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30 years after the siege, Waco investigates what led to the disaster

During the winter and spring of 1993, more than 80 people, including four federal agents and at least 20 children, died in two violent clashes between federal law enforcement and the Branch Davidian Christian sect near Waco, Texas. Since then, extremist groups have cited the attacks as evidence of anti-government conspiracy theories.

In my new book Waco: David Koresh, “Branch of David” and “Legacy of Rage”author Jeff Guinn describes the group’s leader, David Koresh, as a religious demagogue who took on several teenage brides and preached that he and his followers would cause a conflict that would lead to the end of days in their lives.

“David Koresh wanted to make sure that when the final battle took place, his followers would be able to fight the way it says in the Book of Revelation,” Guinn says. “It was supposed to be an all-out battle. His people had to die, but obviously they had to be ready to kill the agents of Babylon.”

Government agents began investigating the activities of a branch of the Davidians, alleging child abuse on the compound and the group stockpiling weapons. On the morning of February 28, 1993 76 agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) arrived at an area called Mount Carmel, hoping to surprise the group.

“[The agents] didn’t get any information about what the Branch Davidians believe, what their religious faith means, says Guinn. permission.”

Actually, Koresh was handing out guns around the compound, so most of the group members had guns and ammo. Moreover, the Branch Davidians knew that ATP was coming. A three-hour firefight ensued, during which five members of David’s branch and four federal agents were killed.

“Nearly a third of the ATF agents are carried out, bleeding or dead in this fight,” Guinn says. “Until noon on this day, the ATF is dragging away like a defeated army.”

A 51-day standoff followed, during which the FBI took over from the ATF. Hostage negotiators tried to convince Koresh to surrender. Meanwhile, tacticians have planned a second raid that will use CS gas (a form of tear gas) to expel the group members.

“In small doses [the gas] It didn’t have to be flammable, and it didn’t have to have too much physical impact other than eye and skin irritation, Guinn says. – It would be enough if it was inserted gradually so that the “Branch of David” came out.

On April 19, 1993, the FBI launched their plan, but something went wrong. A fire broke out within the compound, engulfing Mount Carmel in flames and killing all but nine of the people inside. Each side would later claim that the other was responsible for the fire, but Guinn points out that of the three entities involved, only one wanted it to end in death.

“The ATF and the FBI intervened not only with the hope, but with a real determination that no one would die. The officials of the ATF and the FBI have made terrible mistakes that have resulted in loss of life, and this is terrible. But that was not the original intention,” he says. “Only the Branch Davidian plan required people to die.”

Interview Highlights

On how Koresh’s teachings benefited him

What David Koresh did for his followers on Mount Carmel was to announce from time to time that God had sent him “new light,” a new message. The initial messages were basically ways that everyone could work better, love the Lord more, and basically make themselves worthy of salvation when the end times come. But gradually, some of these “new lights” benefited David Koresh and no one else. This is not unique among religious demagogues who claim a special relationship with God.

The first thing he stated – although he already had a wife, a 14-year-old girl pushing the legal boundaries in Texas, but she had permission from her parents, so the marriage was legal – he announced that now God wants him to were wives. , several wives. He pointed to some scriptures that he said supported this and stated that he needed multiple wives because his job was to bear 24 children who would become elders and help rule after the restoration of the Kingdom of God at the end. times. He then further announces that among all the women on Mount Carmel, every woman of childbearing age – and this will be, say, from 12 years old – is now his wife and can only have sex with him for the purpose of procreation. The husbands of these women were forbidden to have sex at all. And Koresh said it was a blessing for them because now they could focus their energy on more Bible study and become more worthy of the Lord. So it was sex. They were other people’s wives. And he even decided that God wanted him to have the only air conditioner on Mount Carmel.

