The Ghosts of Mount Carmel
In the ten years since a devastating fire took the lives of 74 Davidians, a group of survivors has returned to the windswept plains east of Waco, like ghosts haunting the site of their former compound. A new church has been built at Mount Carmel, and inside, they listen to their leader preach the same apocalyptic doctrine, and they wait for David Koresh to return.
Like most visitors, they had driven by the front gate slowly, then turned around and tentatively poked onto the property. The driver pulled up to the dirt parking area in front of the Mount Carmel visitors center, where the caretaker and three others were talking on the porch. The tourists got out almost timidly.
“Peace be with you!” one of the men on the porch called out.
“You bet!” replied the driver. “Y’all too!”
“In Jesus’ name.”
The tourists were from Nacogdoches, two couples and two kids, and they spent about ten minutes inside the center. They checked out the shell casings, the handcuffs, the darkened doll with one arm broken off, and the photos of all the people who died here almost ten years ago. Then they got back in their car and made their way up to the ruins of the Davidian compound, 150 yards away, where on April 19, 1993, the FBI ended a 51-day standoff with David Koresh and his followers. Seventy-four died that day in the fire that consumed the compound, including 21 children—suffocated, shot, or crushed by falling debris.
The visitors walked slowly through the ruins, heads down, staring at the ground or reading the posted inscriptions. The kids ran around the broken concrete and climbed on the monuments. Then the women walked across the driveway and stood in the memorial grove of eighty crape myrtles, each with a plaque and a name. After ten minutes, they all got in the car and drove slowly back to the visitors center. The driver got out of the car, this time not at all self-consciously. He was angry, and he had something to say: “We witnessed the evil, saw the terror that our own people felt. We witnessed it. We knew; we knew in our hearts. You can’t kill the spirit. You can kill the man, but you can’t kill the spirit. I don’t care whether it’s this goddam government or another government… . What we witnessed here is just a precursor to what is yet to come. We experienced it here on a very small scale. All you have to do is read the Revelation. And before that spirit returns, there’s going to be hell on this earth, and people are gonna walk around in the dust and in the smoke, and they will be screaming and crying and praying.”
Then he returned to his car and slowly drove away.
I hear children laughing. Of course I hear other things too, like dogs. I figure the dogs are real but the children aren’t. Walking the property, all of a sudden I’m blanketed by a cold chill, as if I’m being watched or somebody’s got a gun on me. I’ve had people point guns at me from the road.—Ron Goins, 48, Mount Carmel caretaker
We’re accustomed to having the ugly bits of our past buried deep, out of sight. At Mount Carmel, a 77-acre tract of land ten miles east of Waco, the horrors of history come crawling from the earth. The concrete foundations of the Davidian compound crumble under your feet, and rebar sprouts like tangled weeds. The ground is pitted and uneven, like a battlefield. Plaques tell you where you’re standing: the chapel area, the men’s dormitory, and the vault, where nearly three dozen women and children were found dead. Not far away is the yellow roof of a buried school bus, which served as the entryway to half-completed underground shelters. The roof is torn, and the shelters are flooded with cold, dark water. Looking down into the blackness below, you expect some horrible distortion to reveal itself. With the wind blowing, and the wind is always blowing out here on the plains above Waco, Mount Carmel feels like the most desolate place on earth.
After the holocaust that took place here, plenty of Wacoans wished, or at least imagined, that the Davidians would disappear and fade into history. But ten years later, a few survivors and former followers are back, and they, like everyone else who has ever come to Mount Carmel, are looking for something. One hundred thirty people lived here in the winter of 1993; today there are eight—two near the front gate, associated with one branch of the church, and six more who live at the other end of the property, associated with another. One pastor is a true believer in former leader David Koresh, while the other thinks Koresh perverted the Davidian church’s message. There are other Davidians too, in Waco and elsewhere. They may not all believe the same thing, even on such mundane matters as who is entitled to the land; indeed, the hallmark of this sect has been a large degree of dissension and apostasy, to say nothing of insanity, murder, and messianism. But they are all, in their own ways, Davidians. And they all came here to understand the nature of God and, of course, where they fit into his scheme.
