Although their sect began almost 50 years before the Waco siege, it was this horrific scene that brought the Branch Davidians into our news papers and television. The ATF raid on the Davidian compound ‘Mount Carmel Centre’ lasted for 50 days and ended with the religious group and their children burning to death.
The infamous siege stirred a mass debate across the world, casting a shadow over the entire Davidian history and doctrine. Were the ATF to blame for the deaths of this group? Did the Davidians kill themselves?
History of the Branch Davidians
Originally a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church member and Sabbath School teacher, Victor Houteff brought his followers to Waco Texas in 1935. He claimed to receive a message from God, and wrote that message into a book entitled The Shepherd’s Rod: The 144,000—A Call for Reformation. The Seventh-day Adventists rejected this book, declaring that it went against the fundamental teachings of their religion.
After setting up in Waco Texas, the newly founded religious group named themselves the Shepherd’s Rod Seventh Day Adventists and quickly established headquarters in their new home. Living on the outskirts of Waco in small cottages, these people studied the Bible as the literal truth, particularly The Book of Revelations. It was 1942 that saw the further name change for the group to the General Association of Davidian Seventh Day Adventists, and the formalisation of the legal rights as a religious organisation.
The group believed that God had sent a second living being down to earth as his Son, and that man was the group leader: Victor Houteff. After his death in 1954, the Davidians gathered together at Mount Carmel in preparation for what they deemed to be the beginning of the Seven Seals, as described in The Book of Revelations. Group spokesman Dudley Coff made a public statement which declared:
“We feel that the world conditions are such in align with the prophecy, that all nations must soon gather for the battle… we expect the final battle to take place in the spring.”
The Davidian numbers began to drop, but the a core of the members remained, led mainly by Ben Roden under the new title of General Association of Branch Davidian Seventh Day Adventists. He remained the leader of the group until 1977, when his wife Lois claimed to have received her own message from God. Claiming that the Holy Spirit was in fact female, Lois created much controversy and angered many group members, including her son, but she remained their leader none-the-less. The following year, husband and former leader Ben Roden died. A huge debate took place between Lois and her son George, who was claiming he was the rightful heir and prophet to the religious organisation. Lois Roden stood firm and finally won the battle with her son, issuing a permanent injunction against him, forbidding him to act as group leader.
Vernon Howell, later known as David Koresh, joined the group in 1983 where he offered his mechanical knowledge to fix vehicles and other machinery. Gaining the trust of Lois Roden, he was allowed to begin teaching his own message to the group which gained him the support of many group members. The following year, the Branch Davidians decided to split the group into separate factions, and this included a faction for Vernon Howell and his new found followers. The son of Lois, George Roden then forced Howell and his followers off the Mount Carmel property, and they eventually ended up residing in Palestine, Texas.
Before and after the death of Lois Roden in 1986, a series of court battles took place to establish who was the formal leader of the group. Whilst Vernon Howell ultimately won the battle, he did not enforce his leadership until Lois died. During this period, both Vernon Howell and George Roden engaged in several disputes that resulted in a military style assault in Mount Carmel, with Howell’s party as the victors. George was soon taken out of the fight for leadership as he was convicted of murder and sent to prison (from an unrelated incident.)
Vernon Howell was now the undisputed leader of the Davidians, and legally changed his name to David Koresh, and continued as leader until the day of his death on April 19th 1993.
There have been numerous leaders of the Branch Davidians, and each of them has taught their own message to their people. The religious doctrine of the group has been changed and adapted according to the current leader, leading to a very conflicting doctrine. One belief which withstood the leadership changes was that there was to be a final battle between God’s men and the men of evil.
The initial founder of the breakaway sect, Victor Houteff, claimed that he was God’s representative on earth, and preached of his prophecy to the followers who left the Seventh-day Adventists Church in 1935 with him. When Victor Houteff died, it was thought that Ben Roden was the next prophet, followed by his wife, Lois. She preached her message that the Holy Spirit was female in gender, and whilst this upset some of her followers, she attracted a lot of positive attention for the religious sect.
