The Waco Siege: 51 Days America Wants to Forget

The days between February 28 and April 19, 1993, mark some of the most tragic and bizarre in American history. A series of events led to a standoff between the FBI and members of a religious group that lasted 51 days and took the lives of 86 people. The siege, which took place in Mount Carmel (just outside of Waco, Texas), was a bloody end to an unforgettable chapter in the Waco story.

Rachel Koresh, David Koresh, and their baby / The Branch Davidians compound / ATF Agents / David Koresh
Source: YouTube

Many people remember Waco as a shocking tale about a cult that spawned decades of media coverage in books, movies, TV series, songs, and even video games. For those who don’t know much about it – or just want a refresher – this is a story that begins with a man named David Koresh…

David Koresh: The Sinful Messiah

David Koresh, born Vernon Howell, became the leader of the Branch Davidians, when the religious group’s predecessor died in 1987. He was charismatic, of course, as all cult leaders tend to be. He knew everything about the Bible and believed he could speak to God.

David Koresh's mug shot.
Source: McLennan County Sheriff’s Office/Public domain/Wikimedia Commons

Koresh’s name started showing up in the media via the Waco Tribune-Herald in February of 1993. They called him the “The Sinful Messiah” (a term Koresh coined for himself) in a series of articles that revealed child abuse and Koresh’s claim that he was the father of more than a dozen children, to mothers as young as 12.

Preaching His Gospel

Koresh had a way with words, that’s for sure. He successfully converted over 100 people and managed to convince them to live in his remote compound at Mount Carmel Center near Waco. But Koresh wasn’t secluded himself; he spread his gospel around the world, in Israel, Australia and Great Britain.

David Koresh is preaching to his followers.
Source: YouTube

Koresh was a very controversial figure, mainly because he used his position of power to have multiple wives and sex with underage girls. Word had it that Koresh was claiming to be the Second Coming of Christ, but that was never his message.

Who Are the Branch Davidians?

The Branch Davidians were something of a spinoff of the more mainstream group, Seventh Day Adventism, which started in the late 19th century. There was an even earlier split – a reform – between the main church and a group called Shepherd’s Rod, leading to The Rod or the Davidians.

David Koresh talks to followers on their compound.
Source: Tumblr

The Branch Davidians were much more radical; the group was born of disappointment over the fact that nothing became of these earlier prophecies. Once the original leader died, there was internal strife over who would take over. Koresh ended up winning over the wife and son of the founder.

When Koresh Entered the Picture

It should come as no surprise that Koresh was a troubled child from an unstable family. He became a born-again Christian in the 1980s. After joining the Southern Baptist Church, he moved over to a Seventh-Day Adventist Church, that is until he got expelled for aggressively pursuing a pastor’s daughter.

Koresh is seen standing in the kitchen.
Source: Imgur

It was then that he was introduced to the Davidians. When Koresh first showed up in 1981, everyone in the group seemed to like him, especially the de-facto head of the organization, Lois Roden.

The Affair, the Battle

Koresh and Roden had an affair despite their 40-year age gap (he was in his late 20s whereas she was in her late 60s). He wanted to have a child with her, believing he/she would become the Chosen One of their religion.

a portrait of Lois Roden.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Then, one day, Roden died, and her son George took over. At that point, he and Koresh started butting heads – a classic power struggle. George would challenge Koresh to raise the dead. He went so far as to exhume a corpse to make his point.

George vs. David: A Power Struggle

Koresh tried pressing charges against George over “robbing the grave,” but the police told him they needed a bit more evidence. The Davidians weren’t just Bible-holding people; they had weapons. A whole lot of weapons.

A portrait of George Roden.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

At one point during his civil war with George, Koresh and seven of his followers raided the compound with five semiautomatic rifles, two rifles, two shotguns, and 400 rounds of ammunition. They said they were trying to collect evidence of illegal activity. It was at this point that Koresh won the war against George.

He Wins the War and Changes His Name

Once George went to prison for murdering a rival, Koresh was in control of the Branch Davidian church at Mount Carmel. Up until that point, Koresh was still going by his given name, Vernon Howell. But now he became David Koresh.

David Koresh and his wife Rachel pose with their son.
Source: Facebook

He based his name on the historical King David and Cyrus the Great (Koresh is the Hebrew version of Cyrus). By 1990, Koresh started marrying the wives and daughters of his followers. The fact that some of them were as young as 12 was the reason cited for the FBI’s eventual raid.

