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Waco Confrontation - History

Waco Confrontation - History

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On April 19, 1993, the ATF launched an assualt on the headquarters of David Koresh in Waco, Texas. Koresh ordered his disciples to kill themselves and set the compound on fire. Eighty-six people died.

The Branch Davidians were a religious sect that believed in a coming apocalypse, armageddon and the second coming. The group was initially founded in 1955 and underwent a series of leadership changes. By May of 1990, it was being led by Vernon Howell who changed his name to David Koresh. They were living in a compound called Mount Carmel Center in Axtell Texas. This was located 13 miles from WACO Texas.

On February 27, 1993, the Waco Tribune-Herald began publishing a series called “The Sinful Messiah.” The series depicted a compound here Koresh was physically abusing children, was committing statutory rape with underage brides and stockpiling illegal weapons.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) began an investigation after the local sheriff contacted them after a UPS driver reported a package that accidentally opened contained firearms and grenade casings. This preceded the Heralds articles.

The ATF obtain a search warrant to search the compound. The agents had hoped their raid would be a surprise, but the Davidians were ready. When the assault began early in the morning of February 28, a firefight broke out and before it was over four ATF agents were killed. After two hours a ceasefire was agreed to.

For 55 days the FBI maintained a siege of the compound. Initially, Koresh had promised to surrender if he could tape a video message to be played on national TV, but he went back on that offer. He did allow 17 children to leave. Within the FBI there were two schools one believed the only reasonable solution was to wait them out the other wanted to go in. Those wishing to go were able to convince Attorney General Janet Reno that going in was the proper course the Reno convinced a reluctant President Clinton. He gave the go ahead.
On the morning of April 19, 1993, the assault began. The FBI used armored vehicles and explosives in the assault. Fires broke out in various parts of the compound. By the time it was over 76 people were dead including David Koresh. Nine survived the fire and another 38 left during the siege.

Waco siege

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Waco siege, a 51-day standoff between Branch Davidians and federal agents that ended on April 19, 1993, when the religious group’s compound near Waco, Texas, was destroyed in a fire. Nearly 80 people were killed.

The Branch Davidians were founded by Ben Roden in 1959 as an offshoot of the Davidian Seventh-Day Adventist Church, which had been established by Victor Houteff several decades earlier. Houteff’s group eventually moved to a farm some 10 miles east of Waco, Texas, but by 1962 Roden and his followers had taken possession of the settlement, which was known as Mt. Carmel. There the Branch Davidians lived a simple life, preparing for the imminent return of Jesus. However, in the mid-1980s the group became embroiled in a power struggle, and by the end of the decade Vernon Howell (later called David Koresh) had become head of the Mt. Carmel community. He soon began taking “spiritual wives,” several of whom were reportedly as young as 11. Allegations of child abuse and Koresh’s launch of a retail gun business attracted the attention of legal authorities.

Believing that the group was illegally stockpiling weapons, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) obtained both an arrest warrant for Koresh and a search warrant for the compound. On February 28, 1993, more than 70 ATF agents raided the complex. Gunfire erupted—though it is uncertain who fired first—and during the two-hour battle, four federal agents were killed and more than a dozen injured. In addition, six Davidians reportedly died.

Nearly 900 law-enforcement officials subsequently descended on the compound, including FBI hostage negotiators. During phone calls, Koresh engaged in “Bible babble” and threatened violence, though he stated that neither he nor his followers were suicidal. Partly in exchange for various supplies—including milk that was delivered in cartons with listening devices—Koresh allowed more than 30 followers to leave. However, it was thought that some 100 remained in the compound. As talks stalled—at one point Koresh said that he would surrender if one of his sermons was broadcast on national radio, but then failed to do so when it aired—agents tried various strategies, including turning off the compound’s electricity, playing Tibetan chants over loudspeakers, and shining spotlights on the complex to “disrupt sleep.” Convinced that Koresh would not surrender, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno gave permission for the FBI to raid the compound.

At approximately 6:00 am on April 19, 1993, the FBI began spraying tear gas into the complex. Soon thereafter, the Branch Davidians began firing weapons. For more than five hours armored vehicles, some of which punched holes into walls, deposited 400 tear-gas canisters inside the compound at 11:40 am the assault ended. Some 25 minutes later, the Branch Davidians set several fires, and at 12:25 pm gunfire was heard inside the compound. Due to safety concerns, firefighters were not allowed into the area for another 15 minutes, by which time the compound was beyond saving. While nine people managed to escape, the rest died. Investigators ultimately found 75 bodies, 25 of which belonged to children. A number of the deceased had been fatally shot, including Koresh. While some of the wounds appeared to be self-inflicted, others did not.

The government’s handling of the situation drew sharp criticism, and Reno later expressed regret for authorizing the raid. While the government long maintained that it was not involved in starting or spreading the fire, in 1999 it was revealed that some of the tear gas used by the FBI was flammable. Later that year Reno appointed John Danforth, a lawyer and former Republican senator, to investigate the raid. His probe, which concluded in 2000, found that the U.S. government “did not cause the fire” nor did it shoot at the compound. Regardless of such findings, some people viewed the Waco siege as governmental abuse of authority, and it spurred the growth of militias. In 1995, on the second anniversary of the raid, Timothy McVeigh carried out the Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people.

This article was most recently revised and updated by Adam Augustyn, Managing Editor, Reference Content.

Remembering Waco and Okla. City bombing

April 19 th is a dark day in American history with the siege at Waco and the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building both taking place respectively on that day.

It has now been 15 years since the terrible conflagration that occurred at the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas, and 13 years since the attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Okla., with our country suffering wounds and losses that even exceed those who died and were injured in these two horrific incidents. I can still remember a bumper sticker I saw on a pickup truck shortly after the destruction at Waco. It said, "I love my country, it's the government I'm afraid of."

Many people associate the name “Waco” with the nearby fatal confrontation between agents of the federal government and a group of heavily-armed private citizens that occurred in the spring of 1993. The standoff ended when the government used armored vehicles to insert CS gas into a large, poorly-constructed wooden building that was both the home and last stand for almost every member of this doomsday cult. It was subsequently set afire by its very occupants as ordered by their 33-year-old leader David Wayne (Vernon), a.k.a. David Koresh, and resulted in the death of almost all of the members of this cult.

David Koresh was born to a 15-year-old girl and he never knew his father. He had a challenged childhood because of his looks and his dyslexia he was relentlessly teased by his peers causing him to eventually drop out of school. Koresh then took on the task of studying the Bible in depth, and associated himself with a breakaway apocalyptic segment of the 7 th Day Adventist Church.

He eventually became the leader of the group that was called the Branch Davidians, one that under his leadership would separate itself from the world outside of their large wooden group home outside of Waco. Koresh would preach to his followers for hours at a time, eventually convincing them he was the Messiah and that the men in his group needed to give up their wives and older female children to David alone, which they did.

Some will remember the initial confrontation between ATF agents and the Davidians involving illegal weapons believed to be possessed by the cult and allegations of child abuse.

I had the chance to speak directly with David Koresh on multiple occasions during the many weeks that I spent at Waco as an FBI hostage negotiator. I remember one particular night when Koresh asked to speak to a Christian FBI agent. I was one of many, and the negotiations team that I led suggested Koresh and I speak, and so we did. We talked about many things for a few hours, but mostly we discussed the Bible, or Koresh’s interpretation of it. We’d race from book to book and chapter to chapter with Koresh trying to use scripture to justify his actions, including his sexual contact with the young girls and the adult women members of his clan.

'I'm the Christ'
When we talked late one night, David said, “Brother Clint” (as he called me), “do you know who I am? I’m the Christ.”

“David,” I said, “We may agree or disagree on a number of things, but your actions do not appear to agree with those of Christ. In John 10, for example, it says, ‘I am the good Shepherd the good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.’ You’re talking about taking the lives of your entire flock, not saving them.”