Although the Son of the Rodens, George claimed to be the next prophet, Vernon Howell (Koresh) did also. The battle was eventually won by Howell, and his new way of teaching was now the doctrine of the Branch Davidians. The Davidian doctrine is based heavily around the notion of the Seven Seals, a phrase which is used within the Book of Revelations dictating the Apocalypse. David Koresh and his people believed that he was the Seventh Seal, the final messenger/ prophet from God before the battle between good and evil. David Koresh and his followers believed that God chose him to be the modern Cyrus (Ancient King who freed God’s people, the Babylonians.)
Whilst celibacy was an imperative aspect to the doctrine, as the Seventh Seal, David Koresh was to sow his seed, and produced 24 children. In their prophecy, these children would go on to be the rulers of the Earth after the Apocalypse has taken place. They would be the beginning of the new Eden, and therefore procreation was deemed necessary for Koresh for the survival of mankind.
The beliefs which the Seventh-day Adventists Church, and all factions of the Branch Davidians have in common are as follows:
- Saturday is the 7th day of the week, and, thus, the Sabbath of the Bible. That it is both a memorial of creation and a sign of sanctification, a sign of the believer’s rest from his own works of sin, and his entrance into the rest of the soul which Jesus promises to those who come to Him.
- Jesus Christ is to soon return to earth to gather his selected few and take them to heaven for 1000 years, after which he will return with them to this earth to dwell with them for eternity in his kingdom.
- The non-immortality of the soul. That is, the dead have no consciousness, nor being.
- There shall be a resurrection of both the just and of the unjust. The resurrection of the just will take place at the second coming of Christ; the resurrection of the unjust will take place 1000 years later, at the close of the millennium.
- There is a sanctuary in heaven in which Christ is ministering on behalf of mankind.
- There is an investigative judgement going on in the heavenly sanctuary that began on October 22, 1844 to determine who will come forth in each of the resurrections, and who will be translated without seeing death at the second coming of Christ. That said judgement began with the records of those who had died, and would eventually pass to the living.
- That the “mark of the beast”(Rev. 13:16–18) will be a universal decree enforcing the commandments and doctrines of men in opposition to those of the Bible, being primarily Sunday laws.
- The believer should recognize his body as the temple of the Holy Spirit, and thus the believer will be led to abstain from all intoxicating drinks, tobacco, and all other narcotics, and from unclean meats – vegetarianism being the optimal dietary practice.
- The doctrines that distinguish the Davidian and Branch reform movements from the mainline SDAs are:
- The Davidian and The Branch messages both teach that the gift of prophecy is so important in the church that the president of the association must be endowed with it. Though the Davidians recognize that Victor Houteff possessed the said gift, they teach that no one will come with that gift again until the “special resurrection” at which time both Ellen White and he will take up their work again. However, The Branch Davidians hold different views to Houteff’s teaching on the matter. Unlike the Davidian belief , the Branch believe that the gift of prophecy was given to Ben Roden after Houteff’s death, and then was passed onto Lois Roden after Ben Roden’s death.
- The church will be purified by the removal of the “tares”, fitting her for the final work of evangelism.
- After the purification of the church, the saints will return to the promised land where Christ will establish his kingdom wherein the 144,000, those who follow the Lamb “withersoever He goeth”,shall stand with Him on Mt. Zion, and bring in “a great multitude, which no man could number”, and there “receive the forces of the GentiIes.” The kingdom there will exist for a short period of time as a final witness to the world before Christ comes in the clouds of heaven to take the great multitude of living and resurrected saints with him for 1000 years, during which time the saints will determine the degree of punishment due the unrepentant, and the earth will be dark and void, with Satan and his angels bound on earth for a 1000 years.
