Bullets zinged through the walls at the start.
In the days that followed, the electricity at Mount Carmel was turned off and authorities tightened their grip on the Branch Davidians.
Rita Riddle’s word for it all is exciting.
“This is exciting for us,” said Riddle, a Branch Davidian in restrictive custody. “Nobody is scared. It doesn’t matter. If they cast us into prison, so what? If they killed us, so what? We know where the end is. We can see the Bible happening right before our eyes. We can see prophecy being revealed.
“Through the history of time, have tanks ever been sent out to someone’s property? It’s never happened. If you read Nahum, it says the chariots shall . . . seem like torches and they’ll run like lightning. And believe you me, these things are fast. You have to realize this was written long before tanks. Like I said, it’s prophecy.”
In separate interviews with the Tribune-Herald Friday, Riddle, 35, and Gladys Ottman, 67, described life in and out of Mount Carmel, which authorities have surrounded since a Feb. 28 shootout that killed four agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and at least two Branch Davidians.
Both Branch Davidian women are held at the Salvation Army halfway house in Waco. They left Mount Carmel last Sunday.
Riddle got to watch TV Friday for the first time in a long time. She gave a thumbs down to the morning programming: the daily press conference by the FBI and the ATF on the Mount Carmel standoff.
The FBI comment that cult leader Vernon Howell was using the 17 children left inside the compound as a shield was ludicrous, Riddle said.
“I found it amusing,” she said. “When you’ve got God on your side, why do you have to hide behind children?”
Most of all, though, Riddle wanted harder questions pitched at authorities.
“I wish someone had asked some tough questions,” she said, “like, ‘What was the reason they pulled the media three miles down the road?’ We know why. So they could cover up what they were doing.”
FBI negotiators have hampered negotiations to end the standoff, Riddle said, not Howell, whom she calls David Koresh.
‘They broke their word’
Authorities have repeatedly lied to the Branch Davidians, she said.
“They won’t give me my Bible,” Riddle said. “They said they’re holding it as evidence. That was one of the conditions of our coming out, that we could have our Bibles. It was brought up at the press conference this morning about us being able to call back in. That’s a lie. They stopped that. The more this goes on, the less they’re living up to their end of the bargain.”
The bargain was broken early, according to Riddle.
“We let them come in and take their dead out,” she said. “In a war situation, they let the Red Cross in to pick up the dead and wounded. They said they would let us bring our dead out, just let them get their wounded and dead out. That didn’t happen. To me, that was very inhumane.”
Because of the ATF’s action, Riddle said, the Branch Davidians won’t say how many of them died in the shootout.
“They broke their word,” she said. “Let them wonder.”
Riddle, who said she was from North Carolina, said she met Howell in 1988. She’s been a Branch Davidian for the last two years, she said. It was a stark change from her lifestyle.
“I knew there was a God, but I preferred to go dancing every night,” she said. “Until the Seven Seals were opened to me, I never realized God did what he said.”
Ottman’s earliest experiences with the Branch Davidians date back to 1979, when Lois Roden was the group’s prophet.
Like the other Branch Davidians coming out of Mount Carmel, Ottman said the ATF fired first in the shootout—a claim that the ATF vigorously denies.
“David knew that they would be coming and he told us quickly when they would arrive, and the next thing you know, those shots were coming,” Ottman said.
Authorities cut electricity off to the compound on March 12. Ottman said the Branch Davidians do not have a generator, as was first thought. However, she disagreed with FBI statements that sanitary conditions inside the compound have deteriorated.
“I don’t know where they got that,” she said.
But daily living conditions have been disrupted, Riddle said.
Call before you leave
Although Branch Davidians ventured outside the compound in the first days after the shootout, now they must call authorities and get permission to go outside.
“For a while you could come out to feed the dogs or feed the chickens,” Riddle said. “But it got to where you had to call and let someone know you were going out. When I left, it was to the point that someone looked out the window, we got a call that someone was sticking a weapon out the window. You couldn’t do anything. If you went outside, they’d start revving their tanks up. They made us aware that they knew we were out and we shouldn’t be.”
Riddle said daily Bible studies, which former cult members said can last more than 15 hours, aren’t done as a group anymore.
“Most of the Bible studies that were given, were to these guys, the negotiators,” she said, laughing slightly. “We could sit in on those. Of course, to us, they’re reviews.”
Both Riddle and Ottman spent part of their time shopping — at a Salvation Army thrift store, naturally enough — after their release from jail.
“I’d given a lot there, but I’d never taken,” Riddle said. “But we were thankful for what we got. It was better than the bright orange uniforms we had on.”
Like other Branch Davidians who left before her, Riddle said, she had a last Bible study with Howell. She declined to go into detail, saying the listener would need an in-depth knowledge of the Bible.
Ottman said she did not want to leave the compound, but she was “chosen by God to leave.”
She spoke “just very briefly” with Howell before leaving.
He said that she didn’t have to talk to authorities without an attorney.
Riddle balked at discussing such things as the food and water left for those remaining in the compound.
“Those are minute details,” she said. “It wouldn’t matter if they had food and water for a thousand years. It doesn’t matter. God is in control in this. The main issue is David coming out of there and being able to share his credentials. His credentials are the Seven Seals.”
She believes Howell can unloose the Seven Seals, found in Revelation, the last book of the Bible, setting forth catastrophic events that will end mankind.
Although Riddle doesn’t dispute reports that Howell took young girls in their early teens as so-called wives or that he believes every woman in the world belongs to him, she calls them “stumbling blocks.”
Looking at God’s word
“This is exactly why God has done things this way,” Riddle said. “Do you really want to know the Seven Seals or not? Are you going to look at the flesh or are you going to look at God’s word?”
“God is always going to do drastic things. Look at Isaiah. What if we had lived back in Isaiah’s day and David ran around in a field without any clothes on? Are you going to look at him or the word of God? Do they really want to know what is going on?”
Howell was wounded during the initial shootout, Riddle said, but he is recovering.
“He’s weak,” she said. “When he stands up, he gets dizzy. Because he did lose about three pints of blood. And most times when people lose three pints of blood, they’re given blood. He’s having to build it back up. It’s going to be a process.”
Ottman said she thinks the end of the world is at hand. Howell is looking for the signs in the book of Revelation, where the sun turns black, the moon turns red and the stars fall from the sky, she said.
As to Howell’s fate, only God knows, Riddle said.
“We know through the prophecies that, yes, he could die again,” she said. “Or in the Psalms, he could live. That’s what we’re saying. It’s up to God. It says God will direct all his ways.”