20 years after Waco fire, David Koresh’s tragic spell lingers
A granite marker commemorates each of the 82 Branch Davidians, and David Koresh, who died in the April 19, 1993 fiery end of a 51-day standoff with federal agents at Mount Carmel, the Branch Davidian compound.
WACO, Texas — Clive Doyle is a pleasant-looking man of 72, with wavy graying hair. Australia lingers in his accent. He wore a leather jacket on the chilly recent afternoon when we spent more than an hour together at a picnic table in a Waco park. He was soft-spoken, articulate and seemingly very sane.
Yet 20 years ago this Friday, this same man was one of only nine Branch Davidians to survive the internationally televised inferno on the Texas prairie. Killed that day near Waco were cult leader David Koresh and 73 followers, including Doyle’s 18-year-old daughter, Shari, and 20 children under 14. Before the fire and the 51-day standoff with the federal government, Doyle’s daughter had been one of many women and girls of the cult taken into Koresh’s bed. Koresh — who preached that he was the Lamb of God, drove a sports car and motorcycle, and had a rock band and an arsenal of illegal weapons — had ordered his male followers to be celibate.
Doyle has had two decades to reflect on these things, and clearly he has. So my question was obvious.
“You mean, have I woken up?” Doyle said to me with a smile.
“I’ve had questions and adjusted my beliefs somewhat,” Doyle said that day in the park. “But I still believe that David was who he claimed to be. You are sitting there listening to him. You hear all these things and the Scriptures come alive. And at the time, everything seems so imminent. That’s why I believed the way I did.
“I believe he was a manifestation, yes, of God taking on flesh,” Doyle said. “God has done that more than once.”
Most of the other survivors remain similarly steadfast, Doyle said, a handful of people who still gather in Waco on Saturday mornings to pray. Thus one of the most tragic and bizarre episodes of American history remains just that. Bizarre, unexplainable.
It began on a rainy Sunday morning, Feb. 28, 1993, with an ill-fated raid by agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The assault on what was known as Mount Carmel followed a long federal investigation into Koresh’s growing arsenal. Local social services agencies had also looked into reports that the leader was having sex with underage girls who were part of the community.
Four federal agents were killed in a bloody gun battle with the cultists that Sunday, and 20 more were wounded. Six Branch Davidians died. By that evening, the muddy encampment called Satellite City had sprouted nearby. Hundreds of reporters from around the world loitered for the next six weeks, eating Salvation Army doughnuts, getting haircuts, practicing their golf swings, and chronicling a darkly comic cat-and-mouse game between Koresh and FBI negotiators.
Souvenir vendors sold T-shirts that said Waco was really an acronym for “We Ain’t Coming Out.” Jay Leno, David Letterman and “Saturday Night Live” had a fresh supply of punch lines for weeks.
“This just in,” “SNL’s” Kevin Nealon reported on Weekend Update. “David Koresh has admitted he’s not really Jesus but actually is a disgruntled postal employee.”
Most assumed that the nuts near Waco would eventually come marching out. Not me.
While the siege droned on, I was working on a book about Koresh, talking to people around the world with firsthand acquaintance. Samuel Henry was one, a middle-aged carpenter in Manchester, England, who lost his family to the cult, one by one. Koresh, the guitar-playing Yank with shoulder-length hair and a dense interpretation of the Book of Revelation, was rejected by most on his international recruiting trips. But Samuel Henry told me that his daughter Diana was beside herself after hearing Koresh preach in a Manchester living room.
“Daddy, listen!” she cried. “Listen!”
Diana Henry, two sisters and two brothers all ended up with Koresh in Texas.
“You’ve got to be joking,” Samuel Henry cried when his wife, Zilla, announced that she was following her children. “Let’s talk about this. Let’s pray about this.”
“It’s too late,” Zilla told him in 1990. “This man is the Christ.”
Samuel Henry, a religious man himself, flew to Texas to confront Koresh but could not persuade his family to return. When we talked during the standoff, he said he thought Koresh was another Jim Jones, the cult leader who inspired 900 followers to commit suicide in Guyana in 1978. I heard similar stories from other relatives. By mid-April 1993, I had come to believe that the standoff was headed toward a dark and tragic end.
