The apocalyptic obsessions of David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidians, culminated in a showdown in Waco, Texas, with US law enforcement in which more than 80 people lost their lives. Controversies surrounding this tragedy reverberate to this day.
“I will never forget Waco. The ghost of Waco will be with me all my life…” Attorney General Janet Reno
Situated between the bright lights of Dallas and Austin, Texas, Waco is a quiet, modest city surrounded by sprawling fields and ranches. It had not been the focus of national news since May 1953, when a tornado killed 144 of its citizens. Four decades later, on 19 April 1993, Waco hit the headlines again when the heavily fortified compound belonging to the Branch Davidians, an obscure Christian cult, became the scene of a modern-day Armageddon.
At around 6 a.m., FBI agents moved in to put an end to a siege of the community’s compound that had lasted for 51 days and cost several lives. Six hours later, 76 cult members–including 25 children–would be dead after the compound was engulfed in flames. These calamitous events were screened live on television. As viewers looked on in horror, many wondered how so many people could follow the sect’s leader, a self-proclaimed prophet calling himself David Koresh, into such a desperate situation.
Koresh was born Vernon Wayne Howell in Houston, Texas, on August 17, 1959. His mother was a 15-year-old girl named Bonnie Clark, while his father–whom he didn’t meet until he was an adult–was a young carpenter named Bobby Howell. Too young to provide proper care for her son, Bonnie handed that responsibility to her mother, Erline Clark. When Vernon was five years old, Bonnie reclaimed her son and moved to Dallas to be with her new husband, Roy Haldeman. This drastic uprooting proved traumatic for the boy: “He yelled that she was not his mother and that he wanted to go back,” Erline recalled. In school, Howell found it difficult to keep up with the other students, who teased him relentlessly for his learning difficulties. (He was subsequently found to be dyslexic.) Howell suffered another childhood trauma when he was around 7 years old, when three older boys attempted to rape him. Howell kept this ordeal a secret until he was an adult.
While Howell failed academically, he displayed a keen interest in religion and a phenomenal ability to learn scripture by heart. By the time he was 13, he had memorized much of the New Testament. A lonely, fervently Christian boy, he would spend hours in his bedroom praying alone and fantasizing about preaching to an eager crowd.
Aged 18, Howell joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the city of Tyler, Texas. The congregation didn’t warm to the autocratic young man, who frequently tried to school them on the Bible. The last straw was when Howell claimed that God had commanded him to take the pastor’s 15-year-old daughter, Sandy, as his wife. In 1981, the church voted to disfellowship Howell, and he was swiftly barred. Howell then became involved with the Branch Davidians, a heretical sect of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The Branch Davidians were founded in 1929 by Victor Houte, a Bulgarian immigrant and former adherent of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Houte left the church after being accused of disrupting an Adventist Sabbath school with his dissident views concerning the coming of God’s kingdom on Earth and the future glory of God’s people, as prophesied in the Book of Isaiah, chapters 54–66. The Davidians took the Bible as literal truth–in particular, the apocalyptic Book of Revelation, which culminates in the Second Coming of Christ, the “Lamb of God”.
Howell found solace in the Branch Davidians, and it wasn’t long before this young, charismatic “Bible expert” had seduced the group’s 60-year-old leader, Lois Roden, and displaced her as the group’s reigning prophet. This enraged Lois’ son, George Roden, who vied with Howell for leadership of the Branch Davidians. The feud between George Roden and Howell intensified when Roden claimed that only one who could raise the dead should be leader. When Roden attempted this feat, Howell reported him to the authorities for “abuse of a corpse”, a serious felony in Texas. The Branch Davidians split into two factions. Most members followed Howell to a new base in Palestine, Texas. The unstable Roden stayed at the Mount Carmel Center, the official name of the Branch Davidians compound near Waco. Roden renamed it “Rodenville”.