- Total abstinence from all flesh foods, in preparation for the return to the Edenic state of the kingdom.
- All of the Biblical feast days and practices the early church kept, and which were taken away from her in the centuries following the death of the apostles through the influence of pagan thinking supplanting the simplicity of the Gospel will be restored to the church, include the true keeping of the Lord’s Supper. The Branch teaches that the time has come for the restoration of those feasts, the Davidians don’t.
Branch is the group’s belief that Branch is Jesus’ new name.
Davidian reflects their belief in the restoration of the Davidic kingdom in Israel before Christ’s second coming in the clouds of heaven.
David: To pay homage to King David.
Koresh: The literal translation of King Cyrus.
Controversy leading up to the 1993 Waco Siege
The main controversy began under the leadership of David Koresh. Whilst there were reports of group members donating all of their money to the group, there was nothing illegal about them for decades.
It was the early 1990’s when residents of the town Waco began reporting what they believed to be the sounds of automatic weaponry being fired at the Mount Carmel Compound. It was legal to own as many semi-automatic weapons as a person wanted, but fully automatic weapons were against the law, unless a permit had been issued. The law enforcements suspected the Branch Davidians were converting their stockpile of semi-automatic weapons into automatics, but had no solid proof at the time.
This attracted negative attention towards the group, and their leader and his morals began to come under scrutiny. Allegations of sexual abuse and under-age marriage rose to the media’s attention, and the group became renowned as the cult in Waco. In June 1992, a major investigation was launched into the activities of David Koresh, including ATF surveillance (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) and the undercover infiltration into the group.
It was February 1993 that the ATF concluded they had enough evidence against Koresh to mount a raid on Mount Carmel to locate his weaponry and arrest him. A plan was put into action to exercise a search warrant on February 28 February, using the element of surprise against Koresh and his followers.
The Waco Siege
On February 28 1993, one of the longest and bloodiest sieges began at the Mount Carmel Compound in Waco, Texas. It lasted for 50 days and killed 74 people, many of whom were members of the Branch Davidians, including their leader, David Koresh. Accounts from witnesses vary from the first day of the siege to the final, making the truth a matter of perspective.
Official account according to the State
Several hours before the raid was due to take place, the undercover ATF agent Robert Rodriguez was directed to enter the Davidian compound to double check everything was okay and as it should be. On his arrival into the group, Rodriguez was made to wait to speak with David Koresh. During the time he was waiting, Koresh had just found out about the impending raid. A reporter who had been tipped off had got lost in the area, and stopped to ask the local postman for directions. This postman happened to be the brother-in-law of David Koresh, and informed him immediately.
Koresh came storming out from his office shouting at Rodriguez that he knew about the raid and his cover was blow. Quickly, the ATF agent fled the compound, and arrived back at the ATF base to inform his colleagues that the element of surprise had been lost – the plan was in ruins. Despite this warning, the 75 agents headed to the compound on schedule, and approached the front entrance, when they came under heavy gunfire. David Koresh and his men had come to the front door to the building and opened fire on the officers.
Three helicopters were scheduled to fly over the back of the compound precisely three minutes before the arrival of the ATF agents to distract the group members, but they were late, and soon shot at and were forced to land. For the first 15 to 20 minutes, the ATF agents attempted to carry out their original mission: To locate the armoury and to arrest the group leader, David Koresh. Due to the heavy gunfire and immediate deaths, this mission was quickly abandoned, and a military battle situation broke out. A Branch Davidian member was found by the ATF outside of the compound, trying to get in and he was shot on sight, where his body was forgotten about and left for five days. The gunfire between the Davidians and the ATF lasted for almost two hours. In this time, 10 people lost their lives, four of whom were ATF agents, the other six were Branch Davidians. A cease fire was finally called, and both sides retreated to tend to their dead and wounded.
