Waco "cult" and fire

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Waco Siege or Battle of Mt. Carmel
Date February 28 - April 19, 1993
Location Mount Carmel Center, Waco, Texas, (Flag of United States United States)
Result Assault: Compound attacked resulting in the ATF retreat
Siege: Compound burned resulting in the mass number of deaths
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, FBI, U.S. Army Branch Davidians
Assault: Phil Chojnacki
Siege: Many
David Koresh†
Assault: 75 ATF agents
Siege: Hundreds of federal agents and soldiers
50+ men,
75+ women and children
4 dead, 21 wounded in assault 6 dead and 3+ wounded in assault, 79 dead in fire

The Waco "cult" — more properly known as the Branch Davidians — were an offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, a millennial form of American Protestant Christianity. Despite the barrage of media attention that the group was subjected to, the Branch Davidian community in Waco was a marginal one (in numerical terms), consisting of approximately 130 men, women, and children and led by David Koresh (born Vernon Wayne Howell).

This tiny apocalyptic sect was thrust into the international spotlight on February 28, 1993, when the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) attempted to execute a search warrant at their compound on Mount Carmel, a property located nine miles (14 km) east-northeast of Waco, Texas. That fateful evening, an exchange of gunfire resulted in the deaths of four agents and six Davidians. A subsequent 51-day siege by the Federal Bureau of Investigation ended on April 19 when the complex was destroyed by fire. Seventy-nine people, including 21 children and Davidian leader David Koresh, died in the incident. This has come to be known as the Waco Siege, Battle of Mount Carmel, or the Waco Massacre. In the years since these unfortunate events, many commentators have opined that this tragic loss of life could have been avoided if the ATF would have made a sincere effort to enter into a dialogue with Koresh and the Branch Davidians, rather than simply confronting them using violent paramilitary tactics.


The Branch Davidian Seventh Day Adventist Church (or, more popularly, the "Shepherd's Rod") was formed in Los Angeles, California, during the 1930s, breaking away from the Seventh-day Adventist Church. As the group gained members, the leadership moved the church to a hilltop several miles west of Waco, which they named Mount Carmel (an allusion to a peak mentioned in the Old Testament). A few years later, they moved again to a much larger site east of the city. The new Mount Carmel Center consisted of a main church building (constructed primarily of thin plywood, taking advantage of a lack of building codes at the time), administrative and storage buildings, and homes for the leadership and important visitors.

In 1981, Vernon Wayne Howell (later renamed David Koresh) joined the group as a regular member. In September 1983, Lois Roden (daughter of the current pastor) allowed Howell to begin to teach his own message, opening the door for him to build a following before their split in early 1984. Tensions within the church led to a general meeting at Mount Carmel over Passover 1984, which resulted in the group splitting into several factions, one of which was loyal to Howell. At this time, George Roden forced his erstwhile follower to leave the property.

After this schism, Howell named his faction the Davidian Branch Davidian Seventh-Day Adventists. He repeated the Davidian name because he believed that he was operating in the spirit of the Shepherd's Rod Movement, as God's "rod" of correction who had come to discipline the Seventh-Day Adventist church. In the following years, Howell took his followers to Palestine, Texas, but by 1988, George Roden's support had dwindled and, while he was in jail for contempt of court, Howell took charge of the disputed land in his absence. After taking possession of the compound, Howell renamed it "Ranch Apocalypse," in keeping with the teaching that he and his followers stay there to await the coming millennium.[1]

In 1990, the charismatic Howell changed his name to David Koresh, invoking the biblical Kings David and Cyrus. He centered his apocalyptic teachings on the Seven Seals and his ability as the "Lamb" to open them. Koresh supported his beliefs with detailed biblical interpretation, using the Book of Revelation as the lens through which the entire Bible was viewed. Interviews with surviving Davidians state that their prophet was intimately versed in the Bible and "knew it like he wrote it".[2] As a whole, the "Branch Davidians were, with very few exceptions, 'former' Adventists who felt that by accepting 'present truth' as taught by Koresh, they were showing a loyalty to both God and their tradition. hey felt highly privileged to be participating in the latest events that God was revealing through his prophets just prior to the close of human history."[3]

Confrontation and Siege


Koresh taught that the U.S. government was the enemy of the Davidians, and that they would have to defend themselves. In a video made by the Davidians and released during the siege, Koresh stated that he had been told by God to procreate with the women in the groups to establish a "House of David," his "Special People." This involved married couples in the group dissolving their marriages and agreeing that only Koresh could have sexual relations with the wives. On the tape, Koresh is also shown with several minors who claimed to have had babies fathered by Koresh. In total, Koresh had fourteen young children who stayed with him in the compound. A video clip of an interview between Koresh and an Australian television station notes that he was accused of impregnating the aged widow of the founder of Branch Davidianism. He sarcastically responded that if these charges were true (i.e., that he had actually "made an 82-year-old woman pregnant"), then he should earn more converts from it, to which end he quipped: "I do miracles, I'm God!"[2]

On February 27, 1993 the Waco Tribune-Herald began what it called the “Sinful Messiah” series of articles.[4] It alleged that Koresh had physically abused children in the compound and had taken underage brides, even raping one of them. Koresh was also said to advocate polygamy for himself, and declared himself married to several female residents of the small community. According to the paper, Koresh declared that he was entitled to at least 140 wives, that he was entitled to claim any of the females in the group as his, that he had fathered at least a dozen children by the harem and that some of these mothers became brides as young as 12 or 13 years old. These articles, whose accuracy has long since been debunked, were nonetheless given international attention, as they provided outsiders a glimpse into the lives of the beleaguered congregation.[5] Despite the inaccuracies of these articles, surviving members of the group acknowledge Koresh's predilection for sexual activity with pubescent teens (sometimes as young as 12-13), a fact that supports the government's pretext for besieging the compound.[6]

