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    The Noisy Echoes of Waco

    Written by

    McLean Gordon


    This week, a day after a tragic explosion at a fertilizer plant in a small town near Waco, Texas, police in Dallas arrested husband and wife Eric and Kim Williams for the revenge slayings of three people. The victims, who included two Texas prosecutors, had previously sentenced Mr. Williams to two years probation for his involvement in white collar theft. Police drew the final line linking Mr. and Mrs. Williams to the shootings when they followed a tip and found a storage unit full of guns and a Crown Victoria matching video from the scene of the crime.

    A cache of guns, law enforcement officers shot dead, fire: the echoes are loud. Twenty years ago yesterday, another incident in North Texas involving a cache of guns devolved into a scene of terror as more than seventy followers of the controversial Branch Davidian Church perished in a conflagration at their compound outside of Waco. With all the innuendo of sexual deviance swirling around their infamous leader David Koresh, the innocent Branch Davidians who died that day have all but fallen out of history, too, easily dismissed as cult-worshipping zombies.

    The general consensus on the Branch Davidians goes so far as implying that they had it coming. But hey, just because someone preaches the coming of the apocalypse doesn't mean they should die in a holocaust.

    The final confrontation of April 19, 1993—the date chosen by the F.B.I. for a hard end to the standoff—was the grizzly denouement of a showdown between federal law enforcement and the Branch Davidians that had been unfolding for nearly two months. When it was over, a total of 76, including 20 children, would perish. Nine people would escape the flames; the remaining Branch Davidians were either buried alive by rubble, suffocated by the effects of the fire, or shot. Koresh was killed by gunfire, the F.B.I. concluded, apparently fired by his top aide, before he killed himself.

    The end began on February 28, when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms assaulted the compound at Mt. Carmel to execute a warrant pertaining to the illegal manufacture and possession of automatic weapons and grenades. Like Eric and Kim Williams, Koresh and his associates had a cache of guns, some of which they certainly weren't allowed to have. And they used those weapons to fight back; the gun battle lasted for 90 minutes, and killed four A.T.F. agents and wounded 20 others. At least two Davidians were killed by A.T.F. agents and several others, including Koresh, were wounded. 

    Two months later, after the final fiery siege, the F.B.I. would find a number of illegal weapons in the rubble: 2 .50 caliber weapons with armor-piercing ammunition; 46 semi-automatic firearms modified to fire in full automatic mode; grenade launcher parts; flare launchers; gas masks and chemical warfare suits; night vision equipment (this was legal); hundreds of practice hand grenade hulls and components; Kevlar helmets and bulletproof vests; and approximately 15 sound suppressors or silncers.

    However, unlike The Williamses, Koresh wasn't stockpiling weapons to assassinate people. According to journalist Dick Reavis, author of The Ashes of Waco, gun dealer Henry McMahon told A.T.F. investigators that Koresh was buying up semi-automatic weapons for commercial reasons. Koresh was in the business of selling guns:

    "Koresh had discovered that by tapping various suppliers, he could assemble, or technically "manufacture" AR-15's at a price that would undercut even gun show dealers. At the time, parts to build an AR-15 were selling for $400. Ready-to-use AR's were selling for about $600 at gun shows when Koresh proposed the scheme. Two years later, their price had shot to $1400, just as he predicted."

    Whatever his gun-dealing ambitions may have been, Koresh, née Vernon Howell—who claimed that he was the Lamb of God, drove a sports car and motorcycle, and had a rock band and a number of wives—also wanted to defend his church from an incursion by the authorities, one that he and his followers eventually came to see as preordained, a message from God. But it isn't clear that Koresh was looking for a violent, suicidal stand-off. After being implicated in a 1987 attempted murder charge, Koresh had a record of cooperating with local law enforcement. There were allegations that the compound was also the site of a meth lab, but no drugs were found on the premises; Koresh claimed that he had turned all drug-making materials over to the police.

    During the stand-off, an FBI agent posed on a captured Branch Davidian motorcycle outside the compound

    Prior to the first dramatic raid in February, which employed nearly 100 armed federal agents, A.T.F. investigators had received an invitation to visit Koresh, with assurance of his cooperation. In all likelihood, had the agents paid Koresh a cordial visit, he would have received them in a spirit of compliance. After the A.T.F.'s investigation into Koresh began, it had multiple chances to arrest Koresh outside of the compound. Instead, a 1995 Congressional report found that the A.T.F. began planning a military-style raid well before it began to thoroughly surveil the Davidians. And the report determined that A.T.F. commanders conducted the initial raid even though they knew that the Davidians would defend themselves, "thereby endangering the lives of the A.T.F. agents under their command and the lives of those residing in the compound." The report concluded that

    “the ATF was predisposed to using aggressive, military tactics in an attempt to serve the arrest and search warrant. The ATF deliberately chose not to arrest Koresh outside the Davidian residence and instead determined to use a dynamic entry approach. The bias toward the use of force may in large part be explained by a culture within ATF."