On 3 November 1987, a year after Lois Roden’s death, tensions between the two men over leadership of the sect erupted in a gunfight at the Mount Carmel Center, in which Roden received a wound to his hand. Howell and seven of his followers were later acquitted of attempted murder, and state officials had to return a stockpile of weapons they had seized.
In 1989, Roden was convicted of murdering his roommate, whom he claimed had been sent by Howell to murder him. The former Branch Davidians’ leader died in a Texas psychiatric hospital in 1998.
Howell and his acolytes took over the 77- acre (31. 2- hectare) Mount Carmel compound, located some 21 km (13 miles) outside Waco. Closeted in the compound’s chapel, Branch Davidians would listen to Howell ramble on for hours without food, sleep, or even toilet breaks. Howell also had fantasies of becoming a rock star and often played guitar and sang during these meetings.
As the cult’s popularity grew throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, people came from as far afield as England, Australia, and Israel to hear Howell’s sermons. He urged them to quit their jobs, sell their homes, and move to Mount Carmel–like most cults, the Branch Davidians was largely financed by followers’ life savings. Some of Howell’s followers were theology students from the Seventh-day Adventist Church from which he had been expelled; others were students from a number of British universities. Diana Henry had been studying for a master’s degree when she decided to join. Her father, Sam Henry, recalled, “She was hooked like a fish. She dropped her studies and would have followed this wicked man anywhere. This was the devil’s work and she was bewitched.” (His whole family eventually followed Diana to Texas, and Sam lost his wife, as well as Diana and four other children in the ensuing 19 April conflagration.)
To outsiders, the Branch Davidians was a quirky but harmless religious group that mostly kept to themselves. Meanwhile, largely cut o from the world, those living at Mount Carmel fell increasingly under the influence of Howell’s bullying personality and implicitly violent message. “He had the capacity to discern your emotional weakness and capitalize on that,” said David Jewels, the father of a former cult member. “He had this incredible ability to turn your head around.”
Howell interpreted prophecies from the Book of Revelation to toothache would die in a battle with non-believers who were coming to attack the compound and that this would signal the end of the world. He convinced followers that he was the Messiah and that he would save them–but only if they were willing to die with him. He claimed that his role in the apocalypse was to open the Seven Seals. In the Book of Revelation, only the almighty “Lamb of God” can open the Seals; Howell claimed he now had that power. To underline this assertion, he changed his name to David Koresh. He took his first name from King David, while “Koresh” was Hebrew for Cyrus the Great, the legendary Persian king and conqueror of Babylon who allowed the Jews held captive there to return to Israel and rebuild the temple of God in Jerusalem.
Koresh and his recruiters promulgated the idea that life inside Mount Carmel was safe, secure, and family-oriented. In reality, Koresh destroyed family relationships, ordering children to refer to their parents as “dogs”. Children had to urinate and defecate in a chamber pot that was emptied daily. They greatly feared displeasing Koresh, who would punish perceived misbehaviour with a wooden paddle called “The Helper”.
In addition, whispers of Koresh’s predatory behaviour started to spread beyond Mount Carmel and out into the real world. Some of these reports may have been exaggerated. Allegedly, Koresh “married” a number of the sect’s women, including underage girls. (Koresh seemingly had a particular interest in young girls; he had married his first wife, Rachel, when she was just 14 years old.) Perhaps significantly, the birth certificates of a number of children born at the commune lacked a father’s name. Marc Breault, who left the sect in 1989, recalled in the Washington Post, 25 April 1993, that child abuse “was quite extensive. And I’m talking about both sexual and physical. Beatings started at an extremely young age– less than a year old. The sexual abuse. . . started at 10 years old.”
Koresh told his followers that he had the right to impregnate any woman in order to propagate a race of 24 “perfect” children to repopulate the world after Armageddon. He forced male followers to be celibate, claiming they would contaminate the sect’s women with their “imperfect seed”. At night, Koresh would enter the women’s sleeping quarters in Mount Carmel and choose his conquest for the evening; none of Koresh’s followers ever questioned this behaviour. Parents even granted Koresh permission to visit their children, fuelling his narcissism and messianic convictions.
