Billy Atkinson drives past a veritable circus to get to this home.
He has lived for 10 yeas on FM 2491, a once peaceful stretch of asphalt that connects Waco to the Elk community.
That road also leads to the Mount Carmel compound, where Branch Davidian cult leader Vernon Howell and his followers have holed up since last week’s shootout with federal agents.
Atkinson now steers his pickup truck through guarded roadblocks and ranks of camera crews, journalists and photographers that line the street.
But Atkinson said the hubbub doesn’t bother him.
He even slows down at the first checkpoint to chat with sheriff’s deputies, who now recognize him and wave him through.
Not Jehovah’s Witnesses
“I’ll tell you what does bother me,” Atkinson said. “This is a big fuss over nothing. These people have been here a long time and never bother nobody. They don’t evangelize and come knock on your door like the Jehovah’s Witnesss.”
This is one of several common reactions to the event thtat has focused international attention on Waco, says a Texas psychologist. Those reactions include shock, rage and denial.
Ira Iscoe is a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin He specializes in the mental health of communities and helped develop the university’s community psychology program in 1965.
Like Atkinson, residents often would rather deny or ignore the problem, Iscoe said.
“Basically, people will let people be eccentric – providing they don’t have to put up with the eccentricities,” he said. “Maybe since It is a religious town, they’re better at tolerating it: ‘They believe in their religion, leave them alone. They’re not bothering us.’ “
3 different situations
Iscoe said the deadly showdown that killed four Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearm agents and two cult members is not comparable with the two other Texas tragedies that put Austin and Killeen in the spotlight.
In 1966, Charles Whitman, a 25-year-old student, opened fire from the University Of Texas Tower in Austin, fatally gunning down 16 people and wounding 31 others. Iscoe helped investigate that incident and design a hotline for troubled students.
In 1991 George Hennard killed 22 people in a shooting spree at a Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen.
“The difference here is we have armed confrontations of two groups,” Iscoe said. For the Whitman thing and Killeen, one person had aggression against other people who were minding their own business.”
People in Killeen pulled together to cope with that tragedy.
“Killeen brought it together because all these people were suffering,” he said.
In Waco, residents likely will feel anger over the way federal agents handled the attempt to serve an arrest warrant on Howell, he said.
“Waco’s going to have a hell of a lot of resentment to ATF people for embarrassing them, putting Waco up there, saying ‘Near Waco, there’s a cult,’ “ he said.
But Iscoe said such feelings are normal.
“I think honesty of feelings is always healthy,” he said. “If I was a Waco resident, I’d probably distance myself from it as much as possible.”
They also will feel anger over the lives lost and endangered, especially the children’s, he said..
“They say, ‘Why get four people killed? Why can’t you arrest a guy without all this bloodshed?’ “ he said. “The fact that the ATF rehearsed for eight months raised questions. Why do you do it when the kids are there? People are going to be damn upset because they were innocent.”
Concern for the children
Even more upset and shocked are those who knew the children.
Former Axtell Independent School District Superintendent William Crockett said 11 children of Branch Davidians attended Axtell schools off and on for years. They were pulled out two years ago to be home schooled, he said.
Crockett said he felt shock when he learned of last week’s shooting between cult members and federal agents.
“We knew these children, and it hurt us,” said Crockett, who retired in December. “Gosh, the teachers had them in class. They were close to them. You just feel for them. We think it’s a tragedy.”
Equally tragic were the double lives the children seemed to have led.
‘A side we hadn’t seen’
“This is a side we hadn’t seen of these people,” he said. “Our dealings with them had always been normal. That’s what’s hard. We never saw this side of them before. We never knew any of it.”
Crockett said the children varied in age. He described them as “good kids” but said they were not the type that hung out at other children’s homes or invited them over after school.
“They knew they weren’t going to be going home or visiting the other kids on the weekends because they lived out there,” he said. “They were good kids.”
He recalled one boy who was above average, who excelled in literary events and won district tournaments in science and math
“He was a real smart kid,” he said. “He would have been a senior now. He could have been a valedictorian. We’re talking 95 or 96 average. . . . We’re just hoping and praying that the kids that we know come out of there all right and nobody else gets hurt.”