WACO, Texas -- The concrete ruins sticking up from the high weeds and grass on this flat stretch of farmland about 10 miles out of town send a clear message: Something terrible happened here.
For 51 days in 1993, this was the center of the media universe. A standoff between the federal government and the Branch Davidians, a religious sect accused of stockpiling illegal arms, began with the deaths of four federal agents. It ended with a flaming inferno. About 80 members of the sect, including more than 20 children, were left dead.
Today, the large crowds that first came to the site are gone; only a handful of curious sightseers trickle in. The 77-acre site is still owned by factions of the Branch Davidians, the sect once led by David Koresh, but there is no evidence that anyone tills the land.
And nearby Waco, once the brunt of jokes by late-night TV comedians, is seeking a new form of celebrity. City officials hope President Bush's frequent visits to his ranch in nearby Crawford, such as the vacation that ended Thursday, will help erase the stigma attached to this part of central Texas.
Ghosts from the past, however, are never far away.
Former attorney general Janet Reno, who accepted responsibility for the disastrous ending of the 1993 standoff as head of the Justice Department, has accepted an invitation to speak at Baylor University in Waco on Sept. 13.
Authorities are examining their security needs. They are mindful that on April 19, 1995, the 2-year anniversary of the final assault at Waco, Timothy McVeigh bombed the Oklahoma City federal building. The bombing killed 168 people.
A small stone memorial to the Oklahoma City victims has been erected at the Waco site. ''We pray that they and their families find comfort,'' it says. The tribute was put up by a group called the Church of Righteousness.
Double EE Ranch Road runs along the front of the property. A black-and-white sign that says ''Mount Carmel,'' the name used by members of the sect, stands at the entrance. ''We appreciate your labor, love and gifts,'' it says.
A small, shed-like visitors center has been set up just inside the grounds. Inside, displays include the names and pictures of those who died.
Further down the road is a recently completed, one-story, white clapboard chapel. Current followers scattered around the area come to worship there. It was built roughly on the spot where the old Branch Davidian chapel stood.
A field across from the chapel has been set up as a cemetery-like memorial to the dead. Still-immature crape myrtle bushes have been planted in rows. In front of each is a small footstone with the name of one of those who died, with age, nationality and the date of death: April 19, 1993. An eerie silence permeates the place. Only the chirping of crickets and the distant mooing of a cow disrupt the quiet.
There is no way to know how many people come to the site each year. No one monitors the place full time.
People do come, however -- even the locals, acting as tour guides for their visitors.
''I come here quite a bit,'' says Franky Singleton of Hewitt, just outside Waco. He says he had no sympathy for the Branch Davidians, but he has questions about the way officials handled the situation.
He shows his brother, Terry Singleton of Lebanon, Tenn., around the place.
''I guess coming here is just like coming to a Civil War battlegrounds,'' Terry Singleton says. ''It is a place in U.S. history. Whether you think what happened was good or bad, it is history.''
As the two men stroll, Terry's wife, Juanita, refuses to get out of their rental car.
''I hate this place,'' she says, her voice growing with intensity. ''It's mean and it's crazy, and innocent people died here. I don't want my feet to touch this ground.''
Now that I've been granted my own column in the Times' Thursday newspaper - the first column since my university days at the University of Texas at Arlington - I finally have a chance to tell about some of the behind the scenes events during the Branch-Davidian standoff in 1993.
I worked at the Waco newspaper at the time as the general assignments/farm reporter and retrieved a fax in April of 1992 alleging the Branch-Davidians planned a mass suicide and that child abuse occurred at their compound.
The fax led to an investigative series by journalists Mark England and Darlene McCormick subsequently nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. The series won first place for public service in the nationwide Associated Press Managing Editors contest.
Everyone in the newsroom, myself included, begged to work on the series centering on Vernon Howell, aka David Koresh, and the cult that lived in a compound about 10 miles outside Waco. But England and McCormick had to sell the executive editor, Bob Lott, on the idea and worked on the series by themselves, almost exclusively on their own time.
