The McLennan County sheriff’s office struggled Wednesday to make sense out of why eight heavily armed men invaded a farm belonging to an offshoot religious organization Tuesday.
Deputies arrested eight men in the shootout at Rodenville and charged them with attempted murder.
They included Vernon Howell, 28; Floyd Leon Houtman, 56; Peter James Hipsman, 22; Gregory Allen Summers, 22; James Loye Riddle, 27; Paul Gordon Fatta, 29; and Stanley Carl Sylvia, 49, all of whom gave their addresses as Route 7, Box 7595, Palestine, Texas.
Bond for each was set at $50,000 by Justice of the Peace Alan Mayfield.
Deputy Kenneth Vanek said the weapons confiscated by authorities are being examined to see if any have been modified to provide full automatic weapons fire. If they have, the men also could face federal firearms charges, Vanek said.
The 77-acre tract near Elk has been the subject of litigation of one kind or another for more than two decades. Tuesday action appeared to be an effort to have George Roden, the president and a trustee of the Branch Davidian Seventh-day Adventists, ousted from the site.
Officials of the Seventh-day Adventist Church say their organization is not connected with the Branch Davidians.
A splinter of the Branch Davidians who set up shot near Palestine sent what Roden called a “threatening letter” to everyone living on the tract last week. The letter advised residents that Roden had been removed as trustee of the Branch Davidians and that Howell had been installed as president and trustee in his place.
The letter, which included a notarized document filed with the county clerk’s office in Waco, labeled Roden “just a trespasser” and asked residents to send any tithes or rents due the church to Howell in Palestine.
“When they sent that letter out I knew they were coming,” Roden said. “They sent an article removing me as trustee, now they’ve come to finish the job and remove me from the land.”
Roden said the men came to kill him, and managed to wound him in his gun hand, but that he and another resident of the farm managed to pin down the advancing gunmen with fire until sheriff’s deputies arrived.
Roden was treated for powder burns and a wound in the hand at Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center.
Roden said he had been to the federal authorities to ask that the men’s bond be increased to $1 million each, “because as soon as they get out, they’re coming back out here looking for me.”
Roden was unsuccessful. He said their effort is part of a “holy jihad” (war) to kill him and his followers.
Perry Jones, a spokesman for the Palestine group, said the eight men had been trying to get pictures of the bones of a deceased follower lying in the church so that the McLennan County sheriff’s department could take action against Roden for corpse abuse and evict him from the land.
Roden admits he has had a corpse lying in the church. He said the body was there because he had been trying to move the community’s graveyard when his bulldozer broke down and he was unable to get spare parts, so he left the coffin lying in the church out of respect.
“That injunction has never been released,” said Jones, a vice president in the Palestine sect. “The only reason we’re not there now is because he took over at gunpoint … we were run off and kept off by force of arms.”
Jones said a 1969 court decree made the community the property of the “second tithe fund” or church members who tithed 20 percent of their income to the church.
Jones said the eight men were armed because of that incident and because of Roden’s reputation. “We felt that going onto Mount Carmel unarmed is something you don’t do,” Jones said.