About the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) prosecuting David’s branch for their stockpiles of illegal weapons

The Branch Davidians originally wanted to use guns to raise money. They took semi-automatic weapons, bought additional parts, turned them into automatic weapons and sold them for a significant profit. It also allowed them to build a warehouse on Mount Carmel for their last stand. They had not only cannons, but also grenades and gunpowder. So they built illegal grenades. …

[The ATF] heard from a couple of disgruntled Branch Davidians who left… that Koresh was actually training his people in the use of these weapons and that eventually the Branch Davidians might launch an attack from Mount Carmel on civilians around Waco that there were going to be some sort of mass attack or even mass suicide, like what happened a few years earlier in Jonestown, with the Temple of the Peoples in Guyana.

So the ATF made a decision: they’re going to enter Mount Carmel, they’re going to raid, they’re going to take these illegal weapons and arrest everyone in power, meaning at least David Koresh.

About the 51-day standoff between the FBI and the Branch of David

Inside Mount Carmel, David’s followers were waiting for something to happen. He promised them that they would be translated into great glory. Nothing happened. No one trusted the other side, and no one really could communicate with the other side, because if people don’t want to understand what the other person is saying, no matter how hard you try to negotiate, nothing will happen. Until finally, towards the end, [Koresh] said that if he was allowed to write his explanation of the seven seals of the Book of Revelation and give them to the religious leaders in the country, he and his followers would come out. This was his promise. The FBI did not believe him and decided that something needed to be done to end the siege.

About the fire that broke out on Mount Carmel

It was a windy, cold day. [gas] canisters entered first. The FBI said the shooting came from Mount Carmel. The surviving representatives of David’s branch swear that this never happened. But no matter what happened, all the canisters went inside, and gradually swirling clouds of CS gas began to spread throughout the building. The only heat that the members of David’s branch received was Coleman’s oil lanterns, which were supposed to have a weak flame. A few hours later the gas somehow caught fire. It was inevitable. There was such a crowd, and the building caught fire like matches. The fire was almost instantaneous. The flame rose into the air. Of the Branch Davidians who remained inside, only nine escaped. Nobody else came out. All the rest perished in a burning hell. It’s almost indescribable how terrible it was there.

On anti-government protests in Waco

Perhaps the loudest group, the most obvious group, were the people who saw Waco the same thing they had previously suspected in Ruby Ridge. [Idaho] about six months ago, the United States government systematically attempted to kill, or at least suppress, law-abiding gun-wielding citizens who never harmed anyone. There were many gunmen selling anti-government T-shirts and bumper stickers. One of them—and we have a picture of him in the book—was a guy named Timothy McVeigh, who two years later blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City to protest what happened in Waco. It was here that Waco became the epicenter of future militancy. And Waco will become to the conspiracy the great symbol of the evils of the American government.

On the FBI’s reaction to what happened

If we ever need proof that trying to cover up small details when mistakes are made is the worst thing you can do, just look at Mount Carmel in Waco. After the terrible fire, the FBI said that they just did what they agreed with the attorney general, gradually introducing CS gas, it was all non-flammable, and that the attorney general [Janet] Renault agreed. They lied that early in the morning they used combustible military cartridges to insert the gas, as well as fireproof cartridges, which they promised the attorney general. But these military shells never caught fire. The fire started a few hours after these shells were fired. But when the FBI was caught lying, then, of course, it was easy for the conspirators to claim they were lying about everything.

On a conversation with surviving members of the Branch of David 30 years later

I wrote about Charles Manson and have since talked to some of his followers, talked to people who followed Jim Jones and survived Jonestown. And these people will inevitably say, “How could I believe that? What a fool I was.” But the Mount Carmel survivors who believed in David Koresh still believe in him to this day — what the ATF did, and then the FBI. [did], David’s prophecy was fully fulfilled that he and others who died on Mount Carmel were carried up and are waiting, and at some point God will return them at the head of his armies, we will have this clash and the end of days will come. They have been maintained in this faith for 30 years. It’s unshakable. And I think it shows the strength, the charisma of David Koresh. How could it be otherwise?

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Benz, Molly Seavey-Nesper and Megan Sullivan adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh air. For more information visit Fresh Air.

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