For now, the man who seems most in charge of the property, and maybe the future of the Davidians, is Clive Doyle, the preacher who lives in a tidy double-wide next to the visitors center. Like most Davidians, Clive, 62, is from somewhere else, in his case Australia. A Seventh-day Adventist as a teen, he came to Mount Carmel in 1966 and stayed, eventually becoming a disciple of Koresh and surviving the fire, though his hands were badly burned. After recuperating in Waco for a few years, he found a renewed purpose at Mount Carmel. He became the lay preacher for the surviving Davidians because, he says, in the aftermath, he was the only male follower in the area not in jail (he never took up arms against the government agents). His scarred hands also gave him a certain moral heft.
In 2000 Clive and his congregation moved into a new chapel, built and paid for by sympathetic volunteers (militia groups and regular citizens) and the Davidians themselves. Clive is now the church spokesman, the guy who deals with the press and the public as well as the occasional excited truth seeker: “Recently, this guy called and said he has something he looks at—he didn’t say what it was—but he said when he looks at it he sees both David and Jesus together. I put him off until after the tenth anniversary.”
Clive’s congregation is small, but it includes four other Davidian survivors. He told me there are only a dozen or so Davidians left in Texas, maybe one hundred in the world, but that the numbers don’t matter. “There are fewer students around now,” he acknowledges, “but that doesn’t mean the truth is any different.” And that truth, he says, is what Koresh taught them: In these dark days, as foretold in the book of Revelation, all answers are to be found in the scroll bound by the Seven Seals, to be opened at the end of the world. Koresh told his flock that he was the only one who could open the seals and reveal the scroll’s true meaning and that the Davidians were part of the “wave sheaf,” the special ones who would be protected from the horrors of the End Times: the hail mixed with fire and blood, the great earthquake, the bottomless pit, the killer locusts with lion’s teeth and scorpion’s tails.
The seals were—and still are—the most important thing in the Davidians’ lives. “The Seven Seals are not only a doctrine,” says Clive. “They’re a lifestyle. You live it.” All the survivors need is the man who can show them how. So Clive and his small congregation wait for Koresh to return. They say it could happen any day. “We’re kind of treading water right now,” says Clive.
WHATEVER DAVID HAD MUST HAVE been pretty good, for people to give up their lives to live on this hill, with its fire ants and inconveniences. They came and stayed because they found answers they couldn’t find anyplace else—answers and knowledge they’d been searching for.—Clive Doyle, 62, Davidian survivor
In 1981 a 22-year-old high school dropout from Dallas named Vernon Howell showed up at Mount Carmel. He had been born in Houston to a fifteen-year-old single mother and had grown up obsessed with the Bible, memorizing whole chapters. He was a Seventh-day Adventist, but he’d been kicked out of the Tyler congregation for rabble-rousing against what he saw as a church that had lost its way. Howell was an oversexed young man. He masturbated too much, he told the residents, and he also wanted to be a rock star. He came because he had heard there was a prophet at Mount Carmel, and he needed some direction.
Mount Carmel had a history of prophets. In 1935, when a man named Victor Houteff was kicked out of a Seventh-day Adventist congregation in Los Angeles for being critical of church leadership, he took a handful of followers and headed to 189 acres near Lake Waco, just west of the small city. Adventists, who follow certain Jewish traditions and rituals (such as the Saturday Sabbath), predict Christ’s imminent return to cleanse a wicked world. Houteff saw himself as a prophet who would help bring back the biblical kingdom of David. Houteff named his group the Davidian Seventh-day Adventists, and they built their own community, called Mount Carmel, whose congregation grew steadily over the years.
At 52, Houteff had married a seventeen-year-old girl named Florence, and when he died, in 1955, she assumed control. Florence, in her enthusiasm for the end of the world, set a date for it, April 22, 1959, attracting hundreds of Davidians for the final days to a larger, 941-acre settlement ten miles east of Waco, near Elk. When the sun rose on April 23, disappointed Davidians started leaving the compound, and the group dwindled. Most of the land was sold, and eventually the remaining 77 acres came under the control of Ben and Lois Roden. Ben saw himself as another prophet, as the “Branch” (a name sometimes given to Jesus), and his followers were called Branch Davidians. When Ben died, in 1978, Lois took over.