Due to the failure of the ATF to carry out their search warrant, the case was passed to the FBI, who began negotiating with the groups leader, Koresh, and right-hand man, Steve Schneider. At first, the Davidians were allowed contact with the local media, giving telephone interviews about their group and what they stood for. This contact was soon cut off, and a group of 25 FBI negotiators took over. This began on a positive note for the FBI, who made a deal with David Koresh: He was to leave the compound peacefully with his followers, in exchange for a message from the Davidians to be played on national radio.
The message was recorded and played on the national radio on schedule, but when it came time for the group to come out, they did not. When contact was made with David Koresh, he told the FBI that he had received a message from God, telling him not to leave and to wait. The authorities were outraged, and they began to use more forceful techniques to get the group to leave the compound. Tactics such as playing loud music at night, the sounds of rabbits being slaughtered and shining lights through the windows were used, but all of the attempts failed. During this time, the FBI did manage to negotiate the release of 19 children, and they were taken away immediately and questioned.
The FBI gave the group access to a video camera, and allowed them to record messages as they wished. During this footage, group members explained that this was where they wanted to be, and they were happy and staying by their own free will. Received by the FBI on March 8th, the footage also showed 23 children who were still living in the compound, 14 of whom were alleged to be the children of David Koresh. He introduced his wives and his offspring to the camera and attempted to explain the teachings of his group. Koresh is clearly wounded in the video, and he showed the entry wound to the camera, saying he felt his death was near.
During the negotiations which followed the release of the video, the FBI claim that Koresh was constantly ‘buying himself more time.’ On one occasion, he claimed that God had finally sent him a command. He must write his teachings and knowledge of the Seven Seals, then exit the building peacefully with his followers. Believing this to be another delay tactic, the FBI came to the conclusion that the Branch Davidians would never come out of their own accord, and that even harsher tactics must be used. The FBI brought their evidence for the automatic weapons, alongside allegations of sexual abuse to President Bill Clinton as justification for a tear gas attack upon the compound, to drive the group members out.
Tanks and armed vehicles obtained by the U.S army began to circle the building, and snipers were placed in front of the building’s exists. M651 CS tear gas grenades were being loaded into the tanks, and they soon destroyed the outer fencing perimeter , running across a Davidian grave site at the same time, much to the horror of the Davidians and the negotiators. All power and water was then cut off from the building, plunging the group into darkness and forcing them to live off any U.S army ration packs they could find, alongside rain water. David Koresh eventually ordered a group of 11 followers to leave, and they were immediately arrested as material witnesses of murder.
Religious scholars contacted the FBI and explained that their findings and research of the Seven Seals and The Book of Revelations indicate that forceful action would actually fit in to their prophecy, and convince them that they are right in their beliefs, forcing them to defend themselves and perhaps even die for their doctrine.
As David Koresh gradually became more erratic during negotiations, several plans were made to use the snipers to kill him and other key members of the Davidians. These plans were not used however, and the FBI grew increasingly concerned that the group would commit mass suicide, just like The People’s Temple. Further allegations of sexual abuse were brought to the U.S Attorney General by the FBI, claiming Koresh was abusing children and beating babies, and finally the go ahead for the tear gas attack was fully granted.
On 19 April 1993, CEVs used bombs to pierce large holes into the building in order to pump CS gas through to the group and to flush them out. The FBI maintain that they did not use any other weaponry, and they asked the Davidians to ceasefire, although they did not. As punishment, the FBI pumped a larger amount of CS gas into the building from M79 grenade launchers.
Many of the women and children were hiding in the kitchen storage room, located on the first floor. It was reinforced with steel and was deemed the safest place in the building, but when the gas began to spread through the building, this room offered no ventilation for the women and children, and neither group had any gas masks. The FBI thought that this would force the motherly instinct to take over, and force the women and children out. Against their expectations, this did not happen, and after six hours, not one group member had left the building.
