The McLennan County Sheriff’s Department saved the life of self-proclaimed prophet George Roden during a Nov. 3 shootout, a sheriff’s deputy told jurors Tuesday.

Deputy Kenneth Vanek testified that he found eight men wearing camouflage clothing and carrying high-powered rifles squared off with Roden, hiding behind a tree, on 77 acres near Elk, about 12 miles northeast of Waco.

“Those were very poor odds for George Roden,” Vanek said.

Vanek was the last witness called as testimony ended in the first day of the attempted murder trial of eight members of the Branch Davidian Seventh-day Adventists, who say they split with Roden and were forced off the land they call Mount Carmel Center at gunpoint in 1985. Roden calls the land Rodenville.

The eight defendants — Vernon Wayne Howell, the leader of the splinter group; David Michael Jones; Floyd Leon Houtman; Peter James Hipsman; Gregory Allen Summers; James Loye Riddle; Paul Gordon Fatta; and Stanley Carl Syvia — are on trial together.

Roden is serving a six-month sentence after ignoring U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr.’s order not to file expletive-filled legal motions. In the past, Roden filed motions with the Texas Supreme Court, Waco’s 10th Court of Appeals and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans that urged God to inflict AIDS and herpes on the judges.

After Roden was sentenced, Howell led the members of the splinter church group, who call themselves Davidian Branch Davidian Seventh-day Adventists, back to the disputed 77 acres. The group recently paid $68,000 in back taxes on the land. Roden, who has said the group was unauthorized to pay the taxes, was served with a contempt citation for violating a 1979 injunction forbidding him from setting foot on the land.

During opening remarks, prosecutor El-Hadi Shabazz told the jury of seven men and five women that Howell was the leader of a paramilitary group that went to Rodenville on Nov. 3 to “assassinate Roden.”

“How do we know they were trying to murder George Roden?” Shabazz asked. “The evidence will show there were 14 to 18 bullet holes in the tree that were so deep that they could not be dug out. The evidence will show that if you had removed that tree, George Roden would not be here today.”

Shabazz told jurors that the splinter church group “ingeniously sucked the McLennan County Sheriff’s office into the plan.”

He said Howell’s church used a casket as an excuse to enter Rodenville and engage in a shootout with Roden, who was staying on the property with his wife and two other couples.

“The defendants knew that George Roden would not be frightened off his property,” Shabazz said. “The evidence will show that they knew that the only way Mr. Roden would leave his property would be feet first. They knew that on Nov. 3.”

Much of the first day of the trial was spent showing evidence to the jury. Shabazz displayed aerial photographs of the shootout site and also introduced into evidence eight camouflage suits, which he said were evidence of a paramilitary operation.

Defense attorney Gary Coker saw something else in the camouflage suits.

“Has it been your experience that commandos carry their driver’s license with them and have their initials in their clothing?” Coker asked Deputy Billy Sherill.

Coker also tried to raise doubts about the ammunition carried by the eight defendants. He asked Deputy Ronnie Turnbough to read a Winchester shotgun shell.

Turnbough said the shell was a rabbit and squirrel load.

“It’s a little heavy, but you could use it for hunting doves, certainly rabbits and squirrels,” Coker said. “Would you use it to shoot a 240-pound human being?”

“I wouldn’t,” Turnbough said.

Prosecutor Denise Wilkerson sniped at Coker’s defense.

“Could the shotgun be used in a lethal manner?” she asked Turnbough.

“Yes,” he said.

“What would it depend on?” she asked.

“How close they were to the person when they fired,” Turnbough said.

Vanek, under questioning from Shabazz, said deputies found about 20 spent shells allegedly fired from the weapons used by the eight defendants and none from Roden’s weapon, a semi-automatic Uzi. A shot had burst the ammunition clip in the Uzi, Vanek said.

“I know he would not have been able to fire any shots below where the round had entered,” he testified.

Roden’s name came up repeatedly during the day. Wilkerson said prosecutors aren’t sure when he’ll testify. Under questioning from Coker, Chief Deputy Dan Weyenberg testified to Roden’s bad reputation, noting he carried weapons. Weyenberg also said that Roden’s possession of the weapons was legal, after questioning by Shabazz.

Howell, after the court was adjourned by visiting district judge Herman Fitts of Mineral Wells, said he and the other men went on the disputed property to document a case of “corpse abuse.”

He and other church members say Roden exhumed the body of a female church member and was attempting to raise her from the dead. Roden had said he moved the coffin as part of relocating a cemetery on the disputed church property.

Church members showed the sheriff’s department photographs of the casket but officials there wanted a picture of the corpse, Howell said.

“We went over on the second and the casket was gone,” he said. “That’s when the longest night began, contemplating how to find the casket. As far as we knew, it was in the city dump. We went on the property trying to find the casket. We had no intention of shooting anyone. The guns were strictly self-defense.”

Read the Tribune-Herald's 7-part investigative series on the inner workings of the Branch Davidians. Hours after Part 2 appeared in print, the ATF raided the group's compound.

Read the Tribune-Herald’s account of the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound on Feb. 28, 1993. Four ATF agents and six in the compound were killed in the gunfight.

Read the daily news accounts of the 51-day siege at the Branch Davidian compound near Elk, which began Feb. 28 and lasted until April.

April 19 and beyond: FBI agents began inserting canisters of tear gas into the Branch Davidian compound in the early morning hours. By noon, it was on fire.

Federal officials left the compound site in late May 1993. As identifications of bodies continued, questions about the survivors, the compound and the cult itself began to emerge.

As the world began to take a critical look back at the events and legal proceedings continue, the ATF's bombshell report forces a shakeup at the top after the raid gone "tragically wrong."

In 1994, the surviving Davidians went on trial in San Antonio. Over six weeks, more than 140 witnesses testified, with the verdict coming just two days prior to the anniversary of the ATF raid.

The Rodenville shootout and the 1988 trial, the end of the world in 1959 and more stories from deep in the Trib archives.