April 20, 2000

WACO, Texas It was equal parts religious service and anti-government rally as Branch Davidians and their supporters gathered Wednesday to dedicate their new church on the ruins of the one destroyed in a bloody 1993 siege.

Almost 300 people crowded into the tan frame building for a day of angry speeches, tearful reminiscences and homespun ceremony. It was seven years to the day after more than 80 Davidians died amid a fire that consumed the sect's home and ended their 51-day standoff with federal authorities.

``This is an occasion for joy, because from the ashes has risen the church,'' said former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clarke, one of several lawyers bringing a federal wrongful-death lawsuit on behalf of surviving sect members and families of those who died. ``The world must never forget what the United States government did here.''

The service was led by Alex Jones, an iconoclastic Austin talk-radio host who began rallying volunteers last year to rebuild on the site known to the Branch Davidians as Mount Carmel.

Jones and others said the resulting 32-week project attracted more than 1,200 volunteers from across the country. They said they ranged from regular caravans of weekend workers from across Central Texas to a roofer who walked much of the way from West Virginia to offer a week of his time. They added that donors from 43 states, Canada and Australia donated more than $93,000 in cash and building supplies.

The result is a simple country sanctuary, one little different in outward appearance from the dozens of churches that line the backroads of McLennan County. Its few interior frills are carved window frames and doorways, a trio of lazily circling ceiling fans and a brass chandelier over the raised pulpit.

Folding chairs were spread over bare plywood flooring for Wednesday's service. Jones said final touches, including hardwood floors, carpeting, plumbing and air conditioning installation, will be completed within a month.

Branch Davidian Clive Doyle, who accepted keys for the church from Jones, said the sect will soon begin holding its Saturday Bible studies there.

On Wednesday, supporters also gave the sect a custom-made blue flag to replace the one that burned at the end of the 1993 siege. A contingent of five Michigan Militia members in combat fatigues and berets also presented sect members with a commemorative plaque from their group for the new building.

Throughout Wednesday's service, the new building echoed with the impassioned speeches of Branch Davidians, militia members, housewives, engineers and even a retired Air Force general. Several complained about expenditures of ``taxpayer money'' and President Clinton's appearance at Wednesday's dedication of the Oklahoma City bombing memorial.

There were also occasional nods to the Branch Davidians' beliefs. Sect members have said they believe that their late leader, David Koresh, is a messiah who will soon return to punish those who killed him and his followers.

``David is coming back to set things straight, and I mean, you have no idea how straight,'' Catherine Matteson, one of the oldest surviving Branch Davidians, told the crowd.

The biggest applause lines were the repeated declarations that what happened to the Branch Davidians was ``our second Alamo,'' that the government would be brought to account and that the standoff that riveted world attention on this tract of windswept prairie would not be repeated.

``Never again. No more Wacos in America,'' Jones declared, drawing the crowd to its feet. ``The next time a Waco cranks up, if I can get there, we're not going to be building a church.''

The speeches halted briefly at noon for the ringing of a massive bell for each sect member who died during the siege. Doyle, who survived the 1993 fire but whose 18-year-old daughter died in it, read the names of each sect member as the trailer-mounted bell was tolled just outside the building.

Once back inside, Doyle recited names of seven sect members serving long federal prison terms for manslaughter and weapons violations. All were convicted in 1994 on charges arising from the deaths of four agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms at the beginning of the 1993 siege.

The sect members died Feb. 28, 1993, when a fire broke out as ATF assault teams tried to search the sect's building for illegal weapons and arrest Koresh for weapons violations.

Doyle, who was acquitted in the 1994 trial, reminded the audience to pray for ``something good to happen next Monday.'' The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a challenge that day from five of the imprisoned sect members, whose lawyers will argue that their sentences should be reduced.

``We don't want them to have a shorter sentence,'' Doyle said. ``We want them out.''

Outside the service, children romped in knee-high spring grass that has obscured much of the rubble of the old building. Adults sporting ``Republic of Texas'' nametags and T-shirts supporting causes ranging from the ``American Indian Movement'' to beliefs in ``the vast right-wing conspiracy'' chatted through the blustery spring morning.

Some grew hostile when a leather-clad biker rode up wearing emblems that identified him as an ATF agent, referred to the agency's failed 1993 raid and declared of its fallen agents, ``Never forget.''

Others approached to talk sympathetically when they heard that the rider was Robert Rodriguez, the undercover ATF agent who infiltrated Mount Carmel before the 1993 raid and begged his supervisors to call it off when he learned just before it began that Koresh had been tipped off.

``I'm not here to argue. Y'all have the right to believe anything you want,'' he told Branch Davidian supporters. ``Don't expect me to take sides. I just came to pay my respects.''

He said he drove 3{ hours from San Antonio to Waco, just as he has each spring since the siege to remember his fallen colleagues.

``It's just part of my healing process, to come here,'' said Rodriguez, who retired from the ATF more than a year ago after being awarded almost $2.3 million in damages from his former employers and their consultants. The agency's leaders and raid commanders initially tried to deny that Rodriguez had warned them that they'd lost the element of surprise and then suggested that he was unstable to try to discredit his account of what happened.

``Most of the guys died right here,'' he said, standing in a patch of grass. ``I come to this area and kinda talk to 'em. Let 'em know that somebody's thinking about 'em. That some people remember, anyway.''

As he walked back to his Harley, two more Davidian supporters approached. ``This is David Koresh's father. He wanted to meet you,'' one said, pointing at his lanky, gray-headed companion.

The second man solemnly extended a hand, and Rodriguez took it. ``I feel sorry for your loss,'' he said quietly.

The older man responded, ``I feel sorry for y'all's loss.''

Rodriguez nodded. ``I guess everybody has lost here.''
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