When Howell arrived at Mount Carmel, he attached himself to Lois, who was then in her sixties, and seduced her, physically and theologically. She chose him as her successor, much to the agony of her son, George. Howell married a fourteen-year-old named Rachel Jones, and after winning a bizarre power struggle with George that involved George digging up a corpse in an effort to prove he could raise the dead, Howell took over as undisputed leader in 1988; George eventually wound up in a mental hospital. Howell began solidifying his messianic teachings, preaching the “New Light,” which allowed him to “marry” more than one woman, with the goal of fathering 24 children to sit on the 24 thrones surrounding God, as foretold in Revelation. Many of the wives he chose were between the ages of twelve and twenty. Soon after, he changed his name to David Koresh (“David” for the king of the Jews, and “Koresh” for the ancient Persian king Cyrus, who was considered an “anointed one”). He said he was a messiah, a Christ—not the Christ, though sometimes he crossed that line, claiming to be the son of God.
Life at Mount Carmel was spartan and self-sufficient. Residents lived in a large two-story compound that included a chapel, a gym, and a cafeteria. The men slept in one place, the women and children in another. The women did all the cooking, and the children were disciplined harshly. For the most part, the Davidians kept to themselves, and if some in Waco condemned them for being outsiders, others accepted them, or at least their business. Koresh went into town often, especially to music stores, where he bought guitars and amps and other equipment. He and his band, made up of other Davidians, sometimes played in the gym, wearing T-shirts that read “David Koresh/God Rocks.” As late as the summer of 1991, Koresh went to Los Angeles seeking a record deal.
Koresh was in charge of most aspects of the Davidians’ lives; for example, he regulated consumption of alcohol, cigarettes, and junk food. The men were required to be celibate, while he could take whomever as his wife. He was a randy messiah (he fathered seventeen children), once telling a group of women, “There’s only one hard-on in this whole universe that really loves you.” He reveled in his lusts and even called himself a “sinful messiah,” reasoning that his transgressions let him understand how bad man could be. Koresh, who knew the Bible intimately, also knew how to harmonize the words of the Scripture with his followers’ lives.
The most important words were those written in Revelation on the Seven Seals. Koresh would sermonize about bad guys like the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Beast, always bringing the lesson back to the Davidians’ unconventional world. Persecution was coming, he said. And war. Residents began stockpiling food, including military “meals ready to eat.” They became weapons dealers, buying and selling at weekend gun shows and eventually building a small arsenal. Koresh had them cut six-inch gun slots in the walls of the compound and fortify them with concrete. He was preparing them for battle, saying that many of God’s people would die. “If you can’t kill for God,” he told them, “you can’t die for God.”
The authorities began to take notice. In February 1992 Child Protective Services (CPS) social workers made the first of several visits to Mount Carmel to check into allegations by apostates of child abuse; Koresh was said to have spanked an eight-month-old for forty minutes. But the CPS didn’t find enough evidence to take action. Then, in the spring of 1992, a UPS package being delivered to the Davidians broke open, revealing empty grenade hulls. The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) started investigating the Davidians and found receipts for deliveries of other ammo and arms, including black gunpowder and powdered aluminum that could be mixed to make homemade grenades and devices for converting semiautomatic weapons into automatics. No law prevented them from stockpiling weapons, even automatic ones, but Koresh hadn’t obtained a license or paid the expensive per-weapon fee. The ATF began surveillance at Mount Carmel. By December, agents had occupied a house across the street from the compound and were watching its residents closely.
Soon the ATF had drawn up a plan: storm the compound, subdue the residents, and search for illegal firearms and explosives. Despite the fact that agents knew that the Davidians had been accidentally tipped off, at nine-thirty on the morning of February 28, 1993, three helicopters approached from the rear, and two cattle trailers, with tarps hiding fifty agents, sped up the front driveway. About fifty feet from the front door of the compound, they burst from the trailers, armed and dressed in black. To the Davidians, some of whom had gone to get their own weapons, it was as if everything Koresh had predicted was coming true.
If kids would ask about my father, I’d say he died in a fire. If they asked for more and I told them more, they’d say, ‘You’re one of those people who followed that madman?’ All this happened where I was born. That’s where my family died.—Kimberly Martin, 14, Davidian survivor
The first person most tourists meet at Mount Carmel today isn’t a Davidian at all but a Messianic Jew. Caretaker Ron Goins was born Jewish but raised a Christian. He had tried other religions, such as the Hare Krishna, but he did not find a spiritual home until he visited Mount Carmel from Philadelphia in 1998. He decided to stay, leading tours, mending broken windows, and scaring away vandals and college kids who come in the middle of the night and steal mailboxes and bang on the front door of the chapel. He lives in a tiny room off the side of the church at the front of the property. “We get at least a dozen people a day,” he says, “and sometimes a dozen different cars. Most people are sympathetic, though they qualify their sympathies. They say, ‘I don’t agree with David and his ideas, but what happened here shouldn’t have happened.’”