Reports from Joyce Sparks, an investigator from the Texas agency responsible for protective services, stated that she had found significant evidence that the allegations were true in her visits to the Mount Carmel site over a period of months. However, she said that the investigation was difficult as she was not permitted to speak with the children alone, nor was she permitted to inspect all areas of the site. She noted that safety concerns over construction sites at Mount Carmel were either ignored or slowly corrected.[7] Carol Moore, author of the 1984 "The Massacre Of The Branch Davidians—A Study Of Government Violations Of Rights, Excessive Force And Cover Up,"[8] writes:

[Rick] Ross told the Houston Chronicle that Koresh is "your stock cult leader. They're all the same. Meet one and you've met them all. They're deeply disturbed, have a borderline personality and lack any type of conscience…. No one willingly enters into a relationship like this. So you're talking about deception and manipulation (by the leader), people being coached in ever so slight increments, pulled in deeper and deeper without knowing where it's going or seeing the total picture."[9]


In 1992, the ATF became concerned over reports of automatic gunfire coming from the Carmel compound. Subsequent investigations, including sending in one agent undercover, revealed that there were over 150 weapons and 8,000 rounds of ammunition in the complex. Most of the weapons were legal semi-automatics; however, the ATF alleged there were also a number of these fire-arms that had been illegally modified to fire full-automatic.[2]

The ATF began surveillance from a house across the road from the compound, but their cover was noticeably poor (the "college students" were in their thirties, not registered at the local schools, and they did not keep a schedule which would have fit any legitimate employment or classes).[10]

Alleging that the Davidians had violated federal law, the ATF obtained search and arrest warrants for Koresh and specific followers on weapons charges due to the many firearms they had accumulated, and they planned their raid for March 1, 1993, with the code name "Showtime".[11] However, the raid was moved up a day in response to the Waco Tribune-Herald "Sinful Messiah" article (which the ATF had tried to prevent from being published).[2]

The initial assault

The ATF mounted the raid on the morning of February 28, 1993. Any advantage of surprise was lost as a reporter, who had been tipped off on the raid, asked for directions from a U.S. Postal Service mail carrier who was Koresh's brother-in-law,[2] and the assault team assembled within view of the upper stories of the Mount Carmel main building. Koresh then confronted the ATF agent who had infiltrated the Branch Davidians and told him that they knew a raid was coming. Koresh and his male followers then began arming and taking up defensive positions, while the women and children were told to take cover in their rooms.[2]

Despite being informed that the Davidians knew the raid was coming, the ATF commander ordered that the raid go ahead, even though their plan had depended on reaching the compound without the Davidians having armed.[2]

Agents approached the site in cattle trailers pulled by pickup trucks owned by individual ATF agents. It is not known who fired the first shots.[2] It is reported that the first firing occurred at the double front entry doors; ATF agents stated that they heard shots coming from within the building, while Branch Davidian survivors claimed that the first shots came from the ATF agents outside.

Within a minute of the raid starting, a Davidian, Wayne Martin, called 911 pleading for them to stop shooting. The resident asked for a ceasefire, and audiotapes clearly caught him saying "Here they come again!" and "That's them shooting, that's not us!"

The local sheriff then attempted to contact the ATF force, but initially could not get through as the ATF communications officer had turned his radio off. Eventually the sheriff got through and negotiated a ceasefire.[2] This conflicts with Gazecki's documentary, where the sheriff of Mclellan county at the time states that the ATF agents withdrew only once they were out of ammunition. ".[12]

After the ceasefire, the Davidians, who still had ample ammunition, allowed the dead and wounded to be removed and held their fire during the ATF retreat. Steve Willis, Robert Williams, Todd McKeehan and Conway LeBleu were the ATF agents killed during the raid, with another 16 having been injured. The Davidians killed were Winston Blake, Peter Gent, Peter Hipsman, Perry Jones and Jaydean Wendel. Michael Schroeder was shot dead by ATF agents when he fired a Glock 19 pistol at agents as he attempted to reenter the compound around 5 P.M. with Woodrow Kendrick and Norman Allison.[2] His wife claims that he was merely returning from work and had not participated in the day's earlier altercation."[12]

The local sheriff, in audiotapes broadcast after the incident, said he was not apprised of the raid.

The Siege

ATF agents established contact with Koresh and others inside the building after they withdrew. The FBI took command soon after as a result of the deaths of Federal agents. They placed the FBI Special Agent in Command of San Antonio, Jeff Jamar, in charge of the siege. The tactical team was headed by Richard Rogers, who had previously been criticized for his actions at the Ruby Ridge incident.

For the next 51 days, communication with those inside was by telephone by a group of 25 FBI negotiators (who reportedly were not always in touch with the tactical units surrounding the building).[2]

In the first few days the FBI believed they had made a breakthrough when they negotiated with Koresh an agreement that the Davidians would peaceably leave the compound in return for a message, recorded by Koresh, being broadcast on national radio.[2] The broadcast was made, but Koresh then told negotiators that God had told him to remain in the building and "wait".[2]

Despite this, soon afterwards negotiators managed to facilitate the release of 19 children, ranging in age from five months to 12 years old, without their parents.[1] These children were released in groups of two- this was considered an allusion to Noah's Ark by Koresh, while 98 people remained in the compound.[2] The children were then interrogated by the FBI and Texas Rangers, sometimes for hours at a time.[1]

On day nine the Davidians released a video tape to show the FBI that there were no hostages, but in fact everyone was seemingly staying inside on their own free will. This video also included a message from Koresh.[2] Videos also showed the 23 children still inside Ranch Apocalypse, and child care professionals on the outside prepared to take care of those children as well as the previous 21 released.[1]

As the stand-off continued, Koresh negotiated more time, allegedly so he could write religious documents he said he needed to complete before he surrendered. His conversations, dense with biblical imagery, alienated the federal negotiators who treated the situation as a hostage crisis.

