The Waco siege was a 51-day standoff between federal agents and religious zealot David Koresh along with his followers known as the Branch Davidians. The siege lasted from February 28 to April 19, 1993, near Waco, Texas. It resulted in a fire within the Branch Davidians compound that left 76 men, women, and children dead, and very few questions answered. Take a deeper look at the story of David Koresh, the Branch Davidians, and the events that unfolded which made the Waco siege one of the most debated and precarious domestic events in the United States Government’s history.
Just exactly who were the Branch Davidians?
The Davidian Seventh-Day Adventists
Although the Branch Davidians were a new religious group founded by Ben Roden in 1955, it was originally an offshoot of the Davidian Seventh-Day Adventist Church after the death of its founder Victor Houteff. Houteff had established the original Davidian Seventh-Day Adventist Church in 1930 and based it on a prophecy of apocalypse following the second coming of Jesus Christ. As Houteff’s movement grew, they established themselves to a hilltop a few miles east of Waco, Texas, which they named Mount Carmel. After a few years, the group moved once again to an even larger site east of Waco which they named the Mount Carmel Center.
The Birth of The Branch Davidians
It was here, after Hoteff’s death, that his widow Florence Houteff announced that the expected Armageddon was expected to take place. Followers flocked to the center where they built houses, brought their cars, tents, and trucks after many of them had sold all of their possessions. However, Armageddon never came, and it was expected that Florence had made up the date. After the failure of her prophecy, control of the Mount Carmel Center fell to David Roden, the founder of the Branch Davidians. As the new leader, he began to promote different doctrinal beliefs that Victor Houteff’s original Seventh-Day Adventist religion. This was the birth of the Branch Davidians.
Vernon Howell Is Named Successor
Following Roden’s death, control of the group fell to his wife Lois, along with the responsibility to appoint a new prophet to lead their followers. Finding her own son George Roden to be unfit for the position, she ultimately groomed and selected Vernon Howell (later known as David Koresh) as her successor. Though, in 1984, a meeting led to a division with Howell taking one group calling themselves the Davidian Branch Davidian and George Roden leading the other half. Roden ended up forcing Howell and his group out of the Mount Carmel Center where they then relocated to Palestine, Texas.
Howell Vs. Roden
After the death of Lois Roden in 1987, George Rodin dug up the body of a woman from the Davidian cemetery and challenged Howell to a resurrection contest to prove who was the rightful leader of the group. Instead, Howell contacted the police and claimed that Roden was guilty of corpse abuse. In order to incriminate Roden, Howell along with seven armed followers then attempted to go and take a picture of the casket when a gunfight broke out. Howell and his followers were tried for attempted murder but were all set free. The court ruled in favor of Howell over Roden who then moved his headquarters from Palestine back to Carmel Mountain. Then, in 1989, Roden killed another Davidian with an ax and was committed to a mental hospital. Howell then took full legal ownership of the Carmel Mountain Center.
He was now in a position of power to do whatever he wanted.
The “New Light” Audiotape
Photo Credits: CBS News
On August 5, 1989, Howell released what is known as the “New Light” audio tape which stated that he had been told by God to procreate with his women followers to create a “House of David” for his special people. Meaning that he was going to start separating the married couples in his group for him to have sexual relations with the women while the men remain celibate. He also said that God had told him to start building an “Army of God” for the end of days. In 1990, Howell then went on to legally change his name to David Koresh for publicity and business purposes which were granted. By 1992, much of the land of the Carmel Mountain Center had been sold except for 77 acres, and the remaining structures were being converted into living quarters for the many followers.
“The Sinful Messiah”
Photo Credits: The Waco Tribune-Herald
On February 27, 1993, the Waco Tribune-Herald began to publish a series called “The Sinful Messiah” written by Mark England and Darlene McCormick. The series alleged that Koresh has physically abused children within the compound and had committed statutory rape by taking several underage brides. He was also accused of advocating polygamy and according to the series, Koresh claimed that he was entitled to at least 140 wives and that all of the women in the group were considered to be his. He was rumored to have fathered at least a dozen children, and that some of the mothers became his brides as young as 12 years old.
