The day Branch Davidian cult leader Vernon Howell promised to surrender himself to federal agents along with more than 80 of his followers, Donald Lynn Heath found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
It was March 2, and Dallas radio station KRLD was broadcasting Howell’s 60-minute, sometimes rambling religious message.
Howell, also known as David Koresh, had promised to come out of his fortified compound 10 miles east of Waco after the broadcast, and about 100 media representatives were outside Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center waiting for injured cult members to arrive.
Heath, who was collecting money for the Waco Police Association at nearby Hillcrest Medical Tower, was attracted by the TV cameras and reporters, so he went over to investigate.
Tuesday, he paid for his mistake.
Jurors in McLennan County Court-at-Law No. 2 found him guilty of misdemeanor criminal trespass for, he testified Monday, returning to the hospital to look for $450 he claims fell out of his pocket when police searched him and warned him away the first time.
Judge Mike Gassaway sentenced Heath to six months’ probation, three months longer than the plea bargain offered by prosecutor Alan Bennett.
He said the only thing he did wrong was have long hair, drive a truck with a bumper sticker that reads “Jesus Christ is the Mighty Warrior,” and time his visit on a day the hospital was on alert and guarded by local and federal officials.
His attorney, Brad Cates, said police who saw Heath drive up to the hospital mistook him for a cult member and overreacted.
“Some perspective may say that justice was served, but I don’t think so,” Cates said after the verdict. “I can’t say this is a black-and-white case.”
Heath, 34, who is divorced and has custody of two of his three children, said he saw federal agents on the roof with high-powered weapons trained on him as he talked with police. He left after they told him to, he said.
After driving to a nearby convenience store and filling up his truck, he said, he realized he had lost the $450 that was in his pocket.
After walking back to the hospital, he said he told officers he needed to look for the money, which was all he had in the world. After confirming that Heath was the same man who had been told to leave before, other officers arrested him for criminal trespass.
Waco attorney Jack Hurley, who was on the jury, said jurors found him guilty because his story about the money was not consistent with officers who warned him to leave.
“Even if he did have the money, he didn’t have the right to go back and look for it under those circumstances,” Hurley said.
After his arrest, Heath lost his job with the WPA and has been unable to find work since, he said.
Bennett said the case went to trial because prosecutors need to stand behind police officers.
“We felt like the officers there at the hospital were in a very difficult situation and their work needed to be supported by this prosecution,” Bennett said. “Obviously, the jury felt the officers were doing a good job by their verdict.”