalyptic religious sect.

Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents and local law enforcement officials who participated in the raid and siege also say they are anxious to put the ordeal behind them.

"Every once in a while you'll think about it," said Lt. Larry Lynch, a McLennan County sheriff's deputy who negotiated a cease-fire with the cult on the standoff's first day.

"You think, gosh, if I'd had one more conversation with him, If I could have said this or that. But you could drive yourself nuts with that," he said.

Months after the standoff ended, outsiders are still drawn to Waco by the lingering questions of the Branch Davidians and their self-proclaimed messiah, David Koresh.

Some say they come simply because it is a place made famous by TV. But most say they come to the blighted, junk-strewn field pasture in the vain hope of understanding how an Armageddon-preaching, high-school dropout and his unlikely band of disciples held the federal government at bay for so long before dying in an inferno as the entire world looked on.

Setting up archives

Citing the strong interest, the city's library is working with officials at Baylor University to set up an archive for information about the Branch Davidians and the standoff, city officials said.

A group of residents who live near the compound have erected a monument for the four agents who died in the initial raid. It stands at a nearby church.

Four ATF agents have been assigned to Waco to help with the still unscheduled trial of 12 Branch Davidians accused of conspiracy to murder four ATF agents who died assaulting the compound.

Sixteen agents were wounded, and five Branch Davidians died in the shootout, which began after 100 ATF agents attempted to serve search and arrest warrants for alleged firearms violations on the sect's compound.

Treasury officials are expected next month to issue a critical assessment of the agency's handling of the raid.

Although many of the surviving Branch Davidians have left town - some under threat of being deported to their countries - several sect members remain. All but one are jailed awaiting trial or are under court order to stay in Waco as material witnesses.

Those sect members who agreed to be interviewed said the upcoming federal trial is just a new front in the fight to vindicate their leader, who federal officials say ordered his followers to set an April 19 fire that destroyed the compound and left him and 85 other Branch Davidians dead.

The Branch Davidians remain devout and unemotional about the loss of their friends and relatives. They attributed their calm to an expectation that Mr. Koresh will return soon to reunite them with fellow Branch Davidians.

"I know what we say happened is much different than what the government says," said Sheila Martin, 46, a sect member who left the compound during the siege and lost her husband and four of their children in the fire.

"They just don't know David like we do, and they've said things about him that are wrong," she said.

She and a handful of other Branch Davidians have taken up residence at the Brittany, an aging downtown hotel a few blocks east of the county jail.

A helping hand

Mark Domangue, the hotel's 32-year-old owner, began offering sect members and their relatives free room and board during the 51-day standoff.

A deeply conservative south Louisiana native who attends a local Baptist church and disagrees with many of the Branch Davidians' beliefs, he said he opened his doors and even posted bond for some sect members because "they needed help. They were done very unjustly - still are being done very unjustly."

He said he knows that some Waco residents frown on his decision to help the Branch Davidians.

But he appears to enjoy playing the role of iconoclast. He has embraced the group's contention that they were - and are - being persecuted by federal authorities.

Despite the discovery of more than 40 home-made machine guns and dozens of grenades and grenade parts in the compound's rubble - unlicensed weapons prohibited by federal law - he says: "They didn't find anything illegal. None of it was illegal."

Mr. Domangue's Branch Davidian guests sometimes compare his intense personality and his generosity with that of their beloved prophet, Mr. Koresh.

He dismisses the comparison and adds firmly that his hotel is no new Mount Carmel.

"They just have a place to stay," he said. "But they're not going to stay here forever. I've got a business to run."

As the summer has wound on, the Branch Davidians at the Brittany have fallen into a daily routine of jail visits, media interviews, calls to lawyers and taking turns at the long reception desk in the hotel's dark, unair-conditioned lobby.

Most of the jailed sect members declined to be interviewed, but Livingstone Fagan cheerfully contends that the group has gained sympathizers - if not outright converts - during their long stay in jail.

"Last night, I was giving my cellmates a bedtime story on the Book of Revelation and David. They were extremely interested," he said in a telephone interview from the McLennan County Jail. He is one of the 12 facing charges stemming from the agents' deaths.

Mr. Fagan, 33, who left the cult home midway through the standoff, declines to discuss the death of his wife and his mother in the fire. He said he doesn't want to be interviewed about anything more personal than his understanding of Mr. Koresh's doctrine and his faith that the Branch Davidian leader will rise from the dead soon, "possibly even before the trial."

For now, those outside the jail say their lives are occupied by the wait for the trial, daily reports from fellow believers and the other rituals of daily existence.

Rumors, reports

Last Thursday, the biggest news was a report from sect member Janet McBean that somebody's defense attorney had accused Catherine Matteson of being a government informant.

Ms. McBean, who was in California during the siege and lost a brother in the compound fire, refused to be interviewed.

Ms. Matteson, a soft-spoken 77-year-old who left the compound during the siege and lives at the Brittany, immediately called her lawyer.

"Why would anybody say that?" she complained to Mrs. Martin and others in the hotel's lobby.

That produced soft giggles from Mrs. Martin.

"People say a lot of strange things about us," said Mrs. Martin, whose husband, Wayne, was a Harvard-educated lawyer and considered a deputy to Mr. Koresh.