It was around midday when three simultaneous fires broke out on the Mount Carmel Compound. The FBI and the government clearly state that they did not start the fires, and that the Davidians had set the fire themselves in an attempt to kill themselves. The fires spread quickly around the building, preventing the group members from leaving and eventually the compound burned to the ground, killing everyone left inside. The majority of the members we either buried alive under the collapsing building, suffocated from the fumes of the fire or shot. The fire department arrived to extinguish the flames almost immediately after the building caught fire, but the FBI held them back in fear that they too would be shot at. In total 76 Davidians died, and only nine members survived the fire.
Branch Davidian/ Alternative perspective
The opposing perspective has been the cause of much debate, and questions the force used by both the ATF and the FBI.
David Koresh was alerted to the impending raid by his brother-in-law, who had been stopped by a reporter asking directions to the Mount Carmel Compound. According to Robert Rodriguez, the undercover agent, David Koresh was livid at him, and presumed he would be killed immediately as his cover was blown. The Davidians let him go and he immediately reported his findings to the ATF. Due to the heavy artillery kept at the compound, the operation was predominantly based around the element of surprise, so David and his men would not have time to reach their weapons. Now that this surprise factor was gone, Rodriguez presumed the siege would be postponed. No postponement was made, and the troops marched onwards to Mount Carmel.
Just before10.00am, a total of 25 armed ATF agents marched towards the compound, leaping out of cattle cars with their guns gripped in their hands. Upon entering the compound, a group of agents stormed to the Davidian pet shelter, where they shot all of their animals, many of which were puppies. David Koresh opened the front door and said:
“What are you doing? There’s women and children here.” Despite this, the ATF began firing rounds of ammunition at Koresh and his men, leaving bullet holes in the door and its surrounding wall. Evidence shows these bullets holes as pointing inwards, reflecting that the ATF did in fact fire at the very beginning of the raid. David Koresh was shot in the wrist, along with several other Davidian men. Realising this was now a battle situation, Koresh ordered the woman and children to stay in the rooms, and ordered his armed man to take up positions.
At this point, the ATF entered the building and were met with heavy gunfire resistance. They too fired back, and the battle began to take place within the walls of the compound. Five minutes into the raid, Branch Davidian Wayne Martin, calls 9-1-1 saying:
“Tell them there are women and children in here and to call it off! You’ve got to call it if and pull back.”
Despite this pleading for a ceasefire, the local Sheriff was not able to get in contact with the ATF at the scene for almost half an hour. Reports show that the ATF communications officer had in fact turned the radio off, allowing the gunfire to continue. Whilst the Branch Davidians scattered for shelter from the flying bullets and glass shards, a member named Michael Schroeder was outside of the compound, trying to get back in to his wife and children. Unknown at the time to the Davidians, he was shot six times outside Mount Carmel, and his body left there for days, unmoved by the ATF.
The intense shooting lasted for almost two hours before a ceasefire was called. Four ATF agents and six Branch Davidians were killed in the gunfire.
As the FBI took over the case from the ATF, negotiations began between the Davidians and the negotiation team. Progress was made almost instantly, as the FBI offered the religious group air time on national radio to convey their message in exchange for their peaceful exit from Mount Carmel. The Davidians sent out their message to the world, and the FBI waited for them to come out of the building. When it became clear that no one was leaving, as promised, the FBI contacted the Davidians asking them what was going on. They were greeted by Steve Schneider, who explained that David had received a message from God telling him to sit and wait. Whilst the FBI were livid, Schneider explained that they were simply following their chain of command, just as the negotiators must. “You said you wouldn’t turn off our lights, but you were over ruled from above.”
As frustration for the FBI mounted, they began resorting to harsher methods to bring out the group members. They began playing loud music at night times, alongside the sound of rabbits being slaughtered and shining lights into the window. All of these tactics were used to disturb the Davidians sleep, but the group claimed that very little thought was given to the children inside, who were already deprived of electricity and running water. The Davidians argue that the FBI had already deemed Koresh as mentally unstable, and a socio-path, so what did they hope to gain by pushing him even further?