Koresh was not accustomed to being challenged on his interpretation of the scriptures, as his small congregation was said to accept whatever David said. He rebuffed our efforts to bring negotiations to his level though, passing us off as people who obviously didn’t understand the book of Revelation and the seven seals. By his own definition, he was the only one who really understood and who could unlock the seals as described in that complicated book of the Bible. The next morning I was told by the on-scene commander’s representative, “No more Bible babble.” They (the FBI) just didn’t seem to get it. I felt the key to Koresh was meeting him on a Biblical level, and I was told “never again…”

No progress with negotiationsAnd so it went. There were 850 individual conversations between negotiators and the Davidian members, all to no avail and we made many concessions that went unanswered by the Davidians.

We tried to convince Koresh to end the confrontation peacefully, even through “off-channel contacts.” I met with a local right-wing radio talk show host on some lonely, wind-swept dirt crossroad just outside of town to discuss the ongoing standoff. Despite the host’s disgust for the government, he believed that the FBI wanted to end the siege peacefully. In a later radio broadcast he asked Koresh to listen to us, again to no avail.

The initial confrontation between the Davidians and the ATF had cost lives on both sides, including four ATF Agents and six Branch Davidians. No one was going to back down after these losses and the 51-day standoff would eventually end in the deaths of 76 of the Davidian children and adults, many by believed self-inflicted or group-inflicted gunshots to their heads, more horrible losses that should never have happened in America.

It is of little consequence to know that days before the final faceoff between the government and the Davidians that I helped to write an analysis suggesting Koresh was a functional psychotic who knew exactly what he was doing. Some of us felt that his master plan was to force the FBI to confront his group in one final showdown in which they’d kill as many FBI agents as they could and then they would all die in a fire and explosion of their own origin. Our memo to this effect, as well as that of others, was read by unseeing eyes and unbelieving officials.

The effect of the Oklahoma City bombing
As I walked into the FBI Academy’s Behavioral Science Unit on the morning of April 19, 1995, I turned on the news from Oklahoma City and felt an overwhelming sense of dread and déjà vu at the extent of damage sustained by the Oklahoma City Federal Building.

As the telephones began to ring throughout our unit, I got a call from FBI headquarters. “Clint,” the headquarters supervisor said, “You’re a profiler. Who would do such a thing?”

“That’s not too hard,” I replied. Today’s date, April 19 th , the two-year anniversary of Waco that would be the key to the bombing, to the deaths. I felt the bomber would be a white male, either acting alone or perhaps with one other person. He’d be in his mid-20s with military experience, and would likely be a fringe-like member of some militia group. But the key to this crime would be the date. The bomber will be angry at the government for what happen at Waco and probably Ruby Ridge, and he will have told others so. He’ll be a homebred, full-blooded American terrorist.”

Timothy McVeigh fled the site of the worst act of home-grown terrorism in modern U.S. history, but thankfully an Oklahoma state trooper stopped him. McVeigh, single, mid-20s, U.S. Army Gulf War veteran, attended some militia meetings and put together the bombing with his old buddy Terry Nichols. He said he did it because of Waco, striking out in anger and rage at the government agencies housed in the federal building, as well as the children in the first floor day care center. McVeigh would call the 168 dead “collateral damage.”

Hopefully both our government and our citizens have learned a mutually beneficial lesson from the events of April 19, 1993 and 1995, and hopefully these lessons will not be lost or forgotten by future generations.

I hope we will someday see future bumper stickers that read, “I love my country and respect your right to believe as you wish,” with the accompanying fine print reading, “and if you don’t like the law, vote to change it.” Perhaps the upcoming national election will allow us to do just that, but we should never forget the mistakes of Waco and the hatred that spawned the Oklahoma City bombing. Otherwise we will be condemned to repeat our mistakes and live with the consequences.

Clint Van Zandt is a former FBI agent, behavioral profiler and hostage negotiator as well as an MSNBC analyst. His Web site, , provides readers with security-related information.


David Koresh was born Vernon Wayne Howell on August 17, 1959, in Houston, Texas, to a 14-year-old single mother, Bonnie Sue Clark (September 8, 1944 – January 23, 2009) [11] [12] and father Bobby Wayne Howell (1939–2008). Before Koresh was born, his father met another teenaged girl and abandoned Bonnie Sue, who began cohabitating with a violent alcoholic. [12] In 1963 Koresh's mother left with her boyfriend and placed her four-year-old son in the care of his maternal grandmother, Earline Clark. His mother returned when he was seven, after her marriage to a carpenter named Roy Haldeman. Bonnie Sue and Haldeman had a son together, named Roger, who was born in 1966.

Koresh did not meet his father until much later in life (when Koresh was 17). [13]

Koresh described his early childhood as lonely. [12] Due to his poor study skills and dyslexia, he was put in special education classes and nicknamed "Vernie" by his fellow students. [14] Koresh dropped out of Garland High School in his junior year.

When he was 19 years old, Koresh had an illegal sexual relationship with a 15-year-old girl who became pregnant. [12] He claimed to have become a born-again Christian in the Southern Baptist Church and soon joined his mother's denomination, the Seventh-day Adventist Church. There, Koresh became infatuated with the pastor's daughter and while praying for guidance, he opened his eyes and allegedly found the Bible open at Isaiah 34:16, stating that "none should want for her mate". Convinced this was a sign from God, Koresh approached the pastor and told him that God wanted him to have his daughter for a wife. The pastor threw him out and when he continued to persist with his pursuit of the daughter, he was expelled from the congregation. [12]

In 1981, Koresh moved to Waco, Texas, where he joined the Branch Davidians (not to be confused with the original Davidian Seventh-Day Adventist Church). Benjamin Roden, who died in 1978, had originated the Branch group in 1955 with new teachings that were not connected with the original Davidians. Koresh played guitar and sang in church services at the Mount Carmel Center, the sect's headquarters outside Waco.

In 1983 Koresh began claiming the gift of prophecy. David Thibodeau, in his 1999 book, A Place Called Waco, speculated that he had a sexual relationship with Lois Roden, the widow of Benjamin Roden and leader of the cult, who was then in her late 60s. Koresh eventually began to claim that God had chosen him to father a child with Lois, who would be the Chosen One. [12] In 1983 Lois allowed Koresh to begin teaching his own message, called "The Serpent's Root", which caused controversy in the group. Lois's son George Roden intended to be the group's next leader and considered Koresh an interloper.

When Koresh announced that God had instructed him to marry Rachel Jones (who then added Koresh to her name), a period of calm ensued at the Mount Carmel Center, but it proved only temporary. A fire destroyed a $500,000 administration building and press Roden said Koresh started the fire, but Koresh replied that "no man set that fire" and that it was a judgment of God. [15] Roden, claiming to have the support of the majority of the cult, forced Koresh and his group off the property at gunpoint. Koresh and around 25 followers set up camp at Palestine, Texas, 90 miles (140 km) from Waco, where they lived under rough conditions in buses and tents for the next two years. During this time, Koresh undertook recruitment of new followers in California, the United Kingdom, Israel, and Australia. That same year, he traveled to Israel, where he claimed he had a vision that he was the modern-day Cyrus.

The founder of the Davidian movement, Victor Houteff, wanted to be God's implement and establish the Davidic kingdom in Palestine. Koresh also wanted to be God's tool and set up the Davidic kingdom in Jerusalem. At least until 1990 he believed the place of his martyrdom might be in Israel, but by 1991 he was convinced that his martyrdom would be in the U.S. instead of in Israel. He said the prophecies of Daniel would be fulfilled in Waco and that the Mount Carmel Center was the Davidic kingdom. [16]

After being exiled to the Palestine camp, Koresh and his followers eked out a primitive existence. When Lois died in 1986, the exiled Branch Davidians wondered if they would ever be able to return to the Mount Carmel Center, but despite the displacement "Koresh now enjoyed the loyalty of the majority of the [Branch Davidian] community". [17] In 1987, Roden exhumed at least one body from the community cemetery. Roden said he was just moving the cemetery, while Koresh claimed that Roden had issued a challenge to resurrect the body (and that whoever resurrected the body would be the new leader). [15] Koresh went to authorities to file charges against Roden for illegally exhuming a corpse, but was told he would have to show proof (such as a photograph of the corpse).

