During the investigation of the Branch Davidians and the subsequent failed raid on the Mount Carmel Center (the Davidians’ headquarters), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) obtained assistance from the military. This support included the use of training facilities and equipment, advice concerning ATF’s medical and communications plans, aerial reconnaissance, and the use of helicopters during the raid. The ATF was able to get this support from the military due, in part, to providing “sufficient” evidence that Mount Carmel was a possible drug nexus. This evidence included a report from an undercover ATF agent that stated Koresh (the leader of the Davidians) had said that the compound would be a great place for a methamphetamine laboratory because of its location. The fact that there had previously been a methamphetamine laboratory on the site prior to Koresh becoming the group’s spiritual leader, which caused some confusion as to whether or not the equipment had been removed. The National Guard found a “hot spot”, which they believed indicated the presence of an active lab, and the AFT discovered that one of the Davidians had prior convictions for possession of amphetamines, and that several other Davidians had been arrested for drug violations.
No evidence of a methamphetamine laboratory was ever discovered, leading some to believe that the ATF fabricated information concerning drug use and production by the Davidians in order to obtain military support. However, according to the ‘Final report to the Deputy Attorney General concerning the 1993 confrontation at the Mt. Carmel Complex, Waco Texas’ (Also known as the “Danforth Report”), “there is no legal standard for how strong the drug nexus needs to be in order to obtain military support” and “there is no requirement that the military independently investigate the accuracy of the drug nexus alleged by a law enforcement agency soliciting military support”. It goes on to say that even if there had no evidence of any such nexus, that “law enforcement agencies could have obtained the same level of support from the armed forces”, but that it “may have been difficult (but not illegal)”.
The Texas National Guard supplied three helicopters and pilots, who were told that the helicopters were to be used as an airborne command platform and to transport ATF personnel and evidence on the day of the raid. However, the day before the raid, ATF officials informed the National Guard that the helicopters would, in fact, now be used to draw the attention of the Davidians away from agents arriving in cattle trailers.
The ATF raid plan was based on the the element of surprise yet, despite knowing in advance that the element of surprise was lost, the raid commanders made the decision to go forward. To make matters worse, on the day of the raid, the helicopters approached the rear of the compound at approximately the same time as the agents in cattle trailers pulled along the front, which failed to create the intended diversion. The helicopters were fired upon by the Davidians, forcing them to pull back, and causing two of them to land to inspect for damage. The third helicopter, although also struck by gunfire, was able to remain airborne, and circled overhead to watch for additional attacks. The Davidians alleged that the National Guard helicopter crew fired at them during the raid; something which both the ATF and the National Guard strongly deny. Nevertheless, the idea that those aboard the helicopters fired down at the Davidians below has become part of the accepted story by the general public, helped by documentaries like ‘Waco II, The Big Lie Continues’
‘Waco II, The Big Lie Continues’ is a sequel to ‘Waco, the Big Lie’, a documentary which gained significant notoriety when it was viewed during the trial of Timothy McVeigh as part of his defence. The documentary attempts to address some of the criticism that has been raised against the original, and presents more evidence to back up its claims. A rather large amount of the run time is dedicated to showing evidence that the Davidians were fired upon by the helicopters. Their most compelling piece of evidence is the now-famous footage of ATF agents on the roof of the Mount Carmel complex attempting to gain access to the armoury on the second story. The documentary slows down this footage to show that several of the shots came from above, and that the helicopters were firing down on the Davidians in extremely close proximity to the ATF agents.
The copy of the footage used is of very low quality, even for 1994 when the documentary was published. I believe this is intentional, because in higher quality versions you can clearly see that all shots originated from inside the building, firing outwards.
The director of the documentary, Linda Thompson, realises that helicopters blindly shooting down into a building, which, at this moment in time, contained several ATF agents doesn’t make a lot of sense. However, she incorporates this discrepancy into her conspiracy by implying that three of the four ATF agents had not been killed by Davidians, but were executed by their fellow agents on the helicopters. The reason given for why these men were publicly assassinated is that they had previously served on Bill Clinton’s security detail and, therefore, “someone in the government wanted to make sure these men were real dead”.
The documentary shows us multiple low-resolution images of helicopters that we are told were used in the initial raid. The narrator goes on to say that they all have “308 machine guns mounted in the door way”, which, due to the low quality of the image, is difficult to see. The three helicopters that flew that day were two OH-58 Kiowas and one UH-60 Blackhawk, however, the pictures in the documentary are of Bell UH-1 Iroquois (nicked-named “Huey”) helicopters.
What is interesting is that later on in the documentary, we are actually shown footage of the Huey helicopters photographed. These helicopters were used during the siege, and clearly from the footage, you can see that there were no machine guns mounted in the door way.
