Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

David Koresh: Millennial Violence

Both Sides Prepare

David Koresh, 1987
David Koresh, 1987

A number of people, both witnesses and historians, have tried to accurately document the facts of what happened on February 28th, 1993 in Waco, Texas in the clash between law enforcement and a religious group known as the Branch Davidians.  No one seems able to write about those events in an unbiased manner, since it seems that the whole thing was preventable. fEven the academics appear to have a cause, so it's difficult at times to piece together what actually happened and who was to blame. Was Koresh a manipulative psychopath who exploited an opportunity, as many FBI agents claim, or was he just a deluded religious leader whose private play was suddenly exposed on the world's stage?  Perhaps we'll never know.

Hostage negotiator Christopher Whitcomb, writing in Cold Zero, and true crime writer Clifford Linedecker in Massacre at Waco, Texas both present a chronology of the facts on that momentous Sunday morning.

Somewhere between 70 and 76 armed agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) prepared to move on a group of wooden buildings outside the central Texas town of Waco. Known as the Mount Carmel Center, the place was occupied by members of an apocalyptic religious group that was led by a man named David Koresh. Rumored to be stockpiled inside was an arsenal of explosives and weapons, some of which reportedly had been illegally converted to rapid-fire automatic.

That put them under the ATF's jurisdiction. A UPS driver had tipped off the government when a package bound for Mount Carmel had broken open to reveal casings for hand grenades.  While the group did earn money from gun sales and were legally allowed to trade in arms, it appeared that they weren't following protocol.  Some neighbors also reported a lot of target practice.

David Koresh's Branch Davidians compound, before the fire
The Branch Davidians compound,
before the fire

But there was more, too, which came out in the days ahead.  Linedecker claims that the local newspaper was running a series of articles about Koresh's dubious activities, entitled "The Sinful Messiah," based on accounts by defectors like Marc Breault, who later authored Inside the Cult. Breault had hired detectives to snoop around and when contacted by the ATF, he supplied a number of detailed descriptions of his former associates.  He denounced Koresh, speaking of child abuse and polygamy.

Thanks to some of these leads, the ATF set up several agents to act as college students interested in Koresh's teachings. They moved into a house nearby and came over to visit.  Catherine Wessinger, a religious scholar at Loyola University who penned How the Millennium Comes Violently, claims that they never fooled the Davidians. 

Then that February 28th morning, a reporter asked for directions from a person who was connected to the Davidians, and that person alerted Koresh. At the time, one of the ATF agents was at Mount Carmel, and he left in a hurry.  That behavior alerted Koresh, who was already aware that people had been asking questions about him. The agent who left called the ATF commander to let him know that the Davidians were aware of their approach. There was no more secrecy.

In fact, there never really had been. Since reporters either accompanied the agents or arrived before them at the target area, clearly they'd been alerted. Linedecker, writing from the ATF's point of view, said that it seemed early enough in the day to the commanders that surprise was still on their side.  Besides, it was Sunday and the guns were supposedly locked up for the day of prayer. So the agents got into a convoy and drove out to the barren grounds to serve their warrants and seize any illegal items. A Blackhawk helicopter from the Texas National Guard accompanied them, along with two others belonging to the ATF.

Everyone was aware of the potential risk. Koresh's paranoia about the government as the agent of Satan didn't help matters, because the ATF's advance only proved the truth of his prophecies: they would be attacked by the Babylonians. Even so, no one anticipated what actually happened.


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