The FBI’s raid on the Waco, Texas compound of Branch Davidian leader David Koresh on April 19, 1993 ended in total disaster with all 76 cult members dying in an inferno.
by Robert Walsh
“Behold, the Lord will come with fire and the chariots will be with flaming torches. The rebukes of flames of fire.” (David Koresh misquoting Bible passage Isaiah 66:15 during the Waco siege.)
On February 28, 1993 Federal agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) arrived at the Mount Carmel compound in Waco, home of the Branch Davidian cult, to search for illegal weapons and arrest several leading members on suspicion of illegally converting semi-automatic AR-15 rifles into full-auto assault weapons. The raid involved 76 ATF agents and was one of the largest in ATF history. The raid should have been a surprise, but security was breached. Seeking a publicity coup the ATF had tipped off the media. A local reporter following the tip had asked a postal worker for directions to the compound and the postal worker happened to be the brother-in-law of cult leader David Koresh. Instead of mounting a raid, searching the compound and making arrests, ATF agents walked into a vicious firefight leaving four ATF agents and six Branch Davidians dead. The bungled raid started the longest stand-off in U.S. criminal history and ended disastrously on April 19, 1993. It also inspired Timothy McVeigh to commit the Oklahoma City bombing exactly two years later.
A Brief History of the Branch Davidians
The Branch Davidians formed in 1955 as a breakaway group from the Davidian Seventh Day Adventists, the Adventists themselves having split from the Seventh Day Adventist Church in 1930. Most of those joining the Davidian Seventh Day Adventists were “disfellowshipped” from the original Seventh Day Adventists for what were called “aberrant teachings,” “disfellowship” being similar to Catholic excommunication. This breakaway group was led by Victor Houteff, a Bulgarian immigrant who believed firmly in the second coming of Christ and that God’s final judgment was quickly approaching.
The splinter group found its home in Waco, Texas in 1935 with Houteff in control. During the 1930s membership grew steadily and the group established its own compound, farm and printing press to distribute Houteff’s self-published tracts for public consumption. When Houteff died in 1955 his wife
Florence took over. In 1957 the group moved to a larger compound they named “New Mount Carmel” after their original home. In 1959 the group encouraged members from all over the United States to sell their homes and businesses, summoning to the compound in time for Passover and a promised second coming in April. Around 900 people arrived, stayed for several days and, when the second coming didn’t happen, the gathering dispersed and the group splintered again. Several different factions, one led by George Roden, fought bitter legal battles for control of the compound, assets and funds. Roden’s group took control after a bitter factional feud.
Roden’s control lasted until his death in 1978 when his wife Lois took charge. During the 1970s a young Bible teacher named Vernon Howell joined the group. In 1985 Lois’s son George Roden Jr. took control. He soon found himself facing a rival faction led by Howell, now calling himself David Koresh. Roden expelled the Branch Davidians at gunpoint and they set up home in Palestine, Texas. In 1987 Koresh’s faction attempted to force its way into New Mount Carmel. After a tense stand-off resulting in an exchange of gunfire, both sides found themselves in court. Roden was jailed for contempt of court and later for the murder of group member Wayman Adair. He was committed to a psychiatric institution as a result. With Roden permanently out of commission, Koresh took legal control of New Mount Carmel by paying back taxes accumulated during Roden’s leadership. With his legal ownership and personal control fully secured, Koresh was in absolute command.
The original Adventists under Houteff had been pacifists. George Roden Jr.’s leadership had been dictatorial, sometimes backed up by violence. The Branch Davidians under Koresh were committed, possibly fanatical devotees of Koresh’s unique brand of Christianity. Koresh firmly believed Armageddon was coming, ordering his followers to stockpile essential supplies for the coming Apocalypse. Needless to say, these supplies included considerable stockpiles of guns and ammunition. Members were expected to practice regularly with pistols, revolvers, shotguns, semi-automatic AK-47’s and AR-15 semi-automatic rifles. In line with their leader’s edicts many Davidians did so assiduously. Their stockpiling of weapons caught the eye of local police and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Possession of fully-automatic assault rifles was outlawed in 1986 by the Hughes Amendment to the Firearms Owners Protection Act, but owning semi-automatic rifles was still perfectly legal. The problem was that the semi-automatic AR-15 and AK-47 rifles owned by the Branch Davidians were easily converted into full-automatic weapons. The Branch Davidians had among their members Henry McMahon (who ran the Davidians’ “Mag Bag” gun dealership to raise funds for the group) and Paul Fatta (a legitimate firearms dealer registered with the federal government). The Davidians also legally traded guns all over Texas to raise funds. With their own thriving gun business they could easily obtain the parts needed to convert their AR-15’s and AK-47’s. The ATF suspected they were doing exactly that.
