Written by Olivier Guiberteau
19th April 1993 – a day that began like any other, but ended in a fiery tragedy. What happened in Texas that day, roughly halfway between Austin and Dallas, is still discussed passionately nearly 30 years later.
A demonic cult gone horribly wrong or catastrophic failures and excessive force on the part of the U.S government and in particular the FBI. The events of the Waco Seige remain just as contentious today as they were in the smouldering aftermath that left 79 people dead inside the Mount Carmel compound.
This was a 51-day siege that captured the imagination of many and the frenzied media coverage that accompanied it certainly played its part in how we remember the chaotic assault that finally brought the siege to an end.
A lot has been said about the events that occurred before, during, and after the siege. But with conspiracy theories swirling, sensationalised media coverage, and a narrative that doesn’t always play along with “official events,” it’s long been difficult to get a true idea of what happened in and around the Mount Carmel compound just outside the small town of Waco.
With water and power having long been cut off, conditions were already deteriorating within the Mount Carmel compound. The religious group inside, known as the Branch Davidians, had made preparations for such an event and had stockpiled food, water, and enough weapons and ammunition to fight a small war.
Their leader, a man born Vernon Howell, but who now called himself David Koresh remained adamant that he and a sizeable portion of those sheltering inside would not be leaving, despite the fearsome presence outside.
For 51-days, the FBI had slowly tightened the noose. Sleep deprivation techniques had been deployed, with recordings of jet planes, pop music, Buddhist chanting, and the screams of rabbits being slaughtered pumped towards the compound throughout the night.
On 19th April 1993, loudspeakers outside once again crackled into life and the FBI’s final demand to vacate the property peacefully was broadcast. For those inside, it may have seemed like yet another day in a siege that was rapidly approaching two months – but it was not to be. As the speakers died away and with no sign of anybody planning to leave the compound, the green light was given to the operation that would finally end the Waco siege.
Whether it was a result of the bloodbath that followed and the need to construct a good vs bad narrative, the Branch Davidians have long been painted as a zealous religious cult that had long awaited the end of the world in a way only the completely brainwashed can be.
Stories of polygamous activity, statutory rape, and the various prophetic Davidians who either claimed to be the son of God or merely a mouthpiece of the Great Being upstairs have long-established an image of religious fanaticism that many in the modern world find uncomfortable.
The word cult is a tricky term and one that seems to be applied liberally to any religious organization that sits outside of the accepted mainstream. As we’ll be coming to shortly, the Branch Davidians were unquestionably a far-out group who managed to accumulate a litany of felonies even before the Waco Seige, which included murder, grave theft, and almost certainly child abuse, but the extreme devotion that kept many in the compound even as it became apparent that it was going to all end horribly, was quite remarkable.
The story of the Branch Davidians began back in 1934 when Victor Houteff, a Bulgarian immigrant and a Seventh-day Adventist Sabbath School who had been disfellowshipped from the church, established his an off-shoot which he called the General Association of Davidian Seventh-day Adventists.
By the 1950s, the number of followers had grown into the tens of thousands, with one estimate that there were 100,000 members worldwide when Houteff died in 1955. During this period, leadership within the church decide to move it to a hilltop just a few miles east of Waco in Texas, which they named Mount Carmel – after a mountain in Israel mentioned in Joshua 19:26 in the Bible’s Old Testament.
As tends to happen when it comes to prophetic inheritance, after Houteff’s death, his wife, Florence, suddenly claimed that she too could converse with God and categorically stated that the end of the world would come in 1959. Hundreds began to gather at the compound as they prepared for the apocalypse but unfortunately for Florence, but probably good news for everybody else around the world, the end of time did not come.
Dissulsionmenment over the failed prophecy led to a split and a man by the name of Benjamin Roden formed another group which he called the Branch Davidians and eventually took control of Mount Carmel itself.
Roden died in 1978 and the group plunged into a messy leadership battle, initially between his widow, Lois, and his son George. This was conveniently sorted out when Lois died and George became the only natural successor in place, but by that point, another contender was already waiting in the wings.
The man who would die as David Koresh was born Vernon Howell on 17th August 1959 – somewhat ironically the year the world apparently should have ended. Born to a 15-year-old mother, Howell experienced a troubled upbringing, to put it mildly. A dyslexic child who was abandoned first by his father, then by his mother before being sent to live with his grandmother.
After impregnating a 15-year old when he was 19, he apparently found God and announced that he was a born-again Christian and joined the Seventh-Day Activists, before finally arriving in Waco to join the Branch Davidians in 1981.
He immediately proved a popular addition but his arrival lit the fuse for a bitter leadership battle that would consume the Davidians. There’s plenty of wild speculation around events that occurred between 1983 and 1993 and it can be almost impossible to separate truth and fiction.
The story goes that Howell began a sexual relationship with Lois Roden around 1983 – when he was in his early 20s and she was in her late 60s. Apparently, he claimed that it was God’s wish for the two to have a child together, which may have been the case, but certainly revealed a limited understanding of human biology.
