WACO -- People from all over the world have come here for the past seven years and made the 10-mile trip east to Mount Carmel, even though there wasn't much to see: slabs of concrete sticking out of the earth like toppled tombstones, the rusted carcass of a motorcycle owned by the late David Koresh.
Destroy it, and they will come.
That seems to be the mantra emanating from the 1993 tragedy in which 82 Branch Davidians and four agents of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms died during a 51-day siege that ignited a backlash against the federal government that still has not ebbed.
Wednesday is the seventh anniversary of the fire that destroyed the Mount Carmel compound. A service that day will honor the 76 Davidians, including Koresh, who died April 19, 1993. Names of the victims will be read, and a bell will be sounded.
Robert Darden, an assistant professor of English at Baylor University, has led numerous unofficial tours of Mount Carmel, largely because he and journalist Brad Bailey wrote a book about Koresh -- "Mad Man in Waco," the title based on a song written by Koresh about a onetime rival in the religious sect, George Roden.
Darden recently led a tour for a group visiting town for an academic freedom conference.
"For some, it's like people who slow down at a car crash," Darden said. "They just want to see where it happened. For most, it's an historic site. They get their picture taken on Koresh's motorcycle. They look on the ground for expended shells or broken glass.
"Others get real quiet and are careful where they step. The Bible talks about the ground crying out, and some people seem to actually feel that. They feel a real sense of depression because of the loss of life there."
Darden said he's never felt comfortable at Mount Carmel.
"I love going to cemeteries," Darden said. "They're very peaceful to me. I don't feel that at Mount Carmel. It's not a place of rest. I'm not a mystic, just an old East Texas boy. But I don't feel a sense of peace there."
Echoes of rumbling tanks and gunshots and screams are fading, though, helped by a new church visible through a field of 76 young crape myrtles -- planted to commemorate the Davidians who died on the final day of the siege -- that speaks more about hope than death and destruction.
"It's somewhat of a statement on the part of those who volunteered to build it," said Davidian Clive Doyle, who lost his daughter, Shari, in the Mount Carmel fire he survived. "It is somewhat of a statement on our part, too, that we're still around. We are still an entity. It is not just an abandoned piece of property." Steve Argo of Austin last week began painting the inside of the church, which won't be finished by its dedication Wednesday. Argo volunteered his services after hearing about the church-raising from Alex Jones, the Austin radio host who has spearheaded the project since last fall.
Argo looked shocked when asked why he had come.
"What is it Wilford Brimley says? `Because it was the right thing to do,' " Argo said. "Maybe I'm weird. There are so many people willing to donate their time and money to build the church that I don't believe we're all eccentric. There was an injustice done here. This is our way of undoing some of that." His first night camping out at Mount Carmel was eerie, Argo said.
"I was sleeping in a tent by the pond," he said. "The coyotes were doing their coyote thing. I was listening to them, looking out over the pond when, I swear, the coyotes sounded like children crying. That got to me." Argo and an Oklahoma City man, who would identify himself only as Glen, were the only people at Mount Carmel on a wet and windy April morning. Two more men later joined them. All of them, thrown together, affably worked out details of a supply run to Lowe's, where an account has been set up to buy materials and supplies for the church.
Glen said he was going to stay for a week before returning home.
"I don't really know anything about these people, but what the government did to them was wrong," he said. "There was a better way to bring them out. The government initiated all this." Ironically, seven years after the showdown with federal agents and deadly fire, Mount Carmel is still under siege. Not far from the entrance on EE Ranch Road, plywood panels form a triangular wailing wall -- where Amo Roden, once married to the late George Roden, plasters writings lamenting what she sees as the public sympathy for the Davidians who survived Mount Carmel. "A true prophet is a holy man of God," one handbill states. "A false prophet is a lie, the first of many lies. Will you allow lies to keep you from hearing the 90 percent of Branch Davidians who refused Koresh?"
The two sides coexist, despite their differences, with most of the fighting saved for the courtroom. Visitors to Mount Carmel, however, are greeted by a large sign warning those who want to donate to the rebuilding effort to hand their money to someone besides Amo Roden.
The number of visitors varies, but Doyle said as many as 100 people will turn up some days.
"We have whole busloads of people come out at times," he said.
You can bet that most of them are not from Waco.