Though not of the Davidian faith, Ron usually attends Clive’s Saturday services, or “studies.” On a warm Saturday afternoon in January, I joined him. Clive’s congregation looked even smaller in this commodious space with sixty or so mismatched chairs and no art or color on the walls. In the front row, Catherine Matteson, 87, followed along in her Bible, which has extensive blue and black notes written in the margins. She came to Mount Carmel in 1960 and exited early in the siege. Also up front were Sheila Martin, 56, and her 14-year-old daughter, Kimberly. Sheila was attentive, while Kim, like most teenagers, slumped in her chair, antsy in church on a Saturday afternoon. Sheila came to Mount Carmel with her husband, Wayne, in 1988. She and Kim left during the siege, but Wayne and four of the Martin children, ages 13 to 20, died in the fire. All three church members have been living in Waco since the tragedy, but they’ve returned here almost every Saturday afternoon since the new chapel was built.
On this day there were also two itinerant evangelists, Galina and James. Galina was a heavily accented Russian woman with shoulder-length black hair, and James was about six-four and 250 pounds, with a long beard, and looked like a giant version of the hirsute dwarf warrior Gimli, in Lord of the Rings. Clive, who with his hair combed back resembles an old rockabilly, sat in a chair, facing everyone, reading and discussing verses and occasionally asking questions. Mild-mannered, Clive will never have the cult of personality Koresh enjoyed. About an hour into his study (they can go on all afternoon), Clive explained how the book of Revelation is a book of judgment, and James asked, “But isn’t God a God of love?” Well, yes, said Clive, of course he is, but we’re talking here about the book at the end of the Bible, the one about the end of the world. James, who had obviously been waiting for this moment, pressed on. “But Jesus Christ brought a new testament—a testament of love—he said to love your enemy, not hate him. Not take up arms against him.” Then, after a brief pause, he asked, “Did you take up arms, back in 1993?” Clive didn’t hesitate. “I didn’t take up arms. Neither did Catherine, neither did Sheila. And we were under attack.”
The two men argued for 45 minutes, each quoting Scripture for their points—Jesus as a man of war, Jesus as a man of peace; judgment versus love; the very meaning of and justification for the Davidians’ existence. This was not your typical service. Still, there was more passion about the nature of God in that heated conversation than you might witness in years of mainstream churchgoing.
As we finished up, at around three o’clock, Clive, James, and everyone else stood around chatting peacefully. For a moment it seemed as though a rare calm had settled on the place. Then I heard something shouted from far away. “Murderers! Murderers!” I went to the door. “Damn you all! Slaves of Satan!” About two hundred yards away, at the front gate, a man stood, yelling. “This is an abomination! It is a whorehouse, not a church!” Ron walked up beside me and shook his head: “Andrew.” He knows Andrew (a.k.a. Andrew X98; né Robert Arnold) well; they knew each other in Philadelphia. Andrew came to Mount Carmel in 1996, fleeing a life of drugs and crime. “I came here a destroyed person,” Andrew told me later, “searching for my God.” A Muslim, he also believed Koresh was a prophet, and so he came to study with Clive, staying on the property for three and a half years and serving as the caretaker. But when construction of the new chapel began on a Saturday, the Sabbath, Andrew was outraged. This was, he says, the “abomination that maketh desolate.” He left the church at about the same time his friend Ron first visited, at Andrew’s invitation. Ron became the new watchman; Andrew the adversary.
Down at the gate, a little white car drove by once, twice, a third time, and finally pulled in. Andrew, who shows up at the gate only occasionally, approached the driver, and Ron tried to intercede. Andrew ignored him. “That damn thing was founded on the Sabbath,” he said loudly. “It’s an abomination of God.” He went on to tell the driver how, during the siege, government agents had massacred the Davidians. “The children were mutilated, hacked to death. Arms and legs and heads cut off; in a couple of cases, the heads were never even found.” When Koresh was here, he had a way of bringing harmony out of chaos, whether it was from the pages of the Bible or the lives of the sincere misfits who were drawn to him. On days like this, his presence is missed.
