Branch Davidian tragedy sparked government suspicion that still haunts us 25 years later

The Dallas Morning News/April 19, 2018

By Lee Hancock

WACO — The fire rose above the Texas prairie like a portent, an inferno consuming David Koresh and more than 70 of his followers in the Branch Davidian compound.

Koresh's personal apocalypse was televised live worldwide just after noon on April 19, 1993. Questions about what went wrong began to mount before the ashes were cool. How could a 33-year-old ninth-grade dropout convince so many people that he was the Lamb and God had willed this terrible end - nurses and teachers, a postman and a Harvard-educated lawyer, Australians and Brits, New Zealanders and an Argentinian-born Israeli Jew? Above all, why didn't FBI commanders realize they were fulfilling Koresh's doomsday prophecies? 

"It was a mess, and we played right into it -- into a prophetic, apocalyptic ministry that David Koresh had been preaching for 7 ½ years," said retired FBI agent and negotiator Byron Sage. "There were no good options. It was damned if you do, you're damned if you don't."

After the fire came the fault-finding; something had to account for so much death. Four agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and five sect members had died in a firefight that broke out as ATF raided the Davidians' compound. It burned fifty-one days later, as the FBI sprayed in tear gas to try to force the sect to surrender. 

The federal government blamed Koresh. Justice and Treasury Department reviews, a federal wrongful death trial and a $17 million special counsel's investigation concluded that Koresh led followers in torching their building and immolating themselves.

But federal inquiries also conceded that official accounts of the tragedy were marred by omissions and lies. 

First, ATF leaders misled the public about why their raid failed, denying they went in after learning Koresh knew they were coming. 

Then FBI and Justice Department leaders took years to disclose that the bureau's hostage rescue team fired pyrotechnic tear gas grenades on the final day. That admission contradicted repeated assurances to the public, courts and Congress that nothing capable of starting a fire was used in the FBI tear gas assault.

To government critics, it didn't matter that only a few pyrotechnic gas grenades were fired outside the building more than four hours before it burned. If the feds' account was wrong about anything, shouldn't everything they said be in doubt?

Official evaluations also glossed over frictions within the bureau. Some in the FBI argued that the bureau's innovative negotiations were upended by aggressive, old-school police tactics that punished the sect members and pushed them closer to Koresh. Tactical leaders contended that the sect had proved its dangerousness by killing and wounding federal agents; they believed Koresh never intended to come out. The disagreements grew so intense that some negotiators said communicating with their tactical colleagues in Waco was harder than negotiating with a backwoods messiah who proclaimed salvation required killing and dying for God.

Within months after the compound burned, federal agencies told everyone involved not to talk about Waco. The agencies fought release of records and evidence, winning legal battles only to lose public opinion.

The story fragmented into competing narratives that often reflected more about the tellers than about the truth. Republicans eager to criticize the Clinton administration targeted G-men as bad guys for the first time. Conspiracy theories migrated from basement videos and computer chat rooms into mainstream culture. 

Missing facts

Misrepresented or missing altogether were actual facts about what prompted federal agents to go after the Davidians in the first place: an illegal arsenal that included 48 assault rifles converted to machine guns. Also overlooked was the fact that Koresh had led followers into a shootout with a rival prophet in a 1987 dispute over control of their property. Gun groups and other government critics ignored evidence that Koresh had prepared his followers and amassed enough firepower to fight off the federal government. They wanted to reframe Waco as a cautionary tale about government goons persecuting a church for unconventional beliefs. 

To that end, Gun Owners of America paid to publish a book laying out the case for prosecuting government agencies. The National Rifle Association commissioned legal critiques and papers aimed at discrediting ATF's case and hired a lawyer for Koresh's gun dealer. The NRA also helped orchestrate the 1995 Waco congressional hearings. The gun group also gave seed money and marketing for a series of documentaries suggesting that federal agents murdered innocents at Waco; one of those films gained enough mainstream traction to win an Oscar nomination and an Emmy. The NRA helped pay for appeals of Davidians convicted of manslaughter and federal weapons charges; although the efforts to overturn their convictions failed, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered their sentences reduced.

Today, men and women who went to Waco to enforce federal laws still fight fables. As with most conspiracy theories, every question answered prompts darker questions. Waco myths are so pervasive online, in conservative news outlets, and in the gun press that it could be argued the Branch Davidian siege was a precursor to today's fake news. 

"We're still going through it 25 years later," said Sage. "The rank and file public are still being deceived as to what truly happened at Waco. There are all these people still trying to hype this and turn it into the 21st century version of the grassy knoll." 

