Things are about to get a little hot this week Zach. That is to say the rage of a several different groups will undoubtedly rain down upon us if we mess this one up. You’ve got several branches of the 7th Day Adventist church, far right pro-gun anti-government militias, and even the ghost of Timothy McVeigh. This week we’re talking about the siege of the Branch Davidians better known as the Waco Siege.
Now the actual event takes place from February 28th-April 19th of 1993 but to fully understand what happened we have to go back to 1981. That is the year a young man named Vernon Howell arrived at the Mount Carmel Center outside Waco, Texas. The Mount Carmel Center was the headquarters of a group known as the Branch Davidians. The Branch Davidians were (and still are?) an offshoot of the Davidians who were kicked out of the Seventh Day Adventist church which is itself a pretty bonkers offshoot of the Christian church. The first thing you need to know about the branch davidians (and 7th day adventists as a whole) is that they believe the end of the world is really close. Founded in 1959 following a failed prediction of the end of the world by Benjamin Roden the Branch Davidians were a more militaristic offshoot of the Davidians. By the time Vernon Howell arrived on the compound Benjamin Roden had passed away and the group was being run by his widow Lois. Now, of course Vernon had an affair with the 65 year old woman and quickly became one of the most influential people in the group. This lead to a clash with prophet-to-be and son of Lois Roden, George Roden (who apparently didn’t like his new dad). When Lois passed away George assumed control of the the Branch Davidians but was quickly losing followers to Vernon Howell.
In an attempt to regain the support of the cult, George challenged Vernon to a good old fashion resurrection contest for which he exhumed a corpse for them to raise from the dead. In response Vernon tried to file charges against George but was told he needed evidence. So, what do you do when you need evidence? That’s right you storm your former compound with 7 followers, 5 .22 caliber semiautomatic guns, 2 .22 caliber rifles, two 12-gauge shotguns and nearly 400 rounds of ammunition. This lead to a shoot-out and several arrest. Despite Roden fleeing the property with wounds to his hands and chest, Vernon’s 7 followers were found not guilty of attempted murder and Vernon himself had his trial in end in a hung jury. George Roden would later go on to murder his future roommate with an ax before being committed to a mental asylum for the rest of his life and dying of a heart attack.
Vernon went on to assert his spiritual role in the group by changing his name to David Koresh and, in 1989, Koresh declared that because he was obviously the lamb of god prophesied in Revelation 5:2 all of the marriages in the church were null and void, all men and women had to be separated, and all of the women (including underage girls) had to have sex with him. He also said God had instructed him to raise an “army of god” for the end times.
Over the next several years the Brand Davidians started to stockpile and modify guns. This caught the attention of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (which is a real thing that we have in America) who began to investigate the group. The investigation officially started on June 9th of 1992 after a UPS worker reported an accidentally opened package containing guns, inert grenades, and gun powder. The investigation went about as poorly as an investigation like this good go. The ATF sent agents undercover in a house across the street from Mt. Carmel posing as college students. These college students, however, were all in the 30s, had new cars, were not registered at any local school, and didn’t keep any kind of consistent schedule. ATF agents also never chose to talk to Koresh or the Branch Davidians directly instead opting to conduct the investigation in secret. When a search warrant was obtained there was no proof to be found that the branch davidians were doing anything wrong. They had licenses for all of the guns that they were illegally buying and selling, however a search warrant was given because of the suspicion that the Branch Davidians were modifying the guns themselves, a suspicion that was given credence by reports of automatic fire coming from the compound.
The ATF’s raid on the compound was originally planned for March 1st, 1993, but the raid was moved up to February 28th after the Waco Tribune-Herald published a series of article about Koresh called “The Sinful Messiah”. The series alleged that Koresh had taken multiple wives, several as young as 12 or 13. The article ended with a plea for law enforcement to intervene which only lead to further paranoia from Koresh and his followers.
