McLennan County officials, who have worried about trespassers at the Mount Carmel property once federal agents leave town, have found themselves in curious agreement with an unlikely ally — a cult defense attorney.
District Attorney John Segrest and Herb Bristow, who represents the count in civil cases, conferred with Waco attorney Gary Coker before Coker obtained a temporary restraining order this week to prevent trespassers on Branch Davidian land.
County officials have been expecting an onslaught of souvenir hunters, curiosity seekers and dwellers on the macabre to descend on the 77-acre site east of Waco once federal and state agents complete their investigation and abandon the property.
Sources say county authorities have all but rejected plans to seize and forfeit the land to the county because of potential liability problems caused by trespassers who may be injured on the land and expected legal challenges from any one of many current or former cult members who might want to claim the land.
However, they still were in a quandary about what to do with the expected influx of tourism on the grounds.
County Commissioner Lester Gibson has ordered that signs marking Double EE Ranch Road, which fronts the compound, be removed before they are taken by souvenir hunters.
Gibson also worries that the gravel cannot withstand heavy traffic caused by the cult phenomenon.
Coker’s motion for a temporary restraining order, which he discussed with county officials before filing on Tuesday, might help cult members with a claim to vehicles, boats, jet skis and other items that survived the April 19 fire keep their possessions intact and in place.
Coker successfully represented cult leader Vernon Howell and seven followers on attempted murder charges after a shootout in 1987 with rival prophet George Roden.
He said that while he was preparing the motion on his own, “local authorities” contacted him on Tuesday and indicated that the TRO might be equally beneficial to parties on both sides of the legal fence.
“If they can get me to do their work for them, why not?” Coker said. “And I even paid the court costs. But this helps defuse the situation possibly and hopefully will keep the curiosity seekers away because there is a court-ordered restraining order. We like to coordinate with local authorities.”
Judge Bill Logue of the 19th District Court, who granted the TRO, has set a hearing May 25 to determine if he will convert the order to a temporary injunction.
Segrest said the land belongs to the Branch Davidian Seventh-day Adventist Association, which owes $3,000 in back taxes.
The county’s concern now is the health and safety of the public who might visit the area, he said.
While he and Bristow acknowledged they talked to Coker about potential problems on the land, both said Coker was already aware of them and had planned to act on behalf of his clients.
“I simply communicated to him that this situation existed,” Segrest said. “We were concerned about anybody’s property if it is to be left out there unprotected. Hopefully, what this will do, I assume they are going to take control of the personal property and I assume they will take steps to protect it and therefore there is no problem.
“But we did not direct Mr. Coker to do anything or give him our blessing. We simply passed along a potential problem that he might be in a position to address. I don’t want to leave the misconception that we were working arm-on-arm to obtain a certain result, because we were not. But I think it does make it better for everybody concerned, the government included.”
Coker got the restraining order against Roden, who is in a state mental hospital charged with killing an Odessa man. The TRO also applies to anyone else not authorized to be at the site, Coker said.
He said he is more concerned with others carrying off property than with Roden reclaiming the land, given his current legal status. He merely had to name someone as a defendant in the suit, and Roden was a likely claimant to the land, he said.