Twenty years after the Waco massacre, Australian survivor Graeme Craddock explains the allure of cult leader David Koresh and their terrifying two-month standoff with the FBI.
Graeme Craddock, 51, grew up on a farm in Wantirna South, Victoria. A qualified engineer and school teacher, he was raised in the Seventh-Day Adventist church but later joined the Branch Davidian sect under leader David Koresh. Born Vernon Wayne Howell, Koresh was suspected by US authorities of child abuse and statutory rape with his many "wives", as well as having amassed a large and illegal cache of deadly assault weapons.
On February 28, 1993, agents of the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms raided his Waco, Texas, ranch in the belief that federal firearms laws had been violated. In the resulting shootout, four agents and six Branch Davidians died.
The FBI quickly took over the situation and a seven-week siege at the Branch Davidians' Mount Carmel Center began. On the tragic final day, April 19, the building burned to the ground with 76 Branch Davidians – men, women and children, including Koresh – still inside.
Graeme Craddock was one of only nine people to survive the infamous standoff. He served 13 years in a Louisiana prison before being deported back to Australia in 2006, and today lives a quiet life alone in Clyde North, on the eastern fringe of Melbourne.
I came in contact with the Branch Davidians when I was 26. I knew them casually, through my church. David Koresh had gained a few converts here and invited me out to the property in Texas. He was friendly, polite. I got the impression he knew a lot more than what I did. But I didn't understand it all and wanted to find out more.
We have certain perceptions of what people are like from the American south. We see backward, in-bred people and that was my first impression of the people at Waco. I remember one coming up to me and saying, "Are you from the woooorld?" It was like something out of Deliverance.
I had a little room in what used to be a church, but there was no heating in the building. I had a small bed and a sleeping bag. There was no running water. I had a jug of water, and that froze overnight. I felt like I just about froze myself.
Over the next five years I came and went; sometimes I'd stay a few days, sometimes a few weeks. I like to think of myself as being a student.
I don't like the word "cult" – it can be used in a degrading way. The early Christian church – according to biblical record – had apostles, prophets and other people. They were part of the spiritual gifts. But anyone now claiming to be a prophet is automatically considered part of a cult. We believed David Koresh was a prophet. The attraction was that he was able to explain things in the Bible that no one else could.
I moved to Waco in early 1992 and I stayed until 1993 and the fire. There were more people there then. We spent our time building this one big structure to keep everyone together.
David bought all these firearms. He was stocking up, and he showed us how to shoot. He gave me a long rifle and I fired a few shots into a pile of dirt with some concrete blocks. These were assault rifles – very powerful and extremely loud. During this time, David taught that we were going to get attacked, but there was part of me that didn't really believe it.
The idea of polygamy doesn't offend me. If I'm going to condemn someone for having more than one wife, then I've got to condemn God as well. I don't believe David had little children as wives, but some were under what you would consider the legal age. But what is the legal age: do we go by Western rules or by biblical teachings?
A Bible study could go all night. Sometimes David would start during the day, and it wasn't unusual for a study to go eight or 12 hours. They were often long. I don't know whether God was telling David Koresh anything or not. I can't vouch for that – but I don't believe in condemning everyone who says that God talks to them.
We knew we were under investigation. We got the word that there was going to be a raid and that we were to prepare for it – to go and load our guns – which I did. We started hearing helicopters. I looked down the road and I could see two cattle trucks way off in the distance, and I watched them come down at speed and enter the property. At that point I just got on the floor.
I remember thinking or hoping nothing was going to happen. I hear this pop – then pop-pop-pop – and it erupted like hail stones on a tin roof, bullets flying everywhere.
David was shot. He got hit in the abdomen and through the wrist. We thought the first few days he was going to die, but he recovered. A couple of the women were trained nurses.
The standoff lasted 51 days. The first few days we were fortifying the building, moving things into entrances. We had electric power through a generator I got going. David wouldn't use it for anything much more than running his music equipment – guitars and amplifiers. He played music during the standoff. His style was rock'n'roll. Part of his belief was to spread the message to the rest of the world through the avenue of music. He had some good tunes. I think it probably made us feel a bit better, but there was still a sombre mood. There weren't too many times we got to laugh.
