As the motorcade of cars and motorcycles carrying Branch Davidians and some 150 of their supporters made its way down the dirt road leading to the grounds of Mount Carmel, the scene resembled a funeral procession.
Headlights glared from the 25 or so vehicles carrying people from as far away as San Antonio, Houston and Austin.
The crowd of nearly 200 made the trip for one reason: To memorialize the 80 or more men, women and children who died either during an initial shootout with agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms or in the fire that destroyed the cult’s Mount Carmel compound April 19.
Four ATF agents and six Branch Davidians were killed Feb. 28, when the agents stormed the compound in an attempt to serve search and arrest warrants on cult leader Vernon Howell, also known as David Koresh.
The raid led to a 51-day standoff that ended April 19 after agents used an armored vehicle to punch holes in the walls of the compound and inject non-lethal tear gas.
About noon that day, the complex burst into flames. All but nine people in the compound died in the fire.
Almost everyone at the Saturday memorial service pledged to hold the government responsible and not to forget what happened.
“Our purpose here today is to remember those who are gone. In remembrance of those people — regardless to whom their allegiance was — we’ve got to start becoming informed,” said Dallas resident Bob Boaz, who identified himself as a citizen and a minister of the gospel.
“Those who died will have died in vain if we leave here today and forget what happened,” Boaz stressed during his address to the crowd. Some members of the group responded with an arousing, “Amen.”
Several Branch Davidians expressed joy — some through tears — that so many people attended the service.
“This is so nice,” commented Gladys Ottman, a Branch Davidian who left the compound before the deadly fire.
“The people care. They really care. And look at all the beautiful flowers,” the 67-year-old said, pointing to one of seven arrangements of colorful flowers that graced the property.
Bonnie Haldeman, Howell’s mother, was also impressed at the turnout.
“It’s great. Just wonderful,” she said. “I think a lot more people would have been here though, if they’d known about it. I’m not happy that we had to meet here today like this, but since we did, I’m thankful that we got this kind of support.”
Deaths not in vain
Haldeman said she’s confident that her son and his followers did not die in vain.
“It may not seem like God was with them, but he was. He’ll stand up and let his voice be heard soon. I don’t know when, but it’ll happen,” she said.
Also at the service was Bobby Howell, Vernon’s father. Howell said he felt he had to attend.
“I didn’t get to go to the funeral because they buried him in secret. I figured coming here today was the least I could do,” said the Houston resident, who admitted that he hadn’t seen his son in several years.
“The few times I saw him he was a nice boy, a very personable young man,” Howell said. “I think the ATF thought they were doing the right thing, but I don’t believe they did enough investigating.”
Sheila Martin was perhaps the most outspoken Branch Davidian at the event.
Martin, who lost her husband, Douglas Wayne Martin, and four children to the fire, said the Branch Davidians wanted only to live together and praise God in peace.
“We had a wonderful life,” said Martin, who left the compound March 28 with three of her seven children. “David did everything he could to make our lives happy here. It’s not like people are saying in the papers.
“We were very happy. David loved all the people, especially the children,” Martin said. “And we were not brainwashed. This is where we wanted to be.”
Martin said Branch Davidians know God is always in control and believe that God will allow their loved ones to come back.
“We don’t have any hatred or any anger against anyone,” she said. “We were looking forward to a time when God would bring us all to heaven and the whole world would be saved.”
Karen Doyle, whose 18-year-old sister, Shari, died in the blaze, was quick to blame the government for the deaths.
“They won’t get away with this. They had no right,” said Doyle, 21. “They think this is a big joke, but when God shows up it won’t be any joke. This whole thing was done unfairly, and God’s going to deal with it.”
Doyle said her hope is that the American people will not “write off” or forget those who died.
“If they do, it could easily happen again,” she said.
Vernon Howell had extended a personal invitation to his grandmother, Jean Holub, before the raid.
“He wanted me to come and see all of the improvements he had made out here,” she said. “I hate I never got that chance. The ATF and the FBI just wanted to look big. They wanted to destroy what he had. I’ll never believe that they shot themselves either.”
Several people who said they are not Branch Davidians also spoke out at the service.
Christian Freeman, who made the trip from San Antonio, referred to the tragedy as a government Gestapo.
“I’m here because I heard on the radio that they were having a memorial service for the murdered Davidians who died at the hands of the ATF and FBI,” Freeman said. “I want to put out the word to this Gestapo that these killings are not going to be forgotten. The crime and the blood is on their hands.”
Despite all the finger pointing, Haldeman says she plans to simply keep looking to the promises of God.
“All this happened for a reason. God wrote the script. There has to be something good to come out of it. I believe I’ll see my grandchildren, the kids and David again . . . when God’s ready.”