The FBI gave The Branch Davidians a video camera to explain their situation in detail. The tape clearly shows an injured Koresh sat on the floor amongst his wives and children. The camera is then passed around the entire Davidian group, with members sitting coherently and alert, explaining to the world that they were not hostages of any kind. They were here out of their own freewill. Many went on to explain why they joined the Davidians, divulging their passion and interest in the Bible. They wanted to be somewhere that could provide a thorough study of the Bible, particularly of the Seven Seals, where they could live in peace with God. After realising that they were not safe in their current positions, the women retreated with their children to the kitchen storage room; a room with reinforced steel walls which was once used as a vault.
Just days before the 19 April, David Koresh announced that he had received his message from God. He declared that he was instructed to write down his knowledge of the Seven Seals, and then to leave the compound with his people peacefully. He wrote it in a letter and sent his lawyer to hand it to the FBI personally, who did so immediately. The FBI however, did not believe this and saw it merely as a delay tactic, and ignored it; proceeding with their new, final plan.
It was 6.00am on 19 April 1993 that U.S army tanks entered the Mount Carmel Compound perimeter and began inserting tear gas (CS gas) into the building. They fired the grenades through every window on the building, with full knowledge that many people were still hiding in their bedrooms. The FBI gassed Mount Carmel for over six hours, including the kitchen/ dining area and the storage room behind it. The the women and children were trapped in the storage room, which had no ventilation at all. For over six hours, the women tried to cover their children’s heads with wet blankets and clung to the floor in a futile attempt to prevent them breathing in the gas.
The FBI’s next tactic was to smash holes into the building, in order to provide exits for the group members. Many people argue that they were in fact opening the building up, ready to set it alight. By allowing the 25mph wind to flood through the building, it would burn a lot easier and quicker, which is exactly what happened. Three fires started out simultaneously around the Mount Carmel building, and combined with the mass amount of CS gas and Kerosene used by the tanks, the building quickly became surrounded in flames. The Fire engines turned up outside of the perimeter, but FBI officials held them back.
The FBI remain adamant that during the Waco siege, other than on the the first day, no shots were fired at the Davidians, and that they used restraint throughout. Experts supporting the Branch Davidians in the Waco siege deny this, shows the negotiation manuscript between the Davidians and FBI negotiator Jim Cavanaugh:
Cavanaugh: There were no helicopters shooting at you!
Koresh: You are a damn liar! Those helicopters were shooting at us!
Cavanaugh: Those helicopters didn’t have mounted guns okay? Now I’m not disputing the fact that there may have been fire from the helicopters – just not from mounted guns.
Koresh: The agents on the helicopters had guns.
Cavanaugh: They were armed.
The bodies that were found of the Davidians showed they all died from either suffocation due to smoke inhalation, gun shot wounds and severe mutilation, many argue by the tanks. The surviving Davidians also claim that there were armed agents with machine guns located at the back of the compound, preventing members leaving the burning building.
The FBI claim that on the same day of the fire, recordings were heard from inside the group discussing the pouring of fuel. This, they claim, is the primary evidence to support the idea that the group were going to kill themselves.
Many experts argue that the ATF acted irresponsibly from the beginning. The plans for the siege were in ruins before they even got to the compound, and when they did arrive they did nothing but torment, torture and eventually burn these people to their deaths. Others state that the Davidians acted in a hostile, warmongering attitude from the beginning and finally resulted in burning themselves and their children in an act of mass suicide.
Regardless of where the blame lies for this horrific event, the fact that 86 people lost their lives in the Waco disaster remains undisputed. A total of 76 Branch Davidians burned to death, whilst the fire department could only look on in misery at the lives melting away in front of them. This attempt at exercising a search warrant and arresting one man turned into a brutal warlike environment that will be remembered as one of the longest and harshest sieges that has ever taken place.