To make short the story leading up to the day the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms launched their abortive raid on the Davidian compound, the ATF asked the newspaper to hold the story until after executing a search warrant. Then the weekend the series began the ATF called with a tip to stay close to the telephone over the weekend. Word reached reporters the raid was set to go Sunday.
The newspaper's reporters and photographers, myself excluded because I was on my way to church when the call came, accompanied the ATF to the compound and ran to a ditch for cover when gunfire began.
Something that to my knowledge has never before surfaced is that a reporter made a continuous audio recording of the gunfight as he and the others sat in the ditch.
With the whine of bullets in the background, England could be heard joking "I hope we're getting paid overtime for this" while another reporter could be heard sobbing in fear.
Lott later suggested the tape be destroyed.
The group had chosen a position in a crossfire between ATF agents firing from a house behind them and Davidians inside the compound.
Meanwhile, on a back road to the compound, editor Brian Blansett and McCormick drove toward the conflict. Both later claimed they were cut short by a spray of bullets fired from a helicopter overhead at the ground in front of the station wagon they were in.
Blansett slammed on the brakes before the vehicle was struck.
After the raid came the standoff complete with media circus, where reporters and locals learned there is a limit to cell phone traffic. All lines were frequently tied up, making cell phones useless, due to all the law enforcement and reporters in the area.
The impromptu media city that sprang up with hundreds of reporters living in campers and recreational vehicles posed the county problems in sanitation. The media encampment featured occasional games and elected a mayor.
As the standoff stretched to 51 days the population of reporters dwindled.
Then came the compound's fiery end.
That April day a photographer and I were sent to the compound once news of the FBI's insertion of tear gas there reached the newsroom.
I returned after photographing Koresh's attorneys, using a chair to push television photographers out of the way, and heard an editor lament the fire.
"The children" was all she said as she watched another re-run of the fire on the television.
Twenty-five children under the age of 15 died during the fire, to us in the newsroom the greatest tragedy. A total of 76 Branch-Davidians were killed.
That night, there was a great letting-off of steam at a local bar and grill that I captured on videotape where highly-inappropriate remarks were made and a French television crew became the butt of jokes. Patrons finally pelted them unmercifully with peanut shells, running them off.
My observations about the whole debacle are not original but follow those who observed Koresh and several of his lieutenants could have been nabbed outside the compound and the debacle avoided.
However, I believe the ATF had every right to execute a search warrant, and the Branch-Davidians were wrong to resist.
Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, with U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, were wrong to try to end the standoff the way they did, but a fiery suicidal end was almost unavoidable.
And things were never the same after the media circus left town.
WASHINGTON - NewsMax.com has learned of new scientific evidence indicating a whitewash and a cover-up in the FBIs role in the deadly 1993 Branch Davidian standoff. That is the thrust of a series of documents piling up in key congressional offices.
By the time you read this, a House investigating subcommittee may have in its hands further proof of the FBIs role in the siege near Waco, Texas, in which more than 80 people died.
That proof adds to the doubts about last years report of a government investigation. Former Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo., appointed by then-Attorney General Janet Reno, was the special counsel for the probe. His final report exonerated the FBI of charges that its agents fired on the Branch Davidians as they were fleeing their burning headquarters.
Michael McNulty, producer of "The F.L.I.R Project, a video that already presents material indicating that the FBI did indeed fire on the Branch Davidians on April 19, 1993, has sent the new evidence to the House panel. FLIR is an acronym for forward-looking infrared.
"We are expecting further information, Conn Carroll, spokesman for the House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources told NewMax.com on Wednesday.
"Indeed they are, McNulty told us. His new material consists of a scientific finding that dust plays a significant role in determining whether a flash of light caught on a thermal-imaging videotape system from a plane circling the Branch Davidian compound at the time the facility burned down, was a "glint reflection of sunlight or muzzle flashes.