‘Waco The Big Lie’ goes into a bit of gory detail with regards to the death of one of the Davidians, Peter Gent. Peter was killed whilst on top of a water tower, shooting at agents below with an AR-15. According to the documentary, he was killed from above with a shot fired from one of the helicopters. His body was then purposefully left on the water tower for over 5 days until the FBI, whilst attempting to remove it using a grappling hook, tore it apart, leaving the Davidians to bury what remained. Not only is this contradicted by the American government, but also by the surviving Davidians.
Peter was shot and killed in the initial raid, however, his body was not discovered until 5 days later. After some negotiation, the Davidians were allowed to bury his body on the 6th day, which was recovered after the siege ended. An autopsy was performed on his intact body, and the bullet that took his life was recovered and “identified as having been discharged through the particular barrel of an ATF agent’s gun”.
The book, ‘A Place Called Waco’ written by surviving Davidian, David Thibodeau, goes into more detail surrounding the recovery of Peter’s body and his burial. No where does it mention that it was torn apart by a grappling hook or that it was purposely left on top of the water tower for five days. It does, however, subscribe to the idea that Peter was killed from a shot fired from a helicopter.
The book documents how the author, Thibodeau, met Koresh and ended up living with the Davidians at Mount Carmel until its destruction. Whilst reading it, you get the feeling that Thibodeau was an outsider who was simply looking for somewhere to belong. In other words, he was not a true believer, which allowed him to be critical of some of the more distasteful things happening at the complex, such as Koresh forcing his male followers to become celibate, attempting to impregnate the attractive women of the group, and the statutory rape of underage girls.
Having said that, the book does see some of the events through rose-tinted glasses. For example, it tries to explain away Koresh lying to the media about children dying in the initial raid. Thibodeau is also guilty of picking and choosing what evidence is reliable or not based on if it backs up his version of events. For example, he believes that autopsies performed on three of the four Davidians killed in the initial raid are suspect because they were stored in a faulty cooler and began to decompose prior to autopsy. There was, indeed, a refrigerator problem in the storage of the bodies for a short period of time, however, this was after the autopsies were already completed. The body of the fourth Davidian, Peter Hipsman, was also stored in the same facility, however, because Thibodeau believes it shows evidence of gunfire from above, he deems it to be reliable. According to the book, Hipsman was shot at the top of the four-story residential tower and after the Davidians saw that “Peter’s wound was fatal”, they shot him twice in the head. Thibodeau believes that the initial shot came “from above”, through the ceiling, however, the only way this would be consistent with the findings of the autopsy is if Hipsman was awkwardly bent over sideways at the waist, or lying horizontal when he received this wound.
Jack Zimmerman, the attorney for the Davidian, Steve Schneider, was allowed to enter the complex during the standoff, where he met Koresh. Whilst there, he was shown holes in the roof of the structure, which he believed to be bullet holes fired from the outside. With the destruction of the Mount Carmel Center, this evidence is lost, however, an explanation for these holes in the roof is they may have come from ATF agents on the roof firing into the structure during the firefight.
The last credible piece of evidence of helicopter gunfire comes from a conversation during the siege between Koresh and ATF negotiator, Jim Cavanaugh. Cavanaugh told Koresh, “we need to set the record straight and that is that there was no guns on those helicopters”, which enraged Koresh, who snapped back, “You’re a damn liar”. After a few more exchanges, Cavanaugh admitted that someone may have been shooting from the helicopters. “What I’m saying is that those helicopters did not have mounted guns. Okay? I’m not disputing the fact that there might have been fire from the helicopters”.
ATF agents onboard the helicopters were armed with 9 millimetre sidearms, however, all have either testified or produced sworn statements that no shots were fired from them. What is important to note is that Cavanaugh never says that any shots were fired from the helicopters, he simply admits that it is a possibility. However, the helicopters never got that close to Mount Carmel, as they came under fire approximately 350m from the rear of the compound, forcing them to pull back. The 9 millimetre sidearms that the ATF agents had have an effective firing range of approximately 50m, and a maximum firing range of 100m and, therefore, would not be effective at that range. Two of the helicopters were forced to land in a field to inspect for damage after coming under fire discovering that bullets had pierced the skin. The third helicopter, although also stuck by gunfire, was able to remain airborne and circled overhead at a distance to watch for additional attackers.
The idea that the Davidians were fired upon by helicopters has been accepted by the general public, despite there being next to no concrete evidence that this actually happened. The helicopters were never meant to fire on the Davidians or their fellow ATF agents below; they were meant to act as a diversion, and they are just one of many failures by the ATF that day, and the subsequent 50 days.