San Antonio, David Karesh and the Branch Davidians
I was in San Antonio, Texas, 29 years ago this March, as the Branch Dravidian standoff was entering its third week less than 10 miles east of Waco, and roughly three hours north of San Antonio.
Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF or BATF) had attempted to serve a search warrant on the Branch Davidians’ compound and its leader David Koresh. There remains debate to this day regarding who fired the first shots but shots were indeed fired, a highly heated battle ensued and, in the end, four ATF agents died along with six of the Branch Davidians.
The ATF agents eventually retreated, believed to do so because they were running out of ammunition, and a standoff began with the FBI taking over operations. The standoff would last for more than seven weeks.
I was in San Antonio was attending a conference at the historic Hotel Menger, just a stone’s throw away, directly across the street, from the Alamo. Teddy Roosevelt recruited members for his Rough Riders in the hotel bar.
It was in that bar a group of us gathered one evening, as often happens at these events, two from St. Louis, a couple others from Kansas City and probably one or two others I no longer remember. I do remember Mick drinking straight scotch with a milk chaser because “it helps my ulcer.” Your results may vary.
As the evening wore on and the drinks accumulated the talk eventually circled around to the standoff in Waco.
At this point in time news reports made it sound like law enforcement had little clue what to do to bring the standoff to an end. They had even begun using sleep deprivation tactics with all-night broadcasts of jet plane recordings, loud music, chanting and the scream of rabbits being killed. Having experienced my Bailey-dog catching a rabbit late one night in our backyard, I can attest that high pitched scream is something you will always remember.
One thing led to another and soon our mighty band had devised a plan and decided we should get in our cars and go help them out. Of course, discretion being the better part of valor, we never actually followed through with that plan. Most of us like to avoid jail time whenever possible.
We did not know that night that what was already a tragic situation would turn much worse.
On April 19, 1993, the FBI moved to end the siege. An assault began with tear gassing of the complex, grew into three fires at different locations, and ended with the deaths of 76 Branch Davidians including 25 children.
As with who fired the first shots at the stand off’s beginning, it was never really determined how those fires started, whether it was from the FBI tear gas, the Branch Davidians set them themselves, or something else entirely.
I offer these details only to provide a little background as to why, this past fall, I chose to visit the area where it happened, and as an overview for those too young to remember any of this.
I did not embark on my more recent Texas trip with the intention of going to the Branch Davidian site, but when I saw my route would bring me into that general vicinity, my memories of San Antonio and the Waco tragedy drew me in.
In a Biblical reference, the Branch Davidians called the site Mount Carmel. It’s relatively easy to find, down some back highways outside Waco. If you’re inclined to visit yourself just set your GPS for the address, 1781 Double EE Ranch Rd.
A large double-wide ornamental gate greets you just off the road as you first arrive. I had read you can visit but really wasn’t sure because one gate was open and the other closed. Beyond the gates were just a couple of houses, a mobile home and a church maybe a half mile away. Two small children were riding bikes on the dirt road leading to the church.
A bit apprehensively I slowly drove through the gates and back toward the church. I was a bit concerned I might be trespassing but just as much, I didn’t want to be intruding or in some way disrespectful.
Near the church entrance are two memorial stones, one for the Branch Davidians who died and the other for the BATF agents who lost their lives. As I stepped out of my car to take a couple photos of the stones and the church, a man in a motorized wheelchair came out from behind the building.
I prepared myself to hear him tell me to get off the property but instead he told me the church was open, there was information about the Branch Davidians and what happened in 1993 inside, and I was welcome to go in. (From what I can tell now, the church is open from 10 a.m. - 6 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, as long as those one of those gates off the main road is open.)
The church building is not all that different in size from what you will find in any small community across my home state of Iowa. There are only a couple dozen chairs for parishioners but there is considerable room to add three or four times as many.
The front of the church is not dissimilar from what you see in many churches. Two screens and a projector are on the front stage, along with drums and microphones for a praise band. Very large, over-sized replicas of the 10 Commandments tablets are mounted on either side.