A slew of ex-members also accused Koresh of claiming he had a mandate from God. A local newspaper, the Waco Tribune Herald, launched an investigation into the Branch Davidians and Koresh, running a series titled “The Sinful Messiah” that cited allegations of child abuse, child sexual abuse, and the hoarding of weapons. The newspaper spent eight months reporting on the sect and on Koresh’s activities, scouring public records and interviewing a number of former Davidians.
In May 1992, Koresh and the Davidians came to the attention of the authorities after deliveries of more than $100,000 in firearms were sent to Mount Carmel. The sheriff of Waco shared his concerns with the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). Preliminary investigations uncovered that the sect had purchased M- 16 machine- gun conversion kits, commonly used to turn legal, semi-automatic weapons into illegal, fully automatic ones. The sect had also taken delivery of inert hand-grenade casings and black powder capable of charging them. Former cult members came forward to claim that Koresh also had two .50- calibre rifles that were capable of piercing armour and that he trained followers to shoot to kill. Combined with the claims of underage sex, the ATF was sure there was enough evidence for “probable cause” of criminal activity and they obtained an arrest warrant for Koresh.
On 28 February 1993, ATF agents left Waco with a warrant for Koresh’s arrest and a search warrant for illegal weapons. The ATF allegedly anticipated that their mission, dubbed “Operation Trojan Horse”, would be a humanitarian one. However, they arrived at Mount Carmel in an intimidating, 80-vehicle convoy; overhead, two Black Hawk helicopters hovered. The Davidians had been tipped o about the ATF operation and, fired up by Koresh, were in no mood to negotiate.
As was later revealed, Koresh had amassed an arsenal of more than 300 firearms– including illegal machine guns, grenades, and almost 2 million rounds of ammunition–for the apocalypse that he believed was imminent. Shortly after the ATF reached the compound, they were greeted by a fusillade of gunfire–just the beginning of one of the longest gunfights in American law- enforcement history. The ATF was badly outgunned, and the shootout left four agents and six Davidians dead and 16 agents and at least seven sect members injured. David Koresh was shot in the wrist and hip, but his injuries were not life-threatening.
Finally, after three hours of gunfire, a ceasefire was negotiated, and the FBI took over operations at Mount Carmel. Nevertheless, Koresh refused to surrender. A 51- day stand- off between the Branch Davidians and the FBI followed. During those 51 days of tensions and negotiations, several Davidians managed to escape Mount Carmel, while Koresh agreed to release a steady trickle of children, as well as a couple of women. The followers that remained holed up inside Mount Carmel were now even more convinced that Koresh was God’s prophet. During the siege, they held up signs in the windows reading, “Flames Await!” Hoping to break the Branch Davidians’ resistance, the FBI played music– including Tibetan chants, Christmas carols, and “These Boots Are Made for Walking” by Nancy Sinatra– at ear-splitting volume. Koresh responded to the pressure by sending out videos in which his followers celebrated him, the Branch Davidians, and Mount Carmel. He even agreed to surrender if a lengthy, taped sermon was broadcast. The FBI complied and broadcast the sermon on radio and television. However, Koresh changed his mind and refused to surrender.