The visitor nervously tried to drive off, and Andrew handed him some flyers, saying, “God bless you, folks. Here are some Internet sites you can work off of, to show you George Bush did do this thing.”
I left during the siege because my mother wasn’t there, and she needed me. My daughter was pushing me out. She said she thought that something bad was going to happen. I didn’t want to come out. I thought we had the truth. I thought we had the truth. I thought this was supposed to happen.—Ofelia Santoyo, 72, Davidian survivor
We’ll probably never know for certain who fired first when those 50 agents ran up to the front of the compound. This is understandable. In the ten years since the 51-day siege, an Academy award-nominated documentary, Waco: The Rules of Engagement, has been released, as well as a dozen books, and all tell conflicting stories. For example, when Koresh opened the door, according to several Davidians, he said, “Wait a minute. Get back. There are women and children here—let’s talk about this,” closed the door, and that’s when gunfire erupted from outside. The ATF agents said that as soon as the door closed, gunfire came from the inside. Whoever fired first, by the end of the day, 4 ATF agents and 6 Davidians were dead and 20 agents and 4 Davidians were wounded, including Koresh, who was shot in the hand and the stomach. Within 24 hours, the FBI had taken over for the ATF. Byron Sage soon emerged as the chief negotiator—he would lead 51 agents who would talk to Koresh and his lieutenants. The bulk of the rest of the team were field agents, some driving combat engineered vehicles (CEVs).
The next day, Koresh made a deal: If he could broadcast his views on a national radio network, he and his followers would come out. That night, stressed-out Davidians expecting to leave broke into the forbidden-foods cache and ate candy, drank whiskey, and smoked cigarettes. Koresh was furious. The next day he taped a rambling 58-minute sermon that was played on the Christian Broadcast Network but, after intense praying, told his aide Steve Schneider to call the negotiators. “He says his God says that he is to wait,” Schneider said. According to at least one survivor, Koresh felt that the Davidians had sinned with the forbidden foods and now needed to atone. To the FBI, he was a liar; to his people, he was just following the chain of command.
The episode typified the next twenty days, as one difference in interpretation followed another. There were some 950 phone conversations between the two sides over more than 210 hours, yet there was little actually communicated. The FBI called it a “complex hostage/barricade rescue situation,” though the Davidians weren’t hostages and didn’t want to be rescued (14 adults and 21 children reluctantly left during the siege). The government saw Koresh as a con man, child molester, and gun nut, while his followers saw him as a savior, father figure, and provider. The government considered the Davidians a cult of weirdos; the Davidians saw themselves as a family of true believers.
On March 9 the FBI, growing impatient, began to ratchet up its pressure, turning the compound’s electricity off and on again for the next few days. Soon agents set up bright lights to shine into the building and then speakers to blast tapes of sirens, babies crying, dental drills, rabbits being slaughtered, and Tibetan chants (the Dalai Lama complained, and the latter were stopped). At times, the FBI’s aggressiveness led the agency to sabotage itself. On March 12, over the objections of some negotiators, the agents cut off the compound’s electricity for good. Koresh was furious. According to researcher Mark Swett, who is working on a book about the siege, Koresh had been planning to send out twenty people the next day but now changed his mind; they never left.
In its defense, the FBI had never dealt with a situation like this. “Our experts were saying Koresh was getting more and more paranoid,” FBI spokesman Bob Ricks told me. “He was trying to bring this to a magnificent end—sooner rather than later. The only way to stop it was a tactical intervention.” As the weeks went by, agents rallied around a plan to gradually teargas the compound and drive the Davidians out. They presented it to Attorney General Janet Reno on April 12, with assurances that children and pregnant women would not be permanently harmed by the gas.
Two days later Koresh announced that the wait was over: God had told him to write a manuscript on the Seven Seals and then the Davidians could give up. Koresh went to work, but he was a slow writer, spelling phonetically. FBI higher-ups were skeptical—he’d changed his mind before—and pushed hard for their tear gas plan, which called for gradual insertion over 48 hours, unless they were fired on, in which case more tear gas would be put in. Reno okayed the plan for Sunday, April 19.
At 5:59 on Sunday morning, Sage phoned inside the compound and warned that tear gas was on the way. A few minutes later, two CEVs outfitted with long booms began knocking holes in the walls and spraying the gas. Davidians responded by firing back, and the FBI immediately escalated the gas, using Bradley armored vehicles to shoot mortarlike “ferret rounds” through the windows. The assault went on all morning, with the CEVs knocking more holes in the walls, some quite big. The plan was to create escape routes for the Davidians to flee the gas; unfortunately, according to Dick J. Reavis’ book The Ashes of Waco, debris wound up blocking stairways and the trapdoor leading to the buried school bus.
