Controversy still surrounds tragedy

Branch Davidians who left their Mount Carmel compound before it burned have returned to Australia, New Zealand, Canada and faraway corners of America.

A girl who testified before Congress about sexual abuse at the hands of sect leader David Koresh is now a college student acting out dramas on a stage in Michigan.

A woman who once handed out ammunition and weapons to Branch Davidian sentries during the government siege of the compound now waits tables in Florida.

And six followers of Koresh, three of whom stayed with him through the 51-day siege, now serve federal prison sentences in Louisiana, Kentucky, Illinois and California. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons projects that each of the Branch Davidians, convicted on weapons and manslaughter charges, will be eligible for release in 2006 or 2007.

Although surviving players in the Branch Davidian saga have spread beyond Central Texas, Waco continues to bear the legacy of what happened at Mount Carmel a decade ago.

The court cases, the films, the investigations have answered some questions about what erupted about 10 miles east of Waco on Feb. 28, 1993. Other lessons reveal themselves more slowly.

For federal prisoner Jaime Castillo, now 34, arrested at the end of the siege, the years haven't destroyed his faith. In a letter to the Tribune-Herald, he says he remains "committed to the Branch Davidians who continue to believe on the Bible as taught by David Koresh."

He also continues to view the incident as one involving great injustices -- an opinion shared by many.

"I do consider my friends to be martyrs," Castillo says. "I'm not sure they would have wanted to be considered as martyrs, but given that they did die for their beliefs, willingly or unwillingly, they definitely stood their ground against the injustices perpetuated against us."

For others viewing the events of 1993 from the sober perspective of history, the Branch Davidian saga was fraught with missteps on both sides. Koresh was later attacked as -- to quote the father of one underage House of David girl -- a "gun-toting, Bible-thumping pedophile." And by most accounts, federal officers only incited anti-government sentiments by failing to properly conduct the siege.

Compounding the tragedy, the Branch Davidian affair quickly became swept up in infighting on Capitol Hill.

"Unfortunately, the topic was held hostage by politics," says Stuart Wright, a Lamar University sociology professor who testified before Congress in 1995 on the siege. "The (National Rifle Association) got involved in it, allied with the Republicans, in congressional subcommittee hearings. And on the other side, the Democrats were defensive because the Republicans were going after (President) Clinton."

Wright's conclusion: "I'm not sure the evidence was ever looked at in an objective light."

What happened

The events at Mount Carmel a decade ago are easily summed up.

Agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms went to the Branch Davidian compound on Feb. 28, 1993, with an arrest warrant for Koresh and a search warrant for illegal weapons.

In the shootout that followed, four agents and five Branch Davidians died. Thus began a standoff that lasted 51 days, coming to a fiery conclusion in which 76 people perished.

For many years, the Branch Davidians had been viewed in McLennan County as a quirky, sometimes unstable, communal sect based on a stretch of prairie that followers called Mount Carmel.

But those at Mount Carmel became transfixed by David Koresh, 33, the mesmerizing, Houston-born doomsday prophet who claimed to be the next Christ.

In the year leading up to the siege, disenchanted former followers of Koresh raised louder and louder alarms about the child abuse and stockpiling of illegal weapons they said they witnessed at Mount Carmel.

Koresh garnered most of the criticism, partially because he claimed divine right to have sex with all women at the compound -- a privilege he sometimes extended to underage girls.

The most sympathetic figures in the Branch Davidian saga were the children. Twenty-one died during the April 1993 fire; according to DNA testing, Koresh was the father of 13 of them.

Others made it out before the ATF raid, or during the standoff.

Kiri Jewell, now 22, who caught the nation's attention with her 1995 testimony of Koresh's sexual abuse, is finishing her degree in political science and economics at a state university in Michigan. She recently acted in a civic theater production.

Scott Mabb, 11 when he left Mount Carmel, is now in the Air Force, following in the footsteps of his father.

And Landon Wendel, now 15, is working to become an Eagle Scout in Spokane, Wash.

The site today

Today, little more than debris remains of the compound on the 77-acre Mount Carmel property near the community of Elk. Sometimes a few Branch Davidians meet for the Saturday Bible studies held inside a chapel that the group built a few years ago with $93,000 raised by Austin radio host Alex Jones.