Shortly afterwards, Koresh passed three scrawled notes out the front door of Mount Carmel. They were written by Koresh but signed in the name of God. He threatened that catastrophe would befall God’s enemies: “Open your eyes and not your mouth. Fear the hour of judgment, for it has come,” read one. With no end in sight, the FBI cut the electricity and phone lines in the compound. They also shone floodlights and played loud music in an attempt to unnerve the Davidians and drive them out. When they didn’t budge, the FBI bulldozed everything around the compound and surrounded it with wire and armoured vehicles. To all appearances, Mount Carmel looked like a war zone. In early March, FBI behavioural specialists Peter Smerick and Mark Young warned that these pressure tactics could have negative results and risked pushing the Davidians into feeling that they had to fight to the death for their faith. The FBI ’s on-site commander, Jeff Jamar, told Emerick and Young to refer their concerns to Washington, and he and his aides attempted to increase pressure on Koresh. Emerick soon left the site in frustration at the FBI ’s aggressive posture. Meanwhile in Washington, after initially rejecting the use of force to end the siege, Attorney General Janet Reno was appalled by FBI reports of beatings and sexual abuse of children being a regular part of life at the Mount Carmel compound.
Finally, on 19 April 1993, Koresh’s apocalyptic vision became stark reality. At 5:44 a.m., the FBI telephoned the compound and told Steve Schneider, Koresh’s top lieutenant, that they were going to tear-gas the compound unless the cult immediately surrendered. Their threats fell on deaf ears, and Schneider hung up. Minutes later, an armoured vehicle moved to the southwest corner of the compound and smashed a large hole in the wall with a battering ram. Another armoured vehicle then tore a hole in the first floor and another in the back of the compound. When the vehicles retreated, CS –a powder that stings the skin, eyes, nose, and throat–was sprayed into the large craters while FBI agents fired hundreds of gas rounds through the windows with M-79 grenade launchers. FBI spokesman Bob Ricks said they believed that tear-gassing the occupants was the best way to avert a possible mass suicide because it would cause “mass confusion inside the compound.”4 The FBI expected that the cult members would be forced to surrender. But none did.
Six hours later, smoke and flames spewed from the compound. As fire engulfed the building, onlookers waited in vain for cult members to flee. “I was thinking: surely they’ll come out, surely any minute now we’ll see people fleeing,” recalled Sarah Sheppard, Waco’s tourism director. “It was just one of those things that was a horrible tragedy from all sides and remains with you.”5 It took just 30 minutes for the flames–which were fanned that day by a strong wind–to tear through the wooden buildings, which burned like paper. Nine people managed to escape, but 76 others–including 25 children–died inside the compound. Most of the women and children were found huddled together in a concrete storage area near the kitchen, where they had seemingly become trapped by falling debris and died of smoke inhalation.6 At least 16, including Koresh, died of gunshot wounds. One boy, who was just two or three years old, was stabbed to death. Other children were later found to have been shot in the head–part of a mass suicide presumably orchestrated by Koresh himself as a final act of martyrdom. Only four of David Koresh’s children survived the siege. By the time the fire department arrived at the site at 12:40 p.m., most of the buildings were gutted.
Ricks subsequently refused to admit the decision not to have firefighters on the scene during the tear-gas attack was a mistake, explaining that the gunfire could have put them at risk. Nevertheless, repercussions of this judgment travelled all the way from Waco to Washington, where Attorney General Janet Reno claimed full responsibility for using force to end the siege. “I will never forget Waco. The ghost of Waco will be with me all of my life. . . One of the minor tragedies of Waco is we will never know what the right decision was,” she said.7 In the aftermath, ATF director Stephen Higgins and five other high-ranking officials resigned.
In 1994, 11 members of the Branch Davidians were acquitted of murder and conspiracy charges in the deaths of four federal agents. Seven were convicted of lesser charges, while four were acquitted of all charges. The verdict was a serious defeat for the Justice Department and the ATF. The Waco siege sparked a nationwide debate over the rights of groups outside mainstream religions. The raid, the siege, and its grim conclusion were seen by some as unwarranted government intrusion into religious freedom. The FBI –who simply viewed Koresh as a cult leader–were criticized for not fully understanding the religious ideas informing the group. Biblical scholar Dr Philip Arnold of the Reunion Institute of Houston said that, during the siege, Koresh had asked to negotiate with him but that the FBI had ignored these requests, saying they were just “Bible babble”. The ATF was also harshly criticized for the way it chose to execute the arrest warrants; some believed that not enough effort had been made to arrest Koresh away from the compound or to ask him to honour the warrant voluntarily. The ATF replied that their approach was justified, contending that the Davidians had fired the first shot. To this day, there is still much debate over who fired first. Both sides blamed the other.