April 19, 1993, was a bright, very windy spring day. The fires at Mount Carmel became visible around noon, six hours after the FBI began to fire tear gas into the compound and break down walls with armored vehicles. Government conspiracy theorists have had a field day ever since, alleging, among other things, that federal agents either accidentally or intentionally started the fire, and pinned the Branch Davidians inside with gunfire.
Waco was a primary inspiration for Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, who struck on the same date, two years later.
“The bad acts alleged in this case are among the most serious charges that can be leveled against a government,” special counsel John Danforth would write in 2000, after a long investigation into what happened. “That its agents deliberately set fire to a building full of people, that they pinned children in the burning building with gunfire, that they illegally employed the armed forces … and that they then lied about their conduct.”
In 1999, a Time magazine poll showed that 61 percent of the American public believed the government had started the fires. That was ridiculous, Danforth concluded.
“What is remarkable is the overwhelming evidence exonerating the government from the charges made against it, and the lack of any real evidence to support charges of bad acts. … In the face of such a calamity, we have a need to affix blame. Things like this just can’t happen; they must be the government’s fault. We are somehow able to ignore the contrary evidence — never mind the fact that the FBI waited for 51 days without firing a shot, never mind the evidence that the Branch Davidians started the fire, never mind that the FBI agents risked their own lives in efforts to rescue the Davidians — and we buy into the notion that the government would deliberately kill 80 people in a burning building.”
Meanwhile, obscured by the conspiracy theories was the sinister, inexplicable reality. Teachers, lawyers, college professors, social workers, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters had fallen under Koresh’s spell, surrendering their money, wives and daughters, and ultimately their lives in fiery deaths.
After all these years, it was clear from my recent visit with Clive Doyle that the spell lingers.
Jason Sharp lives in Frankfort, Ind., but that recent afternoon he was visiting relatives in Texas and figured, why not? He was 19 when he watched the fire on television, live with the rest of the world.
“I wanted to see where it took place,” he said that day at Mount Carmel. “This is going to be a part of history.”
Today, a small wood-frame church marks the spot where the Branch Davidian compound stood, about 10 miles east of Waco. The only real remnants are the shell of an in-ground swimming pool and cinder-block bunkers now filled with water. Elsewhere are a stone memorial for the cult victims and another for the ATF agents who died. It is a quiet, peaceful place.
When Sharp drove off down a gravel road, I walked around the corner of the church and found Charles Pace sitting in his car, talking to a friend. Pace is the pastor of a sect of Branch Davidians, about 20 of them, who still worship at the church. They also built and maintain the memorials and engage in organic farming. Pace’s group doesn’t have much to do with Clive Doyle and the other survivors. The reason became apparent when Pace started talking about Koresh.
“It was a cult, a sex cult,” Pace said.
The Branch Davidians had begun as an offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventists. Pace, a sect member since the 1970s, said he confronted Koresh after hearing him preach in 1984. At the time, he went by the name Vernon Howell, something of a misfit who had been kicked out of a Seventh-day Adventist church in Tyler, Texas. Vernon Howell was full of it, Pace thought, but he had memorized large chunks of the Bible.
“He was the kind of guy who could get in your face and challenge you with Scripture,” he said. “He liked the sport of it. But I saw through the whole thing. I protested.”
Pace warned Clive Doyle and the others that Koresh was a false prophet.
“To this day, people like Clive Doyle don’t like me,” Pace said.
So Koresh became the resident Messiah, and Pace moved to Alabama.
“I think he had good intentions at first, but it kind of goes to your head,” Pace said. “I believe it went to his head, and it went to their heads at the same time. It must have been nuts here. I would have beat the (expletive) out of him if he came near my daughter or my wife. He told them that he was God in the flesh, and they believed him.”
I told Pace of my own sense of darkness as I learned more about Koresh and his cult.
“I always felt that way with him, too,” Pace said. “I still feel that way when I’m around the survivors. It’s still there. There’s something missing in them. They still believe he’s coming back. They still believe it was OK for him to sin.”
In 1994, Clive Doyle was acquitted of charges that included conspiracy to murder a federal agent. He was mentioned several times in the Danforth report. Two decades later, he and a friend, Ron Goins, rent the second floor of a large Victorian house in Waco. They met me on the sidewalk out front.
Doyle got behind the wheel of an old van for a short but awkward drive to the park.
“So you’re the famous Tim Madigan,” he said.
I didn’t know how to respond.
“You wrote the book (about Koresh),” he said.
“ ‘See No Evil,’ ” Doyle said.