Koresh seized the opportunity to seek criminal prosecution of Roden by returning to the Mount Carmel Center with seven armed followers, allegedly attempting to get photographic proof of the exhumation. Koresh's group was discovered by Roden, and a gunfight broke out. When the sheriff arrived, Roden had already suffered a minor gunshot wound and was pinned down behind a tree. As a result of the incident, Koresh and his followers were charged with attempted murder. At the trial, Koresh explained that he went to the Mount Carmel Center to uncover evidence of criminal disturbance of a corpse by Roden. Koresh's followers were acquitted, and in Koresh's case, a mistrial was declared.

In 1989, Roden murdered Wayman Dale Adair with an axe blow to the skull after Adair stated his belief that he himself was the true messiah. [18] Roden was judged insane and confined to a psychiatric hospital at Big Spring, Texas. Since Roden owed thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes on the Mount Carmel Center, Koresh and his followers were able to raise the money and reclaim the property. Roden continued to harass the Koresh faction by filing legal papers while imprisoned. When Koresh and his followers reclaimed the Mount Carmel Center, they discovered that tenants who had rented from Roden had left behind a meth lab, which Koresh reported to the local police department and asked to have removed. [19] [20]

Vernon Howell filed a petition in California State Superior Court in Pomona on May 15, 1990, to legally change his name "for publicity and business purposes" to David Koresh. On August 28, 1990, Judge Robert Martinez granted the petition. [21]

Koresh (כּוֹרֶשׁ, Koresh) is the Biblical name of Cyrus the Great, a Persian king who is named a messiah for freeing Jews during the Babylonian captivity. His first name, David, symbolized a lineage directly to the biblical King David, from whom the new messiah would descend. By taking the name of David Koresh, he was "professing himself to be the spiritual descendant of King David, a messianic figure carrying out a divinely commissioned errand." [22]

Koresh was alleged to have been involved in multiple incidents of physical and sexual abuse of children. [23] His doctrine of the House of David [24] did lead to "marriages" with both married and single women in the Branch Davidians. This doctrine was based on a purported revelation that involved the procreation of 24 children by chosen women in the community. These 24 children were to serve as the ruling elders (see Revelation 4) over the millennium after the return of Christ. These women purportedly chosen through this doctrine included at least one underaged girl, Michelle Jones, who was the younger sister of Koresh's legal wife Rachel and the daughter of lifelong Branch Davidians Perry and Mary Belle Jones.

A six-month investigation of sexual abuse allegations by the Texas Child Protection Services in 1992 failed to turn up any evidence, possibly because the Branch Davidians concealed the spiritual marriage of Koresh to Michelle, assigning a surrogate husband (David Thibodeau) to the girl for the sake of appearances. [25] Regarding the allegations of physical abuse, the evidence is less certain. In one widely reported incident, ex-members claimed that Koresh became irritated with the cries of his son Cyrus and spanked the child severely for several minutes on three consecutive visits to the child's bedroom. In a second report, a man involved in a custody battle visited the Mount Carmel Center and claimed to have seen the beating of a young boy with a stick. [26]

Finally, the FBI's justification for forcing an end to the 51-day standoff was predicated on the charge that Koresh was abusing children inside the Mount Carmel Center. Allegations had been made that he had fathered children with underaged girls in the Branch Davidians. In the hours that followed the deadly conflagration, Attorney General Janet Reno told reporters, "We had specific information that babies were being beaten." [27] However, FBI Director William Sessions publicly denied the charge and told reporters that they had no such information about child abuse inside the Mount Carmel Center. [28] A careful examination of the other child abuse charges found the evidence to be weak and ambiguous, casting doubt on the allegations. [29]

The allegations of child abuse largely stem from detractors and ex-members. [30] The 1993 Justice Department report cites allegations of child sexual and physical abuse. Legal scholars point out that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) had no legal jurisdiction in the matter of child protection, and these accounts appear to have been inserted by the ATF to inflame the case against Koresh. For example, the account of former Branch Davidian Jeannine Bunds is reproduced in an ATF affidavit. She claimed that Koresh had fathered at least 15 children with various women and girls, and that she had personally delivered seven of these infants. Bunds also claims that Koresh would annul all marriages of couples who joined the group and had exclusive sexual access to the women and girls. [31] [32]

In his book James Tabor states that on a videotape that was sent out of the compound during the siege, Koresh acknowledged that he had fathered more than 12 children by several "wives". [33] On March 3, 1993, during negotiations to secure the release of the remaining children, Koresh advised hostage negotiators that: "My children are different than those others,” referring to his direct lineage versus those children whom he had previously released.

The Waco siege began on February 28, 1993, when the ATF raided Mount Carmel Center. The ensuing gun battle resulted in the deaths of four ATF agents and six Branch Davidians. Shortly after the initial raid, the FBI Hostage Rescue Team took command of the federal operation, because the FBI has jurisdiction over incidents involving the deaths of federal agents. The negotiating team established contact with Koresh inside the compound. Communication over the next 51 days included telephone exchanges with various FBI negotiators.

Koresh himself had been seriously injured by a gunshot. As the standoff continued, his closest male associates and he negotiated delays, so that he could possibly write religious documents, which he said he needed to complete before his surrender. Koresh's conversations with the negotiators were dense and they also included biblical imagery. The FBI negotiators treated the situation as a hostage crisis.

The siege of the Mount Carmel Center ended on April 19, 1993, when U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno approved recommendations of FBI officials to proceed with a final advance in which the Branch Davidians would be removed from the Mount Carmel Center by force. In an attempt to flush Koresh out of the stronghold, the FBI resorted to pumping CS gas into the compound with the aid of an M728 Combat Engineer Vehicle, which was equipped with a battering ram. [34] In the course of the advance, the Mount Carmel Center caught fire under circumstances that are still disputed today. Barricaded inside the building, 79 Branch Davidians perished in the ensuing blaze 21 of these victims were children under the age of 16. [35]

According to the FBI, Steve Schneider, Koresh's right-hand man, who "probably realized that he was dealing with a fraud," shot and killed Koresh and then committed suicide with the same gun. [36] A second account gave a totally different story: Koresh, then 33, died of a gunshot wound to the head during the course of the fire. No one knows who killed him or if he killed himself. [37] The medical examiner reported 20 people, including five children under the age of 14, had been shot, and a three-year-old had been stabbed in the chest. [38]

Koresh is buried at Memorial Park Cemetery, Tyler, Texas in the "Last Supper" section. Several of his albums were released, including Voice of Fire, in 1994. In 2004, Koresh's 1968 Chevrolet Camaro, which had been damaged during the raid, sold for $37,000 at auction. It is now owned by Ghost Adventures host Zak Bagans. [39]

Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols cited the Waco siege as their motivation for the Oklahoma City bombing of April 19, 1995, which was timed to coincide with the second anniversary of the Waco assault. [40]

Four documentary films have been made about the siege, including different versions of Waco: The Rules of Engagement, Waco: A New Revelation, Waco: The Big Lie, and Waco: Madman or Messiah. In 2018, BBC Radio 5 live created a radio podcast titled End of Days, which was about the death and life of Koresh, his involvement in the Waco siege, and the recruitment of people who lived in Nottingham, Manchester, and London into the Branch Davidians. The Court TV (now TruTV) television series Mugshots released an episode about Koresh. [41] A Mexican movie was made entitled "Tragedia en Waco" or "Tragedia: Sucedio en Monte Carmelo Waco Texas", 1993, written by Ulf Kjell Gür. [42] aired by EstrellaTV in April, 2021.

Koresh is portrayed by Taylor Kitsch in the 2018 miniseries Waco. [43] He was also one of the sources of inspiration used to create the fictional cult leader Joseph Seed in the 2018 action-adventure video game Far Cry 5. [44] In 2011, British indie rock band The Indelicates released a concept album, David Koresh Superstar, about Koresh and the Waco siege. [45] [46]

David Koresh and the Branch Davidians Cult

The Branch Davidians Seventh Day Adventists is a Protestant sect that originated in 1955 as a result of separation from the Davidian Seventh Day Adventists. The split developed after there was a controversy over who had the qualifications to lead the reform group after the death of the church’s president. The reform movement believed themselves to be living in a time when Bible prophecies of the final days before the second coming of Christ.

