So what the hell happened at Waco, anyway?

I got started reading on the subject at Wikipedia and the page there seems pretty wildly biased towards the “Giant government/Jewish conspiracy to frame these poor, innocent, harmless people” school of thought. I’m sure that this isn’t the actual story here, but I’m overwhelmed by the onslaught of paranoia and hyperventilating when I google the topic, so I’m unsure where to go from here. What’s the real deal here, anywho?

Mods, if this degenerates into GD territory, feel free to punt it over there.

Without looking it up, and just going by memory, the Branch Davidians were suspected of having illegal weapons. The BATF attempted to serve a search warrant, and a gun battle broke out. Some Davidians surrendered, but there were holdouts. The authorities attempted to knock a hole in a wall as an access point for tear gas. A fire broke out, and the remaining Davidians either refused to come out or were overcome and were unable to.

Combine one large group of crazy people (technical term) with severe paranoia and large gun collection with large government agency (ATF) that wanted to break into the SWAT team business like it’s big brothers (FBI, et al), shake well and BOOM.

ATF tried to serve a no-knock warrant and were met by overpowering gunfire. Siege ensued and building burned down with most occupants inside. Most believe fire was accidental - if you’re into conspiracies, the govt burned them on purpose.

Good Lord there’s a lot of whack job stuff out there on this.

  1. It is unclear which side fired first. One ATF agent claimed they fired first on a dog but he later changed his testimony.

  2. The warrant was for possession of illegal weapons and explosives. Other issues, such as David Koresh’s sexual abuse of the girls in the compound and the physical abuse of other children were not a part of it.

  3. An arson investigation determined that the Branch Davidians started the fires deliberately in as many as three locations. Accelerants were found in the compound and on the clothing of survivors. There are also audio tapes from hours before the fires that show BD planning to spread fuel around the compound.

Here’s a PBS Frontline article about the event.

Not that I expect any actual conspiracy whack-jobs to believe any of it.

While unclear in the above summaries, the standoff lasted several days before the fire broke-out. Also, there were several children in the compound.

IIRC at the time

  • there was some interesting news footage released of the ATF agents being gunned down by rapid fire being shot throught the wall from inside the building during the original raid.

-there was some question to what extent the actual military participated in the Waco Bake-Off, since it seems there was military equipment being used and most likely military advisers; yet the US military is forbidden from actions against its own citizens except in certain crcumstances.

All in all a complete circus and not the way the ATF should run any operation.

The standoff lasted 51 days before the tear gas & fire.

And one thing that the ATF got a lot of flack for back then was trying to arrest Koresh at the compound. It was reported at the time that he came into town fairly often (multiple times per week IIRC), and it was widely believed (after the siege started) that it would have been easier & safer to arrest him there, or intercept him while in transit, and serve the search warrants on the compound after he had been arrested, since the B-D’s would then be leaderless.

I lived in Waco during the event. I was in high school at the time and I personally witnessed the fire that burned the compound down. (A friend and I were skipping school, heard it on the radio, and we drove out to Elk and saw the huge plume of smoke).

Basically they were a bunch of religious nutcases with an apocalyptic bent. The Branch Davidian sect had been in Waco since the early days. They had a church compound actually located in the city of Waco for some time. That compound is now an (unrelated) exclusive prep school, which ironically was the school my above mentioned friend attended. The church broke up in the 1960’s after the end of the world didn’t happen or something; one branch went sort of mainstream Seventh Day Adventist, and the hardcore apocalypticos went out of town to a new compound, which eventually was taken over by Vernon Howe, aka David Koresh.

They had run-ins with local law enforcement, and problems with their neighbors mainly regarding all the firearm use. Remember this is rural Texas where heavy firearm use is de rigueur, so the fact that neighbors were constantly calling the sheriff was meaningful. Anyway, the feds investigated, including sending in undercover agents posing as converts, and keeping the compound under constant surveillance from a rented farmhouse. They were right to ask for warrants, and the judges were right in granting them. These people were breaking the law and were an immediate danger to the community. Not to mention all the child abuse that was happening there.

