Secrets of the Cult: Thy Kingdom Come

Newsweek Magazine/March 15, 1993
By Barbara Kantrowitz with Andrew Murr, Peter Annin, Ginny Carroll and Tony Clifton

A peaceful Sunday in Texas turns bloody. Four federal agents die. And a band of religious fanatics prepares for the last days.

One of the deadliest days in U.S. law enforcement history began quietly on the flat plains outside Waco, Texas. About 8:30 Sunday morning, an undercover agent who had infiltrated the bizarre cult known as the Branch Davidians heard the phone ring in the group's sprawling compound. Soon after self-styled Messiah David Koresh was fervently reading Scriptures. The agent apparently thought little of the call at the time. He left and reported an "all clear" to his waiting colleagues from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

The ATF walked into an ambush. About an hour later, more than 100 agents in blue jumpsuits and flak jackets took up positions around the compound, only to be met by a hail of gunfire from assault rifles and semiautomatic weapons. As agents hoisted ladders and climbed onto the roof of the building, they were peppered with gunshots coming through the walls. Three National Guard helicopters closed in and also came under fire. Two were hit and forced to land. When the shooting had stopped 45 minutes later, four ATF agents were dead, 15 others lay wounded and Koresh was holed up inside the compound with more than 100 followers, including 38 young children, and enough guns and ammunition to wage a little war.

The assault turned into a siege. By the weekend the force encircling the compound had grown to more than 400 federal agents, buttressed by stated and local police, SWAT teams, armored personnel carriers and Bradley fighting vehicles. No one knew what carnage was inside. Early on, Koresh told radio stations by phone that his 2-year old daughter had been killed and he'd been hit in "the gut" in the gun battle. He also left a message on his mother's answering machine in Chandler, Texas: "Hello, Mama. It's your boy…They shot me and I'm dying, all right? But I'll be back real soon, OK? I'll see y'all in the skies." Koresh evidently made a miraculous recovery over the next few days - granting frequent interviews before agents cut his phone lines and promising to surrender if a rambling 58-minute discourse was aired. Several stations played it. But Koresh didn't come out. He said God had told him to wait.

The Feds waited, too, determined to avoid more bloodshed. As the week wore on, Koresh released 21 children and two elderly women, but he still had 47 women, 43 men and 17 kids-some of whom he fathered-with him inside. How long they would last was anybody's guess: the group had stockpiled enough food for months and had its own wells and power generators. Families as far away as Britain and Australia, where Koresh recruited followers, waited for word of loved ones. "They are all at the mercy of this man. We can only hope he comes to his senses," says Lloyd Hardial, whose sister moved from Manchester last year to join Koresh.

Making send of the raid was a difficult task, too. Bill Clinton let it be known that he wanted answers. "What the hell happened here?" Mack McLarty, his chief of staff, demanded of a top Justice Department official. But Justice was equally baffled. The ATF, a division of Treasury, had launched the operation, based on intelligence that the Branch Davidians were amassing heavy armaments. Clinton ordered the rival FBI in, and the bureau quickly took over, deploying its elite Hostage Rescue Team. Some FBI agent brought along Bibles. "This guy's a Bible-citing machine," said one. "We have to speak his language."

Publicly, authorities were united in their efforts to subdue Koresh peacefully and not fix blame for the fiasco-at least until it was over. But FBI and other experts blasted the ATF's tactics, beginning with the decision to take the compound by force, "It's against our doctrine to do a frontal assault when women and children are present," said one FBI man. ATF officials said they had investigated the cult for months and practiced the raid repeatedly. "We were outgunned. They had bigger firearms than we did," said spokesperson Sharon Wheeler. "'Outgunned' is a euphemism for 'outplanned,' or 'unplanned'," said former New York City police commissioner Benjamin Ward. "They did it backwards. The accepted way is to talk first and shoot second."

That seems particularly apt in a potential hostage situation. There were eerie parallels to the Idaho incident last year with white supremacist Randy Weaver. Feds had been after Weaver for months, but he was holed up, armed, in a cabin with his family. Washington sharpshooters came and fire fights erupted, killing Weaver's son, his wife and a U.S. marshal. He remained barricaded with two wounded adults and three girls, holding off 200 agents for 11 days before negotiators persuaded him to surrender. (One ATF source noted that the U.S. marshals answer to Justice officials: "Their underwear is not entirely clean in these situations either.")

Clearly the ATF had lost the element of surprise in the Waco raid, and either not realized ir or decided to forge ahead anyway. The Los Angeles Times reported that even before agents had deployed from the staging area in downtown Waco, one was heard shouting: "We gotta move. He's been tipped off. He's nervous and he's reading his Bible and he's shaking." ATF officials denied that report but refused to comment on most other aspects of the raid, leaving rampant speculation about how the group might have been tipped. Conceivably, cult members could have monitored police scamners. The Waco Tribune-Herald reported that just before the raid, a voice came over saying, "There no guns in the windows. Tell them it's a go."

The Tribune-Herald also played a role in the events. The day before the raid, the paper began publishing an extraordinary series on the cult based on months of reporting. ATF officials had asked the paper to hold off, citing its own investigation. The paper ran it anyway, citing a duty to warn the public about what editor Bob Lott called "this menace in our community." Curiously, the Tribune-Herald also had seven staffers in the area of the compound when the shotting started Sunday morning.

Koresg was pretty savvy himself. Close followers told reporters the group had been suspicious all along of the undercover agent and a colleague who had moved in across the road; the agent visited at times, profession interest in the Bible. Had Koresh lured the Feds into an ambush?

There were other questions, too: why hadn't ATG agents tried to apprehend Koresh on one of has forays outside the compound? Officials claimed he had stopped venturing out. But Waco merchants said they'd seen him in recent weeks, perusing gun shops and sipping iced tead at a pub. Some residents said the Koresh they knew didn't match the macabre portrait painted by the Feds. "He was like a regular Joe," said Margaret Jones, who liked talking religion and politics with him. "The people with him certainly didn't seem brainwashed."

But some former cult members thought authorities should have stepped in long ago, Much of the warnings about Koresh's activities came from a breakaway group in Australia. The group hired a private investigator to alert local lawmen; he was told authorities couldn't act without more evidence. Last spring officials of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church heard from colleagues in Sydney that the Branch Davidians were planning a mass suicide for Easter Sunday. About the same time the State Department got word from sources in Australia that Koresh's group was stockpiling arms and planning suicide. State passed it on to ATF, which begun its investigation in June.

Koresh had been charged with attempted murder in a dispute with a rival cult leader in 1987; his trial ended in a hung jury. Vic Feazell, the local district attorney at the time, said he came to like the cult members: "They're peaceful and nonaggressive unless they are attacked." By going in, guns blazing, the ATF played right into the group's apocalyptic vision, he said. "They would see this as a holy war provoked by an oppressive government."

At the weekend Koresh told negotiators he had no plans for suicide-and he was growing irritated at reports that he claimed to be Christ. Call him a prophet, he said. But Messiah or madman, the fact remained that Koresh and his followers had killed more ATF agents in one bloody Sunday than had died in any day in the bureau's history, and the Davidians would remain a dangerous threat until the stalement ended.

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