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David Koresh, the charismatic leader of Branch Davidians
The Waco siege was a siege of a compound belonging to the group Branch Davidians by American federaland Texas state law enforcement and US military between February 28 and April 19, 1993. The Branch Davidians, a sect that separated in 1955 from the Seventh-day Adventist Church, was led by David Koresh and lived at Mount Carmel Center ranch in the community of Elk, Texas, nine miles (14 kilometers) east-northeast of Waco. The group was suspected of weapons violations, causing a search and arrest warrant to be obtained by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
This compound belonging to the group Branch Davidians by American federaland Texas state law enforcement and US military between February 28 and April 19, 1993. The Branch Davidians, a sect that separated in 1955 from the Seventh-day Adventist Church, was led by David Koresh and lived at Mount Carmel Center ranch in the community of Elk, Texas, nine miles (14 kilometers) east-northeast of Waco. The group was suspected of weapons violations, causing a search and arrest warrant to be obtained by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
The incident began when the ATF attempted to raid the ranch. An intense gun battle erupted, resulting in the deaths of four government agents and six Branch Davidians. Upon the ATF’s failure to raid the compound, a siege was initiated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the standoff lasting 51 days. Eventually, the FBI launched an assault and initiated a tear gas attack in an attempt to force the Branch Davidians out of the ranch. During the attack, a fire engulfed Mount Carmel Center. In total, 76 people died,including David Koresh.
Much dispute remains as to the actual events of the siege. A particular controversy ensued over the origin of the fire; an internal Justice Department investigation concluded in 2000 that sect members themselves had started the fire. The events near Waco, and the siege at Ruby Ridge less than 12 months earlier were both cited as the primary motivations behind the Oklahoma City bombing that took place exactly two years later.
The Branch Davidians (also known as “The Branch”) is a religious group that originated in 1955 from a schism in the Seventh-day Adventist Church of the Shepherd’s Rod (Davidians), following the death of the Shepherd’s Rod founder Victor Houteff. Houteff founded the Davidians based on his prophecy of an imminent apocalypse involving the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and the defeat of the evil armies of “Babylon“.As the original Davidian group gained members, its leadership moved the church to a hilltop several miles east of Waco, Texas, which they named Mount Carmel, after a mountain in Israelmentioned in Joshua 19:26 in the Bible’s Old Testament. A few years later, they moved again to a much larger site east of the city. In 1959, the widow of Victor Houteff, Florence Houteff, announced that the expected Armageddon was about to take place, and members were told to gather at the center to await this event. Many built houses, others stayed in tents, trucks, or buses, and most sold their possessions.
Following the failure of this prophecy, which many attribute to Mrs. Houteff setting her own private date as to its fulfillment, control of the site (Mount Carmel Center) fell to Benjamin Roden, founder of the Branch Davidian Seventh-day Adventist Association (Branch Davidians). He promoted different doctrinal beliefs than Victor Houteff’s original Davidian Seventh-day Adventist organization. On Roden’s death, control fell to his wife, Lois Roden. Lois considered their son, George Roden, unfit to assume the position of prophet. Instead, she groomed Vernon Howell (later known as David Koresh) as her chosen successor. In 1984, a meeting led to a division of the group, with Howell leading one faction (calling themselves the Davidian Branch Davidians) and George Roden leading the competing faction. After this split, George Roden ran Howell and his followers off Mount Carmel. Howell and his group relocated to Palestine, Texas.
After the death of Lois Roden and probate of her estate in January 1987, Howell attempted to gain control of Mount Carmel Center by force. George Roden had dug up the casket of Anna Hughes from the Davidian cemetery and had challenged Howell to a resurrection contest to prove who was the rightful heir to the leadership. Howell instead went to the police and claimed Roden was guilty of corpse abuse, but the county prosecutors refused to file charges without proof. On November 3, Howell and seven armed companions attempted to access the Mount Carmel chapel, with the goal of photographing the body in the casket as evidence to incriminate Roden. Roden was advised of the interlopers and grabbed an Uzi in response. The Sheriff’s Department responded about 20 minutes into the gunfight, during which Roden was wounded. Sheriff Harwell got Howell on the phone and told him to stop shooting and surrender. Howell and his companions, dubbed the “Rodenville Eight” by the media, were tried for attempted murder on April 12, 1988; seven were acquitted and the jury was hung on Howell’s verdict. The county prosecutors did not press the case further. While waiting for the trial, Roden was put in jail under contempt of court charges because of his use of foul language in some court pleadings, threatening the Texas court with sexually transmitted diseases if the court ruled in favor of Howell. The next day, Perry Jones and a number of Howell’s other followers moved from their headquarters in Palestine, Texas, to Mount Carmel. In mid-1989, Roden used an axe to kill a Davidian named Wayman Dale Adair, who visited him to discuss Adair’s vision of being God’s chosen messiah. He was found guilty under an insanity defense and was committed to a mental hospital. Shortly after Roden’s commitment, Howell raised money to pay off all the back taxes on Mount Carmel owed by Roden and took legal control of the property.
On August 5, 1989, Howell released the “New Light” audio tape, in which he stated he had been told by God to procreate with the women in the group to establish a “House of David” of his “special people”. This involved separating married couples in the group and agreeing that only he could have sexual relations with the wives, while the men should observe celibacy. He also claimed that God had told him to start building an “Army for God” to prepare for the end of days and a salvation for his followers. Howell filed a petition in the Supreme Court of California on May 15, 1990, to legally change his name “for publicity and business purposes” to David Koresh; on August 28, he was granted the petition. By 1992, most of the land belonging to the group had been sold except for a core 77 acres (31 ha). Most of the buildings had been removed or were being salvaged for construction materials to convert much of the main chapel and a tall water tank into apartments for the resident members of the group. Many of the members of the group had been involved with the Davidians for a few generations, and many had large families.