The real problem was the way the ATF screwed up the raid. The local media was tipped off early that a raid was coming. The Waco Tribune Herald ran a front page multi-day series on the sect just a week before the raid. On the day of the raid the news media was at the compound before the ATF arrived. It was clear that the sect knew the raid was coming. The sect knew, the ATF knew, and they both knew that the others knew. The ATF decided to just go ahead and have an all out gun battle. Bad decision. The sect was indeed heavily armed, well fortified, and well trained. Another criticism is that the raid occurred on a Sunday morning. Most of the cult members worked at regular jobs, and Koresh himself would travel to Waco on weekdays to evangelize; his right hand man was a lawyer who worked in town. Why the ATF didn’t just wait until Monday and pick up the cult leadership at their workplaces proves to some that the feds wanted a gun battle. Anyway. The ATF botched the raid and then had to deal with a two month long siege that could only end badly.

About half the children were released halfway through the siege. After Koresh backtracked on several deals to give up the feds had no other choice but to try and force them out. The cult members would rather die. As a tank poked holes in the compound walls to insert tear gas, some cult members set the compound on fire, shot and killed many of their own members, including children, then shot themselves. That’s about it.

It is one of those events that conspiratorialists love, and the internet is especially full of misinformation and flat out lies. I scanned the Wikipedia article and found so much misinformation I would have to write an entire essay refuting it. Just the part about how the cult members were loved by their neighbors and the local sheriff is flat out ridiculous. Everyone hated them and all their neighbors feared them. Local law enforcement was overwhelmed with dealing with them.

I hope my viewpoint can help. Frankly, like most people from Waco, I’m just tired of it, and I’ve learned that most media, especially internet media, is completely untrustworthy on this event. If you ask any Wacoan about it you’ll get a similar response, right after they tell you (truthfully) that the compound was not in Waco, not even in the same county.

The documentary channel runs Waco: the Rules of Engagemen fairly regularly. It was nominated for an academy award. It is available on you tube.
They make the point that Koresh could easily been captured in town, but the ATF was after a confrontation. I have read they had undercover agents ask Koresh to make illegal guns for them.
As usual the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Addendum more the specific point you asked about. There was no frame up or conspiracy. The cult was braking federal, state, and local weapons laws several times over. The only controversy was the ineptitude of the ATF in trying to bring them justice. In my opinion that ineptitude was driven by a combination of hubris, machismo, and impatience.

One criticism of that in particular that I’d read some time after the event was that the ATF was treating this like an average raid. (Maybe that’s why they went in on a Sunday; they wanted to get the whole group at once.) Instead, they did not take into account the meaning of dealing with a cult that was indoctrinated with fear of the government and apocalyptic gospel tales plus a charismatic leader.

If an undercover agent asked Koresh to make an illegal weapon for him. would that change anything to you? Koresh claimed he was being set up. I don’t know the truth. The senate hearing were not very satisfying. The cops and agents would have no trouble covering their tracks.

Why would that change anything? If you’re thinking entrapment, it’s not. Entrapment is only a defense for the “unwary innocent, not the unwary guilty”. It would only be entrapment if Koresh hadn’t already broken a dozen weapons laws.

One interesting and incredibly stupid angle I recently discovered is that the ATF decided it would be a good diea to chuck teargas at the kids. They knew the cutlists had gas-masks, which wouldn’t work for undersized people (i.e., kids), and evidently thought that threatening the kiddies would end the matter. Yeah, they kinda dropped the ball on that one. I’m honestly not sure if they actually realized that would screw things up even more.

I don’t follow the reasoning there. Capturing their leader would make them cooperate with authorities? I would think precisely the opposite.

How’s that?

That was the excuse the authorities gave for NOT arresting Koresh when he was in town- that it might result in a Branch Davidian mass suicide.

Yep, that sure worked out well.

You wouldn’t have to tell them you’ve already arrested Koresh. He routinely left the compound - you just show up with warrants in hand while he isn’t there. They wouldn’t know he’s already in custody.

Hindsight’s 20/20 and all, but it isn’t unreasonable that without their charismatic leader to tell them to resist, they would have just said “Ok”, opened the door, and let the ATF in. That scenario is pretty much impossible if Koresh is present.

Exactly. Removing the leader leaves them without direction during a critical period while they await word from him. Not telling them that he’s been arrested would be even better because then there’s much less chance of a “lieutenant” stepping in and organizing resistance. It seems like the ATF just plain screwed the pooch procedurally and was intentionally over-aggressive.

I saw something years ago that suggested that the ATF mis-interpreted the BD’s attempted purchase of E-2 conversion kits for AR-15s (which change the stock) as an attempted purchase of “E-Z” conversion kits which don’t exist but supposedly are used to convert the rifle to fire fully automatically. I regard that claim as highly suspect since I don’t think a warrant would be granted on the strength of that alone. What else did the ATF have?