Skip to main content

The Waco Seige

Crime Files
The Waco Seige

The Branch Davidians were a religious sect formed by a split from the Seventh Day Adventist Church in the 1950s. In 1955, they set up the headquarters of their church on a 77-acre ranch, which they named Mount Carmel Centre, just outside Waco, Texas. The sect gradually grew into a community of around 100 people. David Koresh, originally from Houston joined the sect in 1981. after a failed attempt at rock stardom in Hollywood. He later became leader of the sect in 1988.

The US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) first opened an investigation into the Branch Davidians on 4th June 1992, after receiving a tip about the possible manufacture of illegal firearms within the residential complex. When sect leader David Koresh found out about the possible investigation on 30th July 1992 he invited ATF officials to visit the ranch to inspect his inventory and records. However, the ATF declined the invitation, choosing instead to continue their clandestine investigations, and amassing evidence against Koresh.

Within the local Waco community rumours grew about strange practices occurring within the Branch Davidian complex, and the local newspaper, the Waco Tribune-Herald, pressured authorities into taking action against the growing sect within their midst.

Meanwhile, with more than seven months notice of the ATF’s interest, and the growing media pressure, Koresh told his followers to prepare for a possible assault by government authorities, and began to make serious preparations for the defence of the complex.

By January 1993, the ATF were convinced that they had amassed enough information about Koresh to arrest him, and sought assistance from Army Special Services to mount a raid on the Mount Carmel complex. An arrest warrant for Koresh was obtained on 25th February 1993.

Unaware of the official activity, the Waco Tribune-Herald newspaper published an article on 27th February 1993, as part of a planned series, containing allegations of physical and sexual abuse of children at Mount Carmel. The newspaper piece also included tales of polygamy and underage marriage, describing a dangerous religious cult ruled absolutely by the authoritarian David Koresh, who had a large harem, with whom he had conceived more than a dozen children. Despite an investigation by child protection services, which denied any abuse was evident, the stories stoked local fears about goings-on at the compound.


1955 - Branch Davidian Sect established

30 June 1992 - Tip off to the 'Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives'

25 August 1993 - Arrest warrant issued

28 February 1993 - First raid

19 April 1993 - Second raid

10 January 1994 - Trial of Branch Davidians

24 February 1994 - Conviction of Branch Davidians

17 June 1994 - Sentencing of Branch Davidians

9 September 1999 - Special Prosecutor appointed

6 February 2001 - Special Prosecutor’s office closed wrongful death suit

18 June 2000 - Trial

14 July 2000 - Verdict

20 September 2000 - Case dismissed

The Trial

Attorney General Janet Reno immediately recognised the catastrophic failure of the FBI operation, and offered her resignation to President Bill Clinton. However, President Clinton refused to accept it just “because some religious fanatics murdered themselves".

Over the next six months, a number of official investigations were conducted into the events surrounding the siege at Waco, with most concluding that the ATF, the FBI and other agencies had acted within the bounds of their authority. It appeared that the evidence about arms manufacture upon which the initial warrants had been sought was sound, and there was no clear understanding why Koresh, who had offered access to ATF officials readily in July 1992, had reacted so violently to the attempt to search the premises in February 1993.

These investigations were played out endlessly in the media, and the public were largely divided about which side had precipitated the chain of catastrophic events. During the criminal trials of 11 surviving Davidians, on charges of conspiring to commit the murder of the ATF agents, which commenced on 10th January 1994, their defence team argued successfully that the Davidians were acting in self-defence. When returning their verdict on 26th February 1994, the jury acquitted four of the eleven completely, finding the others guilty of far less serious charges.

The media hailed this as a public indictment of the government’s mishandling of the affair, whilst Reno maintained that it vindicated the official version of events. However, there is little doubt that the failure to make the charges stick was an embarrassment to both the Justice Department and the ATF. On 21st March 1994, the surviving Davidians, and relatives of the deceased, launched a $100 million wrongful death suit against the federal government. On 17th June 1994, the Branch Davidians who had been found guilty in February were given 40-year prison sentences by U.S. District Court Judge, Walter Smith, despite the jury’s inclination towards leniency.

By the time of a public enquiry by The House of Representatives during July and August 1995, Janet Reno’s testimony held Koresh entirely responsible for the deadly events of 19th April. This is despite her previous admission that the attack by the authorities had been a mistake, accompanied by her offer to resign. The investigating committee found her decision to approve the tank assault was “premature, wrong and highly irresponsible”. She continued to serve as Attorney General.

On 18th January 1997 the documentary film ‘Waco: The Rules of Engagement’, was released at the Sundance Film Festival. A technical expert who was interviewed for the project claimed that an analysis of Infra Red images showed that numerous gunshots were fired at the complex, on the morning of 19th April. The FBI had previously asserted that only teargas was fired by the assembled agents. On 9th September 1999, amidst continuing ongoing public unease about whether the FBI, the ATF and the Department of Justice had deliberately suppressed evidence about the Waco Massacre, Attorney General Reno appointed a former Missouri senator, John C. Danforth, as a special prosecutor. He was tasked with investigating whether the federal government had engaged in misconduct and then tried to cover up its actions.

In the meantime, the wrongful death suit brought by the Davidian survivors in March 1994 was delayed at every turn, with the FBI and ATF delaying the release of information pertinent to the case. After a federal judge ruled that neither the FBI nor ATF had deliberately destroyed evidence, it finally came to court on 18th June 2000, but the jury were unconvinced by the claims of the defendants. They ruled, on 14th July 2000, that federal officials were not responsible for the deaths. The case was officially dismissed on 20th September 2000.

