CANADA

‘The perfect daughter’

SCOTT STEELE January 31 1994
CANADA

‘The perfect daughter’

SCOTT STEELE January 31 1994

‘The perfect daughter’

CANADA

SCOTT STEELE

She escaped with her life, but little else. When Ruth Ellen Riddle leaped from a second-storey rooftop last April 19 to avoid the flames engulfing the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Tex., she had only the clothes she was wearing— a shirt and a pair of pants— and her Bible. The rest of her worldly possessions were destroyed in the blaze, which incinerated more than 80 men, women and children, including self-proclaimed messiah David Koresh. But these days, the 30-year-old Canadian woman is looking quite presentable. After a court denied her government money to buy new clothes, Riddle’s lawyer,

Joseph Turner, came to her aid. She now has four dresses: one donated by Turner’s mother, another by his sister, and two more by his girlfriend. Wearing one of those outfits, an emerald-green frock with a black-trimmed collar,

A Canadian disciple of David Koresh goes on trial in Texas

Riddle walked solemnly into a San Antonio courtroom this month to stand trial for murder, conspiracy and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime.

The charges against Riddle and 10 other Branch Davidians, all men, arose from the shooting deaths of four federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agents last Feb. 28 during a botched raid on the sprawling 77-acre Branch Davidian compound, known as Ranch Apocalypse. More than 75 ATF agents surrounded the complex to serve a warrant for illegal arms possession against Koresh, who taught his acolytes that the biblical battle of Armaggedon was near and urged them to stockpile weapons. But a fierce gun battle erupted. In addition to the four ATF agents, six Koresh followers—members of a fundamentalist offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventist church—died in the firelight. Sixteen ATF agents were wounded.

During the subsequent 51-day standoff, Koresh vowed not to surrender until he completed a book about the Seven Seals referred to in the Book of Revelation. FBI negotiators dismissed that as an excuse and accused the cult leader of stalling. The stalemate ended when the FBI began bashing the compound with tear-gas-equipped tanks; according to the government, Koresh and his followers responded by setting fire to the wooden structure. In the pocket of Riddle’s pants as she jumped to safety was a computer disk con-

taining Koresh’s writings on the First Seal.

Riddle, who suffered minor burns and a broken ankle in the incident, spent two days in hospital. Investigators at the time described her merely as a material witness, and released her on a personal recognizance bond to a Salvation Army hostel in Waco. She lived there with other surviving Branch Davidians until August, when the justice department suddenly indicted her on the current charges. Since then, Riddle has been behind bars.

Turner, who volunteered to take the case and is receiving no payment for his services, says that the only evidence against his client is a statement that she gave to Texas Rangers during her hospitalization.

In it, she said she was given a gun but turned it over to someone else. Turner insists that Riddle never used the weapon and that during the ATF shootout she cowered on the floor in fear of her life.

Government lawyers contend that all 11 defendants willingly joined Koresh in plotting to kill the ATF officers. And Assistant U.S. Attorney Ray Jahn, the lead prosecutor

in the case, says that the government can prove that each of the defendants was holding a weapon during the ambush. In his opening argument, Jahn told the jury that Koresh preached a “theology of death,” convincing his followers that “if you want to die for God, you must be willing to kill for God.” Jahn added that as well as murdering ATF agents, they executed two fellow Branch Davidians whom they “put out of their misery” because they were “too wounded to fight.” Defence lawyers counter that their clients never took part in a conspiracy and should not be held responsible for Koresh’s actions. They emphasize that the Branch Davidian leader— Turner called him “paranoid and delusional”— had instilled such a fear of outsiders in his followers that when the ATF launched its surprise raid, it triggered a violent reaction. Even so, Turner told the court that Riddle herself never fired on the agents. “She’s a loving and caring person, quiet and shy, naive, not violent,” he said, praising her as “the perfect daughter that every mother and father hopes for.” Riddle, he added, was raised in a religious family and “gave her mind and soul to God.”

In fact, it was Riddle’s mother, Gladys Ottman, who first introduced her to the Branch Davidians. A former Seventh-day Adventist who joined the movement after meeting Branch Davidian missionaries, Ottman later ran a vegetarian restaurant near Tweed, Ont. In 1982, Riddle joined self-styled prophetess Lois Roden, who was then the sect’s leader, in Waco. A decade later, by which time Koresh had replaced Roden, Ottman joined her daughter at the Waco ranch. Late last March, at the height of the standoff, Ottman, 67, left the compound with several other older women. Although she was never charged, she is expected to testify at the trial about Riddle’s upbringing and interest in religion. like several other survivors, she is be lieved to be living in Texas with fellow Branch Davidians, some of whom continue to view Koresh as a prophet and are waiting for God to send his replacement.

The prosecution says it will call more than 140 witnesses in the case, which could last as long as two months. In the meantime, a court order pre hibits witnesses and defendants from talking to reporters. Despite that, Riddle gave her lawyer a statement to pass on to Maclean’s. It read simply: “The Lord is my defence and my God is the rock of my refuge. Psalm 94:22.”

SCOTT STEELE with DIANA R. FUENTES in San Antonio