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David Koresh, a self-styled messiah, led a smallish cult called the Branch Davidians in a compound just outside of Waco, Texas, a splinter of the Seventh Day Adventists with interests in the miraculous revival of the dead (a.k.a. "the power") and physical presence in Israel/Palestine at the time of the Second Coming. Koresh was in many ways the European image of the quintessential contemporary American: a heretical Christian, an anti-government gun nut, and set on going his own way. Statistically, he was not a typical American but stereotyping is just too much fun.
These events—a bungled arrest, a siege, and a subsequent disastrous fire—are fodder for conspiracy theorists. The word "Waco" has become synonymous with an epic disaster on the part of federal law enforcement.
For Koresh and his followers, the contents of his gun collection overstepped the bounds of what is legal, even in the U.S. This meant machine guns, explosives and assault weapons. Locals had heard fully automatic fire from AR-15s, and a UPS driver had reported black powder and grenade casings inside a broken package that had some other legal and illegal gun parts. This brought the attention, ire, and wrath of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) down on him. He also exhibited the sexual predation common to leaders in many cults. Koresh fathered children with several female followers and was alleged to have been in relationships with underaged girls.
The bungled arrest, followed by more crime
The ATF made a terrible tactical error, and instead of asking the local sheriff what supermarket they could probably pick Koresh up at, they stealthily sneaked up onto the roof of the compound one "night" at 9:45 AM. Koresh and his buddies did the natural thing when encountering nighttime intruders on private property in Texas: they shot them. Precisely why isn't known — Koresh did not answer calls for an interview — but it can be assumed that it was a case of mistaken identity. Now that there were dead cops in the story, things got out of control.
A siege was initiated on February 28th, 1993. For 51 days, while the nation was transfixed by the story of the cop-killer, the feds set up various attempts to drive Koresh and his followers out of the compound. Loud music was blared at them. Bad movies saturated their cable stations. Demands for surrender were blared through loudhailers.
Aware that this delicate situation demanded finesse, the government forces stormed the compound with a tank-mounted battering ram, and shot tear gas inside. A fire started, which disastrously consumed the compound and most of the people inside.
At the time, the Attorney General was Janet Reno (named for the "biggest little city in America"). Since wingnuts hated anything Clinton and anything gun control, she was demonized for bungling the confrontation, and the term "jack-booted thug" became popular with some talk radio hosts to refer to government employees. While they may not have been willing to actually side with Koresh, they sure weren't on Reno's or the federal government's side.
Inquiries and trials
Various investigations and court cases attempted to figure out what had happened before and during the siege. Questions included who shot first in the initial encounter and who had started the fatal fire. Were the mysterious flashes seen on film of the final assault produced by incendiary weapons, gunshots, or reflected sunlight?
- A 1993 inquiry found that ATF agents had lied about the operation; director Stephen E. Higgins took early retirement, and 5 other agents jumped or were pushed.
- 11 surviving cult members went on trial in 1994. They were all cleared of the most serious charges of conspiracy and murder, though 6 were convicted of voluntary manslaughter or weapons offences. The prosecution failed to prove who had fired the first shot, suggesting it was possible the Branch Davidians had acted in self-defence. Janet Reno admitted, "The verdicts show the deaths were unjustified".
- John Claggett Danford (a former Missouri attorney general and Republican senator and later briefly George W Bush's ambassador to the UN) was appointed by Janet Reno to investigate. He concluded in 2000 that federal agents were not to blame and the Branch Davidians had burned down their own compound. However his focus was on the facts of the case, not whether the ATF had been idiots.
- Also in 2000, survivors lost a wrongful death suit brought against the US government. The jurors found that excessive force was not used in the attack, but the court didn't consider whether the ATF's choice of armed raid over low-profile pick-up was itself excessive.
The incident was one of the influences that inspired the rabid anti-government philosophy of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols which led to their bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, resulting in the deaths of 168 people, on the anniversary of the deaths which occurred there (great, more death). McVeigh had visited Waco during the standoff, later returning numerous times (including before the bombing) and had spoken out in anger at the government siege.
South Park Episode #308, Two Guys Naked In a Hot Tub, featured the ATF aiming their guns at a house owned by Mr. Mackey. Inside the house was a party held to celebrate a meteor shower, and the only major problem was that the adults were profoundly drunk. The captain of these ATF agents was stubbornly convinced that the party was instead some sick cult that planned to commit mass suicide when the meteor shower happened. This misconception by the ATF captain proved to be a spoof of the Branch Davidians cult. They opened fire on everyone who stepped out the front door, killing 7 or 8 people who left the party. They even fired at 4 children (Stan, Butters, Dougie, and Pip), but missed. Later on, the ATF wheeled in two giant loudspeakers, and did what the ATF said they did in Waco. They then played a garbled version of "Believe" by Cher. The ATF captain said if that didn't drive them out, nothing would. In their drunken state, the partygoers enjoyed the song. The four boys went to great lengths trying to prove to the obstinate ATF captain that it was just a normal party, with nothing out of the ordinary (with the possible exception of the punch's alcoholic potency), shooting a video with Dougie reporting on the nature of the events within the house, Pip helped Butters deliver the videotape to the established news reporter outside. Just then, the Negotiator (a powerful missile) was being called off, but the fuse had already been lit. 4 houses on the adjacent hill were blown to smithereens. The ATF captain pretended to congratulate his agents on a successful "simulation", then hightailed it out of there.
- There has been debate about whether the tear-gas canisters were flammable or not.
- A few survived and were later convicted of manslaughter and weapons charges.
- We stress "may not" because whenever they talk about Waco today, the rants are almost fully focused on Reno, as opposed to the extremist responsible for pushing it too far in the first place.
- Trial Begins for 11 Davidians Charged in Waco Murder Conspiracy, LA Times, 10 January 1994
- FBI humiliated by Waco verdict, Independent (UK), 28 February 1994
- Inquiry clears FBI of Waco blame, BBC, 21 July 2000
- Mr. Danforth's Verdict on Waco, New York Times, July 25, 2000
- What the Waco jury never heard, Stuart A. Wright, Houston Chronicle, July 23, 2000