Owning parts needed to convert AR-15’s to full-automatic rifles wasn’t illegal, but actually converting them was. The ATF also received reports of noisy, regular bursts of full-auto gunfire heard coming from New Mount Carmel. The ATF was also contacted by a UPS driver who had tried to deliver a package to the compound. The package had accidentally broken open, revealing inert grenade casing, firearms, gun parts and gunpowder. Following that tip, the ATF put the compound under 24-hour surveillance, discreetly checking paperwork related to the group’s firearms trading. The ATF also infiltrated undercover agent Robert Rodriguez to gather evidence within the compound.
The ATF investigation, which began in July of 1992, uncovered enough evidence for a search warrant to be granted for New Mount Carmel and arrest warrants for leading Davidians David Koresh, Paul Fatta, Steve Schneider and Woodrow Kendrick.
A Disastrous Raid
|ATF raid on compound|
For two separate reasons, the ATF’s February 28, 1993 raid was doomed to failure even before it started. In the first instance, the ATF used bogus information in an attempt to secure military assistance under the provisions of the “War on Drugs” legislation for the raid. The ATF falsely claimed – based on erroneous information provided by disgruntled ex-members – that the cult was operating a methamphetamine lab on the premises. There had been a meth lab at the compound prior to Koresh taking over, but Koresh had it dismantled and gave the equipment to the local sheriff for destruction. These facts caused the Special Forces commander attached to the raid to question the grounds for military co-operation. As a result the ATF was quickly restricted to using nearby Fort Hood as a training base and offered communications and medical support only.
The second gaffe was self-inflicted. In the hope of generating major positive publicity for the beleaguered ATF, agents tipped off local journalists that the raid was coming and when it would be made. A local TV reporter for KWTX-TV, sensing a scoop, asked a local postal worker for directions to the compound. The postal worker turned out to be Koresh’s brother-in-law who lost no time in telling Koresh everything he’d just heard. Surprise was essential to the ATF’s plan and surprise was now completely lost.
The ATF’s pre-raid problems didn’t end there. Undercover agent Robert Rodriguez had been a cult member for months, seemingly under a secure cover. Koresh now summoned Rodriguez and told him his cover had been blown for months. Rodriguez was allowed to leave, quickly informing his superiors that Koresh was expecting them. To many experts the raid would have already been hopelessly compromised and probably should have been dropped. The ATF pressed on and the agency’s luck went from bad to worse.
ATF agents raided New Mount Carmel on February 28 and a fierce battle commenced almost instantly. What should have been a fairly straightforward search-and-arrest operation became a major firefight leaving four ATF agents and six Davidians dead. It’s never been confirmed which side fired first, but there were already 10 bodies and many more followed. Even the three National Guard helicopters detailed to fly low and slow, distracting Davidians during the raid, arrived late and withdrew quickly after taking heavy ground fire. With no air support, armoured vehicles or heavy weapons available and after exchanging fire for nearly two hours, ATF agents withdrew, low on ammunition. The longest siege in American criminal history had begun. It would last another 51 days.
The FBI Takes Over
With Federal agents shot dead the case was immediately handed over to the FBI. Anybody hoping the FBI would do better than the ATF’s was to be disappointed. The FBI site commander at Waco was Richard Rogers who had already taken enormous criticism for his handling of the Ruby Ridge stand-off in northern Idaho in 1992. That the FBI intended to take a tough stance became clear when Davidian David Schroder attempted to enter the compound, having been away at the time of the raid. Schroeder attempted entry with Woodrow Kendrick (one of the Davidians named on an arrest warrant) and Norman Allison. According to FBI snipers Schroeder brandished a pistol so they shot him dead, making him the seventh Davidian to die. Kendrick and Allison were arrested. (Later they would be acquitted in federal court of having aided and abetted the deaths of federal agents.)
The FBI’s handling of Waco, hampered from the start by bitter internal wrangling, also received heavy criticism. In 2006 British TV broadcaster Channel 4, in a co-production with American cable channel HBO, aired “Inside Waco” revealing the depth and bitterness of divisions between the negotiators and hardliners within the FBI. For the hardliners former Special Agent Jeff Jamar stated: “To say that they were staying in there because they were intimidated by Army vehicles circling the place, to me that’s nonsense. If they were intimidated, that’s fine.”
