In May 1992, the McLennan County Texas Sheriff Department provided information to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) that a religious group known as the Branch Davidians had received large shipments of firearms, inert grenades, and black powder. This was discovered after a UPS driver by the name of Larry Gilbreath accidentally opened a box containing hand grenades prior to delivery to the Mount Carmel Centre Ranch (the headquarters of the Davidians). Over the next several months, ATF agents began to talk to former Davidians, recruited confidential informants, looked at the UPS shipment records, and concluded that the Davidians has indeed produced, and continued to manufacture, illegal weapons and explosives. During this time, the ATF also learnt that Koresh and his followers harboured strong anti-government views, that he was expecting a confrontation with the federal government, and that he and his followers viewed such a confrontation as a means to religious salvation.
In December of 1992, the ATF began an undercover operation intended to gain more evidence that the Davidians had violated federal firearms laws. They rented a house just over a quarter of a kilometre away from Mount Carmel, and several agents posing as students made contact with the Davidians who worked in and around Waco. One of the agents named Robert Rodriguez made direct contact with Koresh and visited the Mount Carmel Complex many times.
On February 25 1993 the ATF obtained a warrant from the federal magistrate to arrest Koresh, and to search the Davidian complex and the surrounding 77 acres. The affidavit alleged unlawful possession of a destructive device and also contained discussion of alleged child abuse. Three days later, whilst the ATF were preparing to storm the complex, Rodriguez returned to Mount Carmel for one last time. He spoke to Koresh and learned that he knew about the planned execution of a warrant and that the operation had been compromised. Rodriguez left the complex and reported this information to his supervisors.
The Davidians were tipped off from a cameraman, Jim Peeler, who worked for a local TV station. On the day of the raid, he got lost trying to find the road leading to the compound. He stopped and asked directions from a postman, David Jones, who, unknown to Peeler, was a Branch Davidian. After speaking to Peeler, Jones immediately drove to Mount Carmel to warn the others of the imminent rating party.
Despite being informed that the Davidians knew the raid was coming, the ATF commander ordered that the raid go ahead, even though their plan was dependant on reaching the compound before the Davidians had time to arm themselves. At approximately 9:30am on February 28th, ATF agents left a staging area in cattle trailers en route for Mount Carmel. According to Davidians, Kathryn Schroeder, Victorine Hollingsworth, and Marjorie Thomas, several Davidian males, including Koresh, were armed and prepared to fire on the ATF agents as they exited their vechicles and approached the complex.
There is still some dispute as to who shot first, as ATF agents stated that they first heard shots coming from within the compound, whilst Branch Davidian survivors claimed that the first shots came from outside. Some believe that the first shots fired were by the ATF “dog team” sent to kill the dogs in the Branch Davidian kennel.
During the first minute of the gun battle, Koresh was hit in the gut on his left side, and Davidian, Wayne Martin, made his now famous call to the emergency services pleading for them to end the shooting. The Davidians took aim at all three Texas National Guard helicopters, which were intended to be used as a distraction, forcing them to land. Before a cease-fire could be arranged, the Davidians killed four and wounded twenty ATF agents. The ATF killed two and wounded five Davidians. At some point during or after the gun battle, the Davidians intentionally shot and killed three of their own at close range – Peter Hipsman, Perry Jones, and Winston Blake.
There was no dispute that the Davidians were prepared for a gun battle and had ATF significantly outgunned, however, this is not what you hear if you watch to Waco: The Big Lie or its sequel Waco II, The Big Lie Continues.
The ATF had the Branch Davidians under surveillance for over a month from the house across the street. They knew the land was completely flat. There could be no possibility of surprising the branch Davidians with a hundred men arriving in cattle cars visible from miles away. The treasury reported myths that ATF’s own public relations person, Sharon Wheeler, contacted several Dallas television stations several days before the raid. The Lie that the ATF lost the element of surprise was aided by the media. Whilst showing us this very edited piece of footage of the first day of the raid over and over, as an announcer would say the ATF was met with a hail of gunfire. And just incase you somehow hadn’t heard the ATF claim that the branch Davidians were waiting for the ATF, within a week after Mount Carmel was burned to the ground, NBC television aired the governments official propaganda as a movie showing Branch Davidians at all the windows with guns waiting for the ATF to arrive. – Waco II, The Big Lie Continues
There is a lot to counter here, starting with how and why the ATF planned to surprise the Davidians by rushing their compound.
The ATF had a few options for the manner in which it could have served the arrest and search warrant on Koresh. They could, for example, have arrested Koresh away from the Davidian residence, however, ATF Special Agent Philip Chojnacki (the overall commander of the raid) testified that undercover agents reported that Koresh rarely left the complex. This, however, was contradicted by David Thibodeau a man who lived at the complex but did not consider himself to be a Branch Davidian who said that Koresh was a regular jogger. A plan to surround the Mount Carmel complex and simply wait for Koresh to surrender was rejected because the ATF knew the Davidians had enough food and water to withstand a lengthy siege and they were worried about the possibility of mass suicide. The ATF did plan to lure Koresh away from the complex and arrest him by getting Joyce Sparks, a social worker who had conducted an earlier child protection investigation at the Branch Davidian residence, to arrange a meeting with him. While Sparks agreed to cooperate with the ATF, her supervisor refused to approve the ruse tactic. The ATF eventually abandoned the idea of trying to arrest Koresh outside the residence with their main reasoning being that their primary goal was to get inside and conduct a search. The ATF finally decided that a dynamic entry, which heavily relied on the element of surprise, would be the best option, even though they knew it was the most hazardous.
