Through no fault of my own, I was born in Dallas. I never cared much for Dallas. Cold and haughty. I thought. But it was my birthplace, my occasional pride and then my great shame when John F. Kennedy was gunned down in a Dallas motorcade.

All Texans, especially Dallas Texans, were burdened by the assassination of President Kennedy. Killed by a sniper, the unknown Lee Harvey Oswald. Guilt by association. “Why did you kill our president?” If not on the lips, it was in the eyes whenever non-Texans met Texans, especially Dallas Texans.

On my own, along with a little boost from Uncle Sam, I enrolled in the University of Texas. I cared a lot for UT. I also liked Austin. But one blistering hot August day an unknown student named Charles Whitman lugged a foot-locker full of weapons up 27 floors to the top of the campus tower. Before he was gunned down, Whitman shot more than 40 people — 16 died. Horrific. “What’s wrong with Texas?” “What’s wrong with Austin?” “What’s wrong with the University of Texas?” “How could you let this happen?”

To say it could happen anywhere doesn’t cover the wound. It still hurts. The doubt remains. “Could it really happen anywhere?” “Did we do something wrong?” “What should we have done to prevent this tragedy, this shame?”

Senseless and sensational

Now my home is in Waco where again the world’s press has concentrated its spotlight. Once again, the press focus is on explosive violence, senseless and sensational. At a heavily fortified compound outside Waco the Sunday morning mist was shattered when a self-anointed messiah — Christ — and his faithful disciples fought a 45-minute pitched gun battle with federal agents.

Four federal officers were killed and 15 others were wounded by the sinful messiah and his followers. The cult outgunned the government’s 100-member assault team, which was attempting to serve warrants relating to the group’s stockpiled arsenal. Tragically, cult members also died.

Again, as the press riveted its attention on the nearby unfolding violent drama, startled local residents were left to wonder why. Why here? A worm of guilt. “We do have a nice city,” said Waco Mayor Bob Sheehy. “It’s hard to believe this has occurred right outside your town.”

Went terribly wrong

But something went terribly wrong. Are we at fault somehow? Is there something about Waco that would attract a potentially dangerous religious cult? Or was it just circumstantial? Could it have happened anywhere?

Why the Branch Davidian sect chose to settle in Waco is not clear. That happened more than 50 years ago. But unlike the tragic events that occurred in Dallas and Austin, there were warning signals here. Rival sect leaders fought a raging gun battle on the compound’s property in 1987, which culminated in the takeover by the sect’s current leader who claims to be Christ.

Local authorities were warned repeatedly that the cult was building an arsenal of weapons. They were warned about allegations of physical, sexual and psychological abuse of children. They were told that the cult’s leader had sex with under-aged girls, that he whipped infants and that he declared himself the only perfect mate for women in the cult. State and federal officials also were warned.

Nearly nine months ago two Waco Tribune-Herald reporters began an investigation into the Branch Davidians. The results were designed to warn the public of the dangers represented by the local religious cult. Only two parts of the seven-part series were published before Sunday’s tragedy.

Perhaps more could have been done to prevent Sunday’s tragedy. Perhaps not. That question needs to be analyzed. But the mayor is right. Waco is a nice city. And everyone here feels devastated by the tragedy.

Rowland Nethaway’s column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.


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.