The Waco siege’s horrific outcome haunted all of those involved, and the public was bombarded with conflicting versions of the raid. In July 1995, a congressional hearing was called after a case was made that the FBI had grossly overreacted in their initial raid on the compound and also in the assault on the final day of the siege. “Our goal is to put the facts out before the American people,” said Republican Bill Zeliff, co-chairman of the committee. “And find out who’s accountable.” Lawyers Jack Zimmerman and Dick DeGuerin, who represented Koresh, strongly criticized the FBI, claiming that the organization had rejected Koresh’s plan to peacefully end the stand-off. The lawyers claimed that the FBI was clueless when it came to deal with Koresh and his followers. They argued that agents at the scene had agreed to one of the surrenders plans put forward by Koresh but were subsequently overridden by “some desk-bound bureaucrat in Washington.”8 Richard Scruggs, an assistant to the attorney general, refuted these claims and argued that the FBI acted in response to Koresh’s “lies and misrepresentations”. According to Scruggs, the FBI didn’t believe that Koresh was ever going to surrender. Attorney General Janet Reno stood by her decision to order the FBI to proceed with the raid: “We all mourn the tragic outcome,” she said, “but the finger of blame points in one direction–it points directly at David Koresh. . . The fate of the Branch Davidians was in David Koresh’s hands, and he chose death for the men and women who had entrusted their lives to him. And he, David Koresh, chose death for the innocent children of Waco.”
During the congressional hearing, 14-year-old Kiri Jewell took the stand and revealed that Koresh had molested her when she was 10 years old. She also said Koresh taught his followers how to shoot themselves properly. “The best way to shoot yourself if necessary. . . was to put the gun in your mouth, back to the soft spot above your throat before pulling the trigger.”6 Fortunately, Jewell’s father rescued her from Koresh’s clutches just before the initial raid. Her mother–who was one of Koresh’s wives–died during the siege.
The question as to the cause of the fire has long been a source of speculation. However, in 2000, a report by a former senator appointed by the attorney general found that members of the Branch Davidians spread fuel throughout the compound to feed the flames. During the siege, 11 bugs fitted inside milk cartons were secreted into Mount Carmel by the FBI. One of them captured a conversation between Koresh and Schneider: “They got two cans of Coleman fuel down there?” asks Koresh. “Empty,” replies Schneider. In addition to the recording, three surviving Davidians testified that they heard shouts to “start the fire” amid all of the chaos. A team of independent arson investigators insisted that there was conclusive evidence that the Davidians started the fire themselves using flammable fuels in several locations in the compound. The investigation concluded that Koresh was solely to blame, and the jury absolved the federal government of fault. Critics objected, asserting that chemicals in the tear gas, and not Koresh, had ignited the fires. Whatever the truth, David Koresh’s prophecies of Armageddon had been fulfilled in the most tragic way. Exactly two years after the end of the Waco siege, on 19 April 1995, Timothy McVeigh perpetrated the Oklahoma City Bombing. The truck bomb, which was detonated outside the Alfred P.Murrah Federal Building, killed 168 people. McVeigh allegedly planned the bombing as revenge for Waco.
The Branch Davidians saga was fraught with missteps on both sides. It also spawned bitter controversies over religious liberty, government force, the right to bear arms, and how such crises should be managed in the future. The siege gripped the nation, offering much for a hungry media: God, the apocalypse, gun culture, sex, rock ’n’ roll, mind control, and child abuse. It galvanized anti-government movements and lone-wolf activists. Even today, some critics insist that federal agents were to blame, while some ever-faithful Koreshians await their self-proclaimed messiah’s resurrection.