Unsettling events overshadow Waco's image

The disappearance of a college student has residents saying, 'why us?'

From a deadly tornado to a serial killer to a doomsday cult, Waco has spent its share of time in the national spotlight. Now, with the alleged murder of Baylor University basketball player Patrick Dennehy, the town is once again being overrun with reporters - and residents are starting to feel rattled.

Tragedy in this quaint, central Texas town of 100,000 seems disproportionate to its size, and no one seems to know why. "Waco is usually a pretty boring place, but when things happen here, they happen big," says Hayley Smith, who's been following the Dennehy disappearance closely.

Last seen on June 12, Mr. Dennehy played center for the Baylor Bears. Carlton Dotson, his former teammate, was arrested in Maryland this week and charged with murder after talking with authorities about the case.

While news about NBA star Kobe Bryant being charged with sexual assault changed the subject for a while, Mr. Dotson's arrest and the search for Dennehy's body have renewed the Waco debate - and opened old wounds.

It's been 50 years since a tornado struck in downtown Waco, killing 114 people. Better known, it's been 10 years since the firefight at the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco. But residents are still sensitive about their national image. They are quick to remind newcomers that the Branch Davidian cult was actually located in Bellmead, about eight miles east of Waco. "We're tired of being called 'wacko' everywhere we go," says Ms. Smith. "This [latest incident] is just one more thing to put Waco down."

City leaders downplay the idea that Waco is different from other cities its size. They say there's plenty of good news coming out of Waco, including President Bush's frequent trips to his ranch in nearby Crawford and the awarding of major defense contracts.

The city is also the birthplace of Dr. Pepper soda, created in 1885 by pharmacist Charles Curtis Alderton. It's home to the Texas Sports Hall of Fame and the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame, and hosts some of the state's oldest homes and museums.

"There's a lot of positive stuff being said about Waco. Unfortunately, just as in any city of this size, there are tragic things that happen, and the media play them up," says Elizabeth Taylor, director of the Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau. "I try not to be ultrasensitive to those things, but it's hard sometimes."

For others, who do not have the job of promoting the city, it's easier. Kevin Reinke, lifting weights at the Waco YMCA, says he is teased all the time by outsiders about being a Branch Davidian or a serial murderer, but he just shrugs it off. He can still remember all the attention Waco received in the late 1980s when young women in the area began disappearing.

When police finally caught up with Kenneth McDuff in 1992, they reckoned he had killed as many as eight women. He was put to death in 1994.

But Mr. Reinke believes the apparent murder of Dennehy is different. "The only reason it's big news is because it happened at a Baptist college. If it had happened at the University of Texas or Texas A&M, I don't know if it would be such a big deal."

Indeed, the turn of events has been especially shocking to students and faculty at Baylor, the country's largest Baptist university. On campus, the mood is somber, especially in light of last fall's arrest of former Baylor freshman Ryan Frazier, who is charged with killing his parents and teenage brother. "You just don't think stuff like this is going to happen at a private Christian school. You think you're insulated from all that," says Raymond Taylor, an upcoming senior at Baylor. "I just keep praying that Patrick is alive."

What's been hardest for Mr. Taylor to comprehend is what went wrong between the two good friends. He would see them around campus together, always laughing and joking. "They were very, very close, like brothers," says Taylor. "It's on the minds of all of us. Why did it happen? How did it happen? Did it really happen?"

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