On February 28, 1993, approximately 80 agents of the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Fire arms (ATF) attacked a religious complex at Mount Carmel, near Waco, Texasafter receiving reports that the Branch Davidians and their leader, David Koreshviolated federal firearms regulations.
After four ATF agents and six Davidians were killed in the ensuing shootout, a ceasefire was reached and nearly 900 law enforcement officials eventually surrounded the compound, including hostage negotiators and rescue teams from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.FBI).
Journalists also quickly arrived on the scene, and the ensuing 51-day siege was broadcast on television screens and in newspapers around the world. Despite some early negotiating successes – the Davidians sent about two dozen children in exchange for food and other supplies – many children remained among those inside, many of whom were the children of Koresh and of various women.
In the 1930s, a disgruntled member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Victor Houteff, broke away and founded the Davidian movement. After Houteff’s death, Ben Roden led a branch of the movement known as the Branch Davidians, which took over Houteff’s original settlement at Mount Carmel, near Waco, in 1962.
Believing that the Bible is literally the word of God, Branch Davidians turned to it for clues about the end of the world and the second coming of Christ, as recounted in the book of Revelation.
Roden died in 1978, leaving his wife, Lois, as the sect’s chief prophetess. In 1981, a 22-year-old convert named Vernon Wayne Howell arrived at Mount Carmel; he became involved with Lois Roden and, after her death, clashed with her son, George, for control.
In a shooting in late 1987, George Roden was shot in the head and chest, and Howell and seven supporters were tried for attempted murder. The other seven men were acquitted, and Howell’s case ended in a mistrial.
In 1990, after asserting control over the Branch Davidians, Howell legally changed his name to David Koresh. (“Koresh” is the Hebrew translation of Cyrus, the ancient Persian king who conquered Babylon and allowed the the Jews To return to Israel.)
Koresh and the FBI
During his negotiations with the FBI during the siege of Waco, Koresh claimed that he was a prophesied messianic figure in the Bible and that God had given him his last name. He threatened violence against those who would attack him and his family, but claimed the Davidians were not planning mass suicide.
To the Branch Davidians, Koresh was “the Lamb,” the only one (according to the Book of Revelation) worthy of unlocking the Seven Seals and revealing the full teachings of the Bible to the world. This identification allowed Koresh to justify some of his controversial practices (even within the sect), including taking various “spiritual wives”, some of whom were reportedly as young as 11 years old.
Over time, negotiators and the hostage rescue team, which managed all tactical maneuvers, disagreed on how to handle the siege. The latter team, frustrated by the slow pace of negotiations, resorted to aggressive tactics like playing ear-splitting music or crashing the Davidians’ cars, disrupting the often-delicate negotiation efforts.
Fire ravages Waco complex
In mid-April, after religious scholars contacted Koresh through a radio discussion about the teachings of Revelation, Koresh sent a message through his lawyer announcing that he had received word of God and that he wrote his message on the Seven Seals; he would go out with his followers when he was finished.
The FBI, unconvinced, decided to act to end the siege. Although initially reluctant, the Attorney General Janet Reno ended up approving a plan to fire CS gas (a form of tear gas) at the Mount Carmel compound in an attempt to expel the Davidians. Shortly after 6 a.m. on April 19, 1993, FBI agents used two specially equipped tanks to enter the compound and deposit some 400 containers of gas.
Shortly after the attack ended, around noon, several fires broke out simultaneously around the compound and gunshots were heard inside. Safety concerns prevented firefighters from immediately entering Mount Carmel, and flames spread quickly and engulfed the property.
Although nine Davidians were able to escape, investigators later discovered 76 bodies inside the compound, including 25 children. Some of them, including Koresh, had fatal gunshot wounds, suggesting suicide or murder-suicide.
The Legacy of the Waco Siege
From the beginning, the government’s handling of the Waco siege (which was widely reported by national and international media) was heavily criticized. Reno took responsibility for the botched raid, later admitting that there was no evidence of ongoing child abuse at the compound (which had been one of the justifications for ordering the gas attack).
Although the government has long maintained that its actions played no role in starting the fires at the Waco compound, it was revealed in 1999 that some of the gas used by the FBI was flammable under certain conditions.
Reno then appointed attorney and former senator John Danforth to lead an investigation into the end of the siege. In 2000, he concluded that government agents did not start a fire or shoot at the compound.
Despite this conclusion, resentment persisted over the government’s handling of the situation, which partially fueled the growth of local militias in the United States. The siege of Waco and that of 1992 Ruby Crest incident in Idaho are often cited by government critics as examples of overreach and intrusion by federal officials.
In April 1995, on the second anniversary of the end of the siege of Waco, an activist named Timothy McVeigh used a truck loaded with 4,800 pounds of fuel oil and aluminum nitrate to attack the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. With a total of 168 people killed and some 850 injured, the Oklahoma City bombing It was by far the deadliest terrorist attack in the United States to that date.
WATCH: Full episodes of The UnXplained online NOW.
Waco: the inside story, PBS Frontline.
James D. Tabor and Eugene V. Gallagher, Why Waco? Cults and the battle for religious freedom in America.
Malcolm Gladwell, “Sacred and Profane”, The New Yorker (March 31, 2014).