    The raid, codenamed "Showtime," was thought by some A.T.F. agents to be a publicity stunt after years of bad P.R. (60 Minutes had recently done a segment on sexual harassment at the agency), and just before March budget hearings. In his report on Waco, Mike Wallace noted that “almost all the agents we talked to said they believe the initial attack on that cult in Waco was a publicity stunt — the main goal of which was to improve A.T.F.'s tarnished image.” Ultimately, Congress determined that the A.T.F.'s handling of its investigations and its subsequent raid were "grossly incompetent." 

    The F.B.I. also came in for harsh criticism from Congress. It found that the bureau, which had taken over command from the A.T.F. after the first raid, was urged by its negotiators not to use "tactical pressure" on the Branch Davidians, like cutting off electricity, or barraging the compound with bright lights and loudspeakers. Besides eroding valuable trust, these tactics, Bureau psychologist Peter Smerick warned, "might unintentionally make Koresh's vision of a fiery end come true."

    The F.B.I. agents in charge disregarded his advice. On Sunday, March 21, two weeks after they cut the compound's power, the F.B.I. wheeled in loudspeakers. Among the noises they played, according to the Congressional report:

    the sounds of dentists' drills, locomotives, helicopters hovering, loud obnoxious music, Christmas songs, Tibetan Buddhist chants, previously recorded negotiations, squawking birds, cows mooing, clocks ticking, telephone busy signals, and the cries of rabbits being killed.

    During hostage negotiations, tensions between police negotiators and police S.W.A.T. teams can sometimes be beneficial, akin to the good cop-bad cop dynamic of police interrogations. To F.B.I. negotiators at Waco, the FBI's tactical maneuvers became a liability, sowing the seeds of distrust with the Davidians. A few hours after the speakers were switched on, Koresh told the FBI: "Because of the loud music, nobody is coming out." Besides the exit two days later of one Davidian, Livingstone Fagan (Vice interviewed him three years ago in prison), the remaining Davidians would stay behind. Many of them would die from gunshots and fires inside the compound during the final raid on April 19.

    "It is difficult to imagine," reads the Congressional report, "that use of tactical force could be a beneficial tool with those whom experts say should be treated with caution and conciliation... any consequences of aggressive movements on the part of FBI were not ones it intended." But they were predicted. "I do not awake from nightmares or have trouble sleeping at night," Gary Noesner, who was the FBI's Chief Negotiator at Waco, told Congress, "because everything that I predicted would happen, did happen."

    In its own report on the siege, the F.B.I. concluded that it was the A.T.F. who had provoked the Davidians, prompting their "defensive violence." "The 1993 clash in Waco, Texas at the Branch Davidian complex is an illustration of such defensive violence. History has shown that groups that seek to withdraw from the dominant culture seldom act on their beliefs that the endtime has come unless provoked.”

    Since 1993, when 70 percent of Americans said they approved of the government's actions at Waco, public opinion has shifted significantly. The massive fire that ended the F.B.I.'s siege and killed 76 people has been a special point of contention, and not just for conspiracy theorists. A Time poll conducted on August 26, 1999 found that 61 percent of Americans believed that law enforcement officials started the conflagration that gutted the Branch Davidian complex.

    A second independent investigation, completed in 2000 and ordered by Attorney General Janet Reno, determined that the idea had no merit, that it had been the Branch Davidians who started the fires. Still, the report found that, despite years of denial, the F.B.I. had used military-style CS tear-gas projectiles that day, munitions that were later banned under a 1997 chemical weapons treaty. The last major public opinion poll about Waco, conducted by CBS News in 2009, found that 43 percent of Americans disapprove of the government's actions that day, up from 27 percent in 1993. Sixty-two percent of Americans, according to the poll, believe there was a government cover-up at Waco. That's just shy of the 67 percent who that believe in a J.F.K. assassination conspiracy.

    The government's actions aside, had Koresh not been stockpiling automatic weapons (and running a sex cult), we wouldn't be talking about Waco today. And yet the suspicion of government that he and his terrible ending left behind has only helped to fuel the gun debate. One sticking point of gun rights advocates (including those who like to print out their guns) is the right to resist tyranny in all of its forms. How one defines tyranny is an open question. To some, it's the prospect of a gun registry, a prospect that helped foiled attempts to pass a gun control bill this week. In the case of a cold blooded murderer like the North Texas revenge killer, tyranny was as simple as the rule of law. The law had a problem with him, so he shot the law. 

    For Koresh and the Branch Davidians, things aren't quite so cut and dry. He had to be stopped, but not the way he was stopped. The assault on the compound would become a symbol of government malfeasance to some, a symbol of gun and individual rights to others. And it would also be one of the major motivations for the Oklahoma City bombing two years later. In the end, in that messy, hellish siege, Koresh would perish watching at least part of his vision come true, as some kind of terrible martyr.