Getting at the truth requires revisiting the winter of 1993. The internet was in its infancy. CNN was the only 24/7 newscast. After a schoolyard shooting, California banned assault weapons in 1989, and calls for a national ban were gaining traction.

Amassing weapons

In the year before the siege, Koresh and his followers amassed dozens of AR-15s and AK-47s, along with the means to convert them to illegal automatic weapons. Gun groups and anti-government extremists were on high alert over a deadly standoff in August 1992 involving the FBI's hostage rescue team at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. A deadly gunfight that killed a deputy U.S. marshal and the teenage son of a wanted white separatist sparked a 10-day standoff in which an HRT sniper killed the separatist's wife. Though the incident ended without further bloodshed, talk of government war on gun owners roiled the gun-show circuit. Koresh, a gun-show regular, added gun-group warnings about government gun grabbers to his apocalyptic prophecies.

On Feb. 28, the gunbattle that began the Waco siege lasted two hours. Police shootouts typically end within a few seconds, and standoffs typically end within six to eight hours.

The FBI rushed in its elite hostage rescue team and negotiators who had resolved hundreds of standoffs and hostage situations worldwide. They were pulled into a disaster not of their making, a crisis worse than any the bureau had seen.

"Waco is perhaps the most complex story and tragedy that we've ever faced in American law enforcement," said Gary Noesner, negotiation coordinator for the first half of the siege.

They knew Koresh had .50-caliber sniper rifles and illegal grenades, as well as illegal machine guns, because they were fired at ATF agents. Koresh also had dozens of children in his fortress. His control over them and their parents was so total that they willingly gave daughters as young as 12 to be his sexual partners, just as all married women were considered his wives. From the beginning, he and his lieutenant said they viewed the kids as bargaining chips. Early on, Koresh told one negotiator: "children are kind of like a hostage."

The HRT ringed the Davidian compound and patrolled in Bradley fighting vehicles to protect themselves. Initially, Koresh sent out children two by two. On March 2, he promised to surrender after authorities aired his recorded 58-minute message on national media. But then he said God told him to wait. He sent the last of 21 kids out on March 5 and refused to release more.

"We're dealing with my children now," he told a negotiator. Koresh fathered more than a dozen of the children who died on April 19. 

Negotiators urged patience, arguing that the trickle of surrenders would gradually become a gush as they developed trust and created doubt among those in the compound.

Noesner said Koresh signaled his resolve was wavering when he asked what would happen to him in prison and sought assurances that he could meet with followers after surrendering. 

"That led us to believe that he was considering the option of coming out. I believe that to this day," Noesner said. "The primary goal was not to symbolically fulfill his prophecy."

The HRT pushed for action. Over negotiators' protests, the HRT moved armored vehicles closer to the compound, deployed spotlights and cut electricity and blasted noises to disrupt the Davidians' sleep.

"I would've gone along with about anything that would put pressure on them to get them to come out," recalled Dick Rogers, HRT commander in Waco.

Negotiators said talks with the sect reached a breaking point the day that seven adults surrendered and tanks began bashing and moving Davidians' cars. It was a textbook demonstration of the paradox of power, Noesner said. "The harder we push, the more likely we are to encounter resistance."

'In this mess 24/7'

Rogers disagrees. "We're out here in this mess 24/7. ... Their thing was they were going to try to be pals with these guys inside. They showed them their own family photos. They did all kinds of stuff. They did it for two months and they still couldn't get them to come out. 

"They can say HRT ran over a car or moved a car with a tank, and that ruined our negotiations," said Rogers. "No. That's not how it was." 

They couldn't walk away after four federal agents had been killed, and they wouldn't risk more law enforcement lives. 

Attorney General Janet Reno eventually approved the FBI's plan to force the sect out with tear gas. "We were totally trying to take all precautions to save lives. That's our motto - servare vitas - to save lives. We were really convinced that the tear gas would bring them out and that would end this thing without any shots fired," Rogers said, adding that he and his teammates were sickened and saddened by the loss of so many lives they'd risked theirs to save.

"We couldn't control what David Koresh was going to do," he said. "The hostage negotiators did their very best, but it wasn't enough." 

"What are we going to do — build a barbed wire fence around the compound and have a few people watching the place?" said Rogers, who has never before spoken to the media about the incident. "We just felt that, how much longer can we allow this to go on?" 

The Davidians chose blood and fire and Koresh, the man who said his name meant death. One in five American households watched the end live on CNN.

Said Clint Van Zandt, who supervised negotiations in the final weeks, "It ended in a way that no one wanted, though unfortunately the ending was predictable. Do I believe that errors in judgment were made? Yes. Do I believe that David Koresh was responsible? Absolutely. He didn't do it all by himself, though. We were there."

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