Branch Davidians


One-armed Annie

Part 1

It was a quiet evening at the Waco Sheriff’s Department. Most of the employees had gone home early for a change, and as the full moon broke over the horizon, the switchboard was strangely quiet. Larry Lynch, a big man with a pleasant face and almost perpetual half smile, was getting caught up on his paperwork when Lisa, the lone dispatcher on duty, came in with a bemused expression.

“There’s a call for the Sheriff on the line and I told them he wasn’t here, so they’re asking for you.”

“I knew this was too good to last,” he smiled. “Who is it?”

“It’s Vernon over at Elm Mott. Seems they’re having problems with George again,” she replied.

“I sure hope it’s nothing that will ruin his chances for the presidency,” he chuckled, leaning over and pressing the blinking button on the phone.

“Hey Vernon, it’s Larry, whacha got goin’ on out there?”

“Larry,” replied a soft voice. “George has really gone off the deep end again, and I’m worried. He’s challenged me to a contest, Larry, a contest to raise the dead.”

“Anyone special I should know about?” asked Lynch.

“One-armed Annie,” Vernon replied solemnly. “He’s dug her up and has her over in the old church. He’s been gettin’ drunk, ravin’ and speakin’ in tongues for a few days now. He’s got a gun, Larry, and has started shootin’ up in the air and makin’ threats at anyone who comes around. It’s a sacrilege what he’s done to her, it ought to be against the law. He keeps callin’ me at all hours, challenging me to come on over for a crazy contest to see who can bring her back to life, and he says that the winner will be the chosen one to lead the flock.”

Lynch rolled his eyes at the dispatcher, making a crazy-loco gesture with his hand, and shaking his head while he listened to the earnest voice on the other end of the line.

“I’ll need to speak to the Sheriff about this, Vernon,” Larry said sincerely. “I’m not sure what law he’s breaking, but we’ll get back to you.”

“Thanks Larry,” Vernon said. “My best to the sheriff and y’all. We’ll be praying’ for you.”

David K. Vernon Howell hung up the phone and crossed the small, neat living room to his wife, Robin, who was holding their sleeping child. He kissed them both and shook his head solemnly, the same worried expression on his face that he had worn for days.

Part 2

One-armed Annie Plemons and her husband, Jess, had been drawn to the promised land of McLennan County from Palestine, Texas, by the sheer beauty of the area. The soft, rolling hills, huge live oak trees, stock tanks, wildflowers and the privacy afforded in the sparsely populated area, had allowed the Davidians almost complete anonymity for nearly eighty years. As founders of the Davidians, Annie and Jess had bequeathed Mt Carmel to their followers, and when Annie passed, the leadership of the sect was transferred finally to her husband’s favorite prophet, George Rodin.

George was a big man, described by most as intelligent and cagey, and those who knew him recalled a man who was given a wide berth. Folks with any sense at all avoided theological debate with the prophet, who could hurl chapter and verse back at even the most scholarly Baylor Baptist. When it came to “versifying,” Rodin could certainly hold his own. Over the years, however, Rodin’s behavior had become more and more strange, and had caused a rift in the once tightly-knit community. Rodin had really lost it, and insane rants and dire threats became the rule, rather than the exception, in the few human contacts made with the mad prophet.

Recently, Vernon and his group of followers had returned to Mt Carmel, from Palestine, Texas, where they had fled after a conflict with Rodin. In Palestine, Vernon’s encampment was not nearly as large as Mt Carmel, and the faithful had been forced to live in tents, roughing it in exile until they were called back home, trying to avoid more conflicts with Rodin. Vernon’s group fervently prayed for the restoration of their rightful home, and the second coming together of the flock, a reunion that could only occur once Rodin’s lunacy finally landed him in the Rusk State Hospital, or the grave.

Rodin’s mental deterioration, evidenced by his reoccurring presidential bid and various other crazy antics, had been deeply embarrassing to Vernon and some of the others, who rightfully believed that Rodin’s bad reputation had brought them unwanted attention from the predominantly Southern Baptist community. Christians in Waco tended to be strict fundamentalists, staunchly avowing and preaching regularly from the pulpit, that theirs was the only way to enter the pearly gates, leaving little or no room for other unfortunate misbelievers. The city had only recently voted to allow liquor by the drink in 1972, but somehow, up to that time, the polygamy, and other religious practices of the Davidians had been begrudgingly tolerated, and thankfully ignored by their neighbors in Waco.

Outside of Waco, the neighbors around the Davidian land lived in peaceful co-existence with the sect. Elm Mott was a safe enough distance from Waco, and farmers and cowboys alike enjoyed a life akin to the Wild West. Guns mounted on racks in pickups were the rule, rather than the exception, and occasionally, shots could be heard from any number of weapons belonging to residents taking target practice, or shooting at a snake, coyote, or other varmint. Hell, no fool would go into a pasture or even into town without a twenty-two shotgun, at least. But the thought of George Rodin, raving drunk and shooting at those curious enough or brave enough to approach the old church where he was holding a dead body hostage, sent chills down Larry Lynch’s spine as he dialed the home number of Sheriff Jack Harwell.

Part 3

Sheriff Jack strode into the office early Monday morning. Tall, straight, proud, and perpetually dressed in freshly pressed khaki pants, white shirt, and cowboy hat, he lived the part of the true Texas gentleman politician. Jack Harwell never said a bad word about anybody. During one of the messiest and meanest campaigns for sheriff, folks sometimes amused themselves by trying to bait Jack into saying just one derogatory thing about his opponent, Deputy Rex Phillips.