As the siege wore on, two factions developed within the FBI,[2] one believing negotiation to be the answer, the other, force. Increasingly aggressive techniques were used to try to make the Davidians leave. Outside the building, nine unarmed Bradley Fighting Vehicles and five combat engineering vehicles (CEVs) obtained from the US Army began patrolling.[2] The armored vehicles were used to destroy outbuildings and crush cars belonging to Koresh.[2] Loud music (heavily distorted) and disturbing sounds were played at high volume.[2] Eventually all power and water was cut off to the complex, forcing those inside to survive on rain water and stockpiled United States Army Meal, Ready-to-Eat rations.[2]

Criticism was later leveled at the tactic of loud noises against Koresh by Schneider's attorney, Jack Zimmerman:

The point was this - they were trying to have sleep disturbance and they were trying to take someone that they viewed as unstable to start with, and they were trying to drive him crazy. And then they got mad 'cos he does something that they think is irrational![13]

Despite the increasingly aggressive tactics, Koresh ordered a group of followers to leave. Eleven people left and were arrested as material witnesses, with one person charged with conspiracy to murder.[2]

The children's willingness to stay with Koresh disturbed the negotiators who were unprepared to work around the Davidians' religious zeal. However, as the siege went on, the children were aware that an earlier group of children who had left with some women were immediately separated, and the women arrested.

During the siege a number of scholars who study apocalypticism in religious groups attempted to persuade the FBI that the siege tactics being used by government agents would only create the impression within the Davidians that they were part of a Biblical "end times" confrontation that had cosmic significance.[14] This would likely increase the chances of a violent and deadly outcome (in a subsequent stand-off with the Montana Freemen, the Justice Department incorporated this advice to end the confrontation peacefully). The religious scholars pointed out that while on the outside, the beliefs of the group may have appeared to be extreme, to the Davidians, their religious beliefs were deeply meaningful, and they were willing to die for them.[14]

Koresh's discussions with the negotiating team became increasingly difficult. He proclaimed that he was the second coming of Christ and had been commanded by his father in heaven to remain in the compound.[2]

Many of Koresh's statements about religion that baffled government negotiators were understood by religious scholars as references to his idiosyncratic interpretations of the Book of Revelation, and his claimed role in the End Times battle between good and evil.

The final assault

The FBI became increasingly concerned that the Davidians were going to commit mass suicide, as had happened in Jonestown, Guyana in 1978, when 900 people killed themselves at their leader's behest. The then-newly appointed U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno approved the recommendations of the FBI to mount an assault after being told that conditions were deteriorating and children were being abused inside the compound. Because the Davidians were heavily armed, the FBI's arms included .50 caliber guns and armored vehicles (CEVs).

A plan was formed which would see the CEVs use booms to punch holes in the walls of buildings and then pump in CS gas (a potent toxin that whose use is prohibited by international law) to try to flush out the Davidians "without harming them." The plan called for increasing amounts of gas to be pumped in over two days to increase pressure. No armed assault was to be made, and loudspeakers were used to tell the Davidians that there was no armed assault and to ask them not to fire on the vehicles. Despite this, several Davidians opened fire. Instead of returning fire, the FBI increased the amount of gas being used.[15]

After more than six hours no Davidians had left the building, sheltering instead in an underground bunker or using gas masks. The CEVs were used to punch several large holes in the building to provide exits for those inside. However several of these were blocked when the floor above collapsed, and Davidians were scared that they would be shot if they left.[15]

At around noon, three fires started almost simultaneously in different parts of the building. Even then, as the fire spread, only nine people left the building.[2] More specifically, this was the point at which the first visible flames appeared in two spots in the front of the building, first on the left of the front door on the second floor (a wisp of smoke then a small flicker of flame) then a short time later on the far right side of the front of the building, and at a third spot on the back side. Agents say Branch Davidian members ignited the fires, alleging that observers saw a man dressed in black bend over with cupped hands and then saw flames as he lifted his hands. However, after some media scrutiny, overt claims that the Davidians had purposely started the fire themselves were retracted.[16]

The remaining Davidians remained inside as fire engulfed the building, with footage being broadcast worldwide by television. In all, 74 died. Jeff Jamar prohibited fire crews access to the burning buildings until after the blaze had burned itself out, due to the danger of explosives within the fire and possible weapons fire from surviving Davidians.[17] In retrospect, these delays seem utterly unconscionable, given the number of people (including children) in immediate need of aid.

Nothing remains of the compound today, as the entire site was bulldozed by the ATF just two weeks after the end of the siege. Only a small chapel stands on the site, used by a small number of Branch Davidians.[2]


Various gun-control groups, such as Handgun Control Incorporated and the Violence Policy Center have claimed that the Branch Davidians had used .50 caliber rifles and that therefore these types of firearms should be banned.[18][19]. However, the U.S. Treasury Department, in a memorandum to the press dated July 13, 1995, titled "Weapons Possessed by the Branch Davidians," provided an inventory of all the firearms and firearm-related items that were recovered from the Branch Davidian's compound. The inventory shows no .50 rifles or machine guns, only 4 .50 magazines, 3 .50 magazine springs and .50 belt links.[20] Several years later, the General Accounting Office in response to a request from Henry Waxman released a briefing paper titled, "Criminal Activity Associated with .50 Caliber Semiautomatic Rifles" which claims that the Branch Davidians did have access to and use .50 rifles.[21] The GAO's claim is based on an unsourced BATF claim that the Branch Davidians fired on the BATF with a .50 rifle. There has not been a reconciliation between the Treasury Department's account and the GAO's.


