Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

David Koresh: Millennial Violence

The Siege

The next day, Koresh reiterated that his commands came from God and he sent out one child with nine puppies. Then he offered more scripture interpretations. He told the FBI that if his "boss" took it into his mind to punish them for what they had done, it would be the start of World War III. 

While the negotiators quickly grew bored with his endless hours of rambling speeches, they wanted to get as many children out as possible, so they listened patiently. Yet then Koresh indicated that his own children would not be coming out.

The FBI began to realize that this man was unpredictable. The negotiators consulted with several mental health experts and religious scholars, and there appeared to be little consensus, except that Koresh was likely to be dangerous if pushed too far. Since 1993, many scholars have tried to interpret the situation in retrospect, condemning the FBI for their lack of understanding. If only they'd been educated in Biblical passages, Wessinger says, they would have known what Koresh was communicating.

Jayne Docherty, a professor of conflict resolution, writes that a study of these religious groups indicates that "a propensity toward millennial beliefs appears to be imprinted on the human psyche." The roots of a violent encounter, such as that between the ATF and Branch Davidians, are inherently interactive. The group itself would probably not become violent without the catalyst of aggression or persecution. Such groups are easy targets for "normal" people to demonize, and as such, the set-up tends to invite a clash.

Park Dietz
Park Dietz

One psychiatrist, Park Dietz, who came to the command center early, read through all the reports and said that Koresh appeared to have antisocial and narcissistic traits, as well as paranoid and grandiose delusions. While some appeal to the rational side of his personality might work short-term, in the long run, his psychopathology would erupt. He could become dangerous. The best approach was to validate his ideas and get him to believe that his mission has not yet been accomplished.

While he warned the FBI to be consistent, it became clear to negotiators that much of the ground they gained in discussions with Koresh was lost through bad judgment.

Pete Smerick, a criminal investigative analyst, wrote a report to headquarters back in Virginia that the on-site commanders were moving too rapidly toward tactical deployment. He advised backing off with the tanks. The HRT was just making the situation more volatile.

"For years, Koresh has been brainwashing his followers in this battle between the church and the enemy," one memo read, "On February 28, his prophecy came true. Koresh is still able to convince his followers that the end is near, as he predicted. Their enemies will surround them and kill them." 

It wouldn't be effective to use traditional hostage strategy in this situation. They weren't dealing with criminals but with a religious fanatic whose followers would do whatever he said. Even worse than the show of force was the way the FBI seemed to be punishing every good act that Koresh did. When he sent people out, Jamar did things like turn off the electricity or broadcast raucous music. Koresh was clearly annoyed by all of this and it was no wonder that he believed that God instructed him to resist rather than surrender. They were playing against his divinity, trying to weaken him, so he was reaching for all the symbols of his power. It was a no-win situation. 

Even so, over the 51 days that the siege endured, the revolving teams of negotiators kept trying to resolve things peacefully and save the largest number of people possible. The behavioral science people were well aware that the HRT and other military-minded personnel viewed them as "soft," but they knew their job. 

Hundreds of suggestions were faxed and mailed to them every day from people all over the country, and some "experts" even showed up. 

One man from a nearby university wrote a letter to Koresh that he expected the FBI to deliver. In it, he said that Koresh was misreading the scriptures, and he pointed out several divine directives that would indicate what God was really saying.

Other people wanted to be allowed into the compound to argue the Bible with Koresh. They were well meaning, but they failed to understand the kind of person Koresh was. They believed he could simply be reasoned into a different position and then give up. A few more aggressive people even threatened to force their way in to either help Koresh or show him the error of his ways.  In fact, on separate occasions, two men managed to accomplish this. They were welcomed inside to be proselytized, and they both left before the final days. 

A man claiming to be Jesus's brother arrived from Florida to talk with Koresh, and another claiming to be Jesus himself said that he had to go in and set Koresh straight on who Christ really was. One well-known minister claimed that Koresh was possessed by a demon and needed an exorcism, which he offered to perform.

Many of these "interventions" amused the negotiators, but at the same time, they were well aware that fewer people were coming out and that Koresh could remain inside with his band for quite a long time—perhaps as long as a year.  He had supplies stashed away, and water. The worst thing for his people was the cold nights without electricity, but so far, they were enduring that. They asked for milk for the children, which the FBI could hardly refuse.

Trying to resolve things quickly, the negotiators tried to put together a strategy that relied on those things that Koresh most wanted. They knew he had won in court against Boden, and that he appeared to be enjoying all the sudden fame, so they worked on that angle: The ATF had attacked, they could prove it from the crime scene, and Koresh could take them to court and win.  He would then draw even more followers and the Branch Davidians would be known all over the world. They were already on the cover of the major news magazines and the world was watching.  Koresh could parlay this into something beneficial for himself and his followers.

Yet even as they said these things to him, they were aware that he knew he had some other concerns: dead ATF agents, charges of polygamy and child abuse. He was likely aware that things would not go as easily as promised.

Trying to get around Koresh, the FBI made tapes of the children who had come out, showing they were cared for and urging them to appeal to their parents to join them. They sent these tapes into the compound, and each time they called the press together for a television broadcast, they turned the electricity back on so the Davidians could see what they were saying. The agents expressed concern for their safety and clarified inaccurate speculations. 

One other ploy was to record Koresh on the phone, and when his words seemed to undermine his preaching, they would broadcast that over a loudspeaker for the rest of the cult to hear. It was hoped that at least some of them—in particular the key lieutenants—would see the inconsistency and question their leader.

Yet on March 9, just over a week since the siege had begun, Koresh sent out a videotape on which he and Schneider had recorded interviews with people inside the compound. Each one expressed a firm desire to remain there. They were not coming out unless God ordered them to.

Ultimately, Koresh was in control. He would decide when he'd negotiate and when he wouldn't. The FBI would have to sit there and wait.


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