A God Complex

Why would Koresh decide to take wives and daughters of his fellow members turned followers? Well, it was an order from God, he said. And that meant that he had privileges that others didn’t. The men in the group, for instance, had to remain celibate.

David poses with two of his wives and his kids.
Source: YouTube

Since Koresh taught that he was the messiah, his children would be sacred. That’s why he had multiple “marriages” (only one of them being actually legal) with women in the community. In the aftermath of the massacre, numerous children who grew up in the group reported that Koresh had molested them.

There Will Be Blood

It came to a point where the Branch Davidians of Waco were inseparable from Koresh. For nine years, he would drill his followers with the belief that Armageddon was coming, and they needed to prepare before the final battle.

Branch Davidians are dressed in camo-clothing and armed with guns.
Source: Tumblr

The end was coming, he promised them, and it didn’t matter if the “trial by fire” was with automatic weapons or a match and a can of kerosene. Koresh’s first (and only legal) wife, Rachel, along with her parents were some of the followers who stuck around to the bloody end.

They Started It

It may seem like the FBI wanted to put an end to the child molestation and overall illegal acts of the group, but at the time of the Waco siege, the only evidence the FBI had was the possession of potential illegal arms on the site.

The FBI are waiting outside the entrenched Davidian sect.
Photo by Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Sygma/Getty Images

On February 28, 1993, the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives) attempted to raid the Branch Davidian site with a search warrant. What happened next is a quite literally a bloody blur. Both surviving members and FBI agents claimed the other side fired first.

It’s Showtime

Who’s to blame is a tricky question. What we do know is that the ATF initially obtained a search warrant based on what one postal agent said about what he believed were suspicious deliveries to Mt. Carmel. But none of those deliveries were illegal, despite including 45 AR-15 upper receivers and five M-16 upper receivers.

State troopers and ATF agents stop a motorist during the Branch Davidian standoff.
Photo by Greg Smith/Corbis/Getty Images

That first raid, headed by the ATF, was codenamed Showtime. The ATF could have picked up Koresh while he was in town but chose to raid the property instead. Thanks to a local newspaper article, the Davidians knew it was coming.

The Spy Blew His Cover

One ATF agent had infiltrated the Davidians and reported that they knew the raid was on and that his cover was blown. What were they doing to prepare? The agent reported that they were praying.

Branch Davidians are praying.
Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis/Getty Images

The raid was based mostly on the group’s weaponry, but another factor involved was money – a successful raid would make the ATF look good and thus result in more funding. Part of the motive was to use Waco as a publicity stunt. Oh, were they wrong.

Who Fired First?

There is still a debate over who fired first, but there’s lots of evidence pointing to the ATF as the instigators, as they went to shoot the Davidians’ dogs in their kennels while surrounding the compound. There’s also the fact that ATF showed up in a cattle trailer covered by a tarp, wearing no body armor.

Crosses laid in memory of the lives lost at Waco.
Photo by Steven Reece/Sygma/Getty Images

They weren’t prepared for an armed confrontation with religious extremists. The horrific gun battle killed five ATF agents and five Davidian members, leaving another 16 agents injured. Now, this was just the beginning.

First, a Ceasefire

A ceasefire was finally negotiated by local authorities. According to the sheriff, the ATF only withdrew because they were out of ammo. The Davidians honored the ceasefire. “They could’ve killed every ATF agent out there the day of the raid had they kept shooting,” said Jack Harwell, the Sheriff of McLennan County.

Aerial view of the Mount Carmel compound.
Source: Reddit

“But when they said they would leave their property, they quit shooting. They were highly protective of their property.” What followed was a 51-day standoff between the Branch Davidians and the FBI (they took over from the ATF) – an unprecedented event in American history.

An Unprecedented Standoff

The FBI had all kinds of tricks up their sleeves to break into the compound, one of them was playing agonizingly loud music 24/7 on large speakers – a way to induce sleep deprivation in members. The FBI also spent 60 hours negotiating with Koresh, trying to gain access to the site.

ATF agents stand on the grounds of the cult compound.
Source: YouTube

Get this: the FBI brought 12 tanks, four combat-engineering vehicles, 668 agents, six Customs officers, 15 Army personnel, 13 members of the Texas National Guard, 31 Texas Rangers, 131 officers from the Texas Department of Public Safety, 17 from the McLennan County sheriff’s office, and 18 Waco police.

