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Return to Waco: a Hard Search For Answers Amid the Ashes

For some, the Waco siege symbolizes an assault on freedom of religion and the right to bear arms. Others ask why Branch Davidians did not submit to a search.

TWO years after the fiery siege of the Branch Davidian compound, many Americans still don't know what to believe.

Leta Hackett, a neighbor, took in six young Branch Davidians who left the compound during the siege. Restricted by state rules from repeating what the children told her, she says, ''Some things were going on [in the compound] that were very wrong.''

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Robert Ganem, whose nephew survived the fire that consumed the compound and ended the 51-day armed standoff, says the government was at fault.

''Women and babies were gassed by an outlawed chemical on US soil,'' says Mr. Ganem, a military retiree from Bangor, Maine. ''Shame on you, Clinton and Reno! How dare you!''

But as congressional hearings get under way tomorrow over the conflict now simply called ''Waco,'' some facts are not disputed. More than 80 Branch Davidians and four agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms lost their lives in the biggest Texas siege since the Alamo. Another 16 ATF agents were wounded during the attempt to search for illegal firearms.

Some view Waco not only as an assault on freedom of religion and the right to bear arms, but also as a powerful symbol of unchecked federal intrusion. Others wonder why the Branch Davidians, if they had nothing to hide, didn't do what innocent people usually do when approached by authorities - submit willingly to scrutiny.

The controversy has sharpened since more than 160 people died in the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City on April 19, the anniversary of the Waco fire. Authorities say they believe anger over Waco was part of what motivated the bombing suspect, Timothy McVeigh.

The ATF approached the ''Mount Carmel'' compound Feb. 28, 1993, searching for illegal weapons.

Of the 300 guns found 51 days later, after the fire, most apparently were inventory for the Branch Davidians' legitimate weapons trade. But 48 were semiautomatics that had been converted to automatics - machine guns. The conversion would have been legal if the Branch Davidians had obtained permission from local authorities and paid a $200-per-gun registration fee. Authorities also found silencers, which are illegal.

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Later, the ATF concluded that two raid commanders lied to superiors about not knowing that the element of surprise had been lost. They were fired, but later they sued and were rehired in other positions. Nine surviving sect members were given 40-year sentences on firearms charges.

As Americans mull the twin tragedies of Waco and Oklahoma City, an almost daily stream of visitors find their way to the undesignated site of the religious commune (as did Mr. McVeigh), where they sift for answers among the grass-covered rubble but find only more questions.

The hunt may be more promising at the congressional hearings. Committee staff members say that abundant new information has been volunteered quietly by knowledgeable insiders who are dissatisfied with the government's actions.

''The best thing is for the government to be as open and candid as possible,'' says William Pitts, a professor of religion at oak-shaded Baylor University in Waco. ''At all costs, avoid the coverup. Confidence in the government is at stake,'' he says.

Republicans planned the hearings soon after winning control of Congress last fall and well before the Oklahoma City bombing. That leads some to question whether the hearings will be a sincere hunt for facts or merely a ploy to embarrass the White House. Committee staffers counter that many questions were left unanswered by the single-day hearing after the siege ended.

Branch Davidian Charles Pace predicts, ''The Lord's going to bring out all the dirt. The government is going to be judged.'' Mr. Pace had denounced sect leader David Koresh and was dwelling elsewhere when the siege began.

At the moment, Pace lives in a recreational vehicle at the Branch Davidian compound. Planted nearby are 82 crape myrtle shrubs and small white crosses in memory of sect members who perished on these grounds.

Pace takes a trail from the memorial to the spot where the Branch Davidians' cylindrical steel water tower once stood. Only the concrete foundation remains. Why would federal agents cut the tower to pieces and haul them away, Pace asks, unless to hide traces of poison the agents had put inside?

His hunch would strike many as far-fetched. But the government has made far-fetched claims of its own, critics note. For instance, a video camera federal agents used to monitor the compound for months malfunctioned when the raid began.

''It 'malfunctioned' because it showed that the government fired first,'' charges Ganem of Maine.

Then there's the question of the missing door. Double steel doors formed the front entrance to the compound. The right door in particular was heavily peppered by incoming, randomly sprayed gunfire. So was the whole building, according to Jack Zimmerman and Dick DeGuerin, two Houston lawyers who were the only outsiders allowed into the compound during the siege.

''The evidence, in my opinion, was exculpatory'' to the Branch Davidians, says Mr. Zimmerman, a retired Marine colonel. ''I told them that they needed to be careful to get the doors.''

Still, only the less-damaged, left door was displayed at the trial of surviving Branch Davidians a year later in San Antonio. Government testimony at the trial speculated that the right door ''melted'' in the fire.

Other metal items like shell casings did not, notes Dick Reavis in his book ''The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation.'' What's more, he says, news cameras showed both doors being dragged away by the tanks that battered the building before the fire broke out.

The two Houston lawyers speak frequently to audiences about Waco. Says Zimmerman: ''They always start off believing the government.'' Afterward, they think: ''We never heard this side before. How can this be?'' he says.

Adds Mr. DeGuerin: ''I hope [skepticism of the government] is growing. It should be growing, because the government's version is not true.''

Mark England certainly wishes the government would act more promptly on his two-year old Freedom of Information requests. But he urges skepticism of the Branch Davidians as well.

A soft-spoken reporter who wears a tie with a chamois-cloth shirt, Mr. England co-authored ''The Sinful Messiah'' series that started in the Waco Tribune-Herald the day before the Feb. 28 raid. The series focused on sexual allegations against Koresh, rather than the gun charges.

Like the other journalists who tailed federal agents to the compound on the day of the raid, England doesn't know who fired first. He says he was too far away, and he dove for dirt when bullets came skipping toward him across a pond.

But when silence returned after an hour-long barrage, England peeked over his car. What he saw was unforgettable: Abashed federal agents, hands in the air, retreating from the unbowed Branch Davidians.

''People are trying to portray the Branch Davidians as the Amish,'' England says with disgust. ''That's not who they were. Let's be truthful about what was going on out there.''

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