Branch Davidian Clive Doyle, 62, who lives nearby, leads the group in its afternoon Bible discussion, which typically lasts two to three hours. He uses a King James Bible.

About 100 Branch Davidians remain in the world, Doyle says. But he claims no interest in gathering them to live communally again. Besides, he says, he lacks the vigor, stamina and commanding presence to hold such a group together.

That Koresh could do so while he lived, Doyle says, is a testament to the man's inner strengths.

"As far as saying, 'Give up your houses and apartments and live out here with what little we have,' there's no guarantee they're going to do that," Doyle says of today's followers. "You've got to have some kind of force who takes control and also takes the flak when things don't work out. I'm just not leadership material."

Questioning officials

Although federal officials might have won the battle of Mount Carmel, few escaped searing scrutiny over the operation. Much criticism was leveled at the ATF, an embattled agency in danger of extinction even before its leaders bungled through one of the worst days in law enforcement history.

Poor intelligence, flawed plans, suspect execution, errors in judgment, misleading statements, lies and cover-ups bedeviled the agency and toppled some of its leadership. But blame went beyond the ATF, tarnishing everyone from local officers to the FBI, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and President Clinton.

In the years just after the fire, Waco became a rallying cry for those distrustful of the government. Dozens of books and videos followed, as well as Web sites that closely followed Branch Davidian court cases and government investigations.

Many of them proffered definite points of view.

"It became a cottage industry," recalls Mike McNulty, who made two full-length documentaries and one short film critical of the government's actions at Mount Carmel. "Although they may not be able to articulate it, people know something is wrong. They know it when they see FBI officials driving heavily armored vehicles into a building, tanks in a building full of women and children."

McNulty's first film, "Waco: The Rules of Engagement," was nominated for an Oscar, won an Emmy and had two runs on HBO. Such acclaim, he says, is proof that the film's message went beyond the margins and reached into the mainstream.

And more Americans have become "appropriately distrusting of their government" since 1993, McNulty says.

"People that I've talked to that have seen the films come from a great cross-section," says McNulty, who lives in Colorado and is working on a lawsuit that ties Iraq to the Oklahoma City bomb- ings. "There are always those that are ultra-conservative, right-wing crazies. But I think they're way outnumbered, 100 to one, by just plain folks who saw it and found it to be disturbing."

Historian H.W. Brands, a Texas A&M-based writer and researcher, says the Mount Carmel events increased suspicion only among people who were already skeptical of the government.

"The so-called militia movements that developed in the '90s could point to Waco as evidence that government has this grand desire to crush the freedoms of the American people," he says. "Frankly, though, that idea never really caught on with the American people at large."

One reason the events had limited traction, Brands says, is that Americans were busy in the 1990s watching the technology boom and the growth of the stock market. He also says the Branch Davidians weren't sympathetic characters to most Americans, in large part because of the stories of abuse inside the compound.

Meanwhile, the siege generated little in the way of sizeable, bona fide political movements.

"When historians are writing history books 60 years from now, 100 years from now, I'd be quite surprised if any of them mention Waco and the Branch Davidians," Brands says. "It was an event that made news at the time, but it didn't make any lasting connection in American life."

Leaving a mark

While other major events soon moved into the headlines, the Branch Davidians' legacy proved lasting for Waco. Local residents who knew little, if anything, about the sect before February 1993 found themselves defending the city from the stigma the incident created.

"Everybody got a black eye," recalls Paul Stripling, executive director of the Waco Baptist Association. "Some thought we were part of the Branch Davidians or the Seventh-day Adventists. They put us all in one salad."

Stripling still cannot preach out of state without hearing mention of the Branch Davidians. In a London train station last year, a man got up and changed benches because he heard Stripling say he was from Waco.

A popular complaint voiced in the growing city of 113,000 is that Waco hasn't garnered nearly the same fame for President Bush's Crawford ranch, which sits about 25 miles from the city.

Ten years after the Mount Carmel siege, some Waco residents remain hopeful that time will finally weaken the public's connection between the city and the Branch Davidians.

"For a five-year period, anytime I talked with anybody who knew I was from Waco, the Branch Davidian connection was made," says businessman Curtis Cleveland, an industry recruiter for the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce at the time of the siege. "But recently, I was in Pasadena, California, and we brought up the subject, and we had to remind the people there who David Koresh was.

"It was comforting to see that the memory is going away."