Vernon Wayne Howell (AKA: David Koresh).

The group Branch Davidians, also known through the media as the Branch Davidian Cult, made headlines in 1993. Their property near Waco, Texas was raided by the ATF and the FBI, resulting in the deaths of 82 members. The person heading this reformed group was David Koresh. Under the leadership of their now-deceased leader, the group became a destructive, doomsday cult.

David Koresh

The FBI viewed David Koresh as a deranged individual. Koresh believed himself to be Jesus Christ, and he had a huge arsenal of illegal weapons. They had information that led them to believe he was sexually and physically abusing the children in the compound. He may be involved in producing illegal drugs.

Tragedy at Waco, Texas

A major tragedy happened in Waco, Texas in the spring of 1993. On February 23, 1993, ATF agents decided to arrest David Koresh on firearms violations and attempted to serve him a search warrant. What resulted on that day was an exchange of gunfire. It ultimately left six Davidians, four ATF agents dead and many others wounded. At that point ATF agents withdrew, FBI agents took over, and the 51-day siege began. Then on April 19, 1993, after consulting with several groups experienced in dealing with doomsday cults, the Bureau decided it was safe to attack the compound with tear gas.

At the same time, a group of fires was started at different locations in the compound, forming a large, disastrous fire. 8 followers were able to escape, many were injured. David Koresh and about 75 of his followers died of stab wounds, gunshots, and smoke inhalation, including 21 children. 5 followers were convicted of voluntary manslaughter and firearms violations.

Fire spreads rapidly to other second floor bedrooms.

Controversy Remains

To this day, there is continuing controversy over who is responsible for the deaths. Many agree the blame should be divided among the church, its leader, the FBI, and ATF agents, and the Baylor College of Medicine for using intensive and improper interrogation techniques on Branch Davidian children, and Attorney General Janet Reno. All of the sect members who served jail time have since been released and fragments of the original group still survive.

It is said that perhaps the ultimate message of the Waco tragedy is that seeking religious certainty and security while elimination religious doubt and skepticism from one’s life can have dangerous consequences.

ATF raids Branch Davidian compound

At Mount Carmel in Waco, Texas, agents of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) launch a raid against the Branch Davidian compound as part of an investigation into illegal possession of firearms and explosives by the Christian cult. 

As the agents attempted to penetrate the complex, gunfire erupted, beginning an extended gun battle that left four ATF agents dead and 15 wounded. Six Branch Davidians were fatally wounded, and several more were injured, including David Koresh, the cult’s founder and leader. After 45 minutes of shooting, the ATF agents withdrew, and a cease-fire was negotiated over the telephone. The operation, which involved more than 100 ATF agents, was the one of the largest ever mounted by the bureau and resulted in the highest casualties of any ATF operation.

David Koresh was born Vernon Wayne Howell in Houston, Texas, in 1959. In 1981, he joined the Branch Davidians, a sect of the Seventh Day Adventist Church founded in 1934 by a Bulgarian immigrant named Victor Houteff. Koresh, who possessed an exhaustive knowledge of the Bible, rapidly rose in the hierarchy of the small religious community, eventually entering into a power struggle with the Davidians’ leader, George Roden.

For a short time, Koresh retreated with his followers to eastern Texas, but in late 1987 he returned to Mount Carmel with seven armed followers and raided the compound, severely wounding Roden. Koresh went on trial for attempted murder, but the charge was dropped after his case was declared a mistrial. By 1990, he was the leader of the Branch Davidians and legally changed his name to David Koresh, with David representing his status as head of the biblical House of David, and Koresh standing for the Hebrew name for Cyrus, the Persian king who allowed the Jews held captive in Babylon to return to Israel.

Koresh took several wives at Mount Carmel and fathered at least 12 children from these women, several of whom were as young as 12 or 13 when they became pregnant. There is also evidence that Koresh may have harshly disciplined some of the 100 or so Branch Davidians living inside the compound, particularly his children. A central aspect of Koresh’s religious teachings was his assertion that the apocalyptic events predicted in the Bible’s book of Revelation were imminent, making it necessary, he asserted, for the Davidians to stockpile weapons and explosives in preparation.

Following the unsuccessful ATF raid, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) took over the situation. A standoff with the Branch Davidians stretched into seven weeks, and little progress was made in the telephone negotiations as the Davidians had stockpiled years of food and other necessities before the raid.

On April 18, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno approved a tear-gas assault on the compound, and at approximately 6:00 a.m. on April 19 the Branch Davidians were informed of the imminent attack and asked to surrender, which they did not. A few minutes later, two FBI combat vehicles began inserting gas into the building and were joined by Bradley tanks, which fired tear-gas canisters through the compound’s windows. The Branch Davidians, many with gas masks on, refused to evacuate, and by 11:40 a.m. the last of some 100 tear-gas canisters was fired into the compound. Just after noon, a fire erupted at one or more locations on the compound, and minutes later nine Davidians fled the rapidly spreading blaze. Gunfire was reported but ceased as the compound was completely engulfed by the flames.

Koresh and at least 80 of his followers, including 22 children, died during the federal government’s second disastrous assault on Mount Carmel. The FBI and Justice Department maintained there was conclusive evidence that the Branch Davidian members ignited the fire, citing an eyewitness account and various forensic data. Of the gunfire reported during the fire, the government argued that the Davidians were either killing each other as part of a suicide pact or were killing dissenters who attempted to escape the Koresh-ordered suicide by fire. Most of the surviving Branch Davidians contested this official position, as do some critics in the press and elsewhere, whose charges against the ATF and FBI’s handling of the Waco standoff ranged from incompetence to premeditated murder. In 1999, the FBI admitted that they used tear-gas grenades in the assault, which have been known to cause fires because of their incendiary properties.

The FBI slipped listening bugs into milk cartons they sent into the compound.

Koresh had previously allowed a few children to leave the compound. So the FBI offered to deliver milk to the compound if more were released. Koresh refused the deal. But the FBI sent in milk anyway, and got something else from the delivery: They planted listening bugs in the milk cartons and their styrofoam containers.

“It was very chancy,” recalled Jeff Jamar, the FBI’s on-site commander for Waco. “You would send them in and you didn’t know where it would end up.”

One of the bugs found its way into a room with Koresh. Some of the talk was mundane:

DAVID KORESH: [surveillance tape] Rachel!


DAVID KORESH: Keep those children under control. They won’t be singing that today.

Other talk was more troubling:

DAVID KORESH: [surveillance tape] Let me send some guys up there and blow their heads off.

The bugs also allowed the agents to get a read on their reaction to an initial face-to-face meeting between Koresh’s deputy, Steve Schneider, and FBI negotiator Byron Sage.

STEVE SCHNEIDER: [surveillance tape] Byron, I liked — man, what a person. I liked his personality. I believe he was 100 percent sincere. I saw his concern in his face and eyes. I really —you know, I believe what he’s trying to do —

The breakthrough didn’t last long. Koresh didn’t permit any more in-person meetings.

Waco (2018)

The miniseries doesn't provide much of a history when it comes to the Branch Davidians. The Waco true story reveals that the religious sect was founded in 1959 by Benjamin Roden as a spin-off of the Davidian Seventh-Day Adventist Church. The group was led by Roden until his death in 1978. His wife Lois took over until her own death in 1986. David Koresh joined in 1981 and began a sexual relationship with Lois. After her death, Koresh faced off against her son, George Roden, for control of the group. The two factions clashed in a gunfight and Roden was shot and injured. Koresh, whose real name is Vernon Howell, emerged as the leader in 1987. He led the group for roughly five years up until the siege. About 130 people were living at the Mount Carmel compound in Waco at the time.

Did ATF agents shooting barking dogs spark the initial firefight?

How long did the Waco standoff last?

The 1993 standoff in Waco, Texas between the Branch Davidians and the authorities lasted a total of 51 days, beginning on February 28, 1993 and ending on April 19, 1993. The ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) believed that Koresh and his followers were stockpiling nearly 250 weapons inside the compound, including shotguns, semi-automatic rifles, pistols, revolvers and hundreds of grenades. They had first been tipped off after a UPS package of grenade casings had accidentally tore open. The ATF came to execute a search warrant for weapons violations and allegations of sexual abuse. They intended to search the 77-acre Mount Carmel compound. -TIME

Was FBI negotiator Gary Noesner also present at Ruby Ridge?

