Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

David Koresh: Millennial Violence

The Aftermath

By the end of that shocking day, 80 people were found dead, 23 of them children under 17. Koresh had fathered 14 of them. While rumors spread that Koresh himself had escaped through underground tunnels, his body was later identified by dental records. He'd been shot in the head.

Shell of Branch Davidian compound
Shell of Branch Davidian compound

Many of the victims had died from gunshot wounds and one child had been stabbed to death. Over 100 firearms were eventually recovered from the scene, and 400,000 rounds of ammunition. Wessinger states that many of them were still in their plastic wrappers, apparently scheduled for shipment rather than for use, but that's an interpretation without evidence.

It wasn't long before accusations were flung from both sides that the other side had started the fire, and the FBI brought to court what they felt was clear evidence that the Davidians had done it. They produced surveillance audiotapes of people inside the compound joking the day before about "catching on fire." On the actual day, there were recorded commands to "spread the fuel" and "light the torch," yet survivors who had escaped the compound claimed there had never been a suicide plan. Still, they could not explain why Koresh refused to come out for six hours after the introduction of tear gas.

The subsequent investigation showed that the fire had three points of origin, which would not have happened accidentally. One canister that had incendiary potential and that matched what the FBI was using was actually found in water, so it could not have started a fire. Yet if it was true that CS gas was flammable, then the amount pumped into the compound could easily have caught fire. The question was what was the true source of the fire? Had the tanks knocked over oil lamps? If so, why hadn't the fire begun earlier? No one seemed to have satisfactory answers, but everyone pointed the finger, including people who were not even there.

Mike Wallace, journalist
Mike Wallace, journalist

Nevertheless, there was no doubt that the initiating ATF raid was ill planned and completely unnecessary. Koresh could have been arrested peacefully away from the compound while a search was activated. Even if the ATF firmly believed that only an element of surprise would have allowed the plan to succeed, once that surprise was lost, they should have stopped and prepared for something else. There was little evidence of awareness of what the Davidians were all about, and it was clear that a paramilitary maneuver simply to inspect some guns was overkill. In a videotape for the History Channel, entitled "Cults," journalist Mike Wallace sternly points out that there were many people to blame for what happened to the Branch Davidians inside the compound, not just them, and there might never be complete clarity on the issue.

The ATF made another suspicious decision as well. On May 12, less then a month after the incident, they bulldozed the site. In other words, if there were any clues remaining after the fire that might have provided information as to what took place, they were now beyond use.

Most Americans afterward blamed the Branch Davidians for what had taken place, but in later years, the sentiment shifted somewhat, and some homegrown radicals decided there should be some payback. Only two years later, on the anniversary of the fire, Timothy McVeigh left a truck full of explosives outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing or injuring hundreds of workers and their children. Those who view the government the way Koresh did are unlikely to accept any explanation but one: unwarranted government persecution.

David Koresh had decided that the Fifth Seal of Chapter 6 in the Book of Revelation predicted that Armageddon would occur there at Mount Carmel. It describes those who were slain for the Word of the Lord and mentions a waiting period, after which the entire community would be killed. According to Koresh's understanding, through this violence, he and his people were to achieve salvation.

While there were predictions from religious and political scholars that another Waco was in the making among other secretive groups, the FBI did learn from this incident. The next time they were faced with a similar standoff the Freeman in Garfield County, Montana in 1996, they approached it much differently.

From March 25 to June 13, the FBI confronted a small group of Christian Patriots who called themselves the Freemen. Their aim was to overthrow the government, which they viewed as satanic. As part of a protest, some of them stopped paying taxes and government loans, which resulted in the foreclosure of their property. Instead of leaving, they tried setting up their own local government and threatened to arrest even to hang local government officials.

This brought in the FBI, but with restrictions from Attorney General Reno that there would be no armed confrontation. The Freemen that gathered on a foreclosed wheat farm were armed, but the federal agents relied on more than 40 negotiators, including family members of the protesters, to try to bring about a peaceful resolution. No one wanted another Waco. Those on the farm were offered conditions that allowed them to remain loyal to their concerns and to run their own defense even as 14 of them were taken into custody. In other words, contrary to Waco, the FBI avoided acting in a way that confirmed the group's persecutory belief system, and the matter ended in the courtroom for issues of tax evasion rather than on an impromptu battlefield.