Naked City

The Ghosts of Waco

The memorial chapel at Mount Carmel
The memorial chapel at Mount Carmel (Photo By Robert Bryce)

Throughout the four-week Branch Davidian trial in Waco, there were ghosts. The last one was heard from on the afternoon of Thursday, July 13, when lawyers for the Branch Davidians presented their rebuttal to the government's defense in the Davidians' $675 million wrongful death lawsuit against the federal government. It was the voice of a young boy, perhaps eight or nine years old.

"Dad, Dad," yelled the child, in a scratchy recording made shortly before the fatal fire on April 19, 1993, with listening devices the FBI had planted inside Mount Carmel.

"Who are you looking for?" came the voice of an unidentified man.


"Go the other way," replied a voice that may have been the boy's father.

"There's too many people," said the child.

"Go the other way," said the man's voice.

"There's too many people in the way," said the child, more exasperated.

"Tell 'em to get out of the way. You can't come through," said the man.

"I can't," replied the boy.

During the trial, there were photos of victims, maps of Mount Carmel, boxes filled with charred firearms. There were long discussions about fire trucks, guns, gun battles and suicide pacts. And there were short bits of video. But the tape recording of the frustrated boy trying to reach his father was one of the most heart-rending moments of the trial. The recording provides a window on the confusion and disarray inside Mount Carmel in the moments before the building burned to the ground, killing the boy, his father, and dozens of others. It was a snippet of tragic reality in a formal trial that focused primarily on arcane legal issues of responsibility and liability.

And try as Judge Walter Smith and government lawyers might to keep emotion out of the courtroom, the ghosts of the dead kept passing

through like dark clouds pregnant with rain. Perhaps the darkest of those clouds passed when Sheila Martin took the stand. A serene woman in her late 40s who attended the entire trial, Martin moved to Mount Carmel with her husband Wayne, who was a Harvard-educated lawyer, and their seven children in 1985. On June 28, under questioning from her lawyer, former attorney general Ramsay Clark, Martin described her family's life at Mount Carmel, which included rigorous Bible study, strict work habits, and schooling for the children. Three weeks after the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms raided the building on February 28, 1993, on March 21, Martin left Mount Carmel with her three youngest children, Daniel, Kimberley, and Jamie, a blind child who was disabled by meningitis when he was four months old. Her husband, Wayne, 42, and her four oldest children, Wayne Jr., 20, Anita, 18, Sheila, 15, and Lisa, 13, stayed at Mount Carmel.

After leaving Mount Carmel, Martin and her children were housed at the Salvation Army's facility in downtown Waco. On April 19, Martin testified that she was in the cafeteria at the Salvation Army when "I heard someone talking about tanks being at the window at Mount Carmel. I went into the TV room and saw tanks on the left side of the building." Martin said she left the TV room with a few friends to pray.

Around noon, she was watching the TV "when we saw smoke coming out of my bedroom window [at Mount Carmel]. I ran back in to tell the others. They stood with me and we watched and we again went to pray."

"Did you know what happened to your husband and children?" asked Clark.

"They all died, yes sir," replied Martin quietly.

With that, the court adjourned for the day and observers were left to grapple with the enormity of Martin's loss. Not only did she lose her husband and four of her children, she watched them be incinerated on television. That kind of loss is almost beyond comprehension.

It was a tragedy that was felt by both sides. The final witness for the government was James A. McGee, an FBI agent who was part of the Hostage Rescue Team. McGee, who was stationed in one of the Bradley tanks in front of Mount Carmel, testified about his efforts to save Ruth Riddle, a Davidian who had jumped from the second floor of Mount Carmel to the ground. Although the building was engulfed in flames, Riddle walked back into the building and laid down. McGee got out of the Bradley and dashed into the building after her.

As he told the court about rescuing Riddle, McGee struggled to fight back tears. "I'd like people to understand this is a very emotional time for me," he said. He described how the burning debris fell around him as he struggled to carry Riddle out of the burning structure. "She said, 'Who are you?í" McGee recalled. After telling her, McGee said "I asked her where the children were. She just turned her head. I picked her up. She was resistant. And I took her back to the Bradley."

Asked why he went in, McGee said he wanted to save Riddle's life. "And the most important objective was to find out where the children were. And if she'd have told me I'd have gone after them or I would have died trying." With that statement, McGee again fought to retain his composure. Although McGee's heroic actions have been lauded and he has received the FBI's Medal of Valor, it was clear that the specters of Mount Carmel continue to haunt him.

On Friday, the five-member jury in the Davidians' case sided with the government. But in some ways, the verdict in the court case won't matter. Even if the Davidians had won and gotten every dollar they asked for, 84 people -- 80 Davidians and four ATF agents -- would still be dead. And no matter what happens now, whether the blame is placed on David Koresh and the Davidians or on the ATF and the FBI, that massive, senseless loss of life cannot, and will not, go away.

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Branch Davidians, Mount Carmel, Walter Smith, Sheila Martin, Ramsay Clark, Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, James A. McGee, Ruth Riddle, David Koresh

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