I never heard anyone talk of surrender. If anyone wanted to leave they could have left. We wouldn't have been there to begin with if we didn't believe what he was teaching us.
The last day began with a phone call, at about 6am. I remember someone saying "Get your gas mask on, they're coming in." I kept low, sat there, propped myself up in the doorway. They fired tear gas canisters through the walls – you wouldn't want to get hit by one.
I went upstairs. David Koresh was in a dark hallway and he had a box of grenades and he looked up at me and asked, "Do you know how to use one of these?" I said, "Yes", and he handed me one. I took it.
I didn't want to find out what it was for, and I didn't want to leave it sitting around, so I put it in the pocket of my coat. If I had gotten rid of the grenade, had nothing happened, had I not told the authorities about it later, I probably wouldn't have done any time in prison.
I heard radio reports about the standoff. They were telling people we had thrown the telephone out and were shooting at the armoured vehicles. I couldn't hear any gunfire. I don't think anyone threw a phone out. Our phone system was very delicate, and the line was run over by a Bradley armoured vehicle. I think it was all their spin to make it better for the public.
At about noon I remember hearing, "The building is on fire." I looked for signs of smoke and couldn't see any. A few minutes after, I could see smoke. I remember then I looked over and someone was pouring fuel on the floor, and maybe a minute or two later I heard someone call from upstairs. They said, "Light the fire."
The chapel area was ablaze. I jumped out through the window and into a quadrangle area and squatted down for a minute. I could see the fire was blowing smoke across my path, so I waited 30 seconds until it could cover me. I could hear screams.
There was a small concrete room that was annexed to a water tower, so I ran in there. I had my jacket, with the grenade, and a sidearm, a Glock 17 9mm. Once I got in there I put them both on the ground.
It got extremely hot. I had about three hours in there, thinking about what I was going to do. I didn't feel like I'd done anything wrong, so I didn't think I had anything to hide, but I didn't trust the FBI or the American government, either. There are a lot of thoughts that go through your mind, and my main thought was whether or not I should use that gun on myself.
There was a white sack, and I waved that around and called out. They pulled their guns up and aimed them at me. I put my hands straight up. They got me to kneel on the ground and lay prone, face down. I was very weak. I'd lost a lot of weight, maybe 10 kilograms in seven weeks. They asked me where everyone was. I looked around at what was left of the building and said, "There."
Some Branch Davidians were acquitted, some were convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to 40 years. I was convicted of possession of an unregistered explosive device and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime of violence. The day of the sentencing in 1994 was the day of O.J. Simpson's run down the freeway, so it wasn't well publicised. Our jury foreman cried on the steps of the court afterward, saying if they had known the sentences they would have acquitted the lot of us.
I spent most of my time at the Oakdale Federal Correctional Institution in Louisiana. When I first got there, it was a low-security prison with pretty average people who got locked up for doing stupid things. When I left it was a high-security prison with Mexican gangs, white supremacist gangs, black gangs. I survived by keeping to myself.
The first five years was taken up with appeals. We won one in the Supreme Court, and that cut my sentence from 20 down to 15 years. I was paroled in 2006, after 13 years. I was deported, and had two burly escorts, one either side of me, all the way home. I've never been married, but the day I got back was like that – it's the best day of your life.
Being free is a very strange feeling. I went back to live with my parents. I've gone back to the Adventist church. I work for my father, building boats. I wanted the routine and to feel at home again. My life now is just about trying to feel normal. But I don't necessarily think that I am better off than those who died in the fire. Life is always a battle. For those who died, the battle is over. The worst memory is of the way they died. Burning to death is a rather horrific thought.
I wouldn't describe David Koresh as charismatic, although a lot of people use that term. To me, he spoke authoritatively on the Bible. What he told us was going to happen, happened. All except for the last part, which was that he was going to come back some day. Is he going to come back? The fact that it hasn't happened yet doesn't prove anything – I haven't given up hope. Let's wait and see.