But sexual abuse wasn’t the only thing happening at Mt. Carmel.
Something Big Was Happening
Photo Credits: CBS News
Along with the allegations of sexual abuse, Koresh was also suspected to be stockpiling illegal weapons. In May of 1992, Chief Deputy Daniel Weyenberg called the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) to notify them after they were contacted by a UPS driver about suspicious activity. The UPS driver called after seeing the contents that had opened up during a delivery to the commune which was full of firearms, grenade casings, and black power. A formal investigation was then underway. The ATF then began surveillance from a house across the street from the compound several months before the siege. They also sent in an undercover agent, Robert Rodriguez, who would later deliver important information to federal officials.
The Search Warrant
Photo Credits: Daily Mail
The ATF then obtained a search warrant based on the suspicion that the Davidians were modifying guns to have illegal automatic fire capabilities. Former Branch Davidian Marx Breault supported this notion after claiming that Koresh had managed to obtain M16 receiver parts. As described by the ATF, when combining M16 trigger components and modified AR15 lower receivers, it modifies the weapon to the point that it can be categorized as “constructive possession” of an unregistered machine gun. The ATF also attained arrest warrants for Koresh and other specific members on weapons charges and planned to do the search on or before February 28, 1993, as commanded by the warrant.
A Failed Drug Accusation
Photo Credits: Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Sygma via Getty Images
In addition, the ATF attempted to make the claim that David Koresh was also operating a methamphetamine lab. This way, they could establish it as a tie to the War on Drugs in order to have access to the military. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough evidence and was primarily based on unreliable surveillance data as well as the testimonies from two disgruntled members. They also failed to recognize the evidence that a lab that had once been in existence was handed over to the sheriff after Koresh had taken control of the commune. So, instead of guaranteed military access, they were given access to a training site at Fort Hood instead.
The Beginning Of The Stand Off – February 28, 1993
On Sunday morning of February 28, 1993, the ATF attempted to execute their search warrant by taking the commune by surprise. However, their cover was broken when a KWTX-TV reporter that had been tipped off by the raid asked for directions from a U.S. Postal Worker who happened to be Koresh’s brother-in-law. Upon Koresh being notified of the raid, undercover ATF agent Robert Rodriguez overheard the discussion. He secretly made an excuse for himself to leave the commune in order to warn his superiors that Koresh had learned about their plan. Although the ATF knew that the Branch Davidians anticipated the raid was coming, they continued on with the raid even though their plan required the element of surprise.
Then everything went wrong.
A Battles Ensues
Photo Credits: Vice
While approaching the compound, ATF agents reported shots coming from inside of the building, while Branch Davidians said otherwise. It still isn’t clear today as to who shot first although there are multiple theories from both sides. Three Army National Guard helicopters, used for distraction, all took incoming fire although none of them returned. Koresh was shot in the wrist during the first few shots and a number of AFT agents, as well as Branch Davidians, were either killed or injured in an attempt to storm the roof of the building and get inside to find Koresh and the weapons stash. Although the shooting had slowed after the first 45 minutes due to a lack of ammunition, it lasted for two hours.
They Negotiated A Ceasefire
Photo Credits: ABC News
Sheriff Lt. Lynch of the McLennan County Sheriff’s department managed to connect the ATF to the Branch Davidians and negotiated a cease-fire. The ATF had essentially run out of bullets whereas the Branch Davidians had no such shortage, so it was necessary to get the agents out. After the ceasefire, the Branch Davidians allowed for the AF to retrieve their dead and wounded without harm. Four ATF agents: Steve Willis, Robert Wiliams, Todd McKeehan and Conway Charles LeBlue were killed during the raid and another 16 had been injured. On the Branch Davidian side, they had suffered five casualties, two who had died from shots from other Branch Davidians.
Photo Credits: ABC News
After the ATF had retreated from the compound, they managed to establish contact with Koresh and others inside of the compound. Because of the deaths of the federal agents, the FBI took command and appointed Jeff Jamar, head of the Bureaus San Antonio field office in charge of the siege as Site Commander. At the beginning of the siege, the Branch Davidians had telephone connection with the local news media in which Koresh gave phone interviews until they were abruptly cut off by the FBI and had then no connection to the outside world for the next 51 days. There were 25 FBI negotiators established whom the Branch Davidians had contact with via telephone.