Because the land surrounding Mount Carmel was flat, the ATF decided to hide their agents in cattle trailers, which are quite common in Texas. This tactic had been used previously with great success in October 1992, when law enforcement personnel were able to make arrests and execute a search warrant on a group of heroin dealers operating from a remote 107-acre ranch in Texas without injury or incident. The ATF also planned for helicopters to provide a diversion by hovering a distance from the compound before the cattle trailers arrived. However, the entry teams, concealed in the cattle trailers, arrived at the compound more than 40 minutes after Koresh had received the tip, giving them time to prepare. The helicopters also approached the rear of the Compound at approximately the same time the trucks pulled along the front, and failed to create the intended diversion.
The ATF relationship with the press, and their reasoning for informing them about the raid, is not what most people believe it to be; solely a PR stunt to improve their image after the disaster which was Ruby Ridge.
In 1989, the ATF claimed that Randy Weaver sold them sawn-off shotguns and later, went on to use the charges brought against him as leverage to get him to act as an informant for their investigation into the Aryan Nations. It was later revealed that Weaver sawed off the tops of the shotguns after being persuaded by an ATF agent, making it entrapment. Weaver was arrested and charged, but when his court date was changed, allowing participants more travel time following a federal holiday, he was given a letter with the wrong date on. When he did not show up on the correct day, rather than waiting to see if he would arrive on the date which he was instructed to him, the U.S. Attorney’s Office issued an indictment for failure to appear. The case was then passed from the ATF to the Marshals Service, who were not informed that the ATF had attempted to solicit Weaver as an informant. This eventually lead to an eleven-day siege near Naples, Idaho, and the deaths of Deputy US Marshal, William Francis Began, Weavers’ son, Samuel, and Weavers’ wife, Vicki, who was shot holding her 10-month-old baby Elishaba in her arms. The incident would later be known as the Ruby Ridge siege. Whilst I am sure the ATF were hoping that the press coverage would help with their image after Ruby Ridge, the main reason they were in contact with them was to prevent the publication of the Sinful Messiah.
Even before the ATF began their inquiry into firearms and explosive violations at the Branch Davidian Compound, a local newspaper, the Waco Tribune-Herald, had been investigating Koresh and his followers. Journalists became intrigued by reports that Koresh proclaimed to be Jesus Christ, that their might be a mass suicide at the complex during passover, that they were stockpiling large amounts of weapons, and that children were being physically and sexually abused at the compound. By January of 1993, a series of articles titled “Sinful Messiah” had been drafted, but Tribune-Herald agreed to delay its publication after meeting with ATF agents to ensure the safety of the undercover agents at the compound, and the integrity of the investigation. In return, Tribune-Herald reporters would get “front-row seats” during the raid, however, relations between the ATF and the newspaper broke down over time, resulting in the publication of the first part of the Sinful Messiah on February 27, the day before the raid.
The article described child abuse at the Compound, saying that Koresh encouraged the whipping of children as young as eight months old, and alleged that Koresh had fathered children with 15 women, many underage, living at the compound. Waco : The Big Lie Continues is trying to insinuate that the press were unaware of the impending raid until Karen Wheeler contacted them, but this was not the case. It was somewhat an open secret among members of the press (not just those at the Tribune-Herald) that a raid was imminent, as they had been monitoring police radio, had informants working on the raid, and had contact with the American Medical Transport ambulance service, who told them that three ambulances had been put on standby for the date.
The made-for-television movie, ‘In the ‘Line of Duty: Ambush in Waco’ was broadcast just over a month after the Mount Carmel Centre Ranch burning to the ground, and not within the week, as the documentary, ‘Waco:The Big Lie’ would have you believe. The movie portrays the events leading up to the start of the siege and, considering its short production time, is actually very well made. The movie does use artistic licence to create a more compelling narrative, but gets a lot of the facts about the raid correct. Like the fact that the Davidians were waiting for the arrival of the ATF agents and that they were armed, which is not even disputed by surviving Davidians.
On a side note, the movie is worth a watch just to see the number of actors who would later appear in Star Trek. Neal McDonough (Lt. Hawk) and Jeri Ryan (Seven of Nine) have prominent roles, and Susanna Thompson (the Borg Queen) also makes a brief appearance.
In this blog post, I have stayed away from talking about whether the ATF used bad judgment with regards to the raid, instead focusing on misinformation spread about Waco. The reason I did this is because it is generally accepted that they should not have continued with the raid once they lost the element of surprise. It was this bad judgment that led to the siege, which I will cover in my next blog post.