Jack had just grinned real big, and drawled, “Ain’t he got a nice wife.”

He was a real peacemaker, and he and his men had been out to Mt Carmel many times. No campaign for Sheriff Jack was without the usual Davidian ice cream social. The group represented over a hundred votes, and since their land bordered the road to Mexia, Jack appreciated having his pick of the prime locations for campaign signs. The sheriff maintained a good relationship with his constituents, and on several occasions, he and some of the guys, usually Gene Barber, Lynch, or Captain Dan would stop by for a cold drink or cup of coffee on their way to distant parts of the county. Jack was well aware of Rodin’s mental deterioration, and like Vernon, he was waiting for some inevitable final act that would signal the end of Rodin’s term as leader and prophet of the Davidians.

After hearing his most recent complaint, Jack had suggested that Vernon and his men conduct some further investigation. Perhaps taking some photos of Rodin’s latest stunt might be of value to serve as evidence of grave-tampering, or at the very least, prove the egregious mistreatment and disrespect of the dead Rodin was allegedly inflicting on One-armed Annie Plemons. He cautioned Vernon to proceed with the utmost care, because George Rodin’s recent behavior was unpredictable, and maybe even dangerous.

Rusty was pushing Winn Jr. through the toy aisle of the K Mart on Valley Mills Drive when she noticed the Davidian girls, supporting babies, and holding the chubby hands of their numerous children while their men shopped in Sporting Goods. They had loaded baskets full of camouflage clothing, night vision goggles, cameras, and other assorted weaponry, and huddled, mumbling among themselves as they thriftily sought out the best buys, as was their nature.

She was vaguely aware of other shoppers passing by, who gave the group strange looks, and hissing whispers behind obscuring hands, as they sped up their buggies and hurried down the aisles. Other than noticing, Rusty paid little attention. Why bother? As district Attorney for the county, Winn had represented a parade of folks like Michael Lowe, who went on to wear a red satin sheet as head of the Klan, so that after a while, they were all just parts of an endless string of strange characters in this strange Texas town.

Part 4

The phone rang early, way too early, which was how she always knew something was up.

“Yeah, Sheriff, I’m up, no problem,” Winn responded with respect, sitting up quickly on his side of the bed.

Sheriff Jack never called the house, and Rusty’s radar hummed with thoughts of some bloodbath in the county, so she sat up as quickly as Winn, and with probably more interest, considering the early hour. She relished the position of being the first to know, and her coffee friends loved it too. With a good story she could show up at Ida’s and never have to pay for a single cup.

“Jeezus Christ, Jack,” Winn said, the tone of his voice abruptly changing, “You just about invited them to commit murder, you know.”

That knee jerk brilliance; oh yes, Rusty thought proudly, that was Winn Norman.

“You get bullets whizzin’ round Elm Mott, people ain’t gonna like it,” Winn moaned, but continued to listen intently as Sheriff Jack, this fine man, admitted that there was a serious problem, and that both he and Larry Lynch were deeply involved and could be forced to be called as witnesses.

“How’s Rodin doin’?” Winn finally asked, as Rusty, not able to bear the suspense, mouthed and pantomimed.

“WHO. . . who is it?”

Winn’s expression chastised her, and he threw an impatient gesture her way.

“Just winged? That’s good. I’ll get on that search warrant for you. Yep, I’m on my way. Y’all got any doughnuts over there?”

Enthralled, Rusty followed Winn like a puppy from room to room as he dressed and filled her in on the details.

It seemed that, on the advice of the Sheriff and Larry Lynch, David Vernon and his men had approached George Rodin’s fortress over at the old church under cover of darkness. Aided by their recently-purchased military gear and night vision cameras, Vernon’s raiders were prepared for the worst, but had hoped for the best. Their mission was to take some photos of the crazy prophet desecrating Annie’s remains and then to deliver the evidence to the Sheriff. They all agreed that this time George had gone too far.

As the group waited for their opportunity, Rodin seemed to sense their presence, with that uncanny second-sight that is sometimes common in the insane. Armed to the teeth, and hungry for conflict, Rodin grabbed his .22 and fired off a few rounds in their direction. Vernon’s group returned fire. Lots of fire.

Although greatly outnumbered, George Rodin had only suffered a flesh wound, and had been admitted to the hospital, but was expected to make a quick recovery. Naturally, he was demanding Justice. Even though certifiable, Rodin was no fool, and he figured that justice would serve his purpose as the intervening hand of God, finally and irrevocably healing the rift in the flock, and restoring their rightful obedience to his leadership, sans Vernon Howell and his bunch of troublemakers.

Winn’s immediate problem, however, was how to keep this incident as quiet as possible and to somehow come up with a way to work damage control for Sheriff Jack, who was up to his knees in a mess of his own unintentional making. The law had to be upheld. Shots had been exchanged, wounds inflicted, and procedures had to be followed, but the Sheriff WAS the law in McLennan County, and that law deserved and required all the protection and assistance he could legally provide.

Part 5

Jack Harwell didn’t have to ask for anything. He routinely received 75% of the popular vote in McLennan County. Joyce, his wife of forty years, owned a diner and was known far and wide for the lemon pies that covered the tables and desks at the Sheriff’s victory parties. Delicious as they were, they clashed somewhat with the booze the deputies stashed in desk drawers, along with ivy-growing bongs, and an interesting latex sex pillow, treasured as a souvenir from the latest bust at the infamous “Capri” porno theater. But it was all in good fun, a part of the good old boy camaraderie, and the pillow came in handy for breaking in a new secretary or female dispatcher in the days before sexual harassment lawsuits abounded.

