In early 1993, a compound owned by the Branch Davidians, an extremist religious sect, was raided by the ATF and the FBI, History.com reports. For 51 days, negotiations, demands and compromises would go back and forth between David Koresh, the leader of the Davidians, and hostage negotiators desperately trying in vain to reach a peaceful resolution to the conflict. The FBI and ATF knew that there were many innocent women and children trapped inside the compound, whose lives were in danger. Koresh was communicating with negotiators the entire time via telephone and by releasing homemade videotapes.
The Branch Davidians were considered to be a danger to themselves and the local community as it was believed that they were stockpiling high-powered ammunition and explosives. In what is known as the Waco Siege, the violence would culminate in the compound being set ablaze. 76 people would perish in the fiery inferno, many of whom were children. Who’s to blame and what went wrong have been the subject of controversy since the tragedy itself occurred in 1993, NBC News reports.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. The Branch Davidians Were a Christian Sect of the Seven Day Adventists
As equip.org explains, the Branch Davidians broke away from the rest of the church in the 1930s. The sect was led by Victor Houteff, as Biography.com explains, who established a base for the Davidians in Mount Carmel, Texas, which is close to Waco in 1962. Following the death of Victor Houteff, the Davidians were led by his son, Ben Roden until his death in 1978, leaving his surviving wife, Lois, as the prophetess of the church. Prior to his death, Ben Roden was responsible for the vast expansion of the Waco compound, turning it into a virtual military-style fortress. The Branch Davidians were a doomsday cult and they believed that the devil ruled the world, and they were ready to protect themselves from all outsiders.
As The Advent Movement reports Roden’s vast expansion of the compound allowed the Davidians to have plenty of privacy, space and security while still being in close enough proximity to a major city in the event of an emergency. The Davidians, while isolated, did occasionally interact with the outside world. They exchanged pleasantries with the local postal workers and passersby.
The Davidians dressed very modestly, usually making their own clothes. Contrary to some reports, The New York Times reports that several witnesses who knew the Davidians stated that they were friendly and polite to non-members of the church. A formal postal worker commented that the Davidians were quiet, friendly, and kept to themselves. An incarnation of the Davidians still exists today. They call themselves “The Branch” as NPR explains and live a much more peaceful existence with less of the fire and brimstone of the sect’s earlier, more extreme years.
2. David Koresh Reinvented Himself as a Prophet
Frontline reports that in the early 80s, a 22-year-old Davidian named Vernon Wayne Howell began romantically pursuing Lois Roden, hoping to fill the space left by the death of her late husband, Ben. Howell was charming, engaging and seemingly knowledgeable about the beliefs of the Davidians, the sect and its teachings. He appealed to the young members of the church with his long hair, guitar playing and Pink Floyd T-shirts, according to CBS News. He also was able to successfully recruit new members to join the Davidians. He seemed normal enough and relatable. He appealed to the older members of the church with his extensive knowledge of scripture and seemingly endless devotion to the cause. Howell claimed that he was indeed the prophet needed to lead the sect to salvation. The Davidians, acting with a general distrust of society, lived almost entirely off the grid in the privacy of their private compound.
Not all members of the sect were happy with the idea of young Vernon Howell replacing Ben Roden as the prophet of the sect, including Lois and Ben’s adult son, George. They questioned his motives and his suitability for the role. This tension ultimately culminated in violence; a gun battle ensued between Howell, Roden and several other members of the sect, resulting in George Roden being fatally shot in the head and chest, The New York Times reports. Howell and several other Davidians were put on trial for Roden’s death, but ultimately acquitted.
In 1990, Koresh took his place beside Lois Roden as the leader of the sect, Howell changed his name to David Koresh, according to Newsweek. He stated that “Koresh” is the Hebrew translation of “Cyrus,” an Israeli king in the Book of Revelation who brought the Jews back to Israel.
3. Koresh Took Many Spiritual Wives
The Branch Davidians honored Koresh with the exalted position of the “Lamb,” the only one capable of unlocking the Seven Seals. According to The New Yorker, as such, Koresh was allowed to have 11 spiritual wives. It was rumored many of the spiritual wives were underage girls, some as young as 11, who Koresh was having sex with. Koresh attempted to father as many children with female Davidians as possible. It is unknown how many spiritual wives Koresh actually had, but it was later established that he did, in fact, father many young children during his tenure as leader of the Davidians.
The rumors continued to spread that Koresh was sexually abusing and, in some cases impregnating, underage girls within the cult’s compounds. This made Koresh, an already-threatening man, even more dangerous in the eyes of President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno Frontline reports. These reports, provided by the FBI, were later proven to be untrue. Swift action needed to be taken, and the people inside the compound needed to be rescued immediately, from the government’s perspective. Additionally, the government feared a mass suicide was imminent. As mentioned, the Davidians were considered a doomsday cult, and the last thing that the government wanted was another Jonestown; this time on American soil. According to the ABC News, he lead hostage negotiator stated that he only needed a little more time to reach a peaceful resolution with Koresh.
4. The Siege on the Waco Compound Began on February 28, 1993
Approximately 80 ATF agents reported to the compound amidst reports that Koresh was in violation of certain federal firearms regulations. Each side blamed the other. Four ATF and six Branch Davidians were shot to death during the initial raid CBS news reports. As to who shot first, the ATF blamed the Davidians and vice versa. When the ATF failed to reach any sort of peaceful resolution with Koresh, communicating with them via telephone, 900 law enforcement officials arrived at the compound. A cease-fire was reached. FBI rescue teams were deployed to the scene along with specialized hostage negotiators. What would follow would be an unprecedented 51-day standoff.
Over the course of the standoff, there were some successful negotiations. Some of the sect members who were children were released in exchange for much food and supplies. As ABC News describes, , on April 19, 1993, the siege was brought to a violent, fiery and tragic end, ABC News describes. Tanks driven by ATF agents rammed into the walls of the compound so that tear gas could be deployed. Gunfire was exchanged between the ATF, FBI and the Davidians. Again, it is disputed as to who shot first.
As the chaos ensued, members of the Davidians, including women and children, were forbidden from leaving the compound. According to ABC,, Koresh told everyone to wait inside the concrete building, as God would guide them to safety. Most of the Davidians were in the center of the compound, surrounded by concrete on all sides, tear gas pouring in. It was then that the fire started. The tear gas was highly flammable, and the compound soon became a raging inferno. For years, it was believed that the ATF was responsible for starting the fire. PBS reports that subsequent reports have revealed that it was Koresh himself who ordered that the fire be started. ABC confirmed that a total of 76 people died in the siege.
5. The Oklahoma City Bombers Were Motivated by the Siege, According to the FBI
The sieges at Ruby Ridge and Waco were terrorist Timothy McVeigh’s primary motivators when planning the Oklahoma City bombing according to the FBI. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, domestic terrorists, detonated a bomb on April 19, 1995 which destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown OKC. A 16-block radius was destroyed, resulting in the destruction of over 300 buildings. McVeigh purposely chose the date of April 19; the two-year anniversary of the fiery Waco siege. 168 people were killed, including many children.
McVeigh was soon apprehended and sentenced to death by lethal injection, a sentence which was carried out in 2001. As for his accomplice, Terry Nichols, he stood multiple trials. The jury was deadlocked on the issue of the death penalty. Eventually, Nichols was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.