No. Six months prior to the Waco siege, there was a standoff in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, which kicks off the miniseries. In that altercation, former Green Beret Randy Weaver was to be arrested on an illegal firearms charge. Botched surveillance by several U.S. Marshalls led to Weaver's 14-year-old son Sammy and family friend Kevin Harris (24) confronting the marshalls and a shootout ensued. Sammy shot U.S. Marshall Bill Degan and a dying Degan returned fire, killing Sammy.

The FBI's Hostage Rescue Team then came in to help. The following day, FBI HRT sniper Lon Horiuchi shot at Randy Weaver after Weaver went to view his son Sammy's body, which had been moved to a shed. Horiuchi intended to fatally hit weaver in the spine but missed and hit him in the right shoulder. As Weaver, his 16-year-old daughter Sara, and Kevin Harris ran back into the house, Horiuchi fired again. The bullet struck Weaver's wife Vicki in the head as she stood at the door holding their 10-month-old daughter Elishiba. She fell to the floor and died instantly. The same bullet struck Harris in the chest, injuring him. The most fictional element in the miniseries' depiction of Ruby Ridge is that FBI negotiator Gary Noesner (Michael Shannon) is depicted as being present at the scene and figures out a way to convince Randy Weaver to surrender. A Waco fact check reveals that Noesner was not at Ruby Ridge.

Did David Thibodeau meet David Koresh at a local bar soundcheck?

No. The real David Thibodeau actually met Koresh at a Guitar Center store. Koresh handed him a business card that had some scripture on it and he told Koresh, "I'm not looking to be in a Christian band." The Branch Davidians described their views as being deeper than Christianity. Thibodeau spent a week thinking it over and decided to call them. "It just kept pressing on me for some reason," he said. -Smithsonian Magazine

How many people died in the initial confrontation between the ATF and the Branch Davidians?

Believing that there were illegal weapons inside, it's true that the ATF agents were heavily armed and attempted to serve a warrant in full tactical gear. The confrontation led to the deaths of six of the Branch Davidians and four ATF agents. Koresh was indeed wounded in the skirmish. This began the 51-day standoff. Watch Footage of a Wounded David Koresh Speaking.

Is the Waco miniseries based on survivor David Thibodeau's book?

Yes. The miniseries, which originally aired on the Paramount Network in 2018, is based on two books, Waco: A Survivor's Story by David Thibodeau and Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator by Gary Noesner. Thibodeau is portrayed by Rory Culkin and Noesner is played by Michael Shannon in the series.

Did David Koresh really tell his male followers that they had to be celibate and only he could have sex with their wives?

Did David Koresh abuse children?

In the Waco miniseries, agents seem to be making largely baseless claims that David Koresh (Taylor Kitsch) is abusing children. Their claims are juxtaposed with images of children playing happily. The Waco miniseries true story is darker than what is depicted in the series, which paints a much more flattering depiction of Koresh. As stated earlier, it's true that he took multiple wives from within the group. Some of the girls were as young as 12 years old (according to the FBI, Koresh had sex with girls as young as 10). Almost all of the 21 children who survived the siege reported that sexual abuse and physical abuse by Koresh was extensive in the compound.

For example, the series shows Koresh with a wooden stick ready to punish a boy who snuck into a freezer to take ice cream. However, instead of punishing the boy, Koresh tells him that since he's a member of the group, everyone is guilty along with him. In an act of fairness, he then gives everyone a spoonful of ice cream. In real life, the children who survived told a team of therapists that they were struck with a wooden paddle that Koresh called "the helper" for something as small as spilling a glass of milk. To prepare for a potential siege, they said he made them fight each other and paddled those who didn't fight with enough force.

According to the children, Koresh instructed them to call their parents "dogs" and told them they were only allowed to call him their "father". He gave girls as young as 11 a plastic Star of David to indicate they had "the light" and could now have sex with their leader. Now adults, the children still describe the abuse they faced from Koresh.

"You just did not know what [he] had up his sleeve at any time of the day," said survivor Joann Vaega, who was six at the time of the siege. She was one of 21 children released prior to the fire, however, both of her parents perished in the inferno. "It was kind of scary, going from being spanked for everything you do to making mistakes as a kid and waiting for the ax to drop." -Today

Many of the surviving adult Davidians and their lawyers insisted that the abuse never happened. -The New York Times

How big was the force of federal agents that surrounded the compound?

Did the FBI really play loud music to try and force the Branch Davidians out?

Yes. Waco survivor Clive Doyle recounted this in his autobiography, stating that the FBI used loud noises constantly. They blared the sounds of "rabbits being killed, warped-up music, Nancy Sinatra singing 'These Boots Are Made For Walking', Tibetan monks chanting, Christmas carols, telephones ringing, reveille." It's true that David Koresh sent his own loud music back at the authorities. However, according to a 1993 Entertainment Weekly article, this happened prior to the compound's power being cut. Unlike the series, he didn't do it with the generator's last bit of remaining fuel. Listen to the David Koresh Song 'Mad Man in Waco'.

Did the FBI smuggle listening devices into the compound?

Yes. An agent testified that the FBI had placed 11 listening devices inside the compound over the course of the 51-day standoff. The miniseries only shows one such device, which is smuggled in with a crate of milk. -The New York Times

Did FBI Hostage Negotiator Gary Noesner butt heads with the on-scene FBI commanders?

Yes, and a Waco miniseries fact check confirms that Gary Noesner left Waco three weeks before the fire. It's also true that he managed to free 35 people, many of whom were children. In speaking of David Koresh reneging on some of his promises to the FBI, Noesner said, "At Waco, our on-scene commander and the tactical commander took those behaviors in a very negative way. Then they would take actions that would only ratchet up things with David. So it was a very complex tragedy." Noesner shares his viewpoint and his side of the story in his book Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator. -Smithsonian Magazine

Were children really gassed to death in the Waco standoff?

The Waco miniseries true story confirms that a total of 25 children died after being trapped inside the compound. "They gassed the kids to death," says David Thibodeau. "American law enforcement officers gassed American children to death. They went to the structure where the kids were and put so much tear gas in there that they anesthetized all the mothers and children in that little concrete structure. Most young men with good physiques could not have gotten out of that situation." While autopsy reports confirm that some of the children died from the gas, others were buried alive by rubble or executed in mercy killings. -Brown Political Review

How many people died in the tear-gassing and fire?

While the miniseries keeps its main focus on a select number of characters, a total of 76 people died on April 19, 1993 after fires broke out roughly one hour after agents finished inserting tear gas into the compound to try and flush people out. They also rammed the buildings to try and get them to come out, using Koresh's physical and sexual child abuse as a justification for their assault. Before long, the compound known as Mount Carmel went up in flames. Of the 76 who perished, 25 were children, many of whom had gone into the concrete vault room with their mothers for safety.

Did the tear gas really start the fires?

There are two versions of how the fires started. The government came out with a report in 2000 that concluded that it was the Branch Davidians who started the fires. As implied on the show, the report indeed found that incendiary tear gas canisters were used by the FBI, but arson investigators determined that the fires were started simultaneously by the Davidians in no less than three different locations in the compound. Transcripts from listening devices the FBI placed within the compound support this assertion. On the day of the siege, members can be heard talking about setting the fires (The New York Times). The survivors, including David Thibodeau, say that this is entirely untrue. Thibodeau has maintained over the years that the fires started as a result of the actions of the FBI. This is the version that we see in the Waco miniseries.

Could the Branch Davidians have committed mass suicide?

While the miniseries takes the stance that there was no mass suicide, evidence, including transcripts from listening devices mentioned in the previous question, suggests otherwise, indicating that it was the Davidians who set the fires. However, it's hard to say definitively (The New York Times). We do know for certain that there were a number of suicides inside the compound, either self-inflicted or by proxy. Koresh himself had a gunshot wound in the middle of his forehead. The series implies that it was Steve Schneider who pulled the trigger prior to taking his own life. In real life, it is less clear whether Koresh's head wound was self-inflicted or not, however, the FBI agrees with the show's version.