A Match for David and Goliath

They assembled the largest military force in American history ever gathered against civilian suspects. In total, there were 899 people on the side of the FBI. The Davidians had an “army” of 85. And still, no one was prepared for what was about to go down.

ATF agents are breaking into the Waco compound.
Source: ABC

On April 19, the last day of the standoff, the FBI raided the compound, and the Waco siege came to an end. With weapons and tear gas, the feds stormed the place. A fire subsequently broke out, causing 76 of the 85 Davidians, including Koresh and many children, to be killed.

No Shots: Just Noise, Tanks, and Tear Gas

Ironically, the final standoff involved no shots being fired. But there was hostility and aggression coming in all forms, up until the fire broke out. There were all kinds of noises – rabbits being slaughtered, jet planes flying above, loud music being played, and other disturbing sounds.

Interview footage of David Koresh.
Source: YouTube

There were threatening tank movements, tear gas, and flash bang grenades. The feds were flipping the bird or mooning the Davidians frequently. The tanks were crushing the compound’s outer perimeter, the buildings, and private vehicles. One tank repeatedly rolled over the grave of Branch Davidian Peter Gent.

Babies and Children Can’t Wear Gas Masks

The tear gas used by the FBI was military grade, meaning it turns toxic very quickly. The feds were also aware that kids, even infants, were on the compound and were too small to wear gas masks. But they shot the grenades in anyway. Any suffering of children was seen as acceptable collateral damage.

Woman and children are trapped inside the compound.
Source: Imgur

Things grew increasingly aggressive leading up to the final fire, and Koresh grew concerned for their safety. 11 people left the Davidian compound, and all of them were arrested as material witnesses, one was indicted for conspiracy to commit murder.

Communication Breaks Down

In hindsight, the children should have left, too, but they were unwilling to leave Koresh’s side. Hearing that the other kids who previously left were then separated from their mothers made them even more reluctant to leave.

An ATF agent speaks to the press.
Source: Facebook

Eventually, communication between the FBI and Koresh began to break down. The feds considered using snipers to take him and other leaders of the movement out but feared a mass suicide. As the 51-day standoff was going down, Koresh and his followers watched the news, seeing what the ATF and federal agents were publicly reporting. Apparently, the public narrative didn’t line up with the group’s experience.

“You’re a Damn Liar”

Here’s an excerpt of a conversation between Koresh and an ATF negotiator named Jim Cavanaugh.

Cavanaugh: “Well, I think we need to set the record straight, and that is that there was [sic] no guns on those helicopters.”

Koresh: “Now Jim, you’re a damn liar. Now let’s get real.”

FBI negotiators are talking to David Koresh.
Source: Imgur

Cavanaugh: “David, I . . .”

Koresh: “No! You listen to me! You’re sittin’ there and tellin’ me that there were no guns on that helicopter!?”

Cavanaugh: “I said they didn’t shoot. There’s no guns on . . .”

Koresh: “You are a damn liar!”

The Beginning of the End

The FBI Hostage Rescue Team, mockingly dubbed the “Hostage Roasting Team,” arrived at the raid with 50 caliber rifles and punched holes into the walls of the building with explosives. They were about to pump poison gas into the building that had small children and infants inside.

Protestors against the ATF during the Waco raid.
Source: CBS News

The feds’ plan was to announce to the group that they weren’t planning on taking over by force while at the same pumping more and more gas inside to put pressure on them to leave. On that final day, April 19, the fires began around noon.

Fires and Molotov Cocktails

The FBI has maintained that the fires were started deliberately by the Davidians, while some of the group’s survivors claimed it was the FBI that started the fires, whether intentionally or not. There is footage of the Davidians talking about how they made Molotov cocktails to fight back the FBI.

Smoking fire consumes the Branch Davidian Compound during the FBI assault.
Photo by Greg Smith/Corbis/Getty Images

Nine people left the building during the fire; the rest who remained inside, died either from fire, smoke inhalation, getting shot, or were buried alive by rubble. There were also signs of death by cyanide poisoning. At the end of the day, there were 76 deaths that resulted from that day.

30 Years Later…

Despite the fact that the FBI claimed never having fired a single shot during the 51-day standoff, there were 27 Davidians who died of bullet wounds. This meant that either those wounds were self-inflicted or that the FBI was lying.

A woman stands at the Branch Davidians compound while behind her a new church being built on the site.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

It’s been nearly 30 years since the Waco siege and the only building on the site today is a small chapel, which was erected years later. The Waco chapter became something that the authorities could learn from. For instance, the new head of the ATF, John Magaw, made sure the Treasury Department’s Blue Book report on the matter was required reading for incoming agents.