“What did you think of it?”
“Not much,” Doyle said. “But I can’t blame you. It was published a month after the fire. A lot of information has come out since then.”
We pulled into the park and sat at a table with a fine view of the Brazos River. Happy young joggers ran past every few minutes.
Doyle told me that he grew up in Australia. He learned of the Branch Davidians in the 1960s through their literature, and he moved to the United States to pursue the faith in 1966. Through much of the 1970s, the Branch Davidians lived quietly in the Central Texas countryside, led by an older woman named Lois Roden.
Doyle met Vernon Howell in 1981.
“Over the next couple of years, he came and went several times,” Doyle said. “Each time he came, he stayed a little longer. In ’83, Lois Roden basically told him, ‘You’ve been sharing this message with me. Now it’s time you present it to the rest of the people.’ She turned the pulpit over to him. We had been taught that God would lead his people through prophets. We’ve been instructed to give them a hearing.
“We don’t fall for every one who comes along,” Doyle continued. “But 99 percent of the people accepted him. We accepted him as a messenger of God. I was one of the first.”
Was it his good looks? His guitar? The fact that he had memorized so much of the Bible?
“I don’t know that he was a very talented con man,” Doyle said. “It was not like we were swept off our feet because he looked like Jesus. You listened to what he had to say and either you were impressed or you weren’t.
“His spirit impressed me,” he said. “It’s hard to go back and pinpoint what words he used or what day it was. I couldn’t tell you. But it was definitely a strong conviction that he had something and it probably had something to do with Lois turning over the pulpit to him.”
What about the sex? How could Doyle let Koresh take his daughter?
“I still believe that it was of God,” Doyle said.
That Koresh should have sex with his daughter?
“Correct,” he said. “She made her own choice based on her Bible studies.”
“But Clive, she was 18,” I said.
“When God chooses messengers, some of these people are asked to do things by God which would be an anathema or contrary to the morals of the people of the day,” Doyle said. “David said once that, ‘They will accuse me of the very things that they themselves are doing. They will get on me about the women, but many of the same people that hate me, throw all these statements around about me, are having one-night stands with their secretaries.’ ”
What about the children?
Koresh had long preached that flames were a way to heaven, a fulfillment of prophecy. Three days before the fire, the Davidians put out a sign that said, “The flames await Isaiah 13.”
The Danforth report concluded that on April 19, the Branch Davidians spread accelerants throughout the compound and set fires in at least three locations. Microphones picked up several references inside the compound to lighting the fires. As the buildings were consumed, most inside showed no desire to escape.
That day in the park, Doyle and I talked briefly about the standoff and fire.
“I never saw anybody light the fires,” Doyle said. “I was in the chapel area, by the front door. The FBI was gassing us all morning. I heard someone yelling from upstairs that the building was on fire.”
He didn’t say why he decided to get out when so many others, including his daughter and six members of Samuel Henry’s family, did not. He did say that his daughter had believed until the end.
The longer we talked, the more it became apparent: Shari Doyle is a big reason Doyle continues to believe in Koresh. He doesn’t want to jeopardize the reunion with her, a reunion in the hereafter.
“Here’s what I would like you to consider,” he said. “What if I gave up on the whole thing? What if I really bought into the idea that we had been deceived? I would give up everything. There would be nothing to have faith in. I would not have any hope or anything to look forward to.”
“You mean seeing your daughter again?” I said.
“My daughter and a lot of the other people were my friends, too,” he said softly.
“But what about all the children who died?” I said. “They didn’t have a choice. How can you rationalize that?”
“I understand that it turns a lot of people off,” Doyle said. “But God has always allowed children to die.”
We finished our conversation in front of his house.
“I have a question for you,” Doyle said. “If you had to do it all over again, knowing what you know now, would you write the same book?”
I thought about that.
“Yes,” I said.
There was certainly plenty of room to second-guess the government, I told him, but I still believe, more than ever, that Koresh was responsible.
“Think about his theology,” I said. “It all led to the same place, to him. All the sex. The money. The car. The motorcycle. The guitars and rock bands. Who else got any of the benefits? Wasn’t that convenient?”
Doyle was silent for several moments.
“I guess we won’t know for sure until David comes back,” he said.
“I’ve got your cell number,” I said. “If that happens, I’ll be the first to call and apologize.”
Doyle smiled. We shook hands and said goodbye.