“If you are a Branch Davidian, Christ liveson a threadbare piece of land 10 miles [16 km] east of here called Mount Carmel. He has dimples, claims a ninth-grade education, married his legal wife when she was 14, enjoys a beer now and then, plays a mean guitar, reportedly packs a 9 mm Glock and keeps an arsenal of military assault rifles, and willingly admits that he is a sinner without equal.”
— Opening passage of “The Sinful Messiah”, Waco Tribune-Herald, February 27, 1993
On February 27, 1993, the Waco Tribune-Herald began publishing “The Sinful Messiah”, a series of articles by Mark England and Darlene McCormick, who alleged that Koresh had physically abused children in the compound and had committed statutory rape by taking multiple underage brides. 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 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, and that some of these mothers became brides as young as 12 or 13 years old.
In addition to allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct, Koresh and his followers were suspected of stockpiling illegal weapons. In May 1992, Chief Deputy Daniel Weyenberg of the McLennan County Sheriff’s Department called the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) to notify them that his office had been contacted by a local UPS representative. A UPS driver described a package that had broken open on delivery to the Branch Davidian residence, revealing firearms, inert grenade casings, and black powder. On June 9, a formal investigation was opened and a week later it was classified as sensitive, “thereby calling for a high degree of oversight” from both Houston and headquarters. The documentary Inside Waco claims that the investigation started when in 1992 the ATF became concerned over reports of automatic gunfire coming from the Carmel compound. On July 30, ATF agents David Aguilera and Skinner visited the Branch Davidians’ gun dealer Henry McMahon, who tried to get them to talk with Koresh on the phone. Koresh offered to let ATF inspect the Branch Davidians’ weapons and paperwork and asked to speak with Aguilera, but Aguilera declined. Sheriff Harwell told reporters regarding law enforcement talking with Koresh, “Just go out and talk to them, what’s wrong with notifying them?” The ATF began surveillance from a house across the road from the compound several months before the siege. Their cover was noticeably poor (the “college students” were in their 30s, had new cars, were not registered at the local schools, and did not keep a schedule which would have fit any legitimate employment or classes). The investigation included sending in an undercover agent, Robert Rodriguez, whose identity Koresh learned, though he chose not to reveal that fact until the day of the raid.
Former Branch Davidian Marc Breault claimed that Koresh had “M16 lower receiver parts” (combining M16 trigger components with a modified AR-15 lower receiver is, according to ATF regulations, “constructive possession” of an unregistered machinegun; the manufacture of a firearm that would be classified as a machine gun; the Hughes Amendment to the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 outlawed civilian ownership of any newly manufactured machine guns manufactured after the date of enactment). According to the affidavit presented by ATF investigator David Aguilera to U.S. Magistrate Dennis G. Green on February 25, 1993, the Branch Davidian gun business, the Mag Bag, had purchased many legal guns and gun parts from various legal vendors, such as 45 semi-automatic AR-15 lower receivers from Olympic Arms. Deliveries by UPS for the Mag Bag were accepted and paid for at Mount Carmel Center by Woodrow Kendrick, Paul Fatta, David Koresh, or Steve Schneider. These purchases were traced by Aguilera through the normal channels used to track legal firearms purchases from legal vendors. None of the weapons and firearms were illegally obtained nor illegally owned by the Mag Bag; however, Aguilera affirmed to the judge that in his training and experience, in the past other purchasers of such legal gun parts had modified them to make illegal firearms. The search warrant was justified not on the basis of there being proof that the Davidians had purchased anything illegal, but on the basis that they could be modifying legal arms to illegal arms, and that automatic weapon fire had been reported from the compound.The affidavit of Aguilera for the search warrant claimed that there were over 150 weapons in the compound. The paperwork on the AR-15 components cited in the affidavit showed that they were in fact legal semi-automatics; however, Aguilera told the judge: “I have been involved in many cases where defendants, following a relatively simple process, convert AR-15 semi-automatic rifles to fully automatic rifles of the nature of the M-16.”Aguilera stated in the affidavit and later testified at trial that a neighbor had heard machine gun fire; however, Aguilera failed to tell the magistrate that the same neighbor had previously reported the noise to the local Waco sheriff, who investigated the neighbor’s complaint. Paul Fatta, who was also involved in the failed takeover of the group in 1987, told The New York Timesthat Koresh and he had visited the sheriff after “the group had been told by other neighbors that law-enforcement officials were asking to put recording devices on their property [and] Lieut. Gene Barber at the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office in Waco told the group that its weapons were legal.”
Using the affidavit filed by Aguilera that alleged 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 (Search Warrant W93-15M for the “residence of Vernon Wayne Howell, and others”, signed by U.S. Judge or Magistrate Dennis G. Green, dated 25 February 1993 8:43 pm at Waco, Texas). The search warrant commanded a search “on or before February 28, 1993” in the daytime between 6:00 am and 10:00 pm. ATF made a claim that David Koresh was operating a methamphetamine lab, in order to establish a drug nexus and obtain military assets under the War on Drugs. However, the evidence was stale, partly based on an unreliable “hot spot” detected by infrared surveillance, partly based on disgruntled ex-members who had left six years earlier, and it ignored all the evidence that the lab had been dismantled by Koresh when he took charge and had been given to the Sheriff for destruction. The commander of the Special Forces detachment questioned the request, and the ATF obtained only a training site at Fort Hood, Texas from February 25–27 with safety inspections for the training lanes, and was given only medical and communications training and equipment..