The Crucial First Few Days
Photo Credits: The Dallas Morning News
During the first few days, the FBI had thought that they had made some major progress on the siege when they reached an agreement with Koresh that the Branch Davidians peacefully leave the compound in return for a message recorded by Koresh that would be broadcasted on national radio. Koresh made the broadcast but then told the negotiators that he was told by God to remain in the building and wait. However, they managed to negotiate the release of 19 children, ranging from five months to 12 years old but without their parents. Yet, 98 people still remained inside of the building. After interviewing the children, it was clear that they had been physically and sexually abused well before the standoff.
Video Camera Footage
The FBI then sent a video camera to the Branch Davidians. Koresh and his followers continued to make a video with Koresh introducing his children as well as his “wives” to the negotiators many of whom were minors that said had babies that were Koresh’s. Several Branch Davidians also gave statements to demonstrate their faith and loyalty to the cause. On the ninth day of the raid, March 8, 1993, the Branch Davidians sent the tape back to the FBI in order to show that there were no prisoners and that all the people within the walls of the commune were there on their own accord. The FBI feared if the tape was released to the media, people would feel sympathy for the zealots. Koresh also managed to negotiate more time in order to rewrite some religious documents before “surrendering”.
Yet Koresh didn’t intend on surrendering anytime soon.
A Wedge Driven Within The FBI
Photo Credits: BRIAN BAHR/AFP/Getty Images
As time passed, there began to become a split among the FBI agents. One side believed that negotiations were going to be the answer and the others felt that force was the most effective method. It was this divide that is still a touchy subject among the FBI today considering what happened with the use of force. Yet, they continued on with more aggressive methods to try and force the Branch Davidians out of the compound. They even attempted to sleep deprive the inhabitants with all-night broadcasts of records of jet planes, pop music, and chanting.
Patrolling Around The Compound
With no luck, they tried a new strategy to draw out the Branch Davidians. Outside of the compound, they had nine Bradley Fighting Vehicles and five M728 Combat Engineer Vehicles begin patrolling the area. These vehicles also went around destroying the perimeter fencing, outside buildings, and crushing the cars of the Branch Davidians. They also repeatedly drove over the grave of Branch Davidian Peter Gent against the protests by the Branch Davidians as well as the FBI negotiators. They also went about cutting off all of the water and electricity to the compound, which forced those inside to rely on stocked up rainwater and military MRE rations.
Another Group Emerges
Photo Credits: Greg Smith/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
With the increasingly aggressive tactics, Koresh then ordered another group of followers to leave the compound. Eleven people left and were immediately arrested as material witnesses, and one with conspiracy to murder. However, the negotiators were stupified by the willingness of the children inside of the building to stay back with Koresh, as they were expecting that many of them would have been eager to get out. It also didn’t help that they knew if they left they were more likely to be arrested, separated, and questioned for information.
Egging the Branch Davidians On
Photo Credits: JOYCE NALTCHAYAN/AFP/Getty Images
Furthermore, during the siege, scholars who study apocalypticism in religious groups were trying to warn the FBI about the dangerous tactics they were currently using. They warned that the way they were going about everything would only reinforce the group’s belief that they were indeed part of a Biblical end-of-the-world scenario and that they were playing an important role. They also noted that adding fuel to the fire would only increase the chances of violence breaking out between the two groups because they believed in their cause so much that they were ready to die for it. Their beliefs were based on end-of-times war and death and the FBI was giving it to them.
Slowly but surely, Koresh began to further detach from reality.
Koresh Believed He Was The Son of God
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Over time, negotiations and discussions with Koresh became harder with his statements to the negotiators becoming increasingly unhinged. He began calling himself the ‘Second Coming of Christ’ and stated he had been commanded by his father in heaven to remain in the compound. It was during this time that the FBI started to consider using snipers to kill Koresh along with other important Branch Davidian leaders. Although Koresh had previously claimed that he and his followers had no intentions to commit suicide, the FBI was still wary that he might instigate a mass suicide/murder of his followers. They decided they needed an assault.
