Davidians, friends gather in Waco to praise Koresh

WACO, Texas Ten years to the day after 82 Branch Davidians perished in an inferno that ended their 51-day standoff with federal authorities, family and friends gathered yesterday to praise the late leader David Koresh as a messiah not unlike Jesus Christ.

Like Jesus, said Phillip Arnold, who sought to communicate with the cult leader during the 1993 siege, Koresh came into conflict with traditional theology and was handed over to authorities, who ultimately killed him.

"The FBI delivered delivered the apocalypse of the Book of Revelations to the Davidians," said Mr. Arnold, founder of the Reunion Institute in Houston. "Ten years ago, not very far from the spot we're on, a group of people, to the best of their ability and according to their faith, lived out the drama of Scripture."

Kenneth Newport, a writer from England who knew several Branch Davidians and is working on a book, noted that the memorial fell on the day between Good Friday and Easter.

"It's a day we remember Christ is dead. The joy, the glory, of Easter Sunday is not yet here. Christ is in the tomb. ... But after the darkness that happened here 10 years ago, God will bring light," he said.

About 100 people from as far away as New York and California including dozens of curiosity-seekers and a few conspiracy theorists gathered yesterday at the remote, 77-acre site known as Mount Carmel on Double EE Ranch Road just outside Waco for speeches and the reading of the victims' names.

The day was filled with talk about Armageddon, the apocalypse, prophecies and the devil. Anti-government sentiment abounded, and several spoke of the federal assault on Ruby Ridge and as one man put it the "horrible federal crime of income taxes."

Among those attending were Clive Doyle, an Australian-born Branch Davidian who considers himself the group's spokesman, and Koresh's mother, Bonnie Haldeman, who was 15 years old and single when she gave birth in Houston to a boy she named Vernon Wayne Howell.

"It's a day of sadness, but it's not hard because I know the truth," said Mrs. Haldeman, surrounded by photographers. "It wasn't David who caused any problems; the problems came to David."

Mr. Doyle, who was inside the Davidian compound for the entire standoff and was burned escaping the fire, said 11 Davidians now in jail will be released in 2006. He spent a year in jail on gun charges before his acquittal.

Of yesterday's three-hour memorial, he said: "This is kind of a family reunion."

Little remains of the complex that stood April 19, 1993. Small piles of concrete rubble with metal reinforcing bars sticking out dot the rolling, overgrown landscape. A new chapel, devoted to the Students of the Seven Seals, as Branch Davidians now call themselves, was built on the site in 2000 for the 100 or so devotees left. A flagless flagpole, with a sticker of an upside-down U.S. flag a signal of distress stands along the walkway to the chapel.

The standoff began Feb. 28, 1993, when nearly 100 Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents sought to serve Koresh with a warrant. A gunfight erupted, killing four agents and six Branch Davidians, who believed Koresh was the messiah.

For the next 51 days, Koresh held off federal agents, who lit up the complex at night with floodlights and blasted tapes of chanting Tibetan monks over loudspeakers. Koresh claimed he would lead his followers out when he completed his interpretation of the Seven Seals referred to in the Bible's Book of Revelation.

President Clinton's attorney general, Janet Reno, gave federal agents the go-ahead to assault the complex on April 19. The resulting blaze killed 82 persons, including 21 children, 15 of them under age 5. More than a dozen of the dead children were fathered by Koresh. Some of them had underage mothers.

Two years later to the day, Timothy McVeigh, who had watched some of the standoff from hills near Mount Carmel and was infuriated by the government's actions, retaliated by bombing a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168.

While special counsel John C. Danforth in July 2001 cleared the federal government of any wrongdoing at Mount Carmel, saying Koresh and his followers were responsible for the fire, the FBI acknowledged that federal agents fired one or more incendiary tear-gas rounds at the complex an admission made only after a filmmaker found potentially incendiary devices among evidence.

Yesterday, a Branch Davidian supporter held up the shell of a 40 mm "White Star Parachute" flare found recently while volunteers planted 82 crepe myrtles on the site to commemorate the dead. "This is a torch," he said, noting that all other evidence was bulldozed by federal authorities after the standoff ended.

Ramsey Clark, former attorney general for President Lyndon Johnson, delivered an anti-government screed. Mr. Clark has served as the lawyer for several Davidians in a suit now under consideration by the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in Houston, with a verdict expected by the end of summer.

"Our government attacked defenseless children, women and men as old as I am 75 and celebrated it," he said. "Where are their souls that permit them to lie about it to this day?"

The former attorney general compared the events at Mount Carmel to the U.S.-led war in Iraq. "You can't miss the similarities," he said, noting that soldiers from Fort Hood participated in both campaigns, which also employed Abrams tanks and Bradley armored personnel carriers.

"Someday I'd like to hear President Bush explain how he reconciles what he has done in Iraq and in Afghanistan with what is to me the heart of Christianity, the Sermon on the Mount," the longest biblical discourse attributed to Jesus in which He counsels followers to "turn the other cheek" and "love your enemy."

"What happened here is, without compare, the most tragic failure of U.S. law enforcement in the history of the United States," Mr. Clark said to applause. "If their purpose was to protect us, why did they kill us? ... The world should never forget what happened here."