The series leaves out the even darker side of the Waco true story, failing to show the many others who had fatal gunshot wounds to either the face, head or chest, including five children. It also omits the 3-year-old boy who had been fatally stabbed in the chest, and the other two minors who died from blows to the head. Instead of including these mercy killings/murders, Koresh's death is depicted as a sort of martyrdom.

The real David Thibodeau told TIME that he believes that it's likely some of the Branch Davidians opted to take their own lives instead of dying more painful deaths in the fire. "They died for what they believed in, whether you believe that or not," Thibodeau said during an interview with Smithsonian Magazine. "To me, they're martyrs, and they shouldn't just be demonized and hated."

How many of the Branch Davidians survived?

In researching the Waco fact vs. fiction, we learned that prior to the fire that destroyed the compound, 35 people had left, including 21 children. Nine more fled the compound after the fire began. In total, 44 members survived the 51-day siege. -The New York Times

How many firearms were found in the Branch Davidian compound?

The real David Thibodeau (portrayed by Rory Culkin in the miniseries) has stated that there were a total of 76 firearms in the compound at the time, which is not as many as the miniseries implies. "It was made to sound as though there were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds. There weren't, because we were selling a lot of the guns at a gun show" (Brown Political Review). Thibodeau shares his side of the story in his book Waco: A Survivor's Story.

However, Thibodeau's claims contradict the actual number of weapons that were reportedly found in the compound after it burned to the ground. A Waco miniseries fact check reveals that the authorities recovered approximately 300 assault rifles and pistols from the charred remains of the compound, including 60 AK47 assault rifles, 60 M-16 machine guns, and roughly 30 AR-15 assault rifles. Many of the guns were found in the concrete vault, and 22 weapons were removed from underneath bodies in the vault, including an unexploded grenade. -Los Angeles Times

Were any of the surviving Branch Davidians sent to prison?

Yes. Our investigation into the Waco fact vs. fiction reveals that eight surviving Branch Davidian members were convicted on charges of voluntary manslaughter and using firearms while carrying out a crime. By 2007, all had been released from prison. David Thibodeau (played by Rory Culkin in the series), along with several other surviving adults, was not sentenced to prison time. -Fox News

Did any of the survivors have cameos in the Waco miniseries?

Yes. The real David Thibodeau had a cameo in the Waco series finale. At the end of the episode, Thibodeau can be seen sitting on a bench next to his onscreen counterpart (played by Rory Culkin) outside a hearing room in Washington, D.C.

Do the Branch Davidians still exist?

Watch footage of David Koresh speaking from inside Waco and listen to his song 'Mad Man in Waco'.

What Really Happened At Waco

What really occurred outside Waco on April 19, 1993? Is the U.S. government responsible for the deaths of more than 70 men, women and children at the Branch Davidian compound?

For years anti-government conspiracy theorists have argued that the answer was yes. Today the Waco incident is the subject of two congressional investigations, an independent counsel and a multimillion-dollar civil lawsuit against the government.

Many new details about the disaster have come to light only recently.

Today virtually all of the evidence from Waco, much of it paperwork from the many different government agencies involved, is stored in a secured room in Waco. The federal judge handling the civil trial ordered it collected and stockpiled, so that it could not be tampered with.

That evidence may provide some new answers to what actually happened at the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco. Dan Rather investigates.

"In the last two months, three months, we've learned more about what happened than we did in the preceding six and a half years," says Michael Caddell, a Houston attorney representing survivors and family members of the Branch Davidians in their suit against the government.

Caddell says that the government has not accepted its share of the responsibility for those deaths.

It all started nearly seven years ago with a February 1993 raid by more than 70 agents from the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms. David Koresh and his followers, the Branch Davidians, were known to have a large cache of high-powered weapons. The ATF also suspected that the group had explosives and the parts to manufacture machine guns illegally. When it arrived to search the compound, shooting started almost immediately.

Afterward, four ATF agents and six Branch Davidians were dead. The Federal Bureau of Investigation moved in, and a lengthy standoff ensued. For more than seven frustrating weeks, the FBI tried to persuade the Davidians to come out.

"The FBI's job was to try to resolve this matter and convince these people to come out and face multiple first-degree murder charges in the state that leads the nation in capital punishment," says Byron Sage, head of the FBI negotiating team in Waco. "It was virtually an insurmountable task."

The standoff ended on the morning of April 19, when a tank and other FBI armored vehicles moved in. The FBI spent the next several hours shooting tear gas into the compound. Shortly after noon, the building was engulfed in flames.

"I called in immediately, over the loudspeaker system," Sage remembers. "And I said, 'You know, David, don't do this to those people. This is not the way to end this.'"

By the end of the day, more than 70 men, women and children were dead.

"I would submit to you that we played right into the hands of David Koresh," says Sage, now retired. "He had an apocalyptic end in mind apparently. And he used us to flfill his own prophecy."

Did the FBI and the Justice Department contribute in some way to that apocalyptic end - either by pushing the Davidians to the brink as the assault on the compound progressed or by doing something that could have caused the fire?

Independent filmmaker Michael McNulty came upon some evidence that appeared damaging to the government. He found a shell casing from a certain type of tear gas round that could start a fire - a device the Justice Department had denied using for more than six years - publicly and to Congress.

"Congress was mislead on this there is no question about it," says Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Johnston, the top justice department official in Waco. He worries that someone in the Justice Department hid the truth.

For several weeks Johnston wrote to his superiors warning them that the new evidence contradicted what they had been saying. But the Justice Department did not change its story until August, when Attorney General Janet Reno was forced to admit that the tear gas round had been used.

Investigators have concluded that two of these devices were used. Though credible experts still overwhelmingly believe the Davidians started the fire, the damage had been done. The FBI was caught in a lie.

Sage says that nothing was hidden on purpose. "It's not a case of coverup," he says. "And I would have to say that it is a case of screwup. It was not flagged for its importance. Therefore, it's taken on a life of its own."

The admission breathed life into conspiracy theories that surround the Waco case. Sage blames the FBI for not addressing accusations more seriously.

"I told the bureau a while back that in Texas, if your eye starts stinging and your nose hurts and you reach up and you've got blood on your face, you're in a fight," Sage says. "And you damn well better realize that you are in a fight. The bureau, the credibility, the public perception of the bureau's integrity is at danger here."

The government's integrity has been damaged by other discoveries as well. Within the past six months it was forced to acknowledge that military Special Forces, believed to be the secret Delta Force, were present outside Waco. And a surveillance tape with suspicious gaps was discovered at FBI headquarters.

The most serious question remaining is: Did government agents fire shots into the compound on April 19?

Caddell thinks that they did. This is one of the main contentions of the suit he has brought on behalf of the victims and family members. "The government was responsible for gunfire on April 19," he says. This gunfire "either killed Davidians or pinned them down, so that they could not escape the fire."

The attorney general and the FBI as a whole have consistently maintained the government did not fire a single shot that day.

Caddell says that the proof lies in video shot by a camera aboard an FBI aircraft, a het-detecting eye in the sky known as a "forward-looking infrared." Attorney Caddell believes it tells the story.

"What we see on numerous occasions," says Caddell, referring to the videotape, "is an ongoing gun battle between government forces and the Davidians."

Caddell claims that the flashes of heat recorded by the sensitive camera are evidence of someone shooting into the compound in response to Davidian gunfire. They began late in the morning and continued until a little after noon.

"You continue to see gunfire at various times from behind that tank directed primarily at the Davidian gun positions here and in the tower and also into this dining room area," he says.

But the government says that Caddell's theory is impossible.

As evidence, Sage points to an aerial photograph that he says was taken within seconds of a flash that shows no one on the ground doing any shooting.

He says the still frame enlargement of the infrared tape makes the same point. "There is nobody there," Sage says.

Sage is not sure what caused the flashes, he says. "My layman's view is that it's probably water or moisture that's reflecting sunlight," he says. "I can't tell you as an expert. Because I am not one. But I can tell you what it's not. It's not gunshots."