At 5:00 the morning of the 28th 76 agents assembled at Fort Hood to drive to the staging area for the raid. Shortly after this time, any hopes of catching the Branch Davidians were dashed after a reporter who had been tipped off to the raid accidentally asked David Koresh’s brother in law directions to the Branch Davidian compound. ATF was fully aware of their lack of surprise after one of their undercover agents had to escape from the compound because it turns out he wasn’t super duper under cover. At 9:45 ATF attempted to enter the compound and a gun battle ensued. It isn’t clear who shot first, Branch Davidians say ATF shot first, authorities say Branch Davidians shot first, it’s been suggested that the first shot was an accidental misfire or a member of the dog team. Whoever shot first the result was a nearly 2 hour gun battle in which 4 ATF officers and 6 Branch Davidians were killed. Eventually a ceasefire was reached but sporadic gunfire continued through most of the afternoon.
I want to talk about one thing before we get too off track. I don’t think it matters who shot first. If the federal government has a warrant to arrest you and search your property you don’t have a right to resist. Even if the ATF agents were the ones who shot first, if they saw Branch Davidians brandishing weapons or if they were threatened in any way they were completely in their rights to fire the first shot.
Anyway, back to the story. Eventually a ceasefire is agreed on and negotiations begin. At first 4 children were allowed to leave the compound safely which authorities took as a good sign. Later Koresh said he would surrender if he was given an hour on national radio. Authorities gave Koresh 58 minutes on the Christian Broadcasting Network in Waco and the speech was a disaster. The speech was definitely not intended for anyone who didn’t already understand his teaching and it was mostly ignored when it aired. Despite this the FBI (who had now taken over the case) and the Branch Davidians prepared for a mass surrender. However, after all the details had been negotiated David Koresh called the FBI negotiator and said that god had told him to wait. If I have to guess though I’d probably say that Koresh knew that because federal officers had been killed there was no way he was going to get out of serious prison time.
Five day later the FBI gave Koresh a video camera to show conditions inside the compound. The tape they got back consisted of interviews with Branch Davidians who all said they were staying and resisting of their own free will. Suddenly the negotiations shifted from one leader with several innocent bystanders to over 100 people who were willing to do anything for Koresh. The FBI tried to at least negotiate the release of the remaining children but the only kids who remained in the compound were Koresh’s. It’s important to know that the reason Koresh had given for having sex with as many members as possible was to create these kids. David Koresh believed that his children had God’s DNA and were going to help judge the world.
For the Davidians this was the entire reason for the cult. They believed that they were living in the end times and that they were destined to suffer persecution. They were completely and totally entrenched and negotiations ground completely to a halt. This was only made worse by the tactical strategies that the FBI used. The FBI brought in tanks and helicopters to lay siege to the compound and constantly shone lights and blasted loud noises such as the sound of chickens and rabbits being killed. Eventually Koresh and the FBI agreed that the Branch Davidians would come out after Koresh had finished writing a book on his teachings.
50 days into the siege, after receiving no indication that Koresh had finished any of his work the FBI made the decision to assault the compound. Authorities contacted the Branch Davidians and told them the siege was over and they were now going to enter the building. First the FBI used tanks to insert tear gas into the compound. I think one former Branch Davidian put it best when he said, “When you see a tank coming through your front door and shooting gas at you, you don’t think it’s a very good response to exit through the hole it just made”. At first the Branch Davidians didn’t move, then a fire started. As people watched in horror on news broadcasts around the country everyone expected people to pour out of the compound. Instead only a couple of disoriented people stumbled out of the burning building. According to the department of justice 75 Branch Davidians died in the blaze include 25 children under the age of 15. 9 people survived the fire and were arrested after being treated for their wounds.
Many of the Branch Davidians including David Koresh were killed not by the fire but by gunshot wounds to the head. It’s not clear whether the gunshots were self inflicted or if they were from other members of the church.
Where did the fire come from?
An accident from the canisters
It was set by the Branch Davidians
Oklahoma City bombing