Former FBI negotiator Byron Sage, also present at Waco, still held the opposite view. Regarding the FBI’s increasingly aggressive tactics he stated: “Did it adversely impact on the negotiations? Yes, it did.” Sage was scathing in his criticism of the hard-line element, bluntly stating that their attitude and actions repeatedly caused unnecessary difficulties and undermined the negotiators in their efforts to resolve the situation peacefully.
So far the ATF raid had bungled their raid and the FBI operatives couldn’t agree among themselves about how best to handle the resulting standoff. Hardliners and negotiators clashed constantly. Negotiators accused hardliners of compromising very delicate negotiations by being too heavy-handed. Hardliners felt negotiation was increasingly futile and sought to force the Davidians to surrender by making their lives increasingly difficult.
As the standoff progressed and negotiations became increasingly fractious, the hardliners progressively gained the upper hand. As a result the Davidians found their media access cut off and psychological warfare employed by the FBI became increasingly aggressive. Endless recordings of jets flying overhead, of rabbits being slaughtered, pop music and repetitive chanting were played at deafening volume to deprive the Davidians of sleep and gradually wear them down. The FBI also deployed armoured support in the form of nine Bradley armoured fighting vehicles equipped with CS gas launchers and five M728 Combat Engineer Vehicles to force entry to the compound and the buildings inside it. Two M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks were also despatched along with an M88 tank retriever to recover broken-down or damaged armoured vehicles.
At one point negotiators promised the Davidians that the armoured vehicles wouldn’t enter the compound. Shortly afterward the Davidians saw the armoured vehicles entering the compound They repeatedly drove over the grave of Peter Gent, a cult member buried at the compound, destroyed the perimeter fence, crushed the cult’s vehicles, destroyed two of the compound’s water towers and demolished a number of outbuildings.
It became clear to the Davidians that the hardliners were in control and the negotiators couldn’t actually keep their promises. Both the Davidians and the FBI’s own negotiators bitterly criticized the aggressive approach and provocative actions of the hardliners. The hardliners themselves, hoping to force a resolution rather than continue trying to negotiate one, were unmoved.
In spite of the heavy-handed approach of their colleagues negotiators did have some successes. During the first few days they managed to get a video camera into the compound along with food supplies in return for 19 children leaving the compound. The video was later broadcast nationally on the Christian Broadcasting Network. Concealed within milk cartons were miniature listening devices giving the FBI covert access to Koresh and his senior followers discussing tactics and strategy. Having been seriously wounded in the initial firefight, Koresh left most of the negotiating to his deputy Steve Schneider, but Koresh always retained the last word on decisions made.
The crisis dragged on. The negotiators tried to negotiate, the Davidians continued to hold out and FBI hardliners assumed increasing power. Relations between negotiators and Davidians became increasingly cynical while the FBI operatives fought increasingly bitterly among themselves. Koresh threw another spanner in the works when he agreed with negotiators to surrender in return for direct access to national media coverage. Koresh and his followers would broadcast across the nation on the Christian Broadcasting Network, provided they surrendered afterward. The broadcast was arranged and the Davidians got their publicity. Then Koresh broke the agreement. Reneging on the deal was disastrous for the negotiators and did nothing to help the Davidians themselves. It did plenty to bolster the influence of FBI hardliners who wanted to go in hard and heavy.
FBI commanders consulted then-Attorney General Janet Reno who in turn consulted President Clinton. The ultimate decision to break the siege by force lay with Clinton and, after discussions with Reno and senior FBI officials, the President agreed to have the standoff broken. The armoured vehicles would breach walls and pump CS gas into the main building, smoking out the Davidians. Loudspeakers would tell them that no armed assault was incoming and warn them not to open fire. The amount of gas pumped in would steadily increase for every two hours the Davidians refused to surrender.
The Siege of Waco
On April 19, 1993 the FBI made its move. Having already destroyed much of the compound, the FBI now cut off water and power supplies. The armoured vehicles moved in, breached the walls and started delivering large amounts of CS gas into the main building using M79 40mm grenade launchers firing M651 rounds into the breaches. It wasn’t long before the FBI ran low on gas rounds and requested the Texas Rangers to provide more. The rounds provided proved unusable as they were old-style pyrotechnic rounds producing sparks and flame as well as gas. They were an obvious fire hazard and totally unfit for the job.