To find out more, CBS News hired Paul Beavers, a writer on military and law enforcement tactics and technology. Beavers, who used infrared imagery extensively in the British army, demonstrated what gunfire looks like on a thermal imaging camera.

He compared the infrared tape of his demonstration with the FBI's tape from Waco. "There's some flashes there, which to me look exactly as if they're gunfire," Beavers says, looking at the Waco tape.

"They have all right characteristics. There we go. There we go. Two rounds. It's what's called a 'doubletap. It's what you expect a trained marksman to do, to fire two rounds within close proximity of each other," he says.

"One, two, yep it's not a glitch in the camera," Beavers continues. "It's not the sun striking something. It's not swamp gas reflecting off the planet Venus. This is somebody shooting."

But the FBI denies this emphatically. Although its agents came under Davidian machine gun fire, the FBI maintains that no agent fired back at any time.

"No FBI person fired, period, during the entire 51 days," Sage says. "Now that's an extraordinary statement. The fact that these agents did not return fire is an extraordinary statement to the professionalism and the discipline that is pervasive throughout the hostage rescue team and throughout the FBI, for that matter."

Whatever the current investigations conclude, Sage regrets what happened that day.

"Hindsight is a wonderful thing," he says. "And I think if you ask anyone that was involved in this situation from the on-scene commander to the rank-and-file aget in the field that we probably would not have gone forward on the 19th of April or any other time with a tear-gassing operation knowing now that they intended to set that place on fire."

"Our reason for being there was preservation of life, not to contribute to the loss of life," Sage continues. "Approximately 27 children perished on that day. That loss of life - any loss of any life - is something that I think all of us would have done - would have moved heaven and earth to try to change."

An independent counsel appointed by Attorney General Reno hopes to settle the matter of alleged gunfire by meticulously re-creating the conditions at Waco in a field test in March.

Waco: How a 51-day standoff between a Christian cult and the FBI left more than 80 dead and divided America

As a Paramount TV drama may show, almost every aspect of the Waco siege that pitted sect leader David Koresh against the federal government is contested – and the controversy may have played a part in shaping today’s America

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For 51 days, for hour after hour, the FBI negotiators had sought agreement with a sect leader who veered between cracking jokes and threatening to start World War Three, between lucid civility and incoherent rambling about the scriptures. About the Book of Revelation in particular.

To himself and to his followers in the Branch Davidians sect, David Koresh, 33, was the almighty Lamb of God, commanding men to surrender their wives to him, fathering babies with children as young as 12, preparing them all for the imminent apocalypse.

Confronted by snipers and combat vehicles, facing an armed siege that had come to resemble the final cataclysmic battle with the government that their leader had prophesised, the Davidians refused to desert either Koresh or their squalid compound near Waco, Texas.

Instead they held children up to the windows and unfurled a sign proclaiming: “Flames Await”.

And so, wittingly or unwittingly, the Davidians foretold the denouement.

On the morning of Monday 19 April 1993, with the FBI team still seemingly divided about whether force or negotiation was the answer, the agents of law enforcement began their assault, to the accompaniment of military-grade tear gas being fired from Army-issue combat vehicles.

Only nine sect members emerged alive.

Somehow, a fire was started. Fanned by a 30mph wind, the flames destroyed the Davidians’ compound, the Biblically-named Mount Carmel Centre.

That day saw the deaths of 76 Davidians, including Koresh, 24 followers who were British citizens, and more than 20 children.

Women and children, huddling under wet blankets for protection from the blaze, were killed by falling debris. Many others were killed by smoke inhalation.

Some, though, were found shot in the head at close range. Several young children were shot and one toddler died from a stab wound to the chest.

It seemed that as the flames and federal agents approached, some Davidians followed their leader Koresh’s order to commit suicide, and took the children with them.

That, at least, is one account of the siege of Waco.


Almost every aspect of it could be, and indeed has been, challenged.

And now a new American miniseries, its first episode broadcast on Wednesday, is again stirring the embers of Waco.

If the TV drama Waco is attracting enormous attention, that’s hardly surprising.

The Waco siege was never just about a bizarre sect, a failed negotiation and a disastrous raid.

In some ways, it was a fatal collision of things that have helped make, and occasionally threaten to break, America.

Waco combined God and guns – the right to religious freedom and the right to bear arms – with the fear that federal government would remove those rights, and federal government’s fear of its more extreme citizens.

It saw a government acting partly out of fear of domestic terrorism embark on a siege that would come to support narratives later exploited by domestic terrorists.

Because in some quarters, Koresh and the Davidians were martyrised as a community of God-fearing if unconventional Christians whose freedoms should have been guaranteed by the US Constitution, but who were instead killed by an ever more controlling government.

And two years to the day after the end of the Waco siege, such views were taken to perverse extremes. On 19 April 1995 Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh claimed to be avenging the Davidians when he killed 168 people in his attack on the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building.

Small wonder, then, that from how it started to how it finished and beyond to its aftermath, everything about Waco is contested.

The Paramount Network miniseries seems to be leaning towards a view that Koresh and his followers were without violent intent, and misunderstood.

And that’s not totally implausible. The Davidians were well known locally, and maintained friendly relations with outsiders, earning some of their income from a scrupulously legal retail gun business called the Mag Bag.

According to this version, the 80 armed Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) operatives were the ones acting excessively – and firing first – when they embarked on the botched raid of 28 February 1993 that left four agents and five Davidians dead, and started the siege.

According to FBI evidence later presented in court, however, the fears informing the original ATF search warrant – that semi-automatic guns were being illegally modified to fire in fully automatic mode – were justified. The FBI’s experts testified that 46 illegally modified assault rifles were among the hundreds of weapons found at the Davidians’ compound.

And looming behind the official worries about modified weapons was an even greater fear: that the Branch Davidians weren’t just a sect, but an abusive doomsday cult positively itching for the Apocalypse.

The day before the ATF raid, some of these fears were made public by an explosive report in the Waco Tribune-Herald.

Headlined “The Sinful Messiah”, it claimed that Koresh “rules Mount Carmel by virtue of the belief that he alone can open the Seven Seals in the Book of Revelation, setting loose catastrophic events that will end mankind and propel [him] and his followers into heaven”.

It was said that Koresh had “claimed the divine right to take every man’s wife” and established a harem of at least 15 women, producing children who were supposedly destined to “rule the Earth with him after he and his male followers slay the unbelievers”.

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12 August 2020

Initially, Koresh might not have seemed like charismatic leader material. Born Vernon Howell, to a 15-year-old mother and a 20-year-old father she never married, he had been a lonely child, who dropped out of high school aged 17 and then drifted in the hope of becoming a rock star, marrying a 14-year-old in his early twenties.

But from an early age Koresh had found solace in the Bible, apparently memorising the New Testament by the time he was 12. He was baptised as a Seventh Day Adventist aged 20, but expelled from the church two years later for being “a bad influence on the young”.

Shortly afterwards, in 1981, Koresh joined the Branch Davidians, and found a far more receptive audience.

Here, an October 1993 Department of Justice (DOJ) report noted, Koresh could find people of such “low self-esteem” that he could elevate himself to “near God-like status”.

The US government report seemed to confirm many of the Waco Tribune-Herald claims.

“Koresh,” it said, “preached that as the ‘Lamb of God’ only his ‘seed’ was pure, meaning that only he could have sex with the over-puberty aged girls and women in the compound, and that none of the men could have sex.

“Koresh even convinced [his second-in-command Steve] Schneider to give up his wife, Judy. Koresh would humiliate Steve Schneider by talking about his sexual experiences with Judy in front of all the Davidians at their Bible study sessions.”

Nor did the official report flinch from allegations of Koresh’s sexual abuse of girls.

Using his original surname Howell, it cited the testimony of former compound resident Jeannine Bunds that “Howell had fathered at least 15 children with various women and young girls at the compound. Some of the girls who had babies fathered by Howell were as young as 12 years old. She [Bunds] had personally delivered seven of these children.”

And if Koresh got his followers to accept this kind of abuse, surely he could also convince them the Apocalypse was nigh, that it would come with the US government killing him, before he and the “exalted” who died alongside him rose again?