On this early morning hour, fully half of the residents of Elm Mott waited impatiently in the Sheriff’s office, while Jack himself laid low in Winn Norman’s office upstairs from the jail in the courthouse annex. Ruby, Jack’s long time secretary, was keeping busy handing out cups of coffee as landowners from all over that part of the county gossiped about the events of the early morning activities that had awakened them. The gunfight reminded some of the good old fly days when the air force base had been the home of the big cargo planes and swift-as-a-sparrow jets. Other folks were hoping that Vernon Howell and the rest had finally “bagged” crazy George Rodin, and were dying to hear the details. But in the meantime, the conversation turned to some recent community gossip.

“How in the hell can that City Council of ours advertise a gawddamned Waco Weekend, with this kind of thing happenin’ around here?” one quipped, jabbing at the recent expenditure of 60,000 taxpayer dollars to some out-of-town consultant who came up with a town promotion that consisted of a huge billboard out on I35 showing the backs of two people in a convertible driving towards a sign that promised “Waco Weekend.”

“They should’a put up a sign that said ‘Gunfight at the OK Corral,’” another added, getting a few chuckles in response.

“Bunch of gawddamned vegetarian, polygamist, weird-o’s,” observed A.C. Breeland, sucking on a toothpick at six thirty in the morning.

The dispatcher’s office was within walking distance of Jack’s, and each time Larry Lynch radioed in from Vernon’s place, someone sprinted over with the latest, and reported to the rapidly growing gathering of citizens at the Sheriff’s Office.

Over in the Justice building, pockets of attorneys clustered around desks chatting and giggling in disbelief at the misunderstanding between “gathering evidence for Sheriff Jack,” and the camouflage clothing, night vision glasses, guns and camera that had actually happened. This was a mix-up of gigantic proportions, and was the talk of the town.

“Moose” McMartin, a lieutenant in the Sheriff’s Office and longtime friend motioned for Winn to come into John Souther’s office as he bent a cheap metal blind to get a good view of the parking area outside the booking department of the Sheriff’s main office. Winn joined him at the window and as the two peered out they saw two of Vernon Howell’s men, handcuffed, getting out of a Sheriff’s cruiser.

Moose plunked at the window, and Bobby Clark looked up as Moose made a gun motion with his three right hand fingers. One finger was missing a tip, which made the effect better, in Moose’s view.

“Yep, bit off by a whore on El-um Street,” he’d always tell in his unmistakable slow drawl. “Had to take them shots in the belly for rabies. Can’t never tell about them whores.”

Back down at the parking lot, Bobby, the deputy, rolled his eyes and shook his head behind the backs of two very penitent, obviously shaken, prisoners.

“Gawddamn, don’t hurt yourselves getting’ out of the car. Sheriff Jack’d have my ass if y’all got hurt.”

Moose narrowed his eyes at Winn as he took his hand away from between the window, leaving a big diamond shape in poor Souther’s blinds.

“Ya know, ole Jack’s got one hell of a problem. Since he told Lynch to tell ole Vernon he needed evidence that George was abusing a corpse, seems Vernon’s defense is gonna be Jack.”

“Moose, gawddamnit, you sons of bitches think you’re fucking attorneys, one the sun goes down. I’m not even sure that there is a corpse abuse statue in the law,” Winn replied petulantly.

“Waall,” Moose drawled on, “you sons of bitches don’t like us sons of bitches callin’ your fancy asses in the middle of the night ‘bout some Davidian bullshit neither.” He stopped himself and looked Winn squarely in the eyes. “Gawddamnit, man it’s JACK.”

Winn was already pissed off because he couldn’t even find a parking place anywhere the courthouse that morning. Three TV station vans, complete with reporters, had filled his usual slot. And having to face a grinning Ronnie Mosberger from the Waco Herald Tribune, still asleep on the street corner, had about stretched his temper to the limit.

Just in time to cut any further comment short, Ruby came around the corner with a stack of pink “While You Were Out” notes, looking wearing a frazzled and lost look on her face, and a big coffee stain on her prim, red dress. Winn and Moose quickly spun her into Winn’s office, where she was startled to find the waiting, worried Sheriff Jack. She dropped the stack of notes into Jack’s lap like a hot potato, and fled quickly, as they fell, scattering like dead leaves across the floor when Jack rose to greet Winn.

“How many of them we got?” Winn asked.

“Twelve,” answered the sheriff, hanging his head slightly as he began to gather up, and read the pink papers.

“Do I have to handcuff them?” a message from Willis Williams read. Then he silently read another from Larry Lynch, Sheriff Jack’s favorite deputy, requesting that the sheriff’s office send out the county van, because it didn’t look like the sheriff’s cruisers could hold the entire weapons cache. There were just too damn many.

“What in the hell are they doing with all these guns, Jack?” Winn asked.

“Awww hell, Winn, ya know, they deal in arms and guns and stuff, go to the gun

shows, stuff like that.”

The two men were momentarily lost for words, but the silence between them spoke volumes.

Part 6

Quickly and quietly booked in, and released almost as fast, Vernon Howell and his group of Davidian dissidents were back at Mt Carmel by the time Sheriff Jack and his deputies arrived with a warrant to search for weapons. Rifle after rifle was taken from the compound and piled into the back of a cruiser, then two more. There were a lot of weapons, but the Davidians surrendered them without argument, as Jack and Larry Lynch hung around, talking in embarrassed, lowered voices as the arsenal, and their concern, grew.

