A hearing on a writ of habeas corpus will be held this morning as the attorney for eight men accused of trying to murder George Roden seeks to call Roden as a witness.
Officials with the McLennan County Sheriff’s Department say they won’t release Roden for a state hearing without a writ ordering his release. Roden is serving a six-month federal sentence for filing legal briefs threatening to have God inflict herpes and AIDS on judges.
Even if allowed, defense attorney Gary Coker said Roden’s testimony would be a “gamble.”
“He may not say a thing,” Coker said. “But I can offer some more exhibits as evidence if he testifies and I may get him to admit he dug up a coffin. I’ll see if maybe I can worm the truth out of him about why he continued the confrontation.”
The defendants, members of the Branch Davidian Seventh-day Adventists, say they went to a 77-acre site near Elk to photograph a corpse inside the coffin. They accuse Roden of trying to resurrect the body, that of a woman named Anna Hughes who died in 1968. Roden has said he dug the body up while moving a church cemetery on the property.
Coker said he hoped to offer the coffin as evidence on Tuesday, but it sat all day in the back of an old green Chevrolet van parked in front of the McLennan County Courthouse.
“It won’t necessarily prove anything,” Coker said. “It’s like the guns. Their being in the courtroom doesn’t prove anything except they’re guns. At least with a casket, with it being above ground, we have proof it was dug up. That’s the whole reason the defendants went out there. The state has never admitted George Roden dug it up.”
Tuesday, Coker first called former assistant district attorney Deanna Fitzgerald as a witness. She testified that about Nov. 1, 1987, two days before the shootout between the defendants and Roden, she told Lt. Elijah Dickerson of the sheriff’s department that “fresh” evidence — that obtained within 72 hours — was needed for a search warrant to look for the body of Anna Hughes.
The defendants, according to testimony, asked the sheriff’s department to arrest Roden on a charge of corpse abuse.
Six of the eight defendants testified they had a loose plan to take a photograph of the “bones” in the casket and then leave the property. When they couldn’t find the body in the church, they testified, members split up and waited until daylight and began searching the property.
Defendant David Jones, 33, told Coker the defendants had an opportunity to shoot Roden when he stood at the window of his mobile home after hearing dogs on the property barking early on Nov. 3.
Jones said he served in the Air Force and had been classified an expert with the M-16 assault rifle.
“Could you have thrown everything into the house and killed George Roden?” Coker asked.
“Yes, he would have been hamburger,” Jones said.
Defendant Stanley Sylvia, 50, said he also could have easily shot Roden, who hid behind a tree during the shootout—which occurred the afternoon of Nov. 3.
“I yelled to him, ‘Let’s stop this foolishness. I could shoot you if I wanted,’ ” Sylvia said. “George was actually bigger than the tree.”
Under questioning by Coker, Sylvia said Roden fired the first shots of the shootout. Sylvia said he then fired his .22-caliber rifle into the air and Roden fled behind the tree. Roden came close to shooting him in the head, Sylvia testified.
Every defendant who testified, except Paul Fatta, 39, said he fired his weapon into the air or the ground.
Fatta testified he shot over the top of the tree Roden was behind.
Mark Wendell, who is not a defendant but testified he had been at the scene before leaving, said the men were told not to shoot at Roden by Vernon Howell, 28, a defendant whom the Branch Davidians call a prophet.
“We were told if George started to shoot, we were to create a diversion by firing weapons into the air or ground,” Wendell said.
Prosecutor El-Haji Shabazz questioned that contention.
“All the shots out there were fired by George,” he said to Sylvia. “The bullet holes in the tree were not made by any of the men out there with you?”
When defendant Floyd Houtman, 55, testified that he didn’t know how to use the shotgun he had, Shabazz asked him if he had recently guarded Mount Carmel Center with a shotgun. Houtman said yes.
“So when you were guarding the gate, you still didn’t know how to use the shotgun?” Shabazz asked.
“Yes,” Houtman said.
Fatta and the other defendants said the men went out to Rodenville, since renamed Mount Carmel by the Branch Davidians, who recently claimed it on the strength of a 1979 civil suit, had only a loose plan of action.
Shabazz, however, called the teams the men split into “squads” and asked the defendants how they could have bought more than $3,000 work of weapons in the weeks before Nov. 3 and gone to Rodenville without a plan.
When Shabazz asked why the Branch Davidians were told to gather at Rodenville on the day of the shootout, Fatta said it was not to murder or capture Roden.
“The only way the land was going to be secure was for George to be arrested for corpse abuse by the sheriff’s office,” Fatta said. “We were told it would take three hours for him to post bond, if he was arrested. During that time, our people could have moved back on the property and reclaimed their houses.”