"Just about every memorial, I ask how many people are there from Waco," Doyle said. "You can count them on one hand."
Doyle said many Waco residents don't appreciate how the town became synonymous with the Davidians to the outside world.
"People say we embarrassed Waco," Doyle said. "But if you want to turn a negative into a positive, we put Waco on the map. There are people still coming out to see where it all happened. That means tourism. That means money for restaurants. That means people are buying gas here, staying in hotels. There is money rushing into this city simply because of what we have done here."
Attorney General Janet Reno insisted last week during her deposition in the Waco case that she would not second-guess the decisions of the FBI commanders on the scene.
"I was not there in a tank," she said, during the combative two-hour deposition.
The Justice Department released a transcript of Reno's deposition Wednesday as it filed a motion in federal court in Waco, Texas, asking the judge to throw out the wrongful death suit filed by survivors of the Branch Davidians.
About 80 sect members died after a fire engulfed the Branch Davidians' complex on April 19, 1993.
Reno testified that she did not think that the FBI tanks knocking into the complex were demolishing it. Instead, she said, the tanks began knocking into the complex five hours into the assault to inject tear gas and to provide routes for the Branch Davidians to escape.
The attorney general acknowledged that the FBI's plan for April 19 provided for the gradual increase in pressure on the Branch Davidians and did not call for demolishing the complex until 48 hours into the assault. She also acknowledged that she had told Congress to expect gradual pressure on the Branch Davidians.
But she said FBI commanders on the scene would have had the authority to speed up that demolition in light of the circumstances.
"These agents were fired on and they did not return fire," she said. "The people had thrown the (negotiating) phone out the window, the wind was high, the gas was not proving to be effective ... they could have been authorized to proceed. But I stress to you, I don't think that that's what happened." Michael Caddell, the Branch Davidians' main lawyer, reacted in disbelief to Reno's answers. At one point he asked the attorney general if she had "used the English language all your life." At another point he asked her what the "buck stops here" meant. And at another, he pointed out to Reno that the deposition was videotaped and would be broadcast to the public.
Reno told him it was "fine" for him to use the deposition as he wished. In general, she responded to his long questions in a minimalist fashion, giving little ground.
Reno's deposition backed up the testimony given by the two main FBI commanders at Waco - Jeff Jamar and Richard Rogers - who have testified that the tanks knocked into the complex 40 minutes before the fire started so that they could insert tear gas into an area where many of the Branch Davidians had escaped the gas.
"... as the plan was laid out, the people on the scene had to make the determinations," she said. "... What they were trying to do was to use the vehicles to get in to deliver the gas so that it could be effective and ensure egress ... the people who were on the scene understood better what was happening ... one of the factors is that the gas was obviously proving to be ineffective.
"They had barricaded doors ... one of the vehicles had become incapacitated, and there may have been reasons (for deciding to commence demolition). And, if so, it would have I think been within their authority because the 48-hour provision was a directive that it should be done by then. I don't think it was precluded from an earlier time."
The attorney general testified that the main limitations on the government assault on April 19 related to "protection of the children" and an order that the on-scene commanders not use pyrotechnic devices to insert tear gas.
But Reno stressed that the limitation on the pyrotechnic devices barred their use against the wooden complex. The government maintains that the two pyrotechnic devices fired April 19 were fired away from the building.
The Branch Davidians have sought to add FBI commanders Jamar and Rogers as defendants in the case. They maintain that Rogers and Jamar became impatient and abandoned Reno's plan for the assault by prematurely demolishing the complex. The Branch Davidians also maintain that the government was negligent in not providing armored fire vehicles to fight the fire.
WASHINGTON (AP) - The Justice Department wants the judge presiding over the Branch Davidians' wrongful-death lawsuit to throw out most of the plaintiffs' claims, including one that the government bears responsibility for the fire that incinerated the sect's retreat.
``Admissible evidence amply supports a finding that the Davidians themselves - at least some of them - started the fire intentionally,'' government lawyers said in a motion to be filed in federal court in Waco, Texas. The plaintiffs' own fire expert ``cannot determine who started the fire,'' according to the filing.
The government is asking U.S. District Judge Walter Smith to throw out three major aspects of the civil lawsuit - that federal agents erred in not bringing in armored firefighting equipment; that they wrongly held back firefighters as the compound burned; and that the use of tanks to push into the compound deviated from the operations plan approved by Attorney General Janet Reno.