Despite unearthing evidence that the FBI had definitely known about Koresh’s intention to start fires, which they had earlier denied, and evidence that showed conclusively that the FBI had fired gunshots on the day, also denied previously, and a host of procedural errors and cover-ups, Danforth’s February 2001 report essentially exonerated the federal government of any wrongdoing. The only person charged by Danforth’s enquiry was a federal prosecutor, Bill Johnson, who was charged with concealing information relating to the use of pyrotechnic devices on 19th April 1993.

Subsequent unofficial analyses indicate that the Danforth enquiry had been less than scrupulous in pursuing a full and frank enquiry, perhaps in the interests of maintaining the public’s faith in the federal government. The Danforth enquiry, which had been set up to quell public fears of a federal conspiracy, came to be viewed as part of the conspiracy, by sections of the media and a significant proportion of the American public.The debate was effectively silenced by the departure of the Democratic Party from power, in early 2001.

The Investigation

The First Raid

At around 9am on 28th February 1993, the ATF began an elaborate advance on the complex, which included the use of Texas National Guard helicopters and two large covered cattle trailers that actually contained 76 heavily armed ATF agents. The helicopters were employed in an attempt to divert attention away from the trailers, which drove into the compound. However, the Branch Davidians were amply prepared for the assault, and a fierce gun battle ensued. Both sides denied having fired the first shot. There were later claims that the helicopters had also fired on the residential complex, but these were denied by the authorities.

The gun battle raged for over an hour and resulted in the death of four ATF officials, the wounding of 20 others, as well as the death of two Branch Davidians, and the wounding of five others. During the attack, ATF officials were in contact with Koresh but continued to fire on the complex whilst trying to negotiate a surrender simultaneously.

There appeared to be no one in overall control of the operation. The local police who attended the scene did not know how to contact the ATF command and requested that local media crews call for ambulances on their mobiles. Sources within the ATF had tipped off the media about the impending raid, yet ATF agents were recorded assaulting members of the assembled media when they realised that cameramen were close enough to be filming their defeat. Despite taped evidence showing the brutal assault, no ATF agents were ever prosecuted.

An uneasy cease-fire was negotiated, largely because the ATF agents had run out of ammunition. The entire raid was a disaster for the ATF and the other federal agencies involved, and the loss of life to federal law enforcement agencies was the worst on record.

The next day, 1st March 1993, the ATF handed official control of the situation to the FBI, and this marked the beginning of a siege that would last for the next 51 days.

The Siege

Shortly after assuming control of the operation, the FBI made telephonic contact with Koresh who stipulated that he would be prepared to surrender if the authorities would agree to facilitate a national radio broadcast to spread his religious message. Despite arranging for Koresh’s tape to be broadcast on the Christian Broadcasting Network, Koresh failed to cooperate, claiming that God had instructed him to wait a while before surrendering.

Within a week of the broadcast, Koresh allowed 23 of his followers to leave the complex. The adults were immediately arrested and the children placed with social services. The FBI requested that Koresh make a videotape of the children still within the complex, to prove that they were not in danger, and sent in camera equipment. However, Koresh used the opportunity to make a pro-Davidian recording, outlining details of the attack and the wounds suffered by Davidian members during the gun fight. The FBI decided not to release the footage publicly, for fear of increasing public sympathy towards Koresh and his followers.

By 15th March, all ATF officials were forbidden from speaking publicly about the abortive raid on threat of dismissal, in an attempt to keep full details concealed. However, within two weeks, agents who had taken part in the attacks were speaking anonymously to the press about the grave errors they had witnessed during the raid. When questions were raised about why Koresh had not simply been arrested while outside the fortified complex, it became clear that no intensive surveillance of his movements was ever carried out. The authorities had expected their own firepower to prevail in any arrest scenario.

Meanwhile, the siege continued, with Koresh agreeing to, and then reneging on, numerous agreements to surrender. The FBI viewed the other Davidians as Koresh’s hostages, despite a number of videos which seem to imply that the members were there of their own free will.

Psychological warfare tactics were deployed, such as the playing of loud music and other noise through amplifiers on a round-the-clock basis, in an attempt to disorient the occupants. By 30th March 1993, the FBI had allowed a criminal defence attorney, Dick DeGuerin, to enter the complex unescorted, to discuss Koresh’s possible legal defence in the event of his surrender, but still Koresh refused to cooperate.

The Second Raid

Finally, the newly appointed US Attorney General, Janet Reno, frustrated at the lack of progress in the midst of a media maelstrom, decided that a second armed raid would have to be mounted in order to end the siege. At the time she claimed that this was prompted by the belief that the children were in danger, although she later admitted that she had no proof to support this belief. At approximately 6:00am on 19th April 1993, armoured tanks, equipped with CS gas dispensers smashed through the walls of the Mount Carmel residence, distributing CS gas throughout the building. Although Davidian members had gas masks, they were too large for children, and it was hoped that parents would surrender, rather than see their children suffer.

Again, this proved a vain hope and no Davidians left the building over the next four hours. FBI agents continued to launch teargas canisters into the building sporadically using grenade launchers. At around noon it appeared that fire had broken out in a number of different areas within the building.

The cause of this fire was disputed later. Some claimed that the authorities had started the fire through the delivery of the CS gas and teargas canisters, whilst others maintained that Koresh had orchestrated the fires deliberately in an intentional mass suicide bid. The latter view was supported by the official investigation. Whatever the cause, the entire building was quickly engulfed in flames.

The FBI refused permission for fire-fighting teams to tackle the blaze, due to the risk of gunfire from within the building, and the blaze claimed the lives of 76 Branch Davidians, including 27 children and leader David Koresh. The majority were later found to have died from smoke-related causes. Twenty Davidians also had gunshot wounds but it was difficult to determine whether these were self-inflicted, or caused either by the authorities outside or exploding ammunition within the building.