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Crime News Crimes Of The '90s

The Disturbing Story Of Cult Leader David Koresh And His Branch Davidian Followers

The 1993 siege of the Branch Davidians' compound in Waco, Texas is riddled with controversy.

By Benjamin H. Smith

The 1993 siege of the Branch Davidians' compound in Waco, Texas is one of the most controversial events in US law enforcement history, and for some it's a watershed moment that continues to rile emotions among anti-government activists on both sides of the political spectrum. It pitted agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Federal Bureau of Investigation against an obscure religious sect, led by long-haired, guitar-playing prophet David Koresh. Between the ATF’s initial attempt to execute search and arrest warrants at the compound on February 28, and the FBI’s final assault 51 days later on April 19, four federal agents died as well as 82 Branch Davidians, including Koresh.

The Branch Davidians are a splinter group of the Davidian Seventh-day Adventists, themselves an offshoot of the Protestant Seventh-day Adventist Church. The group believe themselves to be living in the days before the final judgment, which would precede the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. By the late 1950s, they were centered around the Mount Carmel Center, east of Waco.

Born Vernon Howell in Houston, Texas in 1959, David Koresh entered the Branch Davidians’ orbit in the early 1980s. He allegedly had an affair with church president Lois Roden, who was in her early 60s at the time. Following her death, Koresh fought for control of the church with her son George Roden, leading at one point to a gun fight between the warring factions. The dispute was only resolved after George Roden was committed to a mental institution for killing a man.

After assuming control of the Branch Davidians and the Mount Carmel Center, Koresh began practicing polygamy, allegedly having sex with any married female Davidians he wished, with some victims between the ages of 10 and 14. He was also accused of several acts of child abuse.

But what really aroused the attention of law enforcement was Koresh and the Branch Davidians buying a large quantity of guns. While none of the weapons were illegal to own or purchased illegally, the concern was that the Branch Davidians were modifying them to create illegal automatic weapons.

After several months of surveillance, which included an undercover agent infiltrating the group, the ATF planned to execute search and arrest warrants on Koresh and several other Branch Davidians on weapons charges on the morning of February 28, 1993. However, the group was already on edge following an article in the Waco Tribune-Herald the day before discussing the abuse claims against Koresh.

After catching wind of the raid, Koresh reportedly made defensive arrangements. Agents arrived at Mount Carmel at 9:45 AM, and while no one knows who shot first, a gun fight quickly ensued. When the smoke cleared and the shooting stopped almost two hours later, four ATF agents were dead with another 16 were wounded. The Branch Davidians had lost six people and Koresh had been wounded in the hip and wrist.

With the Branch Davidians armed and holed up inside their compound, the FBI took over command of the 51-day siege that followed. In between negotiations, authorities cut off power and blasted noise and music all day and night in order to deprive them of sleep. While some argued for a show of force, other agents worried the group might commit mass suicide were anything to befall their leader.

After making her case to then-President Bill Clinton, Attorney General Janet Reno gave the order to mount an assault on the Branch Davidian compound on the morning of April 19, 1993. After warning Koresh and his followers of the attack, authorities began shooting tear gas into the buildings, and armored assault vehicles battered the walls. At noon the first flames were seen on the front of the compound, where they quickly spread. By 12:30 PM, several large explosions occurred, and the entire Mount Carmen Center was engulfed in flames.

Seventy-six Branch Davidians died in the fire. Autopsies later revealed some victims died of gunshot wounds, with their deaths thought to be mercy killings. Koresh was shot and killed by his lieutenant Steve Schneider, who then turned the gun on himself.

The assault on the Branch Davidians' compound was broadcast on live television and immediately provoked public outcry over the government’s heavy handed techniques. While the 2000 “Danforth Report” concluded Branch Davidians had set the fires themselves as a final act of suicidal defiance, the FBI ultimately admitted to using tear gas canisters, which could have accidentally caused a fire to ignite. The findings didn’t matter, however, to anti-government thinkers and conspiracy theorists, who saw it as emblematic of the tyrannical power of the state.

Two years later to the day, on April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168, a bloody tribute to the victims of the siege and destruction of Mount Carmel Center.

[Photos: Getty Images]

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