February 28, 2018 marks the 25th anniversary of the start of the siege on the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco, Texas. The Waco siege ended with the deaths of at least 84 people and inspired another notorious act of violence in the following years.
The Waco, Texas compound of the Branch Davidians, a religious sect, was raided by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) on February 28, 1993 with lethal results. A 51-day siege followed, ending in even more tragedy. How did “Waco” happen? To gain greater understanding of this major event in American justice history, we are going to take a look at the timeline of events that led to and occurred during the infamous standoff.
The Road to the Waco Siege
It can be argued that many things contributed to the eventual siege at Waco. Some of these events may at first only seem remotely connected, but they did have an important impact on what was to come.
1989 – After a long struggle for power, David Koresh finally reclaimed the Mount Carmel Center and became the undisputed head of the Branch Davidians, a sect that separated from the Seventh-day Adventist Church. When Koresh discovered a meth lab set up by former tenants at the center, he called the authorities to dispose of it legally.
1992 – Texas Child Protection Services ended an investigation into claims of child physical and sexual abuse made against the Branch Davidians and Koresh without finding any evidence of wrongdoing. The Branch Davidians begin to distrust the government.
May 1992 – A UPS driver reported a broken package heading towards the Branch Davidians’ compound. The package was said to contain grenades. The incident did put the group on the ATF’s radar.
August 21 to 31, 1992 – The FBI and the United States Marshals Service took part in an 11-day standoff/shootout with Randy Weaver and his family after Weaver failed to appear in court over firearms charges. The standoff at Ruby Ridge, Idaho resulted in the deaths of a U.S. marshal and Weaver’s wife and son. It also informed the FBI’s practices on how similar standoffs should be dealt with. It increased anti-government sentiment among many militias and religious groups.
The Siege Begins
On February 28, 1993, the ATF attempted to execute arrest and search warrants on the Branch Davidians compound. The warrants were based on the testimony of ex-Branch Davidians members, who claimed firearms violations as well as the sexual and physical abuse of children.
The ATF expected the entire event to last approximately 20 minutes. Unfortunately, the Branch Davidians knew that the ATF was coming. A reporter inadvertently tipped off Koresh’s brother-in-law to the raid while asking him for directions to the compound. Word got back to Koresh and he rallied his troops.
At 9:45 a.m., 76 ATF agents filed out of their trucks. Gunfire ensued between the ATF and the Branch Davidians. It hasn’t been confirmed who fired first.
The initial fire fight lasted almost two hours.
Four ATF agents were killed and at least 16 others were injured. An undetermined number of Branch Davidians were also wounded and killed. Koresh was wounded in the hip and wrist.
With the deaths of federal agents, the FBI now had jurisdiction over the raid.
A standoff had begun.
Negotiations and Psychological Warfare
President Bill Clinton was given daily briefings on the situation at Mount Carmel. It was his opinion that a peaceful resolution should be reached in part due to how Ruby Ridge ended. Negotiations with Koresh begin.
In early March, some progress was made. Koresh and his followers released a number of the children who were being held in the compound. In the meantime, the FBI and ATF began trying to use other tactics.
In the early morning hours of March 9, the FBI cut the power to the Branch Davidians’ compound. Koresh said he would no longer negotiate until the power was restored. The power eventually returned.
At the same time, Koresh and his followers began carving gun ports and holes in the plywood covering the windows as well as in some walls.
Related article: David Koresh Wiki: Mount Carmel’s Sacred and Profane Messiah
On March 12, the power was cut once again, this time for good. On March 14, the FBI began to use spotlights and loudspeakers at night in the hopes of disrupting the Branch Davidians’ sleep.
With the cold Texas nights and the screams of dying rabbits being played on loudspeakers, the hope was that the Branch Davidians would break.
Negotiations continued but not much was achieved. Koresh repeatedly said he would give up, only to rescind the offer hours later. Tactical vehicles became more prominent during this period.
April 19, 1993: A Horrifying End to the Waco Siege
The month of April continued much like March. Koresh waffled between making claims of surrender and making excuses as to why he wouldn’t leave the compound. The FBI began to devise a plan involving tear gas.
On April 19, the FBI launched a raid. At 5:59 a.m., they warned the Branch Davidians that an assault with tear gas was imminent.
At 6:00, tear gas began to be inserted into the compound with the use of spray nozzles on an armored vehicle that rammed the building.
At 12:07 p.m., after hours of tear gas assault, fires were lit in the compound, allegedly by the Davidians.
The fires spread quickly.
At 12:12, a number of Branch Davidians left the compound.
At 12:25, gunfire was heard coming from the compound, but it did not appear to be aimed at the law enforcement.
At 12:41, fire teams began trying to fight the blaze but by that point, it was too late.
Aftermath of Waco
By the time the fires were put out, 80 Branch Davidians were found dead.
Some had been crushed by a fallen concrete wall. Some died due to cyanide poisoning, a result of the CS tear gas being lit on fire. Some died from bullets fired on that final day, with at least one being suicide.
At least 20 members had been shot in apparent mercy killings so they wouldn’t die in the fires. A three-year-old had been stabbed to death.
Five bodies were of people likely killed in the gunfire of the initial raid on February 28.
Twenty-five of the dead were under the age of 15.
Koresh died of a gunshot to the head. It wasn’t determined if it was self-inflicted or not.
Beyond the deaths, the siege had important ramifications for the United States. Many of the Americans who saw government overreach in Ruby Ridge saw Waco as further proof that the government was going to take away their personal liberties.
Militias increased by huge numbers in the years following Waco.
The siege also had an effect on Gulf War vet Timothy McVeigh, now known as a notorious terrorist.
McVeigh actually visited Waco during the siege. He eventually teamed up with Terry Nichols two years later to plan and execute the Oklahoma City bombing, the largest act of domestic terrorism in United States history.
McVeigh specifically cited Waco as the inspiration for the Oklahoma bombing. He saw the federal government as tyrannical and wanted to incite a citizen revolt against Washington.