The back half of the church is, however, different. The walls are covered with posters, enlarged photos and other information, most related to the history of what had happened there. Part memorial to those who died, part history lesson and part political statement.
I was greeted by a tall African-American gentleman wearing bib overalls. He identified himself as a member of what is still the Branch Davidian church and said the minister had just left. I assume that was the man in the wheelchair who spoke to me outside.
No fee is required but they do ask for a $5 donation per car, which seems more than fair. They provide you with a front to back, black and white, printed out sheet with information.
In a “small world” kind of coincidence, the man I spoke to inside previously lived in Des Moines and, before that, was briefly a chiropractic student at Palmer College of Chiropractic in Davenport, where I live. I asked his name but, of course, failed to write it down and with my terrible ability to remember names I no longer recall it.
To say he was a font of information would be a gross understatement. Besides myself, there was only one woman visiting at the time and we stood there listening to him for at least 20 minutes as he explained the origins of the Branch Davidians, their ties to Biblical scripture, David Koresh’s rise to power and what happened during the standoff.
His grasp of the minutest of details and ability to quote scripture word for word were incredible. I lost track multiple times, mainly because I just couldn’t keep up.
I have no doubt he would have continued detailing the history for another hour or more. Had I been prepared for that I may well have sat down and spent the time to listen to him. As it was, it was late in the day and I had yet to find my hotel.
A few side notes:
There is an especially interesting story about George Roden, the son of Benjamin and Lois Roden who led the church just prior to this time. George was apparently mentally unstable. So much so his mother, following the death of her husband Benjamin, began grooming David Koresh as their successor rather than her own son. George and Koresh became bitter rivals, fighting over who would lead the church. At one point George even dug up the body of a deceased member and challenged Koresh to see who could bring her back to life and thereby claim the church leadership. This eventually led to a shootout between George and Koresh when Koresh led a small group in a night visit to the church to take photos of the casket. He was hoping to share the photos with authorities to get George thrown in jail and thereby allowing Koresh to take over the church. During the gun fight, George was reportedly standing behind a small tree, too small to completely defend him and was wounded by the gunfire.
As for the standoff with the ATF and FBI, it’s stating the obvious to say it’s all extremely complex. From what I gathered from the gentleman at the church, the current Branch Davidians strongly defend those who were a part of the church at the time but have little to say in favor of David Koresh. They believe the church members were led astray by him, brainwashed, and didn’t realize what they were becoming a part of.
There’s also a considerable amount of conspiracy theory involving the actions of both President Clinton and Bush, drug smuggling to terrorists and a number of other twists and turns. Clinton was President at the time and did give the go ahead orders to move in on that fateful final day, on advice from then Attorney General Janet Reno. But as to how all the rest of that fits in, this is where I really lost track of the story.
The current church is a new structure, built since then. Everything was essentially burned to the ground at the end of the standoff.
The outdoor pool is still there with David Koresh’s initials drawn into the concrete steps poured during his time as Branch Davidian leader. It now serves as a fishpond the gentleman inside had just recently stocked and where he was going out to feed the fish when we finished talking.
Also still there is a buried bus, originally used as an underground shelter, that played a tragic role the fateful final night. Six of the Branch Davidians died when they attempted to escape the burning compound by taking a tunnel leading from the compound to the bus. The entrance to the bus had collapsed, possibly by tanks the FBI had used in the raid, and the six became trapped inside the tunnel.
A map and photos of the original compound can be seen on the church wall, providing visitors a point of reference when walking around the property. There are also a few small signs outside pointing out such things as the underground bus and where the water tower was located.
Memorial stones outside the church remember both the Branch Davidians and the BATF Agents who died.
I take no sides in any of this. I’m not certain anyone really knows entirely what happened either at the beginning of the standoff or that final day. There seems to be more than a fair amount of blame to go around on both sides.
If you’re interested in more details about the standoff and Branch Davidians, there is an extensive Wikipedia entry as well as many other resources available.
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