If the government prevails, the plaintiffs would have only two areas left to pursue at trial: whether federal agents used excessive force during the Feb. 28, 1993, gun battle that prompted the seven-week standoff and by firing into the Mount Carmel compound on the siege's final, deadly day. Federal officials have long insisted that no shots were fired by its agents on April 19, 1993.
The plaintiffs' lead counsel, Michael Caddell, said the Justice Department is overreaching in its interpretation that all of the decision-making that occurred during the siege falls within the commanders' discretionary authority.
More than 80 Davidians died during the fire that swept through their wooden building several hours into an FBI tear-gassing operation designed to end the standoff. Most died of smoke inhalation or burns, some from gunshot wounds.
Federal officials have long insisted the Davidians died by their own hand.
The trial on the lawsuit is to begin June 19.
Armed with new testimony from Attorney General Janet Reno defending the FBI's actions at the end of the Branch Davidian siege, Justice Department lawyers again asked a federal judge Wednesday to dismiss most of the sect's lawsuit against the government.
The Justice Department also released a full transcript of Ms. Reno's March 28 deposition for the Branch Davidians' wrongful-death lawsuit Wednesday as its lawyers filed the latest dismissal motion in U.S. District Court in Waco.
The transcript detailed an often intense two hours of questioning in which Ms. Reno sparred with the sect's lawyers and insisted that the FBI's Waco commanders acted properly in ordering tanks to drive deep into the sect's building on April 19, 1993.
Lawyers for the sect have alleged that order touched off a disaster, prompting a gunbattle between government agents and the sect and possibly sparking some of the fires that consumed the compound. More than 80 Branch Davidians died.
Government lawyers and officials contend that none of their agents fired a shot that day and argue that sect members set fire to their own building.
In Wednesday's motion, they again argued that strict federal limits on lawsuits against the government and its employees should force dismissal of allegations that authorities: Helped cause the final tragedy by ordering tanks to demolish the sect's building; Escalated the massive loss of life by failing to develop a plan to fight a fire or obtain armored, remote-controlled firefighting equipment that one company offered to loan the FBI for use in Waco; Caused or contributed to the fire that ended the tragedy.
Ms. Reno's deposition provided the backbone of the motion seeking the dismissal of those central issues in the lawsuit as well as a denial of the sect's bid to include the FBI's Waco commanders as individual defendants.
The two now-retired FBI agents, Jeffrey Jamar and Richard Rogers, were dismissed from the lawsuit last year. But sect lawyers have argued that they should be reinstated because their decisions and actions on April 19 violated the tear gas plan that Ms. Reno and senior FBI officials in Washington had approved for trying to end the 51-day siege.
Citing the attorney general's statements as well as testimony of senior FBI officials, government lawyers told U.S. District Judge Walter Smith that the plan approved in Washington allowed the FBI commanders broad discretion in how to try to force the sect out on April 19.
"There was a recognition that the people who were on the scene could see what was happening where we could not see what was happening in Washington, that they should be in operational control," Ms. Reno testified. "Any time you effect an arrest. . . . and try to ensure the safety of everyone, there are going to be variables, and the on-scene commanders would be responsible for dealing with those variables as they developed." Under federal law, the government's motion argued, officials given such discretion cannot be challenged or held liable in civil litigation "even where such discretion has been abused."
The motion added that even "negligent or wrongful acts" are protected, as well as any failure to consider alternatives - even those that lawyers for the sect have argued might have saved lives.
"Thus, even if the on-scene commanders were negligent or abused their discretion by deciding not to have armored firetrucks - or any other specific equipment - available, those decisions would fall within the exception," the government's motion argued.
The motion contended that the same legal protections would extend to the FBI commanders' decisions about how to use tanks on April 19, including their orders sending tanks deep into the sect's building.
Like the FBI's commanders sent to Waco to resolve the deadly 1993 standoff, Ms. Reno maintained in her deposition that FBI tanks went into the building at midmorning on April 19 not to begin dismantling it but to open escape routes for sect members and for more effective gas insertion.
Mike Caddell of Houston, lead lawyer in the Branch Davidians' lawsuit, pressed Ms. Reno on that issue, citing lengthy proposals by Mr. Rogers and Mr. Jamar for plaques, medals and cash awards for the hostage rescue team's work in Waco. FBI documents show those proposals described the tanks' actions as a demolition mission.
