The Waco siege was the siege of a compound belonging to the group Branch Davidians by American federal and Texas state law enforcement, as well as the U.S. military, between February 28 and April 19, 1993. The Branch Davidians, a sect that separated in 1955 from the Seventh-day Adventist Church, was led by David Koresh and was headquartered at Mount Carmel Center ranch in the community of Axtell, Texas, 13 miles (21 kilometers) east-northeast of Waco. The group was suspected of weapons violations, causing a search and arrest warrant to be obtained by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF).
The incident began when the ATF attempted to raid the ranch. An intense gun battle erupted, resulting in the deaths of four government agents and six Branch Davidians. Upon the ATF’s failure to raid the compound, a siege was initiated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the standoff lasting 51 days. Eventually, the FBI launched an assault and initiated a tear gas attack in an attempt to force the Branch Davidians out of the ranch. During the attack, a fire engulfed Mount Carmel Center. In total, 76 people died, including David Koresh.
Much dispute remains as to the actual events of the siege. A particular controversy ensued over the origin of the fire; an internal Justice Department investigation concluded in 2000 that sect members had started the fire. The events near Waco, and the siege at Ruby Ridge less than twelve months earlier, were both cited as the primary motivations behind the Oklahoma City bombing that took place exactly two years later.
U.S. Department of Justice – Evaluation of the Handling of the Branch Davidian Stand-off
in Waco, Texas – February 28 to April 19, 1993
After reviewing the stand-off at Waco, including the progress of the negotiations and the conception, approval and implementation of the tear gas plan on April 19, 1993, this Report concludes as follows. The fire on April 19, 1993 was deliberately set by persons inside the compound and was not started by the FBI’s tear gas insertion operations. It is not certain, however, whether a substantial number of the persons who died in the compound on April 19 remained inside voluntarily, were being held in the compound against their will or were shot in order to prevent their escape from the fire. Preliminary medical reports are that a substantial number of individuals had died of gunshot wounds. Among those shot were young children. Koresh’s body was found with a gunshot wound to the forehead. The FBI did not fire on the compound during the tear gas operation, although shots were fired at the FBI from the compound. The FBI did not fire on the compound at any time during the fifty-one day stand-off. The evidence forecasting David Koresh’s intention to orchestrate a mass suicide was contradictory. Koresh and his followers repeatedly assured the negotiators that they did not intend to commit suicide. On several occasions agents were told that suicide was against the Davidians’ religious beliefs. However, one released member said there was a suicide plan. Other released members denied there was a suicide plan. In any event, the risk of suicide was taken into account during the negotiations and in the development of the gas plan. The FBI developed a coherent negotiating strategy to talk the Davidians out. However, the negotiators had strong objections to pressure tactics they felt were counterproductive. The use of pressure tactics immediately after Koresh sent out Davidians from the compound may have undermined the negotiators’ credibility and blunted their efforts to gain the Davidians’ trust and to discredit Koresh in the eyes of his followers. Nevertheless, tactical actions designed to increase the safety margin for agents were appropriately given priority over negotiating considerations. I conclude that the events of April 19 were the result of David Koresh’s determined efforts to choreograph his own death and the deaths of his followers in a confrontation with federal authorities to fulfill Koresh’s apocalyptic prophesy. The deaths of Koresh, his followers and their children on April 19th were not the result of a flaw in the gas plan or the negotiation strategy. The FBI used many qualified experts, including its own FBI behavioral experts to evaluate Koresh. Their assessments were thorough and many proved quite accurate.
Koresh gained infamy in 1993 when the media reported about the manipulative hold he had over his followers, who lived on the Mount Carmel compound in Waco, Texas. He recruited girls as young as 12 as his wives, for instance, and reportedly fathered over a dozen children by them. He insisted male followers remain celibate, and stockpiled an arsenal of automatic assault weapons for what law enforcement believed to be a malicious battle. When authorities raided the compound in February 1993, it resulted in 10 deaths and a 51-day standoff that ended when a fire killed more than 70 men, women, and children.
In brainstorming the mini-series, the Dowdles quickly realized that if they wanted audiences to sympathize with the Branch Davidians, who forfeited their outside lives to follow Koresh, they’d have to shed some light on the cult leader’s magnetism—however complex it was.
“- Koresh had a sense of humor, he played electric guitar, and sang in a local bar,” said John. “He seemed to be a lot lighter-hearted than how he was characterized. At the same time, there were really horrible, dark things he did. He was definitely narcissistic and definitely used an abusive strategy to keep everyone on their toes.”
“He was an abused child—his mom was 14 when she had him—and he created this bizarre world around himself so he could never be abandoned again. Layers and layers of people, all attached to him,” John has also said. “We tried to explore David in a way where you’re never quite sure what to make of him . . . to keep digging into who he was.”
“There are some really dark sides with him, and he was guilty of some terrible things,” said Drew. “But at the same time, to the people who knew him, he wasn’t Charles Manson. He had this appeal and was a very personable guy—what you would expect someone who could gather a flock like this and get them to commit their lives to his message would have. But one thing that surprised me is just how knowledgeable he was. A lot of followers first became familiar with David through these bootleg cassette tapes that were being passed around in biblical circles. They would hear these tapes and say, ‘Wow, this guy’s interpretation of scripture and the book of Revelation in particular is unlike anything I’ve ever heard.’ They had to go to Waco to listen to this guy speak. It was like he was like a biblical savant.”
“You can debate about how bad David Koresh was, but there were another 150 people on that compound that were good people. Hopefully, people will rethink this story and look back and say, maybe they weren’t all just brainwashed,” John said of the casualties. “They were human beings who had families and had a commitment to God that we can’t necessarily understand, but it doesn’t make them deserving of what happened to them.”