The events at Waco spurred both criminal prosecution and civil litigation. On August 3, 1993, a federal grand jury returned a superseding ten-count indictment against 12 of the surviving Davidians. The grand jury charged, among other things, that the Davidians had conspired to, and aided and abetted in, murder of federal officers, and had unlawfully possessed and used various firearms.

The Government dismissed the charges against one of the 12 Davidians, Kathryn Schroeder, pursuant to a plea bargain. After a jury trial lasting nearly two months, the jury acquitted four of the Davidians on all counts with which they were charged. Additionally, the jury acquitted all of the Davidians on the murder-related charges, but convicted five of them on the lesser-included offense of aiding and abetting the voluntary manslaughter of federal agents. Eight Davidians were convicted on firearms charges.

Six of the eight Davidians appealed both their sentences and their convictions. They raised a host of issues, challenging the constitutionality of the prohibition on possession of machineguns, the jury instructions, the district court’s conduct of the trial, the sufficiency of the evidence, and the sentences imposed. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit vacated the defendants’ sentences for use of machine guns, determining that the district court had made no finding that they had “actively employed” the weapons. The Court of Appeals left the verdict undisturbed in all other respects.

On remand, the district court found that the defendants had actively employed machine guns, and re-sentenced five of them to substantial prison terms. The defendants again appealed. The Fifth Circuit affirmed. The Davidians pressed this issue before the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the word “machine gun” in the relevant statute created an element of the offense to be determined by a jury, rather than a sentencing factor to be determined by a judge, as had happened in the trial court.

The convicted Davidians were:

  • Kevin A. Whitecliff—convicted of voluntary manslaughter and using a firearm during a crime.
  • Jaime Castillo—convicted of voluntary manslaughter and using a firearm during a crime.
  • Paul Gordon Fatta—convicted of conspiracy to possess machine guns and aiding Davidian leader David Koresh in possessing machine guns.
  • Renos Lenny Avraam—convicted of voluntary manslaughter and using a firearm during a crime.
  • Graeme Leonard Craddock—convicted of possessing a grenade and using or possessing a firearm during a crime.
  • Brad Eugene Branch—convicted of voluntary manslaughter and using a firearm during a crime.
  • Livingstone Fagan—convicted of voluntary manslaughter and using a firearm during a crime.
  • Ruth Riddle—convicted of using or carrying a weapon during a crime.
  • Kathryn Schroeder—sentenced to three years after pleading guilty to a reduced charge of forcibly resisting arrest.

Several of the surviving Davidians, as well as more than a hundred family members of those who had died or were injured in the confrontation, brought civil suits against the United States, numerous federal officials, the former governor of Texas, and members of the Texas National Guard. They sought money damages under the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”), civil rights statutes, the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act, and Texas state law. The bulk of these claims were dismissed because they were insufficient as a matter of law or because the plaintiffs could advance no material evidence in support of them. Only FTCA claims related to the initial raid on the compound, the actions of the FBI during the insertion of tear gas on April 19, 1993, and the final fire proceeded to trial.

The court, after a month-long trial, rejected the Davidians’ case. The court found that, on February 28, 1993, the Davidians initiated a gun battle when they fired at federal officers who were attempting to serve lawful warrants. ATF agents returned gunfire to the compound, the court ruled, in order to protect themselves and other agents from death or serious bodily harm. The court found that the government's planning of the siege—i.e., the decisions to use tear gas against the Davidians; to insert the tear gas by means of military tanks; and to omit specific planning for the possibility that a fire would erupt—was a discretionary function for which the government could not be sued. The court also found that the use of tear gas was not negligent. Further, even if the United States were negligent by causing damage to the compound before the fires broke out, thus either blocking escape routes or enabling the fires to speed faster, that negligence did not legally cause the plaintiffs' injuries because the Davidians started the fires. The court found that the FBI's decision not initially to allow fire trucks on the property was reasonable because of the risk of injury or death to firefighters who might encounter hostile gunfire from the Davidian compound.

The Davidians appealed. Their only serious contention was that the trial court judge, Walter S. Smith, Jr., should have recused himself from hearing their claims on account of his relationships with defendants, defense counsel, and court staff; prior judicial determinations; and comments during trial. The Fifth Circuit concluded that these allegations did not reflect conduct that would cause a reasonable observer to question Judge Smith’s impartiality, and it affirmed the take-nothing judgment.


In the aftermath of the initial raid, the ATF drew heavy criticism for proceeding, despite being aware that the Davidians knew of the offensive and of the months-long surveillance of Mount Carmel. Some critics also continue to ask why the ATF agents turned down a direct invitation given months before the initial assault, in which Koresh spoke with the agents by phone and asked that they come talk with him about their concerns. There is also controversy over what the exact content of the original search warrants were.

Some critics claim that ATF documentation from their observations of Mount Carmel proved that they knew that Koresh left the property every day for a run. The ATF has so far not responded to questions about why they did not wait for Koresh to leave his property on the day of the raid and then arrest him instead of staging a raid.