Mrs. Martin, who became a devotee and then convinced her husband join to the Branch Davidian sect, recently rented a house in hopes of regaining custody of her three surviving children and says she is trying to get on with her life.

"The ones who stayed behind and what happened, you think about it all the time. It's always before you. You never forget it, but you don't let it stop you from living.

"I know people think we have no feelings," she said. "But we know God has a plan for us."

Ms. Matteson, a Rhode Island native and self-described New England Yankee who lived at the compound for 25 years, is more blunt.

"I could say everybody dies, but that wouldn't sound right, would it? I don't dwell on it too much," she said.

The two women then fell into a mild debate over whether they should admit their desire to have stayed in the compound with their friends and relatives.

"When people say, `Would you rather have stayed?` if you say `yes,` they think you're saying you'd rather have burned up in the fire. That sounds crazy," Mrs. Martin said.

Ms. Matteson repeated that she would rather have stayed instead of coming out on March 2 with a tape-recorded message from Mr. Koresh. But Mrs. Martin persisted, "Nobody wants to die in a fire."

Ms. Matteson finally ended the discussion by saying: "I don't know. A lot of martyrs died in fires."

The women say they and the other survivors avidly monitor newspapers and TV newscasts for reports on the Branch Davidian case. They contend that most mainstream reporters are unfairly reporting what happened, but they have become loyal fans of a Waco television reporter who witnessed the shootout.

"That's kind of strange. But they say they saw my reports in the early days (of the siege) and they thought I was fair," said the reporter, John McLemore of KWTX-TV. "And I recognize that they're people. I think the media has kind of dehumanized them."

Ironic relationship

Mr. McLemore acknowledges that his amiable relationship with the Branch Davidians is ironic in light of erroneous reports that he was the source of a tip that alerted the cult about the federal raid.

Mr. McLemore said he has been frustrated that federal investigators and Texas Rangers who investigated the tipoff have not released their findings and cleared his name.

"I would like for it to be over and done with," he said. Sources familiar with the Rangers' investigation say the Branch Davidians learned of the raid from Jim Peeler, a KWTX cameraman who became lost while trying to find the compound and inadvertently stopped a sect member to ask for directions the morning of the raid.

Mr. Peeler has acknowledged asking David Jones, a letter carrier who belonged to the sect, for directions, but he said he did not know who the man was and had no idea he was a Branch Davidian.

Getting visitors

While the federal criminal investigation of the raid grinds slowly on, its legacy has made the remnants of Mount Carmel a tourist draw.

State officials have fenced off the piles of junk and holes where the compound once stood until they can complete a cleanup of raw sewage and other contaminants left behind by the sect.

Security guards patrol the quarantine fence, and county officials have posted no-stopping signs along the perimeter of the cult's property to discourage visitors.

But in less than an hour Thursday, two cars from East Texas, a couple from St. Petersburg, Fla., three vacationing Britons and two exchange students, who came from Grand Rapids, Mich., to visit the home of Mr. Koresh, pulled in to see the ruins.

"We planned our vacation to see this," said Linda Hubbard of Kent, England, who stood briefly with her husband and mother-in-law at the edge of the compound property. "It was such big news at home - the biggest news we've had from the states in a long time."

Her husband, Raymond, swung a video camera on his arm and looked briefly at the fenced junkpile before turning away. "Our friends, they want the true story. I'm not sure it's here."

All stared silently at a makeshift cross planted on the biggest pile of wreckage in the quarantined area. Most took pictures of a child's burned bicycle and a baby's crib that someone set up just outside the fence and filled with children's clothing for a pointedly poignant display.

County Commissioner Lester Gibson, whose district includes Mount Carmel, concedes that an ordinance passed earlier this summer to stop the gawkers can do little to control the traffic in and out of the area.

Because the interest is hard to fight, he says he plans to ask the County Commission to take advantage of it by renaming FM2491, where media satellite trucks and reporters waited out the siege in a small encampment dubbed Satellite City.

"Why not call it Satellite Road?" he said. "Maybe all you people who were here would come back for a reunion."

Property feud

Mr. Gibson also says that the county can do little to stop the curious from entering the sect's 77-acre spread, which has become the focus of a renewed feud between rival claimants for the Branch Davidians' name and home.

On Monday, after county officials reopened a gravel road leading to the compound's main gate, a woman claiming to be the rightful owner of the site moved onto the property.

The woman, Amo Paul Bishop, and James Ray, her companion, live in a makeshift tent, hawk T-shirts and offer impromptu lectures for anyone who stops by.

Mr. Ray tells visitors that he has armed himself with two dogs and an ax handle to "repossess" the property for Ms. Bishop, who describes herself as the ex-wife and trustee of a former Branch Davidian leader kicked out of Mount Carmel by Mr. Koresh.

Ms. Matteson, one of the surviving pro-Koresh Branch Davidians, says she has filed criminal trespass complaints against Ms. Bishop and hopes to see the couple evicted and the property left in peace.

Even if the sect regains full control of the property, however, she predicted that Branch Davidians will not return to Mount Carmel - in this lifetime.

"I think we're gonna be dispersed. So many people have already left," she said.

"There's nothing left out there. It's just a plot of land," she said. "But time is moving faster now. All of this will be over soon."