“They believed Koresh was the ‘Lamb’ through whom God communicated to them,” said the DOJ report. “They also believed the end of the world was near, that the world would end in a cataclysmic confrontation between themselves and the government, and that they would thereafter be resurrected.”

“The February 28 ATF raid,” the report added, “only reinforced the truth of Koresh’s prophetic pronouncements in the minds of his followers.

“Koresh had … planned for the predicted apocalyptic showdown by massively arming himself and his followers beginning in early 1992 and continuing through early 1993.”

But come 19 April 1993, the final day of the Waco drama, was Koresh still determined to go through with it?

Was he, still, as one FBI-commissioned analyst put it, planning to bring the siege to a “magnificent end” that would “take the lives of all of his followers and as many of the authorities as possible.”

The letter that Koresh had sent to the FBI on 9 April, telling them the “heavens are calling you to judgement”, was heavily analysed from the moment it was received, but the experts were unable to agree on whether Koresh was determined to have a suicidal, apocalyptic last battle.

And so the subsequent media reports have tended to disagree. Some have stressed the military-style training at the camp, the firearms drills, the sewing of specially designed vests with pockets for extra ammunition clips, the school bus that was buried to serve as a bunker.

Others have suggested that Koresh was planning to surrender after writing down his interpretation of the Seven Seals, only to be interrupted by the FBI’s attempt to storm the compound.

The DOJ, though, said Koresh had repeatedly “lied” about leaving the compound. On 2 March he said he would come out peacefully “immediately” a 58-minute recording he had made was broadcast over the radio. After the recording was transmitted, Koresh told the FBI negotiators that God had ordered him to wait.

And one Davidian who was allowed out of the compound mid-siege told the ATF that Koresh hadn’t been planning to leave peacefully on 2 March. The sect member’s testimony, the DOJ report stated, was that: “Koresh planned to exit the compound with [follower] Greg Summers, who would have an explosive device strapped around his waist so that they would blow themselves up in front of the FBI.

“In addition, the people inside the compound planned to blow themselves up so that ‘we would all go to heaven that day’.”

Such testimony may also seem to prove that the Davidians were indeed intent on mass suicide. Again, however, the evidence does not offer a clear picture.

Koresh and his followers inside the compound told the FBI negotiators that they did not intend to kill themselves, since this would be against the leader’s teachings.

That, though, did not rule out some sort of “suicide by cop”.

As the siege was ongoing, former sect members told the ATF that Koresh’s teaching was that law enforcement officers had to be the ones who killed him. His prophesy wouldn’t be fulfilled if he simply took his own life.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that some evidence points to more active plans for suicide.

The DOJ said Kiri Jewell, a teenager who left the compound shortly before the siege, told the FBI that the Davidians had discussed mass suicide by shooting or by cyanide.

The investigations that followed 19 April also appear to have been inconclusive.

The FBI has always maintained that none of its agents fired their weapons, despite some being fired on. But if that is the case, it still doesn’t necessarily mean that the gunshot wounds on some Davidian bodies are evidence of mass suicide.

When a Frontline documentary team investigated, they said they were told by coroner’s office and FBI sources that the positions of most of the bodies found with gunshot wounds on 19 April were inconsistent with mass suicide.

Some have suggested the shootings were “mercy killings”, the Davidians preferring a quick death from a bullet over a lingering one from flames and smoke inhalation.

But there is an even grimmer possibility. As one DOJ report put it: “It is possible that some people were shot [by their fellow sect members] to prevent their escape from the compound.

“It is not certain whether a substantial number of the persons who died in the compound on 19 April remained inside voluntarily, were being held in the compound against their will or were shot in order to prevent their escape from the fire.”

It is also possible that those who weren’t shot actually welcomed the fire, choosing to die alongside their leader as prophesied.

Koresh, though, was not one of those killed by the flames. He was found with a bullet wound to the forehead. And if it wasn’t the FBI that did the shooting, who fired the bullet?

One theory has it that his loyal lieutenant Schneider, finally realising that the man who had so humiliatingly taken his wife was a fraud, shot Koresh and then turned the gun on himself – a kind of justice, perhaps, albeit not necessarily of the divine sort.

The Waco siege lived on, in lawsuits. Survivors and relatives of the Davidians sued the government and claimed the fire in which so many died was caused by one of the combat vehicles knocking over a lantern.

Arson investigators, however, said that the Davidians themselves started the blaze, setting the compound alight in at least two different locations.

Listening devices, smuggled in by the FBI inside milk cartons offered to the Davidians, also picked up sect members saying things like “start the fire” and “spread the fuel”.

So the October 1993 Department of Justice report was able to come to a conclusion that was reassuring, for officialdom: “Probably the most important observation that can be made about the Waco standoff is that after all is said and done, after all the analysis, investigations, hearings, and so forth, nothing would have changed the outcome because the people who remained inside had no intention of leaving.”


As the new miniseries seems to suggest, many remain unconvinced.

Indeed in some accounts, it is not Koresh, but the federal government – a federal government then led by President Bill Clinton – that remains the villain.

Some choose to minimise or dispute the child sex abuse allegations: “a disgruntled parent involved in a custody case, and we all know how that goes”.

In these accounts the Branch Davidians become a “multi-racial community, made up of Christians who played music, worked on their cars, conducted a legal arms business, and loved their children”.

Federal government should have left these people alone, the theory goes. Instead, in the form of the ATF, it sought to abuse their civil and religious rights, and in so doing started a calamitous siege.

In the Nineties such arguments bolstered a freedom-loving, gun-bearing, sometimes survivalist suspicion of government, of “Washington”, and of politicians like Clinton.

Today, perhaps you could be forgiven for wondering what small part Waco might have played in shaping the destiny of America.

In the reactions to what happened 25 years ago, is it possible to glimpse a flicker of sentiments that would help pave the way for another controversial leader – a man who also encouraged distrust of traditional government, and who promised to “drain the swamp”?

The history of deadly standoffs with the federal government, mapped

If you visit Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay, an unexpected sign greets you. Above a sign identifying the island as the site of a federal penitentiary is block lettering in red: "INDIANS WELCOME."

It's a remnant of one of the earlier examples of an occupation of a federal facility by a group seeking recognition of their sovereignty, transfer of federal land or both — an occupation similar to the one of a wildlife refuge that's underway near Burns, Ore.

The good news is that in most examples since the Alcatraz Island one began in 1969, the stand-off has ended peacefully.

We can start the history of these confrontations at Alcatraz.

1. Occupation of Alcatraz, 1969–1971
No civilians or federal agents killed.

A group of nearly 100 people calling itself Indians of All Tribes took control of Alcatraz Island on Thanksgiving of 1969. Their numbers dwindled over time, with the government ousting them in June 1971. No one was killed.

2. Occupation of a Milwaukee Coast Guard station and Mount Rushmore, 1971
No civilians or federal agents killed.

A few members of the American Indian Movement claimed ownership of Mount Rushmore in 1971, occupying the monument for a brief period of time.

The occupation of an abandoned Coast Guard station by the same group was more successful. The government allowed the group to start a school at the site and, for nearly a decade, operated a school there.

3. Occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, 1972
No civilians or federal agents killed.

After briefly taking control of the government agency in 1971, a large group of hundreds of members of the American Indian Movement took it over for a week the following year. They offered a list of 20 demands, including protection of native American sovereignty. The protest ended without injuries.

4. Occupation of Wounded Knee, 1973
Two civilians killed.

Several hundred members of the American Indian Movement took control of the town of Wounded Knee in 1973, holding it for more than two months. The federal government shut off electricity and limited the availability of food and water and the two sides exchanged gunfire on occasion. Two occupiers were killed by gunfire.

Over the course of the 1960s and 1970s, a number of occupations were initiated (largely on college campuses) in opposition to the Vietnam War or around other social issues. (Former attorney general Eric Holder participated in one at Columbia University in 1970.) By the 1990s, the stand-offs with government officials shifted in focus.

5. Stand-off at Ruby Ridge, 1992
Two civilians and one federal agent killed.

Watch the video: What Happened at the Waco Siege? Digital Media yeah!!! (July 2022).


  1. Deman

    In it something is. Thank you for help in this question, now I will not admit such error.

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