Some time that morning, Koresh directed most of the remaining women to take the 21 children (12 were his) to the concrete vault at the base of the compound’s tower. A little after noon, smoke was first seen by agents, and within minutes three separate fires were going. Fifteen minutes later, agents heard “systematic gunfire”; fifteen minutes after that, the whole compound was in flames. Nine Davidians got out but 74 didn’t, including all the children. Two fetuses were also found with their dead mothers.
What ultimately happened was the self-fulfillment of Koresh’s apocalyptic prophecy—the ATF and the FBI played right into his hands. In the eyes of those who perished, this was the ultimate demonstration of faith in their messiah. To them, it wasn’t suicide; it was a deliverance into the presence of God. I think Koresh was the epitome of the false prophet in the end times in Revelation, the very book he based everything on.—Byron Sage, 55, FBI chief negotiator
You hear things in the wind, especially when you’re walking over fields of death. Wandering the grounds of Mount Carmel one Saturday afternoon, I heard, or thought I heard, music drifting in and out of the wind as I got closer to the little chapel at the back of the property. A woman came out, and I asked if I could come in. “Hold on,” she said, “I’ll get our leader—he’s playing the drums.”
Charlie Pace, 52, is a construction worker and massage therapist, a short, intense man with a mustache and dark, green-marble eyes. He came to Mount Carmel in 1973 and became a Davidian, following the teachings of Ben and Lois Roden. But Charlie became alarmed at the ascendant Koresh’s teachings and left Mount Carmel in 1985. He went to Alabama and returned after the fire, preaching in a tent. Eventually he rehabbed the only building left standing, an old dairy barn, and turned it into his chapel. Charlie, who also goes by the name Solomon Joshua Branch, gives Bible studies and plays, in his words, “contemporary Messianic Jewish songs” on a CD player while keeping the beat on his congas and singing along with his eyes closed. His congregation is small—his wife, their three children, and three other women. He sees himself as the legitimate heir to Lois, and refers to his church as the Branch. He believes Koresh corrupted the original Davidian message, that the church wound up following Koresh instead of Christ.
Charlie isn’t the only post-Koresh prophet to contest Clive’s message. Ever since the fire, Mount Carmel has seen all kinds of visionaries and squatters who claim authority over the 77 acres. The land, it turns out, doesn’t belong to any one person but to the church itself. The question is, Who is the church?
In the months after the fire, a sixty-year-old woman named Amo Bishop Roden claimed it was she. Amo said she was a prophet and that the land was hers because she had been married by common law to George Roden. (George, who’d lost control of the compound to Koresh in 1988, killed his roommate with an ax and was sent to a mental hospital, where he died trying to escape, in 1998.) For a while, Amo lived in a clapboard shack and sat under the large tree near the front gate, welcoming visitors, selling T-shirts, and giving her own spin on Koresh. He was a false prophet, she would tell tourists, and then charge them an entrance fee. She set up a couple of little clapboard museums too, which were both anti-Koresh and anti-government, but they burned, along with her shack, in a suspicious 2000 fire. She returned a few years later to find Clive with the keys to a new church and visitors center.
Around this time, Clive sued to establish his trusteeship of Mount Carmel, and he got signatures from 75 Davidians around the world supporting his claim. Amo filed a similar claim, while Charlie called the whole thing a family matter. Essentially, a judge and jury agreed: The judge declared that the property belonged to the church, and the jury said that neither Clive nor Amo was a legitimate trustee. They’ll all just have to share. Amo, who could not be reached for this story, left; in May 2001 she was stopped for questioning at the site of the Oklahoma City bombing for driving a truck covered with signs, photos of the burning Davidian compound, and bumper stickers, including one that read “Waco, Texas, and Oklahoma City are where the one-world government shot itself in the foot.” No charges were filed.