Around the same time, he announced that he too could hear the word of God and the revelation split the Davidians. After Lois Roden’s death, the presidency of the Davidians passed to her son George, but by this point, battle lines had already been drawn between the two would-be leaders.
This brings us to one of the strangest tales of the entire Branch Davidson story, the supposed ‘raising of the dead’ competition between George Roben and Vernon Howell. Again, there’s plenty of hearsay around this but according to multiple reports, Roben had the body of Anna Hughes, a Davidian who had passed away twenty years earlier, dug up and brought to Mount Carmel, where he threw down the gauntlet to Howell to see which man could raise the dead and who in turn would be the rightful leader of the Davidians.
It’s far from clear what happened next, but it appears Howell rejected the challenge – I wonder why – but attempted to break into Mount Carmel with several heavily armed accomplices to try and photograph the body. A gun battle erupted as the group was beaten back and the posse led by Howell, dubbed the ‘Rodenville Eight by the media, faced prosecution over the event.
Legal proceedings went nowhere and eventually, charges were dropped against the accused. Shortly after, George Roden took exception to another Davidian, Wayman Dale Adair, who reportedly told Roden that he was also God’s chosen messiah. Roden responded by burying an axe in Adair’s head and was convicted of murder under an insanity plea and carted off to a mental institution.
This bizarre flurry of activities left just one man standing, and Vernon Howell, who soon changed his name to David Koresh – Koresh being the Biblical name of Cyrus the Great, a Persian king who is named a messiah for freeing Jews during the Babylonian captivity – assumed full control of the Branch Davidians.
Humans are naturally suspicious of those who live differently and it wasn’t long until several red flags had been raised about what was going on within the Mount Carmel Compound. Perhaps the most serious was the rumours of child abuse and statutory rape, particularly against Koresh himself. The self-styled son of God had apparently announced that he could take as many wives as he saw fit but the rules were very different for others.
It’s been said that Koresh implemented a rule where married couples were split and where only he could have sex with the women, while the men remained celibate. It’s not entirely clear how many children Koresh fathered while he was head of the Branch Davidians, but the figure of 14 has often been quoted.
But sexually liberal ideas were not going to get authorities into Mount Carmel. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) was much more focused on the reportedly large quantities of firearms and ammunition stored on the property, while rumours that is what a meth lab were almost certainly started and exaggerated as a way of legitimising a warrant to search the property.
There was certainly plenty of weapons at Mount Carmel, but this was Texas, and you really needed to step out of line to find the ATF on your doorstep. The Branch Davidians ran their own retail gun business called the Mag Bag and sold weapons at gun shows across the state, usually with all the paperwork in perfect order.
As April began, the authorities were simply itching to serve the property with a search warrant. A laughably ridiculous stakeout operation in the house opposite had been in place for months, with men who drove shining new cars and claimed to be university students despite never actually going to class. A case was building, but slowly, and when the ATF caught wind that the local Tribune-Herald newspaper was set to run a damning story on the sexual activities occurring at the compound, they quietly requested that the paper hold off for a few weeks until the situation could be finalised.
The paper agreed, but the ATF dallied, first putting back the search date, and then announcing it would be on an unspecified date. As the end of the month neared, a warrant finally materialised, but it was certainly noticeable that many of the supposed suspicions were based upon drug dealing – something that was almost certainly not occurring. The authorities needed an excuse to enter Mount Carmel and they found it.
Early in the morning on Sunday 28th February, ATF agents prepared to approach Mount Carmel. Though they were armed to teeth, few would have had any idea just how bad the day was about to become.
At 9:45 am a convoy of civilian vehicles containing uniformed personnel in SWAT-style tactical gear arrived at the compound, along with two helicopters. Whatever chance of surprise had already vanished, when a reporter with knowledge of the impending raid stopped and asked somebody for directions close to the compound. As it happened that person was coincidentally Koresh’s brother-in-law who quickly reported back.
This is where the controversy really begins. Who fired the first shots that day is still argued over nearly thirty years later. The ATF would later claim that the first shot came from those inside the property, while survivors of the assault saw it the other way around. One plausible explanation that might well explain the incident, was that it was the ATF killing the dogs on the property that sparked the gunfire.
Almost in an instant, a ferocious firefight erupted, with most of the ATF agents backing away from the property to take cover. One group scaled the roof in an attempt to access an upstairs bedroom that was believed to be the armoury. They were met with a hail of bullets and this was when the first ATF agent was killed.
Such was the intensity of the gun battle, the agents eventually backtracked out of the room and away from the house. After about an hour, the shooting began to subside as the ATF agents began to run out of ammunition, but it would be two hours until an eerie silence descended. On the battlefield lay four killed ATF agents with another 16 injured. Inside the compound, three Branch Davidians had been killed, with a further two thought to be shot by their own after because of their critical injuries.
As the carnage dissipated, it became clear to everybody involved that this would not end quickly. The murder of Federal agents quickly brought the FBI into play and both sides began assessing their positions.