In general, it can be argued that the situation did not need to end in a tragic loss of life, and that the responsibility for the lives of these casualties can be squarely pinned upon the FBI and the ATF, as both agencies adopted unnecessarily violent and confrontational stances in dealing with the Branch Davidians. This position is summarized eloquently by Tabor and Gallagher:

The Waco situation could have been handled differently and possibly resolved peacefully. This is not unfounded speculation or wishful thinking. It is the considered opinion of the lawyers who spent the most time with the Davidians during the siege and of various scholars of religion who understand biblical apocalyptic belief systems such as that of the Branch Davidians. There was a way to communicate with these biblically oriented people, but it had nothing to do with hostage rescue or counterterrorist tactics. Indeed, such a strategy was pursued, with FBI cooperation, by Phillip Arnold of the Reunion Institute in Houston and James Tabor of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte…. Unfortunately, these attempts came too late. By the time they began to bear positive results, decisions had already been made in Washington to convince Attorney General Janet Reno to end the siege by force.[22]

By failing to appreciate how their raid played into the Branch Davidian eschatology, the FBI and the ATF set the stage for an unfortunate and utterly avoidable loss of human life.[23]

Who fired first?

Helicopters had been obtained from the Texas National Guard on the pretext that there was a drug laboratory at Mount Carmel.[24] There were, however, no drug related charges on the arrest warrant served on the morning of February 28, 1993. While the official version of events has always stated that the helicopters were merely used as a diversion, and that the Davidians were not targeted by sharpshooters within them, in transcripts of the negotiations, one negotiator admitted that the occupants were armed, and may have opened fire:

Koresh: "No! Let me tell you something. That may be what you want the media to believe, but there's other people that saw too! Now, tell me Jim, again - you're honestly going to say those helicopters didn't fire on any of us?"
Jim Cavanaugh: "What I'm saying is the helicopters didn't have mounted guns. Ok? I'm not disputing the fact that there might have been fire from the helicopters."[25]

An Austin Chronicle article noted, "Long before the fire, the Davidians were discussing the evidence contained in the doors. During the siege, in a phone conversation with the FBI, Steve Schneider, one of Koresh's main confidantes, told FBI agents that "the evidence from the front door will clearly show how many bullets and what happened." [8] Houston attorney Dick DeGuerin, who went inside Mount Carmel during the siege, testified at the trial that protruding metal on the inside of the right-hand entry door made it clear that the bullet holes were made by incoming rounds. DeGuerin also testified that only the right-hand entry door had bullet holes, while the left-hand entry door was intact. The government presented the left-hand entry door at the trial, claiming that the right-hand entry door had been lost. The left-hand door contained numerous bullet holes made by both outgoing and incoming rounds. Texas Trooper Sgt. David Keys testified that he witnessed two men loading what could have been the missing door into a U-Haul van shortly after the siege had ended, but he did not see the object itself. And Michael Caddell, the lead attorney for the Davidians' wrongful death lawsuit explained, "The fact that the left-hand door is in the condition it's in tells you that the right-hand door was not consumed by the fire. It was lost on purpose by somebody." Caddell offered no evidence to support this allegation, which has never been proved.[26]

The fire

Critics suggest that during the final raid the CS gas was injected into the building by armored vehicles in an unsafe manner, which could have started a fire. However, two of the three fires were started well inside the building, away from where the CS gas was pumped in.

Attorney General Reno had specifically directed that no pyrotechnic devices be used in the assault.[15] Between 1993 and 1999, FBI spokesmen denied (even under oath) the use of any sort of pyrotechnic devices during the assault; non-pyrotechnic Flite-Rite CS gas grenades had been found in the rubble immediately following the fire. In 1999, FBI spokesmen were forced to admit that they had used the grenades, however they claimed that these devices, which dispense CS gas through an internal burning process, had been used during an early morning attempt to penetrate a covered, water-filled construction pit 40 yards away,[15] and were not fired into the building itself. According to FBI claims, the fires started approximately three hours after the grenades had been fired.[15] When the FBI's documents were turned over to Congress for an investigation in 1994, the page listing the use of the pyrotechnic devices was missing.[15] The failure for six years to disclose the use of pyrotechnics despite her specific directive led Reno to demand an investigation.[15] A senior FBI official told Newsweek that as many as 100 FBI agents had known about the use of pyrotechnics, but no one spoke up until 1999.[15]

FBI-released video and audio tapes, and aerial infra-red videotape shot by the FBI, shows flashes of light that some have suggested might be heat signatures consistent with the launching of CS gas grenades moments before the first heat plume of fire appears. Several expert studies concluded that the flashes were caused by reflected infrared radiation and not muzzle blasts.

The FBI has also admitted to using incendiary flares during the stand-off to illuminate areas at night, but claims not to have used illumination flares during the assault, all of which took place during daylight hours.

The Branch Davidians had given ominous warnings involving fire on several occasions.[27] This may or may not be indicative of the Davidians' future actions, but could be construed as evidence that the fire was started by the Davidians. This being said, a survivor of the massacre recalls an agent quipping that the group "ought to buy some fire insurance" in the week before the blaze, which could imply FBI foreknowledge of the potential conflagration.[28]

On May 12, less than a month after the incident, Texas state authorities bulldozed the site, rendering further gathering of forensic evidence impossible.

Subsequent government-funded studies[29] conclude that the infra-red evidence does not support the view that the FBI improperly used incendiary devices or fired on Branch Davidians. Infra-red experts continue to disagree, and filmmaker Amy Sommer stands by the original conclusions presented in the Waco: The Rules of Engagement documentary.


Several documentaries suggest that the FBI fired weapons into the building, which the FBI denies. The main evidence for gunfire is bright flashes in aerial infra-red recordings from Forward looking infrared (FLIR) cameras on government aircraft flying overhead. Edward Allard, a former government specialist on infra-red imagery, submitted an affidavit in which he declared that the video revealed bursts of automatic gunfire coming from government agents. Another independent FLIR expert, Carlos Ghigliotti, also confirms gunfire, when shown the original video kept by government officials.