When the last of the weapons had been duly delivered into the hands of the law, Vernon finally emerged from the compound’s kitchen building. He was followed by several men and their pretty, longhaired, freshly scrubbed women with no make-up, laden with the jars of lemonade and platters of freshly baked cookies in the traditional gesture of hospitality and good will that marked their simple faith

“He shot first, Sheriff Jack, he surely did. Ask anyone,” Vernon said earnestly, and the others nodded in agreement.

“I know, Vernon, I know,” Jack replied. “It just ain’t all that easy, this ain’t the Wild West, you know.”

“Mr. Winn says Rodin’s calling it attempted murder.”

An uncomfortable silence fell on the group as the deputies forced the last of the guns into the trunk of the third cruiser. It was broken when Livingstone Fagan burst out of the kitchen door carrying two semi-automatic rifles and wearing a broad smile on his face.

“Here’s two more!” He proclaimed proudly.

Sheriff Jack Harwell tried, but failed to completely suppress the groan that escaped from some deep, dark, growing hole in his usually calm spirit.

Part 7

In Texas, state grand juries convene every second Tuesday, and the day was quickly approaching when the case of the Davidians would be considered. Stuck in the middle of it all, Winn understood both sides of the story, and felt particularly sympathetic for the many defenseless, sheltered Davidian wives and children who would be left without support if their men were sent to Huntsville, but he wasn’t at all certain that Sheriff Jack’s long-standing reputation deserved to be sacrificed for the good of the cult.

There were certain rules upheld in the county’s good ole boy network, and although Rusty had observed the phenomenon for years, she usually dismissed it as being rather like a spat between Boy Scouts at a charity car wash, until the present circumstances and events began to show real strain on Winn. Many of the daily quipping and joking around that she had witnessed, actually had a basis in abject hatred, which was to develop even further in the days and weeks to come. The scent of Aqua Velva swept through the house earlier now, and she was concerned about the toll it was taking on her husband, though she had no doubt that he would somehow, work the thing out, as always.

Two days after the shootout and the search of the Davidian home and property, Vernon had called Sheriff Jack.

“Mornin’ Sheriff Jack, this is Vernon Howell. Ya know, your deputies missed a few of our rifles. You wanna come get them, or do you want us to bring them over?”

Moose was already in the Sheriff’s Annex when the call came in; just him and the Davidians up at that hour of the morning. Now, he had positioned himself on the curb in front of Winn Norman’s parking place in the reserved Sheriff’s lot, a gift from Jack for his “ear” on the Vernon Howel “thang.”

That morning, Winn pulled slowly into the spot marked “D.A.,” and looked bemusedly at Moose, who was trying to contain his excitement at being the first to report Lynch’s latest fuck-up. Lynch was Jack’s heir apparent, and Moose didn’t like that much. Not much at all, and he delighted in terrorizing Lynch whenever possible, chipping steadily away at Sheriff Jack and Captain Dan’s loyalties to Larry Lynch. Moose began his usual harangue before Winn even had a chance to step out of his car.

“Them silly sons of bitches forgot about fifteen semi-automatics and ole Vernon called to get Lynch to come on out and pick ‘em up, or Vernon’d deliver ‘em, if Jack wants. Ain’t that sumthin’?” Moose paused, expecting some reaction, but was sorely disappointed when Winn passed him without even looking up, and walked quickly into the building.

J. Pat Murphy met Winn in the office, and after Winn closed and locked the door and cracked the windows, they both sat, chain-smoking Marlboro Reds, hoping to plan some kind of strategy to salvage Jack’s reputation.

“We gotta make a decision here, Boss,” Murphy said as he exhaled smoke up in the general direction of Weldon Well’s County Auditor’s Office.

Winn knew he had an enemy in place up there. Weldon didn’t want to come clean about the hidden bank account that Weldon and some of the judges used as their own private slush fund. It was known to the public as the “County Discretionary Fund,” and Winn knew that the whole deal stank to high heaven, but up to now he hadn’t been able to break through it, due to Weldon’s constant husbandry, and his denial of most of Winn’s suggestions to bring the county kicking and screaming into the 20th Century.

The D.A.’s office had plead for computers for their offices, but Weldon had repeatedly denied their requests, believing unquestioningly that computers would go the way of hula-hoops and mood rings, and were just a passing fancy. In McLennon County everything was still done by hand, and the county was known for its lagging pay in comparison to other offices. It didn’t help much that the county already had a hickey dubbed “Bobby’s folly” in the jail that was already on the Fed’s most overcrowded list by the time it had finally been built.

“Bobby,” as Judge Thompson was known, had been a county judge forever, and ran the courthouse as if he owned it. Polio had gotten him in the 50’s, ending a promising athletic career, but not extinguishing his burning ambition. He was known around town as being smart and personable, and the kingmakers in Waco made no secret about their plans for him. Bobby’s dream was no less than a seat on the State Supreme Court, and he had climbed one rung higher when he had been elected to the bench of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, and had gone “upstairs” in the old courthouse to the Appeals Court Chamber and library. Not a bad move for a diminutive, failing figure in a wheelchair.

