Prosecutors surprised the courtroom Friday when they rested their case against eight defendants accused of trying to murder George Roden without calling the self-styled prophet to testify.
Roden, 49, stayed in McLennan County Jail, where he is serving a six-month sentence imposed by a federal judge for filing legal motions threatening to have God inflict herpes and acquired immune deficiency syndrome on judges.
During Friday’s testimony, a former secretary of Lois Roden — Roden’s mother, who led the Branch Davidian Seventh-day Adventists, after her husband’s death until her own death in 1986 — testified she once heard Roden pray to himself, at a 1984 World Congress of Branch Davidians in Waco.
Defense attorney Gary Coker asked Catherine Matteson, the former secretary, if Roden ever considered himself the Messiah. She testified she once heard Roden pray in his own name. Asked how he did so, she said he concluded a prayer, “In the name of George B. Roden, Amen.”
Followers of Vernon Howell, 28, one of the eight defendants and a man many members of the Branch Davidians consider a prophet, had tucked away their Bibles and their children in anticipation of Roden’s testimony, but El-Haji Shabazz and Denise Wilkerson rested their case without calling him.
“We felt we had proved our case beyond a reasonable doubt and his testimony wasn’t necessary,” Wilkerson said.
The move caught Coker, who scrambled to line up witnesses, by surprise. Howell, for one, said he was not taken aback by Roden’s non-appearance.
“I know why he wouldn’t testify,” Howell said during a recess. “He had 15-20 years of bad reputation built up before I even came along in 1981. Everyone who has been young and wanted to help, he’s run off. How? George communicated. Sign language, you know.”
Howell’s followers, young and old, have attended every day of the 4-day-old trial. On Friday, most of the young stayed home.
“We didn’t want the kids here because we know what kind of language he uses,” Howell said. “That’s not proper for kids to hear. Roden’s said that Moses cursed, but did you know you can’t cuss in Hebrew? A curse is not cussing.”
When the trial resumed, Coker called several church members, most of whom lived at Mount Carmel Center until 1985, when Roden ran them off in a dispute over the 77 acres near Elk, 12 miles northeast of Waco.
Roden was wounded in the right hand and chest during a Nov. 3, 1987, shootout with the eight defendants, who say they were on the property to get photographs to prove Roden was guilty of abusing the corpse of a church member.
Howell and his followers reclaimed the land after Roden was jailed, on the strength of a 1979 injunction by Judge Bill Logue of the 19th State District Court ordering Roden not to set foot on the land. The suit was filed by Lois Roden.
Clive Doyle, a printer for the religious group, said Roden sought to lead the Branch Davidians after his father’s death. His mother took over instead.
“How is a leader selected?” Coker asked. “Is it hereditary?”
“No, the leader is selected by God,” Doyle said, “just as Moses was selected by God to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt.”
“How do you know whom God chooses as leader?” Coker asked.
“It’s determined by listening to what they have to say,” Doyle said. “Because we had already accepted his mother as the prophet of God, we didn’t warm up to his claim much.”
Doyle, his mother, Edna, Matteson and Robyn Bunds testified that Roden is a violent man who likes to carry guns and once shot the tires of a bus carrying former residents, primarily women and children, when it entered Mount Carmel Center for a visit.
Edna Doyle, 73, said it sounded “like a machine gun going off along the side of the bus.”
Coker asked Doyle what Roden did during the shooting.
She dropped her hands to her hips, separated them as if she were drawing taffy and shook them.
“He was going like that and spraying bullets around,” Doyle said.
Doyle also testified that Roden often wore a gun strapped to his side while on the pulpit of the church at Mount Carmel Center. He was not their minister, Doyle said, adding that members never considered him a prophet.
Shabazz asked Doyle if she and other followers of Howell would do whatever he asked because they considered him a prophet.
“Because we believe God directs him, yes,” Doyle said.
Matteson testified that she often lent her Discover credit card to Howell and never questioned how he used it. He unsuccessfully tried to use it to buy weapons, according to earlier testimony.
Was Matteson upset at how Howell used her credit card? Shabazz asked.
“I thought he could discern what to do with it,” she said. “I never questioned him on it.”
Coker indicated after the trial recessed for the weekend that jurors may not have heard the last of George Roden.
“I was disappointed that the prosecution had so little faith in their own case that they didn’t call their chief witness,” he said. “At this time, I feel compelled out of sense of truth and justice to call Mr. Roden as a witness. I’ll probably withdraw my motion to have him declared incompetent.”