Six hours after the assault began the Davidians were sheltering in a cinderblock room within the main building. The rest of the compound was either in ruins or occupied by law enforcement. More holes were punched in the walls by the Combat Engineer Vehicles and, according to the FBI, were intended as exits for any Davidians wanting to surrender. Nine came out and the remainder stayed within the building.
Around noon the fires started. Three fires erupted within the main building, simultaneously and in separate places. The surviving Davidians claimed they were started by the FBI either accidentally during the gas assault or deliberately to burn them out of the building. According to the FBI the Davidians deliberately started the fires themselves. It has never been confirmed how the fires started or whether they were accidental or deliberate. Either way, it made no difference. There were 76 Davidians left inside the building and they all died. Almost all of them died from suffocation and smoke inhalation, a few died when the building began collapsing around them. Two who died during the assault did so violently. They were David Koresh and his loyal deputy Steve Schneider.
Schneider had been Koresh’s loyal second-in-command throughout the standoff but, according to the FBI, they both died of gunshot wounds. Koresh had been shot in the head. Schneider’s autopsy showed he died with a pistol placed in his mouth. Schneider’s wound usually indicates a suicide while Koresh’s head wound was external. According to the FBI this indicates that Schneider, either against Koresh’s will or at his request, shot Koresh and then shot himself.
The Aftermath – Public Outrage
In the aftermath of the disastrous raid, FBI agents uncovered a staggering stockpile of weapons and munitions within the ruins of the burnt-out compound. According to a report from the U.S. Treasury Department, FBI agents found 305 firearms, including 46 fully automatic AK-47’s and modified AR-15’s, pistols, rifles, shotguns, two .50 caliber rifles with armour-piercing rounds, 1.9 million rounds of ammunition that had “cooked off” during the fire, hundreds of gun parts for converting semi-auto AK-47’s and AR-15’s to full-auto, over 200 inert rifle grenades that could have been converted to live grenades, hundreds of assorted pins, casings and safety arms for making hand grenades, Kevlar helmets, bulletproof vests and, most chilling of all, approximately 15 home-made silencers. Former Davidian Donald Bunds later admitted that he had made the silencers under the orders of David Koresh.
After the siege, conflict arose between Reno and the FBI over the reasons for the assault. According to Reno, the FBI told her that there was evidence of children being physically and sexually abused within the compound before and during the siege. According to the FBI they offered no such evidence. President Clinton had apparently been told by Reno that the FBI wanted to end the standoff as soon as possible, that the standoff was costing $1 million a week to police, that negotiations had irretrievably broken down and that Koresh’s control over his followers made it far more likely that the Davidians would opt for a last stand or mass suicide if their leader ordered them to do so. The Jonestown massacre of 1978 still haunted the Federal Government. Reno changed her version of events after the FBI denied advising her of child abuse during the standoff. Reno would later claim that Linda Thompson’s “Unorganised Militia of the United States” had started preparing to arrive at Waco in large numbers, either to join the Davidians or attack them.
According to Clinton, he initially favored simple standoff tactics without a deadline. Just starving them out would have been his preferred solution. Clinton favored this strategy because it successfully ended a previous standoff in his native Arkansas in 1985. Extremist militia group “The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord” had peacefully surrendered in 1985 after being besieged, but not assaulted, and Clinton wanted to avoid a potential disaster. What seemingly swung his opinion were the disputed reports of rampant child abuse given to him by Reno. Clinton now approved the gas assault, albeit reluctantly.
There was also another chilling postscript.
Michelle Rauch was a student journalist at Southern Methodist University during the standoff and spent her spring break covering the story. Looking for a new angle, she chanced upon a young man who had come to view the compound and watch events unfold. During their interview he expressed anti-government and anti-gun control views, bitterly criticized the authorities and their handling of the standoff and stated that, without decisive action, the United States would sleepwalk into a socialist dictatorship. Rauch finished her interview and snapped a couple of photographs as he surveyed the scene from a nearby hillside.
His name was Timothy McVeigh. While on Death Row at Terre Haute Federal Correctional Facility after the Oklahoma City bombing, McVeigh wrote to a local newspaper in his home town of Buffalo, New York. Part of his letter to the Buffalo News included the words:
“Everything that Waco implies was right on the forefront of my thoughts. That sort of guided my path for the next couple of years.”
Exactly two years after the Waco stand-off ended McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and leaving over 680 injured.