Another hurdle Winn faced in the forthcoming battle was the standing, of unspoken feud with longtime Democrat, Raymond Matkin, who had won the County Judgeship vacated by Bobby Thomas after a heated primary filled with hard feelings between the Matins, longtime friends of Rusty’s more than Winn, and John Souter, Winn’s assistant, a non-lawyer. Matin had little in common with Winn Norman to say the least, and the only real bond was between Rusty and Matin’s wife, Lyla. Rusty loved Lyla and hung out at the Matin’s house regularly, but the election had ended that relationship. Like Winn, Rusty, too, found herself caught between a rock and a hard place, and Souter’s candidacy had finally pushed the women’s tenacious relationship over the edge for good.

In spite of the ongoing conflict in the courthouse, and the certainty of the fight to come, Winn had gained the support of the voters, and his own tenacious belief in the power of justice was a foundation that had never failed him in times of need. Much to the chagrin and sometimes, downright terror of some of the County officials, Winn had hired the tallest, blackest lawyer from what Moose had called “Deetroit City” who had ever been a friend of Malcom X, or resided in McLennon County. On paper, Winn had hired a mundane Sidney Kelly, but in reality he had hired El Hadi T. Shabazz. Six foot eight, with a shaved head, Shabazz was probably the only Muslim in the Baptist community, and was happily married to a tiny Phillipina.

“Jeezuz! You sure you ain’t in the wrong movie?” Rusty had exclaimed at her first sighting of El Hadi T.

She had been attending Fritz Kreigel’s funeral that day, and stood six foot four in her high heels. Winn had performed the service and Rusty had observed from the shelter of the Wilkerson Hatch Funeral tent as he worked his magic with words there in the gray Texas drizzle. Fritz had “drank hisself to death,” leaving behind a crowd of old alcoholic friends and bawling women, most of them angry that he had chosen to die the same way “mama died, and in the same bed.”

El Hadi T towered over Rusty, and she wasn’t used to that. Not one bit.

“You must be Rusty Norman,” El Hadi had crooned in a soft, well-mannered voice. “I’ve heard stories about you, girl.”

“My ass is going on the backburner once these motherfuckers see you. They just now got used to Lester Gipson, and he ain’t near as big as you, and he’s a Muslim turned Baptist!” Rusty quipped with a smile, glad, as always to be noticed and appreciated as being more than just the D.A.’s wife.

“I love it here already,” he replied more to himself than to her, but Rusty noticed, and thought to herself; this man is sincere.

Later, back at the office, Rusty had leaned across Winn’s desk until her face was inches from his and whispered, “Where the living hell did you get El Hadi T?”

Winn grinned and fiddled in his drawer, looking for a lone Red to smoke.

“Ain’t he sumthin’?” he replied, still fiddling.

Rusty realized that Winn had an angle. Either he had hired El Hadi to piss somebody off, or to make some important impression. She didn’t know which, but she did know that the tiny good, Baptist women of Waco, along with the respected deacons who were their spouses, would be affronted by “R’s” size, color, shaved head, glowing past, excellent, eloquent voice and manner, and that the news would hit the Waco gossip wire at the speed of light.

Outside the Ridgewood Country Club, they just don’t expect to see all that education and northern manner. Makes the locals nervous, makes them think Deetroit City is invading their county. First the Davidians, now this.

After what passed for coffee had worked its magic, Winn was in a better mood, and spent the next fifteen minutes answering messages and phone calls. Moose knocked on the door, and stuck his head in through the crack, “Y’all smokin’ in here against County ordinance.”

Rusty got up to leave; it was her cue.

“Sit back down, I got something to tell you, and you’re gonna love it,” he winked, motioning toward Moose to fill the empty leather chair.

“You meet my new employee?” Winn asked Moose.

“That big, tall brother?” Moose shot back.

“Well, he’s in charge of a case, first day here,” Winn said. “The Davidian shooting.”

Part 8

It is said that most grand juries are so malleable that they would indict a ham sandwich, and this one was no different. El Hadi T. Shabazz presented the case against Vernon and his group of vigilante Davidians for attempted murder, and the jury did its job. The “Jack Harwell Defense” never emerged as relevant, and the case centered on the question of who fired first, to the amazement of everyone at the courthouse, and it looked like the Davidians would get the speedy trial they demanded.

A little luck came Winn Norman’s way in the fortunate intervention of a capital murder case against Wayne Jester, which commenced on the same day as the Davidian trial. This quirk of fate shifted the public’s prurient interest away from Vernon’s boys because the case against the Davidians paled in comparison to Jester’s, who stood accused of burning his five-year-old stepson, Randy, to death. The defendant was known around town as a good Lutheran, a banker and pillar of the community, and had been working for an insurance company at the time of the killing. Although he was glad for the distraction, which kept him out of the Davidian mess, Winn was concerned about the circumstantial evidence in the case against the defendant, but at least it kept his mind occupied elsewhere.

El Hadi T Shabazz was well prepared when he entered the courtroom, and Judge Arthur John Bebee, a visiting judge retired from Marlin, Texas, in his late seventies, thought he had seen it all, until El Hadi T. walked in. The two examined each other like bugs under a microscope. El Hadi T. had only heard stories about Southern bigotry, but Arthur John had never imagined in his wildest dreams that he would face an educated lawyer in his courtroom that also happened to be the biggest colored man he had ever seen in his life. It was obvious to all those present that the judge pronounced the name “Mr. Shabazz” with both difficulty and distain.

