Court ponders prelude to apocalypse: Rupert Cornwell attends the San Antonio trial of Koresh followers accused over the shoot-out that paved the way for the Waco disaster

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WHERE it began and ended, all is desolation. Nine months after the greatest law-enforcement fiasco in American history, only a heap of charred and sodden rubble is left of David Koresh's short-lived Kingdom of Heaven on the Texas prairie. A 7ft fence seals off the site. Through it visitors may discern the remnants of apocalypse: chunks of masonry, blackened window frames, a heap of lavatory bowls, the carcass of Koresh's bus, the Silver Streak Express, that now shelters a couple of security guards.

Amazingly, some still believe. Outside the perimeter they have erected a cross and an altar of 51 stones, one for each day of the final siege. Then came the tragedy of 19 April, when the FBI stormed the Mount Carmel compound with tanks and tear-gas, detonating the Armageddon in which the man born Vernon Howell and more than 80 of his Branch Davidian followers perished. But stones cannot talk. The truly curious must travel 100 miles south to San Antonio, where for nearly a fortnight 11 survivors of the inferno have been on trial for murder. At issue is not the ghastly climax of the FBI's misjudgement of Koresh, but the smaller fiasco that paved the way - the bungled raid of 28 February, when four agents of the federal Bureau for Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and at least six Davidians were shot dead in a two-hour gun battle.

Outwardly, the two places are a planet apart: honey-stoned, elegant San Antonio, where the history of Mexico and the US merge, and rough-hewn Waco, whose main gift to the world (at least until early 1993) was Dr Pepper soda. But for students of the incredible story of David Koresh, the chosen venue is ideal: after all, the last chapter of the siege of Mount Carmel is being written in the city of the Alamo. And, more important, both belong to Texas. In the Lone Star state, heroes and villains have one thing in common: they are invariably larger than life.

Here in San Antonio, the prosecutor may be the US government, seeking retribution for the killing of four of its employees. But only in Texas could a federal courthouse teem with men in cowboy boots and Stetsons. Where else would a defence attorney emerge from a murder trial to upbraid a Houston newspaper for running a photo which has him looking like a latterday Elvis: 'Ah'm no beauty, but Ah'm not that bad.' And much in court has been similarly surreal.

Maybe the 11 (two Britons, a Jamaican, an Australian and seven Americans) really are homicidal fanatics. But they look like a delegation of corporate middle-managers, sartorially indistinguishable from their attorneys. Which, one then realises, is not surprising. They lost everything in the April conflagration; even the suits on their backs were provided by their lawyers. Hardly less odd were the circumstances of what happened, as recounted this week by the first important witness, in the trial, ATF special agent Roland Ballesteros, who had the job of serving the search-warrant for illegal weapons at Mount Carmel.

Mr Ballesteros was in one of 76 ATF agents who were shipped to the compound in two unmarked cattle trailers. He was fourth out of the trucks. The three agents ahead of him formed a 'dog team', with the task of 'neutralising' (by fire- extinguisher if possible, by bullets if neccessary) guard-dogs deployed by Koresh. The defence circulated photos of at least one dead dog - with crucial purpose. It is trying to show that the ATF assault force started the shooting: if not at the Branch Davidians, then at their dogs.

The defence has one overriding goal: to prove Koresh and his followers acted in self-defence. That they killed the agents is not seriously questioned. But the judge has allowed discussion of a 1992 case in Idaho, involving the attempted arrest of a white separatist, Randy Weaver. A federal agent and Weaver's wife and son were killed in the ensuing gun battle; Mr Weaver was acquitted of the agent's murder, on grounds of self-defence. Cross-examination here has extracted admissions from Mr Ballesteros suggesting what happened at Waco may have been similar.

Mr Ballesteros described how the door was opened by Koresh that Sunday morning last February. 'I yelled 'Police - lay down'. He said: 'What's going on here?' I shouted again 'Search-warrant - lay down.' Then he kind of smirked and turned away and shut the door.' This was an ambush, maintained the ATF agent. But, he acknowledged, the cult leader was at that moment unarmed. Mr Ballesteros was carrying a revolver, a pistol and a shotgun pointed 'in the general direction' of Koresh.

At that point the shooting had already started; Mr Ballesteros, as he showed the jury, had part of his thumb blown off. But the defence exposed contradictions between that testimony and what Mr Ballesteros told Texas Rangers in an initial statement on 10 March. And other admissions followed. Shortly before the raid, the ATF had been told by an undercover agent inside the compound that Koresh had learnt of their plans. But they went ahead. During three days of training at the Fort Hood army base south of Waco, there had been no rehearsal of a peaceful outcome. The ATF force was armed to the teeth, but omitted to bring a megaphone to warn of what they were trying to do.

The self-defence strategy may not work. The prosecution has displayed almost 300 firearms retrieved from the compound, a fraction of the 11 tons of arms and munitions said to have been stockpiled at Mount Carmel. This may be enough to secure convictions for gun-law violations and the catch-all charge of conspiracy to murder. The specifics will be much harder.

For one thing, the organ-grinder is dead and only monkeys remain, so meek and unthreatening as they sit inside a horseshoe-shaped table in court, surrounded by their attorneys. 'Who are they?' wonders Balenda Ganem, mother of a Davidian who was not charged. 'Are they perpetrators of a crime? Are they victims of the FBI? Of David Koresh? I am not sure.'

The prosecutor Ray Jahn insists he will 'put a gun in the hands of everyone who is charged'. But if he is to prove they were in Koresh's pretorian guard, the 'Mighty Men', everything depends on the evidence amassed by eavesdropping devices in the compound, and on the credibility of Kathryn Schroeder, whose husband died at Mount Carmel. She was charged with murder but has pleaded guilty to lesser offences in return for testifying against her former associates. But for true believers, even that confirms that Koresh was indeed the Lamb of God he claimed to be. The courts of man, he once said, were 'part of Babylon, part of the confusion'. And did not Jesus, too, have 12 disciples, of whom one accepted 30 pieces of silver to betray his master?

And so again back to Waco, and Golgotha on the prairie, where only buzzards circling for carrion disturb the winter stillness. In a Fort Worth morgue, 40 bodies retrieved from the ashes still lie unclaimed. Only DNA tests can identify them. At the place where they died, signs warn the area is 'Contaminated'. But contaminated by what? By lead poisoning at the site, says the Texas Water Authority. By the murderous activities of a cult and its evil leader, insists the prosecution. By a government bungle and cover-up, responds the defence. Even the US legal system may never provide the answer.

(Photograph omitted)