For the past 71 days, federal or state law enforcement officials have had care, custody and control of the 77-acre Branch Davidian compound and much of the roadways and area around it.
Except for the notable exceptions of two religious zealots who sneaked past federal officials and entered the compound during the prolonged standoff, few people got near Mount Carmel without drawing the attention of armed agents.
But what happens when state and federal agents finish processing the fire-ravaged area that once was home to more than 100 cult members led by Vernon Howell and leave town?
It’s not a concept that McLennan County authorities like to visualize, but one, indeed, that has gotten their attention. Local officials have begun to identify and plan for a myriad of potential problems that will be left behind.
“It’s a morass,” one said. “It’s going to be the biggest tar baby that anyone could have ever put together.”
County officials are reticent to speak publicly about their concerns, saying that to do so might invite more problems and lawsuits or give cult defense attorneys more ammunition for their already steady attacks on law enforcement.
However, sources have said that a number of county officials, including Waco attorney Herb Bristow who represents the county, have met privately in the past week to discuss possible plans of action and ways to head off problems once federal officials pull out.
“We have been discussing potential activities of local government in response to current and potential situations at the Mount Carmel compound,” said McLennan County District Attorney John Segrest. “However, because of the nature of those discussions, I cannot reveal the specific matters discussed nor potential responses.
“Detailing our discussions would serve no useful purpose at this point. But I will say that the primary concern of all authorities is the health, safety and welfare of the public,” he said.
Segrest would say that his office still is facing the possibility of handling the prosecution of surviving cult members should he and federal prosecutors decide to go that route.
Bristow declined to comment, saying the timing for such public discussions was premature.
But one thing appears clear at this point in the process of unraveling what happened on Feb. 28, when four federal agents and six cult members died during the raid, and on April 19, when as many as 72 cult members died in the horrific fire that leveled the compound: There are more questions than answers.
Like what happens to the 77.86 acres of land 10 miles east of Waco? The land belongs to the Branch Davidian Seventh-day Adventists Association, and Howell, also known as David Koresh, was trustee for the association.
Howell’s attorney, David DeGuerin of Houston, said last week that Howell thought it important to keep the standoff going until at least mid-March because he would have occupied the land for five years at that point after taking it away from rival prophet George Roden.
Five years is the required occupancy term in adverse land possession disputes, DeGuerin said.
DeGuerin has prepared a trespass to try title suit to “perfect” the title, which has had clouds hanging over it for years, he said. The suit could be filed if a replacement trustee is designated, he said.
The county or federal government could try to seize and forfeit the property, which could be sold later, with the proceeds turned over to the seizing police agency and prosecutor’s office.
State forfeiture laws are broader than federal laws, but the ensuing action could open up more problems than it is worth. The Branch Davidian association and any of its surviving members could contest the seizure.
A sure fight
Former Davidian leader Roden, who is in a state mental facility after being charged with murder in West Texas, almost assuredly would contest the seizure.
If the county gains control of the property, how could it protect itself against potential liability? What of the health and environmental concerns? What if some of the almost-certain hordes of curious tourists who are sure to visit the site get injured?
What about the Branch Davidians who are buried in the private cemetery on the land they called “Green Acres?” Are they buried legally? Would the bodies have to be moved?
What does the county do with the cult members’ bodies who are not claimed or that cannot be identified? Several sect family members have already requested that the county pay to bury their loved ones on the cult property.
McLennan County Commissioner Lester Gibson, whose Precinct 2 includes the compound, is concerned with maintaining the county roadways near the site.
He half-jokingly says he has thought of turning Double EE Ranch Road, which runs in front of the property, into a toll road to take advantage of the anticipated flood of curiosity-seekers.
He said the gravel road is not designed for that much traffic, adding that it certainly was not made to accommodate the huge tanks that federal agents drove on it during the 51-day siege.
The sheriff’s department could have to beef up patrols of the area, officials have said, and expect more incident reports there.
Gibson and Precinct 4 Commissioner Ray Meadows both are unsure if the county should pursue forfeiture on the 77 acres, but they said the commissioner’s court will discuss all options available to it after federal agents leave.
“I have considered that, but I don’t know what the bottom line is on that,” Meadows said of seizing the land. “If we take over that property, what are we going to be responsible for? I am afraid that we would be sued, first of all . . . But anything we can do for the county and get some money out of it, without a whole lot of strings attached, I think we should go after it.”
There also are concerns that other Davidians will try to reclaim the land and rebuild the complex if the county does not take it.
Jo Cervenka and her husband, Robert, operate a ranch adjacent to the compound grounds and have been sorely inconvenienced during the standoff. She said she has nothing against most of her Branch Davidian neighbors, only Howell, whom she said was “obviously ill.”
Objection to arms
“My first reaction to them moving back on the property would be to say, ‘Whoa. Hold on.’ I can’t say that I would look forward to them moving back, no,” she said. “But I would have an objection to anyone who might build up an arms cache like that.”
But cult member Janet Kendrick, who is appointed caretaker of Branch Davidian land in East Texas, said there is not much chance of the group re-assembling on the land. Her husband, Woodrow Kendrick, was involved in a second shootout with federal agents on the evening of Feb. 28 and has been charged with attempted murder and aiding and abetting.
“The association owns the land, but we don’t have an association anymore,” she said. “What would we do out there? There is nothing to live in. There is just a small group of us left, and I don’t think we consider ourselves an association.
“We all still consider ourselves members, but we don’t have an organization, as such, because in an organization, you have a leader, and we don’t have a leader anymore. We are just individuals who all believe the same prophecies. That is all we are at the minute.”
She said there is no on to step forward to assume the leadership role once held by Howell, who called himself the Lamb of God.
Gibson said the association owes more than $3,000 in back taxes on the land, adding that if it is not paid, the county can file suit and sell the property at auction on the courthouse steps.