Shabazz faced a baptism in fire and blood that day in the courtroom. He knew that in the public eye, he was cannon fodder, an outsider, and a newcomer, representing an unwanted minority, who was milking the system, regardless of his education and the hard work it had taken to get it. Ironically, Blind Justice dictated that the court respect El Hadi T’s role as the representative for the prosecution, in spite of the conventional wisdom and years of tradition and experience represented by the judge presiding at the bench.

Aside from the obvious obstacles, Shabazz faced a real problem in his star witness, George Rodin. He was nuts. Everyone knew it, and knew that something had to be done about it, but God knows, being a schizophrenic, especially in McLennan County wasn’t against the law, or else half the population would have been locked up. A slight scar from a bullet wound was Rodin’s evidence of attempted homicide, and for the lunatic prophet, it was sufficient.

On the opposing side, Vernon Howell placed his faith in his own evidence, the desecrated corpse of Annie Plemons. Because George Rodin was staying in town for the duration of the trial, Vernon and his men seized the opportunity to transport the concrete vault containing Annie’s earthly remains to Davidian property, and had stored it safely in a white van without incident or interference.

Rusty was up early, on her way to watch the trial, when the phone rang. It was Winn.

“You ain’t gonna believe what’s going on. I need your help. Seems Vernon and his boys are planning to try to put One-armed Annie into evidence.”

Before she could admit that such a move made some bit of sense to her, Winn continued, following his usual logical thought process, “You’ve got to see what you can find on corpse abuse, or something that prohibits the re-locating of the dead, because if they put her into evidence, we’ll end up having to keep her body in the safe upstairs forever.”

“Surely this is some joke,” Rusty said, reconsidering her first reaction.

“I sure as hell hope so,” he said, “Find something. Ask around.”

Part 9

Rusty was delighted with her role as assistant and undercover researcher as she dressed in her best black for a visit to the Connelly-Compton Funeral Home; she’d be the first to admit she was a ghoul. The establishment had a really huge room, carefully and tastefully decorated to resemble a secret burial chamber. Following the Egyptian motif, the chamber served as the favorite final viewing setting for many of Waco’s former “Cotton Palace Kings,” and their legendary, well-moneyed, but troubled families.

“Ahhh, the degenerate offspring of an illustrious sire,” she quoted to herself, as she eased her “78 Seville into the space closest to the entrance, avoiding unneeded contact with the misty, persistent rain, recalling the sad, early demise of her friend, Joe Portman, “The Third,” as everyone had called him.

She had always avoided him like the plague, keeping herself away from as many identified alcoholics as she could. “Tar Babies,” all of them, but Portman, “The Third,” had finally managed to wrangle his way into her heart at the funeral of a mutual friend, David Copeland, an old and treasured friend who had represented Portman for his numerous DWI’s. They had never chatted too much, just the polite conversation people shared over coffee, but at the time, her husband’s office was prosecuting “The Third” for the third time, and that had struck Rusty as an interesting coincidence. Given a choice between the local rehab, “la Hacienda,” or three months in Huntsville, he had chosen Huntsville, and to Rusty’s mind, that was worth noting.

When David Copeland died, she had walked into Wilkerson-Hatch Funeral Home, which was just as nice as Connelly-Compton, but with a Spanish theme. Portman was also in attendance, and spotted Rusty from the folding chair he occupied in a back corner of the room. She was near the end of the long line that had entered respectfully for the final viewing when he had walked sadly toward her, holding her eyes like a magnet, firm to steel, pouring his pain out to her in eight steps. He was heartbroken over David’s death, and Rusty had been moved by his pure emotion.

Always struck by his handsomeness and puppy-dog brown eyes, she noticed that day that he was a really a slight man, thin from too little food and too much alcohol. When he finally reached her, his eyes fell to his monogrammed linen handkerchief, probably pressed early that morning by a maid he’d known and taken for granted his whole life, and he wept into it. A few years later, Joe Portman the Third had gotten his life together, found love, and fallen off the pier at Lake Waco, and drowned. It just about broke everyone’s heart, including Rusty’s.

As she approached the door, two pale, handsome men, dressed in identical black suits appeared from nowhere and opened the glass doors for her, slowly and with choreographed care.

“Gawdamned if it ain’t the fuckin’ Addam’s Family,” she joked as she walked past the expressionless men.

Ted Rafferty emerged from a low lit, green room with just the corners of his lips tightened, as was his manner. He and Rusty loved one another.

“May I help you, Mrs. Norman?” he asked politely.

“Yeah, I’d like to see something in wood. You know, something you might keep on the floor of your little belfry in the back, someplace between the bronze executive models, and the paper one directly on the floor. Something that looks like a 1960’s hi-fi stereo in a nice maple or oak.”

“How ‘bout a trip to the showroom?” he replied, still maintaining his solemn tone.

As they walked noiselessly through the marble hallway, Rusty noticed that the rooms on either side were the dimmest dim the round dimmers could maintain without leaving the creepy corridors in total darkness. Only a single room at the end of the corridor nest to the one leading to the final EXIT shone with any light whatsoever.

“Tough times?” Rusty asked.

“No family,” he explained as they passed the room where an ancient man lay in state in the Egyptian mini-chamber. “Pre-need.”

“Must make you feel like a gay undertaker in a graveside-only world,” she quipped lightly as they entered the showroom and Ted Rafferty closed the door. “You know, when I die, Ted, I’m coming here. I want your hands on my body right before the grave.”

“Only the best for you, I promise. Three costume changes at the wake,” he replied, with an appropriately repressed hint of a giggle.