International experts hired by the Office of Special Counsel claimed that the flashes were not gunfire because (1) they lasted too long, (2) there were no guns or people on the tapes anywhere near the flashes; and (3) the flashes were consistent with reflections of debris and other materials near the building. Edward Allard commented on the reflection theory, saying that it was impossible for the flashes on the FLIR film to be reflections, because FLIR does not record light, it records heat, and reflections do not produce enough heat to be noticeable on tape. Actually, FLIR records infrared radiation, which can be reflected or absorbed by different materials. Maurice Cox, a former analyst from the US intelligence community, tested the reflection theory using the principles of solar geometry. Cox's Sun Reflection Report concluded that the flashes seen on the FLIR footage could only be from gunfire.

In January, 1999 Mr Cox challenged FBI director Louis Freeh and FBI scientists to dispute his findings. There was no response.

Secondary proof was a summary of a statement made by FBI sniper Charles Riley several weeks after the incident to an FBI investigator. Riley stated that he had heard shots fired from a nearby sniper position, Sierra 1. This sniper team included Lon Horiuchi, who had killed the unarmed Vicki Weaver in the Ruby Ridge incident the preceding August, and Christopher Curran, who had also been at Ruby Ridge.

In 1995, when attorneys submitted the summary of Riley's statement as evidence to Judge Smith, the FBI produced an additional interview in which Riley clarified that he had heard the statement "shots fired" from Sierra 1, which meant that agents at Sierra 1 had observed shots being fired at FBI vehicles by the Davidians.

Finally, .308 cartridge cases found at Sierra 1 were examined by ballistics experts hired by the Branch Davidians. They agreed with government experts that the casings matched guns used by the ATF during the first raid on February 28, and the Davidians dropped the Sierra 1 shooting claim from their lawsuit against the government.


Autopsies of the dead revealed that some women and children found beneath a fallen concrete wall of a storage room died of skull injuries. Photographs taken after the fire show that the M728 CEV that penetrated the building while injecting CS gas did not come close enough to cause the collapse, which was more likely the result of the fire; photographs show signs of spalling on the concrete, which suggests that it was damaged by the intense heat. Some claim that the cooking off of some of the ammunition stored in the bank vault damaged the walls.

Autopsy photographs of other children locked in what appear to be spasmic death poses have been attributed by some to cyanide poisoning produced by burning CS gas. [12]

Autopsy records indicate that at least 20 Davidians were shot, including five children under the age of 14, and three-year-old Dayland Gent was stabbed in the chest. The expert retained by the Office of Special Counsel concluded that many of the gunshot wounds "support self-destruction either by overt suicide, consensual execution (suicide by proxy), or less likely, forced execution."[30] These conclusions are utterly incommensurate with eyewitness accounts and personal reports, none of whom heard mention of a "suicide pact." The problems with these claims were also acknowledged by members of the FBI, as when William Sessions (then FBI director), stated on national television that "every single analysis made of his [Koresh's] writing, of what he said, of what had said to his lawyers, of what the behavioral science people said, what the psychologists thought, what the psycholinguists thought, what the psychiatrists believed, was that this man was not suicidal, that he would not take his life."[31] Likewise, "Farris Rookstool, a member of the FBI's evidence response team, said that in his opinion the claim that the Davidians had committed mass suicide was 'irresponsible'" — an assessment that was echoed by Dr. Nizam Peerwani, the medical examiner for Tarrant County.[32]


By 1999, as a result of certain of the documentaries discussed above, as well as allegations made by advocates for Davidians during litigation, public opinion held that the federal government had engaged in serious misconduct at Waco. A TIME magazine poll conducted on August 26, 1999, for example, indicated that 61 percent of the public believed that federal law enforcement officials started the fire at the Branch Davidian complex. In September of that year, Attorney General Janet Reno appointed former United States Senator John C. Danforth as Special Counsel to investigate the matter. In particular, the Special Counsel was directed to investigate charges that government agents started or spread the fire at the Mount Carmel complex, directed gunfire at the Branch Davidians, and unlawfully employed the armed forces of the United States.

A yearlong investigation ensued, during which the Office of the Special Counsel interviewed 1001 witnesses, reviewed over 2.3 million pages of documents, and examined thousands of pounds of physical evidence. In his final report of November 8, 2000, Special Counsel Danforth concluded that the allegations were meritless. The report found, however, that certain government employees had failed to disclose during litigation against the Davidians the use of pyrotechnic devices at the complex, and had obstructed the Special Counsel’s investigation. Disciplinary action was pursued against those individuals.

Allegations that the government started the fire were based largely on an FBI agent’s having fired three “pyrotechnic” tear gas rounds, which are delivered with a charge that burns. The Special Counsel concluded that, because the FBI fired the rounds nearly four hours before the fire started, at a concrete construction pit partially filled with water, 75 feet away and downwind from the main living quarters of the complex, the rounds did not start or contribute to the spread of the fire. The Special Counsel noted, by contrast, that recorded interceptions of Davidian conversations included such statements as “David said we have to get the fuel on” and “So we light it first when they come in with the tank right… right as they’re coming in.” Davidians who survived the fire acknowledged that other Davidians started the fire. FBI agents witnessed Davidians pouring fuel and igniting a fire, and noted these observations contemporaneously. Lab analysis found accelerants on the clothing of Davidians, and investigators found deliberately punctured fuel cans and a homemade torch at the site. Based on this evidence and testimony, the Special Counsel concluded that the fire was started by the Davidians.