Convincing President Clinton
Photo Credits: White House/Consolidated News Pictures/Getty Images
It was then approved by newly appointed U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno for the FBI to launch an assault on the compound after being told that the conditions inside were worsening and that the children were being abused. Reno then presented the idea to President Bill Clinton who suggested that they use similar tactics to CSAL siege in Arkansas which used a blockade without a deadline and have no loss of life. Yet, Reno insisted that they needed an assault because the FBI was tired of waiting, were spending millions of dollars a week, and that the Branch Davidians could hold out for an extremely long time. Clinton eventually complied and told her to do what needed to be done.
Reasons for an Assault
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Over the next several months, Janet Reno’s reasoning before launching the final assault had changed. Initially, she claimed that they were going to lead an attack because there were children being sexually abused and babies were being beaten. Yet, it was later discovered that there was no evidence of such abuse during the standoff. However, in time, her reasoning changed, and she believed that if they didn’t attack first, militia supporter and conspiracy theorist Linda Thompson and her “Unorganized Militia of the United States” was going to come to either aid or attack Koresh, leading to a massive loss of life either way
So, they came up with a plan to flush the Branch Davidians out as soon as possible.
Photo Credits: STR/AFP/Getty Images
It was decided that the assault would take place on April 19, 1993, 51 days after the standoff had begun. Because the Branch Davidians were so heavily armed, the FBI decided to use .50 caliber rifles as well as armored Combat Engineering Vehicles in that order. They also opted to use explosives to blow holes into the walls of the buildings of the compound in order to pump CS (tear gas) inside to flush out the Branch Davidians. The FBI also decided to increase the amounts of gas in order to speed up the process. This was agreed to be a no-armed assault as they would use a loudspeaker to let the Branch Davidians know what was happening.
The Final Assault
In the early morning of April 19, 1993, the FBI fired 40-millimeter CS grenade from M79 rocket launchers and two military M651 rounds at the Branch Davidian construction site. After running low on tear gas rounds, they requested for more which was given to them. However, as it turns out, the rounds were unstable pyrotechnic rounds. However, after six hours of shooting tear gas into the building, no Branch Davidians had come out of the building and were either hiding in a cinder block room or using gas masks. Their plan wasn’t working out.
Then, the unthinkable happened.
Something Went Terribly Wrong
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Around noon, suddenly, three fires broke out almost simultaneously in different parts of the building and spread faster than they started. While the FBI believes that the Branch Davidians started the fires, the follower’s say otherwise. Only nine people managed to escape the building while everyone else in it died. The remaining Branch Davidians, including all of the children, were either buried by rubble, suffocated by the smoke from the fire, shot, or burned alive. It was reported by the FBI that Steve Schnider who was Koresh’s right hand mad had “probably realized that he was a fraud” and shot Koresh and then killed himself with the same gun. The devastating fire was broadcasted live by television crews.
In total, 76 Branch Davidians had died, including those that were killed by ATF agents during the initial raid. The Texas Rangers arson investigators concluded that many of the occupants were either denied escape for the whole time or until escape was no longer an option. It was also reported by two experts from the University of Maryland’s Department of Fire Protection Engineering that the people inside of the compound had enough time to evacuate if they wanted to. Bodies of women and children appeared to have died from falling debris, while photographs of other children are in a spasmatic death pose which is consistent with cyanide poisoning which can be produced by the burning of CS gas.
Photo Credits: Steven Reece/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images
Furthermore, it was discovered that at least 20 of the Branch Davidians were shot, including five children under the age of 14, with a three-year-old baby being stabbed to death. Although this initially pointed to evidence of mass murder, the medical examiners who performed the autopsies believed that these deaths were mercy killings with no escape from the fire. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel went on to conclude that the gunshot wounds “support self-destruction either by overt suicide, consensual execution with a proxy, or less likely, forced execution”.
The questions to come were not so much about how the victims died, but how the fire started and who was responsible for everything that had gone wrong in the 51 days.