“Better than a banker’s wife?”

“Much better,” he swore, with one manicured eyebrow slightly raised.

“Fiberglass,” she ordered; she knew her business.

“Hard to get that shiny bronze color to match your hair in fiberglass,” he replied, knowing precisely where Rusty’s vanity lay.

“You got anything for me in the Davidian thing I called you about this morning?” Rusty asked, changing the ghoulish subject to the business at hand..

“I just don’t see it,” he answered. “A coffin itself weighs a lot, and as for a cement vault, well, we lower them into the ground with a machine. I can’t imagine them being able to load the damned thing into a rickety old panel van. And as far as the law goes, I can’t find a damned thing, checked with the folks in Austin, but haven’t heard back yet, five car collision in the Interstate keeping them busy, but I’m sure they’d be laughing their asses off at this one. It’d keep them busy for at least a couple of hours. But it ain’t right though,” he added, deferring to the serious nature of Rusty’s visit.

“I’ll check out the Health Department for ya, though. Gotta friend in Animal Control,” winking at Rusty in a knowing way.

“I’ll bet you do,” she answered, looking deeply into the white satin darkness of the leg part of a deep red coffin, positioned high above the other floor creepers.

Joe walked Rusty to her car under the protection of one of the two umbrellas his employees held obligingly, when she turned for one last word.

“You know I don’t look good in that shade of white.”

“Too virginal?” he asked, his eyebrow arching again.

“Candlelight!” they exclaimed together, to the amazement of neither, as she got back into her car.

Part 10

Judge Bebee had already denied two motions to allow Vernon and the other defendants to admit Annie’s remains into the courtroom that morning, and Judge Matlin looked tired as he followed the circular wall of the rotunda on the way to his office. Always well-dressed and quiet, but one mean drunk, Matlin knew that crazy Judge Bebee could do any damn thing he felt like, and there wasn’t a thing he could do about it. He didn’t want Annie Plemons’ body in his courthouse, no way, but he couldn’t for the life of him, think of a thing he could do to stop it. He hated crowds, and lately the courthouse had become a pocket for loonies, more so than usual, to his mind.

His longtime secretary held the door half open, sensing his looming presence, and he slid through it like a snake, into the sanctuary of his private office, where a pipe full of tobacco was waiting, the desk fan spinning the air toward the open window, showering Weldon Wells’ office with a mysterious odor whose source was believed to be “Barbecue from de Maria’s” down the street.

Weldon Wells played Little J. Edgar Hoover to most of the judges in McLennan County. New officials either took him on, and lost, or learned to play ball quickly, and survived. Wells was also card-carrying crazy, and sometimes wore rubber bands around the ankles of his pants. But in the courthouse, his power, such as it was, was absolute, in spite of the rubber bands.

Winn Norman was at war with both Matlin and Wells. Wells seemed to be holding the winning cards, until an unusual turn of events that had occurred earlier that year, when an angry DeVon Sypho had sought revenge on the D.A.’s through a drive-by shooting. He missed the D.A.’s office entirely, but several stray bullets had whizzed through the upper floors of the courthouse, missing Well’s face by inches. Feeling that cold brush with his own mortality had softened Wells somewhat, but Winn knew it was only a matter of time before hostilities commenced as usual.

Rusty called Winn from home after her visit to the funeral home and reported that there seemed to be no hope as far as the problem with Annie’s body and the vault that held her earthly remains was concerned. There might be something they could do if Annie had at least crossed county lines, but unfortunately, that hadn’t happened.

Part 11

It took Vernon Howell and just about all his men to lovingly and reverently load Annie, vault and all, into the double doors in the back of the old white Chevy van. They had thought that the drive into town would take them about forty-five minutes, driving slowly, but the group found themselves in front of the courthouse almost a full two hours before the proceedings were scheduled to begin.

They boys rode standing in the back of the van with the vault, and once they parked, the whole group piled out and headed for the nearest coffee shop, that Moose had lovingly named, “The Quick Lube.” They left the vault in the back of the van, covered with an old rose printed cotton bed sheet.

“You ain’t gonna believe this one,” Joan Chapman babbled breathlessly into the phone, “Those crazy Davidians have got that VAULT into a van and it’s parked right in front of the courthouse!”

“I’m bringing my camera,” Rusty said, practically running out the door as she spoke.

She sped down Waco Drive as fast as she could without breaking too many speed limits or running too many red lights. As she turned down Sixth Street toward to courthouse, she spotted the Chevy, doors flung open, right in front of the rotunda. She was just adjusting the shutter when Kelli Garnel walked up, all two hundred pounds of living hell of her.

“Well,” Rusty sneered in the usual way she addressed members of the local press, “if it’s not the Channel 10 News van here to do a story about the Branch Davidian Van.” The two had squared off years ago and pounded each other with insults as often as possible.

Kelli worked for the most prestigious network in town and had a reputation for getting the news first, but, as Rusty would always add, ”Whether it was true or not was another story.”

Two interesting hours passed, and the Davidians finally entered the courthouse as Rusty kept her station on a nearby bench situated nicely under an old pecan tree. From this vantage point she had a perfect view of the van and the courthouse square and was able to pass the time pleasantly, waiting patiently for whatever might transpire. She had almost dozed off, when the sound of the Davidians snapped her back into reality. As she watched, the group slid the vault carefully out of the van, hoisted Annie onto their broad shoulders, and carried her up the stairs to the first floor of the courthouse.