He noted that former FBI Director William Sessions testified earlier this year that any such demolition effort "wouldn't be compatible with the plan" approved in Washington. He also reminded Ms. Reno that another senior FBI official, Larry Potts, testified that the Waco commanders "would have been required" to ask permission from FBI headquarters for taking such action "for other than . . . [urgent] circumstances."
>But Ms. Reno said, "Based on what I know to date, this was not an effort to tear down the building. If it had been, there may have been situations at the scene that suggested that it should be done and it could be done consistent with the plan."
>"I can tell you that the plan said an effort should be made to open/demolish the building at the end of 48 hours. But there is no prohibition against doing it earlier," she said.
She conceded that she "would have liked for them to have communicated it if they had made such a decision." And she acknowledged that she was not aware of any circumstance that would have prevented Mr. Rogers and Mr. Jamar from consulting with Washington before sending tanks in.
Before using tanks on such a mission, Ms. Reno said the commanders' discretion at one point extended to including pyrotechnic tear-gas grenades in their arsenal on April 19, and even to ordering their use - as long as they were not fired directly into the compound.
"It will depend upon where they use them," Ms. Reno testified, adding that she was not told when she was asked to approve the gas operation that such pyrotechnic rounds would be part of the FBI's arsenal.
"They did not have implied authority to use pyrotechnic devices to insert gas into the compound," she said.
She and other government officials had previously said that such devices were banned that day because of fears that they might spark a fire. The revelation that at least two such devices were used by the FBI after more than six years of flat government denials prompted Ms. Reno to bring in former Missouri Sen. John C. Danforth last September to head an independent counsel's inquiry into government actions during the Waco siege.
Ms. Reno's deposition grew particularly contentious when Mr. Caddell asked Ms. Reno whether sending tanks into the building contradicted the FBI's announcements to the sect that their operation was not an assault and they were not entering the Branch Davidians' home.
After the attorney general hedged, saying she was having difficulty responding to his "hypotheticals," Mr. Caddell retorted, "You grew up in America, correct? You have used the English language all your life?" Mr. Caddell said Wednesday that he will file a motion next week outlining testimony from FBI officials that he contends will support his claims that sending tanks into the building violated the approved gas plan.
Wednesday's government motion contends that those FBI officials' statements mirror Ms. Reno's testimony.
If the judge accepts the government's arguments, the sect will be allowed to go to trial in mid-June only on the issue of whether government agents used excessive force when they engaged in a gunbattle with the sect as the standoff began and whether they shot again on April 19.
"There is a clear conflict with their testimony," Mr. Caddell said. "Are these four ex-FBI directors and assistant directors telling the truth or is Janet Reno, who's still trying to cover up and still trying to put a bigger spin on the biggest disaster of her tenure? Is Janet Reno being honest and truthful and straightforward? No. She's being evasive."
WASHINGTON - Attorney General Janet Reno acknowledged in a videotaped deposition last week that FBI agents operating near Waco, Texas, lacked authority to use potentially flammable tear-gas devices or to demolish the Branch Davidian compound that went up in flames in April 1993, leaving about 80 people dead.
Reno recently said the deaths at Waco remained the most tragic and painful event in her lengthy tenure. Now, in her first sworn civil testimony as attorney general, Reno has indicated that the armored vehicles equipped with battering rams at Waco were attempting to puncture holes in the Davidian compound, rather than trying to destroy it. But she also made clear she was not consulted on independent actions taken by FBI agents that eventually led to the destruction of the compound's gymnasium and other portions of the building.
"I would like them to have communicated it if they had in fact made such a decision," Reno said in the deposition. "I would have preferred that they discuss it with us, but the fact is, they didn't, and the fact that I have concluded is that they didn't - from everything that I have learned, they did not intend to demolish the compound at that point." Reno also acknowledged that no emergency conditions existed that would have permitted demolition of the building or the use of flammable devices at the discretion of FBI agents without her approval or that of senior FBI officials in Washington.
The 107-page deposition was filed along with a motion from the Justice Department to dismiss claims made by plaintiffs in a wrongful-death lawsuit in Texas stemming from the Waco deaths, which have hampered Reno since her first months in office.