Since the court battle, the rest of the Davidians at Mount Carmel, even the ones with the biggest theological differences, seem to have found a way to calmly coexist. Charlie and Clive, who are separated physically by three hundred yards but theologically by a million miles, seem to genuinely like each other. They’re certainly uninterested in triggering a feud that would upset the peace. And perhaps their congregations benefit from having options. On the morning I visited Charlie’s church, I was shocked to find Ofelia Santoyo, a devoted Koresh follower who reluctantly left Mount Carmel during the siege, seated with her mother, Concepción. Ofelia told me that she moved to Mount Carmel in 1987 and that her daughter, Julie Martinez, and Julie’s five children joined her in the early nineties. Ofelia loved the simple life at Mount Carmel, and she believed in Koresh. When she exited, she said good-bye to her daughter forever; Julie and her five children perished in the concrete vault.
After the fire, Ofelia went back and forth between Clive’s and Charlie’s churches. “Eventually I found out that Charlie had the truth. David used to pretend to be God. I believe it’s wrong. At the time, I believed him. The way he talked, there was no place for doubt.” But when I asked how she coped with the death of her daughter and grandchildren, she gave the only possible response a devout follower can give: “I think everything happens for a reason.” Then, after a pause, she added, “I’m here now and I believe we have the truth.”
Before it’s all over, Ofelia and the others may have yet another version of the truth to choose from. Renos Avraam, one of the six Davidians convicted in 1993 of manslaughter, is due out of prison in 2006. Like Koresh, Renos has written a manuscript about the Seven Seals and claims to be Koresh’s successor. Renos has some followers, both in and out of prison, but he also has detractors, who think he’s leading his people to hell. Waco County sheriff Larry Lynch isn’t looking forward to Renos or any of the ex-cons returning. “I really hope they don’t come back,” he says. But he continues, “If they do, as long as they abide by the law, there’s not gonna be a problem. That’s their right—to worship as they please, as long as they maintain law and order.” But whose law, the surviving Davidians might ask, and which order?
We’re waiting for David’s resurrection. This is our last chance. This is everybody’s last chance. He said there was going to be an earthquake on a fault near Lake Waco that would lead to a terrible flood and then the resurrection. This earthquake won’t just be a little tremor. It’s gonna kill a lot of people; let’s face it. We’re waiting every day and every minute of the week.—Catherine Matteson, 87, Davidian survivor
The past is never past, especially at Mount Carmel, where nobody is absolutely sure what happened back in 1993. In the aftermath, the government was shown to have handled so many things so badly that conspiracy theories ran wild—from tanks setting the fire and FBI agents shooting at fleeing Davidians to soldiers from the Delta Force slaughtering women and children. In 1999 Attorney General Reno appointed a special counsel to look into the government’s actions. After ten months, former Republican senator John Danforth concluded that although a lot of serious mistakes were made by the ATF and the FBI in the aftermath, mostly regarding the withholding of evidence, there was no systematic cover-up. Danforth also found that the FBI had not shot at anyone on April 19. Most important: the Davidians set the fire. Bugs planted by the FBI inside the compound revealed dozens of references to fuel and fire in the final six hours.
Conspiracists still cry foul, but ultimately, ten years later, we have to conclude that both sides share the blame for what happened. It’s obvious that the Davidians set the fire; it’s also obvious that the FBI knew all about their apocalyptic theology. It’s obvious that Koresh saw the whole thing as a fulfillment of prophecy; it’s also obvious that those government agents had a higher duty to protect the innocents inside the compound and that they breached it by driving an unstable bunch even crazier.
At Mount Carmel, at least, the small group of remaining Davidians is trying to focus on the time to come. They are waiting. Charlie foresees war and talks about the connections between September 11 and April 19: “September 11 was just a taste of what has yet to take place worldwide, a worldwide spiritual war, the battle between the descendants of Ishmael and the descendants of Isaac.” Clive sees similar things. When asked about a timetable for Koresh’s return, he says, “We’re always looking to the Middle East.” It’s not surprising, really, that the Davidians would see connections between 9/11 and their troubles——the central players that caused each drama share the passionate arrogance of those who believe they are entitled to more of God’s favor than the rest of us. Some prove their faith by setting fire to a building full of their own children; others do it by flying airliners full of human beings into skyscrapers.
“People say we’re apocalyptic,” says Clive, “all doom and gloom. Well, sure there’s a lot of doom and gloom, but there’s also a lot of hope and promise.” In his last letter, Koresh wrote that the earthquake would strike near Lake Waco, the land settled by Victor Houteff in 1935, and put Waco underwater. On Mount Carmel, high above the city, everything will be just fine.