Charges that government agents fired shots into the complex on April 19, 1993, were based on Forward Looking Infrared (“FLIR”) video recorded by FBI Nightstalker aircraft. These tapes showed 57 flashes, with some occurring around government vehicles that were operating near the complex. The Office of Special Counsel conducted a field test of FLIR technology on March 19, 2000, to determine whether gunfire caused the flashes. The testing was conducted under a protocol agreed to and signed by attorneys and experts for the Davidians and their families, as well as for the government. Analysis of the shape, duration, and location of the flashes indicated that they resulted from a reflection off debris on or around the complex, rather than gunfire. Additionally, independent expert review of photography taken at the scene showed no people at or near the points from which the flashes emanated. Interviews of Davidians, government witnesses, filmmakers, writers, and advocates for the Davidians found that none had witnessed any government gunfire on April 19. Finally, none of the Davidians who died on that day displayed evidence of having been struck by a high velocity round, as would be expected had they been shot from outside of the complex by government sniper rifles or other assault weapons. In view of this evidence, the Special Counsel concluded that the claim that government gunfire occurred on April 19, 1993, amounted to “an unsupportable case based entirely upon flawed technological assumptions.”

The Special Counsel considered whether the use of active duty military at Waco violated the Posse Comitatus Act or the Military Assistance to Law Enforcement Act. These statutes generally prohibit direct military participation in law enforcement functions, but do not preclude indirect support such as loaning equipment, training in the use of equipment, offering expert advice, and providing equipment maintenance. The Special Counsel noted that the military provided “extensive” loans of equipment to the ATF and FBI including, among other things, two tanks the offensive capability of which had been disabled. Additionally, the military provided more limited advice, training, and medical support. The Special Counsel concluded that these actions amounted to indirect military assistance within the bounds of applicable law. The Texas National Guard, in its state status, also provided substantial loans of military equipment, as well as performing reconnaissance flights over the Davidian complex. Because the Posse Comitatus Act does not apply to the National Guard in its state status, the Special Counsel determined that the National Guard lawfully provided its assistance.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Psychotherapy Networker, March/April 2007, "Stairway to Heaven; Treating children in the crosshairs of trauma." Excerpt from Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz. The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog.
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 2.13 2.14 2.15 2.16 2.17 2.18 2.19 2.20 2.21 2.22 2.23 Neil Rawles, Inside Waco. (Television documentary) Channel 4/HBO, February 2, 2007.
  3. James D. Tabor and Eugene V. Gallagher. Why Waco?: Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. ISBN 0520201868), 50. 23-51, which provide a detailed overview of the movement's history and development. See also: Report to Gov't concerning child abuse U.S. Dept. of Justice. Retrieved March 11, 2009 and davekopel.com for some additional perspectives.
  4. Mark England and Darlene McCormick, "The Sinful Messiah." The Waco Tribune-Herald Series, Fort Worth Star-Telegram March 3, 1993, [1] rickross.com. Retrieved March 11, 2009.
  5. Tabor and Gallagher, 7.
  6. On this topic, Thibodeau and Whiteson quote Houston Assistant District Attorney stating that "it is possible that the unusual nature of the sexual abuse claims, and the complex circumstances surrounding them, especially the isolated community lifestyle and parental consent within the clan, made the task of documenting these allegations difficult" (114). This being said, the members of the community themselves made no effort to deny these claims (113-116).
  7. Dallas Morning News Waco Archives. public-action.com. Retrieved March 11, 2009.
  8. Carol Moore, 1984, [2] published by The Committee For Waco Justice, Retrieved March 11, 2009.
  9. Carol Moore, "The Massacre Of The Branch Davidians—A Study Of Government Violations Of Rights, Excessive Force And Cover Up", 1984, published by Gun Owners of America.
  10. "Tripped Up By Lies: A report paints a devastating portrait of ATF's Waco planning—or, rather, the lack of it." TIME.com. October 11, 1993. Retrieved March 11, 2009.
  11. Eric Christensen, " Reno's halfway house" Insight on the News, 2001-06-18, .
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 William Gazecki, Waco - The Rules of Engagement. (2003) (Film documentary) New Yorker Video.
  13. Testimony to the Subcommitee on National Security, et al. Congressional Record, July, 1995
  14. 14.0 14.1 Mary Zeiss Stange, October 3, 2001, Opinion, USA Today, U.S. ignores religion's fringes. Retrieved March 11, 2009.
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 15.4 15.5 15.6 15.7 Christopher Dickey and Rod Nordland, July 2002, The Fire That Won't Die Out. Newsweek. findarticles.com. Retrieved March 11, 2009.
  16. Thibodeau and Whiteson, 263-264.
  17. Thibodeau and Whiteson, 267.
  18. Brady Campaign "Selling High Powered Military Weapons in the Suburbs" [3]. bradycampaign.org. Retrieved March 11, 2009.
  19. VPC Criminal Use of the .50 Caliber Sniper Rifle Violence Policy Center. Retrieved March 11, 2009.
  20. U.S. Treasury Department July 13, 1995, Memorandum to the Press "Weapons Possessed by the Branch Davidians".
  21. Office of Special Investigations, U.S. General Accounting Office, Briefing Paper: Criminal Activity Associated with .50 Caliber Semiautomatic Rifles, Number, presented to GAO/OSI-99-15R of the U.S. House Committee on Government Reform, 15 July, 1999, Page 5 [4].
  22. Tabor and Gallagher, 4-5.
  23. See, for example, Tabor and Gallagher, 6-16, which describes Koresh's interpretation of the increasingly violent pressure exerted on his community by the federal law enforcement officials.
  24. House investigators determined that "someone" at BATF lied to the military about the Davidians being involved with drugs in order to get U.S. Army Special Forces and other military aid, in violation of the Posse Comitatus Act. Subcommittee on National Security, International Affairs, and Criminal Justice of the Committee on Government Reform and Oversight and the Subcommittee on Crime of the Committee on the Judiciary at the Oversight Hearings on Federal Law Enforcement Conduct in Relation to the Branch Davidian Compound near Waco, Texas, and appended documents, Congressional Record, July, 1995
  25. The conversation is replayed in full, and undisputed by the FBI, on the documentary "Waco: The Rules of Engagement" [5]somford intertainment. Retrieved March 11, 2009.
  26. [6]. austinchronicle. Retrieved March 11, 2009.
  27. Katherine Ramsland, David Koresh: Millenniel Violence crimelibrary.com. Retrieved March 11, 2009.
  28. Thibodeau and Whiteson, 267.
  29. See for example: Interim Report to the Deputy Attorney General, a, Final Report, b, c, DallasNews.com. d, and Lena Klasén, Investigative image processing, e. Retrieved March 11, 2009.
  30. Final Report to the Deputy Attorney General, [7] Retrieved March 11, 2009.
  31. Thibodeau and Whiteson, 268-269.
  32. Thibodeau and Whiteson, 268-269.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Anthony, D. and T. Robbins. 1997, "Religious totalism, exemplary dualism and the Waco tragedy." In Robbins and Palmer. 1997, 261–284.
  • Docherty, Jayne Seminare. Learning Lessons From Waco: When the Parties Bring Their Gods to the Negotiation Table. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2001. ISBN 0815627513.
  • Heymann, Philip B. (U.S. Department of Justice). Lessons of Waco: Proposed Changes in Federal Law Enforcement. Washington, DC: USDOJ, 1993. ISBN 0160429773.
  • Kerstetter, Todd. "'That's Just the American Way': The Branch Davidian Tragedy and Western Religious History," Western Historical Quarterly 35 (4) (Winter 2004).
  • Kopel, David B., and Paul H. Blackman. No More Wacos: What’s Wrong With Federal Law Enforcement and How to Fix It. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1997. ISBN 1573921254.
  • Lewis, James R., ed. From the Ashes: Making Sense of Waco. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1994. ISBN 0847679152.
  • Linedecker, Clifford L. Massacre at Waco, Texas: The Shocking Story of Cult Leader David Koresh and the Branch Davidians. New York: St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 1993. ISBN 0312952260.
  • Lynch, Timothy. No Confidence: An Unofficial Account of the Waco Incident. Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 2001.
  • Moore, Carol. The Davidian Massacre: Disturbing Questions Abut Waco Which Must Be Answered. Virginia: Gun Owners Foundation, 1995. ISBN 1880692228.
  • Newport, Kenneth G. C. The Branch Davidians of Waco: The History and Beliefs of an Apocalyptic Sect. Oxford University Press, 2006. ISBN 0199245746.
  • Perry, Bruce D., and Maia Szalavitz. The Boy Who Was Raised As a Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist's Notebook: What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love and Healing. New York: Basic Books, 2007. ISBN 0465056520.
  • Reavis, Dick J. The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995. ISBN 0684811324.
  • Tabor, James D., and Eugene V. Gallagher. Why Waco?: Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. ISBN 0520201868.
  • Thibodeau, David, and Leon Whiteson. A Place Called Waco: A Survivor's Story. New York: Public Affairs, 1999. ISBN 1891620428.
  • Whitcomb, Christopher. Cold Zero: Inside the FBI Hostage Rescue Team. ISBN 0552147885. (Also covers Ruby Ridge.)
  • Wright, Stuart A., ed. Armageddon in Waco: Critical Perspectives on the Branch Davidian Conflict. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Legal and governmental