Trail of the Remaining Branch Davidians
Photo Credits: CHRIS WILKINS/AFP/Getty Images
After the smoke had cleared, there began a trial for the criminal prosecution of the remaining Branch Davidians. On August 3, 1993, a federal grand jury returned a superseding indictment against the 12 adults surviving Branch Davidians. They charged that they had conspired to, and aided in the murder of federal officers, and had unlawfully possessed firearms. They dismissed the charges on one because of a plea bargain. After a two month trial, the jury acquitted four of the Branch Davidians on all charges and all of them on the murder-related charges, yet five were convicted of voluntary manslaughter of federal agents. In total, eight of them were convicted and received various sentences for up to 40 years. However, all Branch Davidians had been released from prison by 2007.
The Branch Davidians weren’t the only people under the microscope.
The Civil Suits
Photo Credits: History.com
The surviving Branch Davidians weren’t the only people who experienced legal backlash from the Waco siege. Several of the surviving members, as well as hundreds of family members of the deceased, brought civil suits against the United States Government, federal officials, the Texas National Gaurd, and former Texas governor Ann Richards. The court rejected the Branch Davidian’s case claiming that the government had initiated the first gun battle resulting in the deaths of federal agents and Branch Davidians. The lawsuits against the government were also rejected which found the planning of the siege was within legal bounds and that the Branch Davidians had started the fires.
The FBI Ignored Outside Help
In the weeks following the raid, a man named Rick Ross, who is a cult expert, and deprogrammer with the Cult Awareness Network appeared on major networks. Here, he claimed that he was consulted by the ATF on what actions to take for the siege. However, the FBI went on to deny that they had relied on Ross whatsoever during the siege, but that they had interviewed him about his knowledge. Ross had also called the FBI on March 27 and 28 offering advice about negotiation strategies with a man as delusional as Koresh but was largely ignored.
This begs the question, could outside knowledge have helped?
Could Religious Studies Have Prevented The Tragedy?
Photo Credits: C-Span
After Hearing Ross, several writers came forward to write about what anti-cult groups such as the Cult Awareness and Rick Ross could have potentially done for the entire situation. Religious scholars Phillip Arnold and James Tabor who also both attempted to help stated that, “the crisis needed not have ended tragically if the FBI had been more open to Religious Studies and better able to distinguish between dubious ideas of Ross and the scholarly expertise.” Arnold and Tabor attempted to tell the FBI that Koresh needed to be persuaded of a different interpretation of the Book of Revelation that doesn’t end violently, but the FBI began the assault only three days later.
This was only one of the many controversies surrounding the siege that would come to light.
Who Shot First?
Photo Credits: J.DAVID AKE/AFP/Getty Images
One of the first biggest controversies that came up was the debate between who shot first in the original raid on February 28, 1993. Rolland Ballesteros, a member of the ATF door team, claimed that he thought the shots originally came from the ATF dog team to take out the Branch Davidians dogs in the kennel. Although the Branch Davidians said that the ATF opened fire at the first door, the trial later insisted that the Branch Davidians shot first. Yet, Michael Caddell, the lead attorney for the Branch Davidians wrongful death lawsuit claimed that by studying the bullet holes in the door, they would be able to see who shot first. However, the door had been packed into a U-haul after the gunfight and was nowhere to be found after the fire. These findings raised an eyebrow.
Questions About The Fire
Photo Credits: Photo Credits: Steven Reece/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images
The other major debate that encouraged activist groups and supporters to express their opinion was the issue of the fires. Critics believed that the CS gas that was injected into the building was used in an unsafe manner which could have started the fire. Although hard to fully make out, recordings from the inside of the buildings supported otherwise, and indicated that the Branch Davidians started the fire themselves. In addition, in 1999, survivor Graeme Craddock was interviewed and gave some convincing information that the Branch Davidians had started the fire and that it had been pre-planned and consistent with their theology.