The first floor of the McLennan County Courthouse was considered by all to be sacred, hallowed ground. The polished marble floor of the rotunda held an inlaid map of the county, with the names of the cities, towns, and hamlets set in brass. The only flaw in the impressive display was the result of a “jumper” from a few years back that had practically ruined the “C” in McGregor.

Vernon and the Davidians deposited the concrete vault in the middle of the rotunda, where the light from the stained glass windows from the floors above cast an eerie, almost unearthly light that flooded the faded yellow rose-printed sheet with shimmering light spots in primary colors.

“Gawddamn shame,” Ross Minsky exclaimed, wincing visibly at the sight when he turned the corner from the Constable’s office. “Ain’t even a super highway coming through there, and they still dug her up. Damned shame.”

When Judge Matkin’s car pulled into his reserved spot, the word of his arrival spread like fire among the secretaries. By the time he entered the rotunda on the way to his office, you could have heard a pin drop, and all eyes were glued to old keyholes, and ears were pressed against the beveled glass panes of the old-fashioned doors.

“It was so gawddamned big, I almost missed it,” Matkin would say later, laughing, especially after a few drinks.

In truth, he did get about as far as the old mural depicting slaves unloading a cotton boat on the Brazos River before noticing it at all. When he did, however, he hit full red rage, with scarlet cheeks, his eyes tearing up from the sudden, unexpected surge of emotion.

Shortly, the Davidians were back; once again hoisting the remains of Annie onto their shoulders, hauling her down the steps and back into the relative safety of the white van. The entire event took no more than fifteen minutes by Rusty’s watch, and occurred in complete silence, without fanfare or words.

Part 12

The photographer from the Waco Tribune snapped a glorious shot of the Davidians transporting the heavy vault down the stairs of the courthouse, and by the time Winn arrived at his office the next day, Souter had tacked in on the bulletin board, and made good use of white typewriter correction fluid to adjust the caption until it read “Winn Norman helps carry the body of KWTX newswoman, Kelli Grinnell out of the McClennan County Courthouse.”

In the courtroom, El Hadi T Shabazz had fought the good fight, and left the verdict in the hands of twelve fine people of McLennan County. It was now up to them to “do the right thang,” as they say.

El Hadi had overcome his greatest challenge, the bad witness, George Rodin, who was later incarcerated by the Feds for writing a letter to Federal Judge Walter Smith, calling upon God Himself to shower “all manner of herpes and AIDS” on the judge’s head. Being an outsider, El Hadi had not counted on the unwritten, unspoken law that made his case—the “He needed killin’” law that most Texans know by heart.

The Davidians were found not guilty on the count of attempted murder. Justice was done, and the Davidians were humble and grateful. Members of the jury had lingered in the hallway, as did El Hadi T, whose heart was never really in it to begin with, congratulating Vernon Howell, shaking hands with Clive Doyle. The women present found themselves talking about how well-behaved and pretty the Davidian women had been sitting in the hallways waiting for the law to determine the fate of their men folk.

One-armed Annie Plemons was once again interred in the cemetery, and Vernon Howell, soon to become known to all as David Koresh, invited Sheriff Jack and the rest of the sheriff’s office to covered dish pot luck supper, followed, as always, by ice cream and cookies.

Winn Norman was satisfied with the verdict, but took it upon himself to walk over to the courthouse to ask Judge Bebee about the matter of the Davidian arsenal, which still littered the courtroom.

“Judge, these people are a little bit naïve ‘bout these guns, and I’m not sure they need to have them back.”

Judge Bebee had the power to keep the guns from ever reaching the hands of the Davidians again, but instead made a snap decision to return them to Mt Carmel. Almost ten years later, when the Feds went in, the Davidian arsenal had been an important factor in their action. As he watched, along with most of the nation, as the Mt Carmel compound burned to the ground with David Koresh and the Branch Davidians trapped inside, Winn wondered what might have happened if he hadn’t personally questioned the judge about the weapons. A part of him that he didn’t really want to hear whispered that maybe the judge had made his fateful decision just to stick it to Winn, because of the bad blood between them.

After the fire, Sheriff Jack could never talk about the Davidians without crying. Joyce Harwell passed away, and Jack married her cousin before Rusty could even throw her hat into the ring.

“Well, hell, I already know my in-laws,” he’d joke.

Larry Lynch became sheriff and Moose was out on his antlers. They didn’t even have to fire him, but Moose had to have the last word, and left carefully fashioned leather glove giving “the finger,” on his cleaned-out desk.

Years later, Rusty called Larry Lynch from London, after watching Terms of Endearment on the BBC. Lynch was the only voice of sympathy she could turn to then, and Rusty was embarrassed as hell that the first “911” call to the McClennan Sheriff’s Office about the fire had come from some CNN viewer in North Carolina. Larry was the only hero Rusty could find, and the knowledge of that, coupled with Terms of Endearment, stung her right back into the days in Waco she was trying to forget.

George Rodin got out of federal prison no better than before and wound up chopping a man’s head in half with an axe in Odessa, Texas, which finally and irrevocably landed him in the Texas Asylum for the Insane in Rusk, where he had always belonged.

“Ahh, the degenerate offspring of an illustrious sire,” Rusty sighed as she hung up the phone.

2 thoughts on “Branch Davidians

  1. Hello! Fellow writer here. This is a great post, and because I’m writing something that touches on the Waco story I wanted to ask you something about it. Would you mind dropping me a note (I can’t find your email address here)? I’d appreciate it. Ian.

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