The new scientific evidence clearly shows that a large amount of dust, which was present when the government finally confronted the Branch Davidians, reduces or eliminates the effect of glint and amplifies muzzle flashes. This would tend to support the Branch Davidian claim that the FBI opened fire on its members.
McNulty says that when Danforth conducted tests purporting to show what "really happened, his own staffs cameras depicted "people watering down soil and rubble.
The Danforth report has also taken considerable heat for using the wrong kind of assault rifles in tests that were used to re-create the raid on the Davidians.
That test, conducted in March 2000, used a standard M-16 rifle with a 20-inch barrel. Just one thing wrong with that. The FBI does not use standard M-16 rifles, and during the violent confrontation that ended the 51-day siege, its agents were using a smaller version with just a 14-inch barrel.
The discrepancy was pointed out by Robert Stewart, a postal inspector, in an interview with the Associated Press.
After this discrepancy was pointed out, a bureau spokesman said that, oh yes, a shorter-barreled rifle was among the weapons tested by the Danforth inquiry.
That does not convince Branch Davidian lawyer Michael Caddell. He thinks, if anything, this "completely undermines the test results.
Interestingly, Danforth acknowledges he received "something less than total cooperation from the FBI. "I dont know what weapons were tested there myself, he admitted last June after the discrepancy came to light. Nonetheless, he says this was part of an agreement with the government lawyers and the Davidians and that the test was "pronounced fair.
However, Caddell says he was prevented, before and after the test, from inspecting the weapons that were used in it.
As of now, it appears that all we have is the word of an FBI spokesman, with all the appearances of an afterthought, and an anonymous FBI official who told the AP that the bureau had provided one of the shorter rifles to Danforths office.
If the test was genuine and reflected the conditions and the weapons used on April 19, 1993, it raises a question: Why, then, did the Danforth staff prevent the Branch Davidian lawyers from inspecting the weapons used in the test?
The politics of this scandal is where the plot thickens. Of course, any investigation would embarrass the Democrat administration of Bill Clinton. But its less cut and dried than that. And it leaves open the question of how much action the Justice Department is prepared to take on any congressional report that tends to discredit Danforths work.
Attorney General John Ashcroft and former Sen. Danforth go back at least to the 1960s, when they were young ambitious Republican politicians in what was then an overwhelmingly Democrat state.
That Missouri has more Republican presence today than it did then is due in no small measure to the efforts of this group: Ashcroft, who went on to become governor, U.S. senator and U.S. attorney general; Danforth, who was state attorney general and then a U.S. senator; Kit Bond, who went on to become state attorney general, governor and U.S. senator; and Clarence Thomas, whose career path made him assistant secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan, chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals, and finally U.S. Supreme Court justice.
While the loyalty and cohesiveness of this foursome is an admirable American success story, questions arise as to whether Attorney General Ashcroft can do anything to use his office to follow through on Waco findings that cast aspersions on his old friend. Even if he recuses himself in a future case, how many Justice Department lawyers would want to tackle it?
There is also a belief that Danforth, the least conservative of the four, might be considered for any Supreme Court vacancy that may occur, and that he could pass the Senate Democrats confirmation meat-grinder, should President Bush nominate him. This is a classic example of why no one in Washington likes to upset too many applecarts.
McNulty, the "F.L.I.R. Project film director, three weeks ago sent material on Waco to the Senate Judiciary Committee. As of this writing, that panels chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. had not returned our call for comment.
Recently, Leahys committee held confirmation hearings on Robert Mueller to be the new FBI director. The nomination slipped through the committee and the Senate faster than a greased pig.
That kind of bipartisan approval is usually accorded a government official who is adept at playing both sides of the political playing field, a skill that Mueller has perfected.
FBI Director Mueller promised during his hearings that he would clean up the agency, which has managed to get a black eye for Waco and other scandals.
If the Waco scandal is revived because of the above questions, the new FBI chief will be watched to see how many applecarts he is willing to upset.
Waco, FBI and the Branch Davidians: Updates
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