A flickering TV image attracted Mary Bush of Waco to Kathryn Schroeder.

She was a tiny woman in shackles towed by two tall marshals being shuffled in and out of federal court.

“I saw this mite of a woman and these large law enforcement officers,” Bush said. “I think it made me sympathetic toward her. I’m a mother. I think she came out to take care of her baby. But the government wouldn’t let her.”

Federal prosecutors, though, paint a different image of Kathryn Schroeder, 34. They say her nickname among Branch Davidians was “Sarge,” and that she played a dominant role among the women in the cult.

On Feb. 28, prosecutors allege, she donned military fatigues, grabbed an AK-47 rifle and fired on agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Four ATF agents died that day and 16 were wounded. At least five Branch Davidians died.

The government charged Schroeder—as well as cult members Norman Allison, Renos Avraam, Brad Branch, Jaime Castillo, Graeme Craddock, Clive Doyle, Livingston Fagan, Paul Fatta, Bob Kendrick, Ruth Ottman and Kevin Whitecliff—with conspiracy to murder federal agents.

Bush has doubts about Schroeder’s guilt.

“I can’t understand how a mother of four would be going around firing a gun,” she said. “She had children to protect. Kathryn said she did not have a gun and was not upstairs with the women. She was down on the first floor where the children were.”

Doubly abused?

A Dallas woman, Dianne Murray, also has rallied to Schroeder’s side. She sees Schroeder as an abused woman: first by cult leader Vernon Howell, then by the government.

“The people they had to take all those drastic measures to rescue, now they have to prosecute them,” said Murray. “Does that make sense? They didn’t get David. They didn’t get the Mighty Men. They’re prosecuting the people left, to heck with the truth . . .

“Let’s not forget the history of the ATF,” Murray continued. “We’ve heard so much about them racing in and shooting innocent people in other situations. We hear about the cowboy mentality. We saw how the Randy Weaver case came out. I think a person has to be in denial not to see a government getting out of hand.

“I’m not a Ron Englemann type,” she said. “I’m just a regular person. I had to talk myself into seeing the truth about our government. It’s easier not to see it. All Kathryn Schroeder is guilty of is being there.”

Like Bush, Murray was attracted to Schroeder’s cause by the image of “her being small and helpless, giant agents on either side, her feet shackled, alone in the world, in the clutches of the United States government.”

But Murray insists the image “wasn’t an illusion. It was real.”

“Kathryn was the one who hit home for me,” Murray said. “She ties into the women I work with. I felt I needed to concentrate my efforts on her.”

Something different

Murray believes Schroeder is different from the other Branch Davidians who left Mount Carmel — devout followers who continue to deny Howell, also known as David Koresh, had numerous “wives” and children, though Howell himself told a national audience that he had “many wives and many children.”

“There was something different about her,” Murray said. “The body language, the expressions, just seemed to say, ‘Don’t lump me in with all the rest.’ She is very concerned with getting her child, Bryan, when she can get this taken care of and get on with her life.”

Schroeder left Mount Carmel on March 12, more than a month before fire destroyed the compound and killed at least 80 cult members. She told officials she wanted to be with her children.

Her first husband, Sgt. William Mabb of the Air Force, already had been granted custody of their three children. She talked of seeking custody of Bryan, 3, her child by Michael Schroeder, who was shot and killed trying to enter Mount Carmel after the raid.

Bryan Schroeder is staying with relatives in Florida.

Kathryn Schroeder has told reporters that the correct name for Howell’s group was not Branch Davidians but Koreshians, since cult members followed David Koresh in the same way that Christians followed Christ.

Motive questioned

Former cult members like Robyn Bunds, who left in 1990, think Schroeder came out to serve Howell, not pursue her children.

“The only way he could talk to the media was through his people,” Bunds said. “I don’t think it was completely her choice to leave. Given the choice, those people wanted to stay to the end. It’s crazy, I know. Vernon was not stupid. He knew how to manipulate people, even those not in the group.