The FBI Seige
Few would have anticipated a 51-day siege as negotiations began. Initially, the FBI seemed convinced that the group had hostages inside, but after several video cameras were sent in and the Davidians filmed themselves reasserting their commitment to their cause, it appears as if an immediate desire to storm the property began to die away.
Not only did the tapes reveal a group that, at least on the surface, appeared perfectly compliant, but they also showed the FBI exactly who and how many remained inside. It’s thought that at this point there were close to 120 people at the Mount Carmel property, with nearly 50 children present.
Another major reason the FBI wanted to hold tight was the extraordinary level of firepower that had met the initial assault. It’s believed that there were at least 300 firearms at Mount Carmel, ranging from semi-automatic AK-47s and AR-15s, to shotguns, revolvers, and pistols.
But that was just the tip of the iceberg. After the siege had ended, authorities found 1.9 million rounds of “cooked off” ammunition – meaning ammunition that exploded due to heat, along with grenade launcher parts, flare launchers, gas masks and chemical warfare suits, night vision equipment, hundreds of practice hand grenade hulls and components, Kevlar helmets and bulletproof vests.
As the siege progressed, an agreement was made that Koresh could record and broadcast a message on national radio in return for the group leaving the property. No doubt the authorities were smarting at the brazen opposition to their attempts to enforce the law, but it must have seemed like a fair deal.
The recording was made and broadcasted, but Koresh did a 180 and declared that he and many others would not be leaving the property because God had instructed them to stay put. However, shortly after, it was agreed that 19 children aged between 5 months and 12 years would leave, but without their parents – leaving 98 men, women, and children inside.
To begin with, the Davidians had telephone contact with local news media, with Koresh even giving phone interviews, but this was eventually cut off, followed by the water and power supplies. The FBI began using sleep deprivation tactics to blast sounds at the property at all hours, while armoured vehicles made ominous patrols outside, repeatedly driving over the fresh graves dug for the Davidians who had died during the first assault.
A further 11 people left voluntarily but the majority of the children remained behind, a factor that almost certainly hampered efforts to clear the compound.
In the days leading up to the final assault, consultations between Attorney General Reno and President Clinton went back and forth, with a plan to pump gas into the property over two days to flush everyone out, the chosen option. Once again, it seems as if actions were pushed on slightly shaky pretences, this time that the children left inside were being abused during the siege – something there has never been any solid proof of.
On 19th April 1993, a final demand to surrender was blasted towards the house, but with no response, the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team moved forward, with two Combat Engineering Vehicles (CEV) that were used to punch holes through the walls creating the gaps in which the gas could be pumped.
The FBI used M79 grenade launchers to fire CS gas (tear gas) into the property, something repeated several times over the next few hours. An eerie waiting game ensued as many inside took shelter in an underground bunker as gas began to fill the property.
Around noon, three fires broke out inside Mount Carmel. Again, this is a point of real debate, were the fires started intentionally by those inside, or were they the result of pyrotechnic devices fired from the FBI? It would seem that it was the first, as FBI bugs that had been installed in milk cartons delivered to the property to monitor the situation picked up conversations between Davidians about setting the fires.
Also, the fact that all three fires began almost simultaneously, with two starting well away from any FBI activity, appears to support this. Either way, with television cameras beaming live images around America, the Mount Carmel compound was quickly consumed by fire.
Only 9 people managed to escape the inferno, with 76 men, women, and children dying inside, either through smoke inhalation, being buried alive by rubble, suffocation, or being shot as a mercy killing. Among the dead was David Koresh, who was discovered with a single bullet hole in his head.
The Waco Seige had ended in a horrifying mess that claimed the lives of 26 children. The intense fascination that had held the country on tenterhooks for 51 days was replaced with a sense of horror as the macabre finale played out on live television.
The siege was followed by an extensive court case in which 12 survivors were charged with conspiring to and aiding and abetting in, the murder of federal officers, and the unlawful possession and use of various firearms. Most were found guilty, but it set off a chain of appeals that eventually led to the Supreme Court cutting many of the sentences.
The Waco Seige is an event that tends to divide. Did the religious wackos get what they deserved, or was it a case of drastic government overreach that targeted a group who just wanted to be left alone?
The event provided a rallying call for anti-government militia movements that had long railed against government overreach. Two years to the day after the final assault at Waco, Timothy McVeigh, who openly stated that avenging the siege was one of his primary motivations, parked a truck stuffed with explosives beneath the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma. The bombing killed 168 people and remained the largest terrorist attack on the U.S mainland until 9/11.
What happened in Waco still sits uncomfortably for many. It was an event that highlighted longstanding issues relating to American values of self-governance, gun ownership, police actions, and religious freedom. It fuelled mistrust and set off a catalogue of conspiracy theories, most of which were predictably outlandish. Nearly 30 years later, the catastrophic Waco Seige remains a deeply polarising topic, one which sits uncomfortably in American history and slips between the lines of being simply and easily categorised.