The FBI Had Lied
Leading up to the assault, Attorney General Reno had specifically directed that no pyrotechnic devices were to be used. Between 1993 and 1999, the FBI denied under oath that such devices were ever used, yet pyrotechnic Flite-Rite CS gas grenades were found in the rubble after the fire. Then, in 1999, they were forced to admit that they used such grenades but said they had not been fired into the building itself. When the FBI documents were turned over to Congress, the page listing the use of pyrotechnics was missing. A senior FBI official said that as many as 100 FBI agents knew about the use of pyrotechnics, yet none came forward. However, on May 12, 1993, less than a month after the fires, the entire site was bulldozed making gathering forensic evidence impossible.
This definitely looked suspicious to the American public.
Had The FBI Tightened the Noose?
Photo Credits: Steven Reece/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images
The FBI had mixed reports about the possibility of Koresh’s suicide. On on hand, Koresh made it very clear that they had no intention of suicide and there were no signs of any preparation to do so. However, according to Alan Stone, the FBI was wrong in their beliefs that he wouldn’t commit suicide and that if it came down to it, Koresh would kill himself and the others would follow. He believed that the FBI’s display of force and power did not intimidate the group to surrender. But instead, may have provoked David Koresh to order a mass suicide which was also a way for his followers to prove their unwavering faith.
Little did anyone know that the incident at Waco was going to inspire America’s biggest domestic terrorist.
Motivation For The Oklahoma City Bombings
Photo Credits: J. Pat Carter
Timothy McVeigh, the terrorist responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing cited the Waco incident as his primary motivation. He even went as far as denotating the bomb on the same day April 19, two years later in 1995, that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. He claimed to be a sympathizer of an anti-government militia movement in order to avenge the government’s handling of the Waco and Ruby Ridge incidents. He even drove from Arizona to Waco to watch the federal standoff and was photographed at the event selling anti-government bumper stickers outside of the courthouse.
The Oklahoma Bombing Changed The Public’s Opinions On Waco
Photo Credits: Bill Greenblatt/Liaison
After the Oklahoma City bombing, the media, as well as the public, began to reconsider their original thoughts on the Waco incident. Americans that previously supported the actions of the government were now calling for an investigation. By 1999, it was indicated by a Time poll that 61 percent of the American public believed that federal law enforcement had started the fire at the Branch Davidian compound. September 1999, Attorney General Reno appointed John C. Danforth as Special Counsel to investigate the matter. So began a year-long investigation which the Office of Special Counsel interviewed 1,001 witnesses, reviewed 2.3 million pages of documents, and looked over thousands of pounds of physical evidence.
The Official Danforth Report
Photo Credits: Bill Greenblatt/Liaison
In the final report of November 8, 2000, Special Counsel Danforth concluded that the allegations against the government lacked sufficient claim. Although those involved in withholding information during the trial were prosecuted, it was declared that the pyrotechnics did not start or spread the compound fires. The surviving Branch Davidians also acknowledged that the fire was indeed started by other followers, with audio recordings helping to prove so. However, David Koresh’s lawyer called the entire Danforth report a whitewash, and former U.S. Attorney general Ramsey Clark who represented the Branch Davidians stated that “History will clearly record, I believe, that these assaults on the Mt. Carmel church center remain the greatest law enforcement tragedy in the history of the United States.”
Yet, Danforth’s report didn’t put an end to all of it.
The Years Following
The events that happened at the Mt. Carmel complex between February 28 and April 19, 1993, is still a touchy subject for many Americans. It is a story that some still consider is shrouded in mystery, regardless of the final report and something that the public holds over the head of the government. The discussion of the Waco incident is often attached alongside the current debates in our country regarding gun control, law enforcement, and homegrown militias. Critics use it as an example for anti-government propaganda and as an instance that demonstrates the control that the government has over the public and its ability to pull strings whenever necessary.
In Popular Culture
The Waco siege has been a topic of fascination over the decades. It has become the subject of numerous, books, documentaries, films, and even an upcoming mini-series. While some versions of the story are meant for entertainment and withhold any true bias, others are based on conspiracy, attempting to convince people of what supposedly “really” happened at Waco. Although for a while it remained an untouched subject on television, in 2018, Paramount Networks is expected to air a six-part miniseries based on the siege with the 25 year anniversary on February 28, 2018. Another new and updated look at the events that rocked America for 51 days and the years to follow.