  • United States v. Branch, W.D. Texas Criminal Case No. 6:93cr46, trial transcript 1/10/94 - 2/26/94; 91 F.3d 699 (5th Cir. 1996)
  • United States v. Castillo, 179 F.3d 321 (1999); Castillo v. United States, 120 S.Ct. 2090 (2000); on remand, 220 F.3d 648 (5th Cir. 2000)
  • Andrade v. United States, W.D. Texas Civil Action No. W-96-CA-139, trial transcript 6/19/2000 - 7/14/2000; 116 F.Supp.2d 778 (W.D. Tex. 2000)
  • Andrade v. Chojnacki, 338 F.3d 448 (5th Cir. 2003)
  • United States Department of Justice. Recommendations of Experts for Improvements in Federal Law Enforcement After Waco. Washington, DC: USDOJ, 1993. ISBN 0160429749.
  • Ammerman, Nancy T. 1993. "Report to the Justice and Treasury Departments regarding law enforcement interaction with the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas." Submitted September 3, 1993. in Recommendations of Experts for Improvements in Federal Law Enforcement After Waco. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of the Treasury. Online
  • Stone, Alan A. 1993. "Report and Recommendations Concerning the Handling of Incidents Such As the Branch Davidian Standoff in Waco Texas." Submitted November 10, 1993. in Recommendations of Experts for Improvements in Federal Law Enforcement After Waco. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Online. PBS.org.
  • Final Report to the Deputy Attorney General concening the 1993 confrontation at the Mt. Carmel Complex, Waco, Texas. John C. Danforth, Special Council, (November 8, 2000)
  • Committee on the Judiciary (in conjunction with the Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, House of Representatives, 104th Congress, Second Session. Materials Relating to the Investigation Into the Activities of Federal Law Enforcement Agencies Toward the Branch Davidians. Washington, DC: USGPO, 1997). ISBN 0160552117. Online.


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