You Can’t Beat the System

The Nine Davidians who left during the fire – the only survivors – all received sentences of up to 40 years for charges such as voluntary manslaughter and weapons possession. There were other Davidians, including foreign nationals, who were sent to prison indefinitely as material witnesses.

A member of the Branch Davidians is escorted to jail in handcuffs.
Photo by Steven Reece/Sygma/Getty Images

The aftermath of the siege saw Davidian members and their surviving families bringing over 100 civil suits against the government. Most of them, however, were dismissed before a jury was ever formed. In the cases that did go to trial, the Davidians were almost always ruled against.

The Case of the Missing Door

There was one case, though, in which a jury in San Antonio acquitted the Davidians in the killing of four ATF agents; it was self defense. There was a major piece of evidence that would prove the FBI shot first, but that evidence was “lost.”

The missing door from the compound.
Source: Imgur

The right-hand entry door to the compound’s building showed only incoming bullet holes in it, meaning the shots came from outside. In court, a Texas state trooper testified that he saw two men loading into a U-Haul what looked like that door.

Sinners on Both Sides

The Davidians argued that the condition of the left-hand door, which was intact, meant the other door was never destroyed in the fire, rather it was “lost” on purpose. But the door wasn’t the only thing that mysteriously went missing.

A military tank runs through the Davidian compound.
Source: CBS News

The ATF’s footage of the original raid was another piece of evidence that mysteriously got lost. The siege was overall a tragic chapter in American history, but it’s not so easy to point the finger at who’s to blame. It’s clear that both sides did wrong, or “sinned” if you prefer.

Hearing From the Survivors

Whether they were felons or not, the nine survivors were in the minds of many mental health practitioners who were concerned for these people who barely made it out alive. David Thibodeau is one of them.

A photo of David Thibodeau.
Source: Tumblr

For those who saw Netflix’s 2018 series Waco, Thibodeau was portrayed by Rory Culkin. Throughout the filming of the series, Thibodeau worked closely with Paramount Network to make sure that the details of the standoff stayed true to the story and that the terror of it all came across accurately on screen.

A Surreal Experience

Thibodeau wanted the story to capture as many perspectives as possible, including Koresh’s. Watching it all unfold on screen was a surreal experience for Thibodeau.

A photo of David Koresh
Source: YouTube

“I tell you, it’s funny,” he said. “There were times where years and years would go by, not talking about it. It’ll be on the TV, and I’d see Mount Carmel burning, and I’m like, oh, my God, that really happened. I was there. Wow… Sometimes, it feels like a dream, only knowing it’s not.”

The Child Survivor Speaks Out

After the siege, Thibodeau had to process what had happened. “I had a lot of rage inside me. A lot of unchecked anger,” he explained in 2018. Music became his therapy. “Now I just hit the hell out of drums instead of raising my voice. That helps a lot.”

A photo of Joann Vaega.
Source: Today Show

Joann Vaega is another Davidians survivor who also learned to cope from the trauma of the siege (but she wasn’t one of the nine who left on the last day). She was only a child when her parents moved them to the compound.

Her Mother Saved Her

Vaega realized soon after that something wasn’t right about her new surroundings. A month into the standoff, Vaega’s parents allowed their six-year-old daughter to go along with 20 other children released into the care of Waco’s Methodist Children’s Home. These were the kids mentioned earlier – the ones who were separated from their parents.

Joann Vaega as a little girl with her parents.
Source: CBS News

Vaega was sent back to her hometown of Kailua, Hawaii. “My mom was really adamant about doing everything to get me out,” Vaega recalled. “As quickly as she could, she packed what little I had, and I said goodbye to my parents. I absolutely believe that my mom was the driving force in saving me.”

Life After the Cult

“As I grew up, the demons I faced were different from other kids,” Vaega revealed. “I had therapists telling me I was going to be a mass murderer, and to keep a close eye on me because of what had happened to me; just really hurtful things.”

David Koresh / The Waco compound is on fire.
Source: Getty Images

Starting a new life outside of a cult, without her parents on top of that, was difficult. But she thrived, and today she’s married with two children working as a training and development director at a restaurant.

The Waco siege proved to be traumatic for not just the survivors, but for the FBI and law enforcement in Texas. The following story is about a standoff that lasted 15 years between the police and a family called the Grays. The reason it lasted so long was because the authorities didn’t want to go through another “Waco situation.”