“I don’t think she left because she was concerned about her children,” Bunds said. “He may have told her to say that. Any person would be sympathetic to someone who left the group to be with their children. He wanted people to think they were using their own mind. But you lived to please Vernon. I may not be right, but I kind of doubt it. She was a strong believer.”

Bunds said she didn’t like Schroeder, although she called her a “good wife and a good mother.”

“She was the kind of person who got on your nerves,” Bunds said. “She was bossy. Taking charge is not a bad attribute, but when you’ve been there a long time it does get kind of irritating. Kathy was very strong. She was not frail at all. Quite the opposite. I don’t think she is a bad person, but she was just someone who rubbed me the wrong way.”

Bush, though, likes what she has seen of Schroeder, calling her an intelligent, reflective woman. The two have exchanged letters, and Bush visited her at the McLennan County Jail.

The relationship has grown, which impresses Bush, since she hasn’t hidden her disapproval of Howell and his religious beliefs. That openness has been returned by Schroeder, Bush believes.

“She told me that she felt so helpless,” said Bush, one of many people in Waco who sent food to the ATF agents as they besieged Mount Carmel. “She said she had always been the assertive one in her family. ‘I feel like someone with no arms and no legs. There’s nothing I can do about my situation.’”

A Baptist, Bush prays for Schroeder and has listed her name at her church’s prayer room.

Communication between the two women dwells on human issues, Bush said. Little has been said about Schroeder’s background, her time in the Branch Davidians or what she makes of it all now.

“I had a letter from her on the day after Mother’s Day,” Bush said. “She hadn’t heard from her children. It was very hard on her. I don’t know all there is to know about Kathy. All I know is I feel sorry for her.”

Not everyone who has met Schroeder feels that way.

An official with a Waco social service said her workers had run-ins with Schroeder before she and the Branch Davidians became known.

“She was not a meek and mild person when she came in here,” the official said. “She was always very belligerent. If she thought you weren’t treating her right, she would scream religious persecution.”

‘Chip on her shoulder’

“We always had questions as to how an individual qualified for our services living in a compound,” the official continued. “It looked like she had a chip on her shoulder, like she wanted you to say something. If you’re looking for a character reference, my people wouldn’t give it to you.”

Bush said Schroeder admits to having a temper. Her own instincts as a mother draw her close to the Branch Davidian, Bush said.

Court papers filed by the government depict Schroeder as a woman who shouted orders to other Branch Davidian women on the morning of Feb. 28 about “their functions and guard positions.”

But Bush and Murray believe Schroeder put her children first, evidenced, they say, by her leaving Mount Carmel.

“What I hear from her more than anything is that her heart is breaking to be with her baby,” Murray said. “Her mood can go from total pessimism to happiness to optimism if she just had contact with her baby.”

Others, though, see Schroeder as having been on a mission for Vernon Howell and support for her is naïve.

But Bush said public sentiment doesn’t faze her. Her family seems to realize that. For Mother’s Day, her son bought Bush a pair of Israeli combat boots.

Read the Tribune-Herald's 7-part investigative series on the inner workings of the Branch Davidians. Hours after Part 2 appeared in print, the ATF raided the group's compound.

Read the Tribune-Herald’s account of the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound on Feb. 28, 1993. Four ATF agents and six in the compound were killed in the gunfight.

Read the daily news accounts of the 51-day siege at the Branch Davidian compound near Elk, which began Feb. 28 and lasted until April.

April 19 and beyond: FBI agents began inserting canisters of tear gas into the Branch Davidian compound in the early morning hours. By noon, it was on fire.

Federal officials left the compound site in late May 1993. As identifications of bodies continued, questions about the survivors, the compound and the cult itself began to emerge.

As the world began to take a critical look back at the events and legal proceedings continue, the ATF's bombshell report forces a shakeup at the top after the raid gone "tragically wrong."

In 1994, the surviving Davidians went on trial in San Antonio. Over six weeks, more than 140 witnesses testified, with the verdict coming just two days prior to the anniversary of the ATF raid.

The Rodenville shootout and the 1988 trial, the end of the world in 1959 and more stories from deep in the Trib archives.