"I had higher expectations of the attorney general of the United States," plaintiffs attorney Michael Caddell said. "I expected her to be more candid and was disappointed at her unwillingness to answer a simple question in a direct manner. I found her to be evasive."
Justice Department officials said last night that Reno answered the questions directly and clearly.
"We believe the transcript demonstrates that the attorney general was honest and forthright and that her statements were consistent with her prior testimony," said Justice Department spokesman Myron Marlin.
Reno said in her deposition that FBI agents in charge at the Davidian site, including Jeff Jamar and Richard Rogers, were given some discretion to make independent decisions because they were faced with constantly changing conditions that could not accurately be assessed from Washington.
"When you undertake something like this," Reno said, "with the danger involved and the number of people and the number of children, it's very complex. There could be circumstances where the demolition of the building is necessary to protect human life. . . . And they have got to make instantaneous judgments there on the scene that I cannot advise of. Those are the circumstances that we have got to look at."
WASHINGTON--Under fierce questioning, Atty. Gen. Janet Reno told attorneys for the Branch Davidians last week that she would not second-guess the FBI's handling of the 1993 siege of the cultists' compound near Waco, Texas, because "I was not there in a tank," according to a transcript released Wednesday.
"They have got to make instantaneous judgments there on the scene that I cannot advise of," Reno said during a two-hour sworn deposition March 29 at her Justice Department office. It was the only deposition she has given in the case.
The Davidians and their families have filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the government, alleging that federal agents effectively created a "deathtrap" at leader David Koresh's Mount Carmel compound. The 51-day standoff ended April 19, 1993, in a fiery blaze that took the lives of about 80 people.
Trial is scheduled to begin May 15 in U.S. District Court in Texas.
The attorneys for the Davidians, seeking to show that agents at the scene acted in reckless disregard of orders from Washington, had planned to release a transcript of Reno's deposition later this month. But the Justice Department beat them to it Wednesday, filing the transcript in Texas in an effort to buttress their motion to throw out part of the Davidians' case.
At her videotaped deposition, Reno was defiant and sometimes emotional in testifying about the tragedy. Controversy over her handling of the episode has dogged her for much of her seven years in office.
The transcript shows her bristling at the suggestion that authorities were anything less than patient in dealing with the cultists. The group killed four agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms who were trying to execute a search warrant at the compound in a shootout that led to the siege. Koresh and his followers also had stockpiled weapons and thrown a phone out the window to signal an end to negotiations.
Reno said repeatedly that FBI agents at the scene on the last day of the siege had broad "discretion" in carrying out a plan she had approved for raiding the compound and using tear gas to roust the Davidians.
She said that Koresh's unpredictability, unconfirmed reports of child abuse inside the compound and other factors all drove her to approve the tanks' insertion of tear gas in the compound that morning.
"This was the best time in which we would have the best opportunity to control [the situation] and to try to protect lives," she said.
But fire erupted about six hours after the tear gas operation began. About 80 people, including 19 children, died inside.
Federal authorities, backed by forensic reports, have steadfastly insisted that the Davidians set the fire themselves in a mass suicide.
But that account was called into question last year when federal authorities were forced to acknowledge--after years of denials--that FBI agents had fired several pyrotechnic devices at a concrete bunker near the main compound. The disclosure forced Reno to appoint an outside counsel, former Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), to conduct a still-ongoing investigation.
Reno testified that she did not know at the time that pyrotechnics were used at the scene, nor did she authorize their use in advance. The agents "did not have an implied authority to use pyrotechnic devices to insert gas in the compound," she said.
She also repeatedly disputed the contention by Davidian attorneys that on-the-scene agents ordered the tanks to "demolish" the compound. The tanks were only seeking to penetrate compound walls to insert tear gas, she said.
Michael Caddell, an attorney for the plaintiffs, charged that the government's release of Reno's transcript violated a court order to keep it confidential for 30 days. He threatened to seek sanctions against the Justice Department and release confidential depositions bolstering his own case.
Justice Department officials said that the court's order allowed them to review the deposition for any privileged information and release it on their own.
Waco, FBI and the Branch Davidians: Updates
CESNUR reproduces or quotes documents from the media and different sources on a number of religious issues. Unless otherwise indicated, the opinions expressed are those of the document's author(s), not of CESNUR or its directors
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