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The Wacko from Waco

The assault on an apocalyptic religious sect calling themselves the Branch Davidians, in the tumbleweed flatlands of Waco, Texas, on April 19, 1993, followed in the grand tradition of American law enforcement mayhem.

This proud heritage includes such landmarks as the incineration of the Symbionese Liberation Army house in Los Angeles; the aerial firebombing of the black-separatist MOVE organization’s communal apartment complex in Philadelphia – still the only American city ever to have been bombed from the air; and the Chicago police’s 4 a.m. assault on Fred Hampton, riddling the Black Panther boss with bullets while he was sleeping in his own bed.

The Waco massacre that claimed the lives of eighty-six sect members (and a handful of federal agents) at the Branch Davidians’ compound was more than a tad paramilitary. But the incident may have had much in common with the slaughter at Jonestown, Guyana, fifteen years earlier. Either it was a mass suicide – or mass murder by the government, which then tried to blame the victims for their own deaths.

In the six-week staredown before the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) and the FBI went gonzo on the “cultist,” the media flooded the nation with imprecations, encouraged by the authorities, that the Branch Davidians – led by the “Wacko from Waco” David Koresh (AKA Vernon Howell) – were likely to commit mass suicide at any time, just like those Jonestown nuts. Of course, given the feds’ aural assault on the Davidians, the Kool-Aid solution may not have appeared an unwelcome option. Replicating a technique used four years earlier to flush Manuel Noriega from his sanctuary, the feds blared an earsplitting mishmash of noise that included the sound of rabbits being slaughtered, chanting Tibetan monks, roaring jet engines, and the Nancy Sinatra hit, “These Boots Were Made For Walking.”

As if that wasn’t torture enough, floodlights blazed all night long into the two-story ranch house where Koresh’s followers struggled to catch a little shut-eye while the fed/press mob swelled and swarmed outside. But worst of all, the agents cut off all utilities and food supplies to the commune, an embargo enforced even when Koresh pleaded for replenishment of the group’s baby milk supply almost six weeks into the stand-off.

The siege began February 28 when the ATF embarked on a “surprise” attack against the Mount Carmel commune. The operation was so surprising that three local TV crews were on hand to capture it on videotape and two reporters stationed themselves in a nearby tree to get a fifty-yard-line view of the excitement. The attack produced a stalemate, with the ATF force incurring a 20 percent casualty rate (four dead, sixteen wounded).

At least some, if not all of the fallen feds were victims of the ATF commandos’ own gunfire. According to communications specialist Ken Fawcett, who authored an affidavit based on his analysis of unedited video of the initial raid, the first shot was accidental. An agent’s assault rifle somehow discharged and killed another ATF agent, Stephen Willis.

The full-scale battle began when an agent accidentally shot himself in the leg. Thinking they were under attack, the rest of the ATF platoon unleashed a fusillade of machine-gun shells.

In a network TV interview, ATF director Stephen Higgins tried to pin the lost “element of surprise” on leaks by a person or persons unknown. When several ATF agents later sued a Waco newspaper, the public learned that the ATF itself leaded the raid. Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Higgins was prudent enough not to repeat his lie. But even if no one had been tipped, an ATF chopper buzzed the compound before the commandos attacked. Being that they were not complete idiots, the sect members probably surmised that something was up.

On April 19, the feds – with the FBI now leading the charge ahead of a chastened ATF – attacked in earnest, replete with armored vehicle assaults and an eight-hours barrage of CS, an especially noxious and flammable tear gas, usually fortified with kerosene. The compound burst into flames, the conflagration helped along by shock waves from m-60 tanks bashing the house. The surviving Davidians claimed, not implausibly, that the tanks actually started the fire by knocking over kerosene lamps that the electricity-denied sect was using to light the place. The tanks punched holes in the compound walls. The ventilation may have contributed in accelerating the blaze.

Koresh perished along with most of his followers, including many children.

The FBI immediately announced that two survivors of the cremated cult had confessed to sparking the fires. The bureau later pulled back a bit, noting that the cult members had not actually confessed – but they might as well have, because the FBI sharpshooters personally witnessed them “cupping their hands.”

An “independent” investigation later incriminated the Davidians, apparently confirming the Jonestownesque mass-suicide tale. But the truth about the Waco fire remains murky. It is worth noting that the fire investigator was a former ATF agent. The fellow’s wife still worked in the ATF’s Houston office, which was directed by senior agent Phil Chojnacki. It was Chojnacki who reportedly hovered over the compound in a helicopter before the ATF’s “surprise” February raid.

Another lingering mystery is why the feds carried out their dime-store Green Beret operation at all. Conspiracy theories abound. One lawyer who claimed to represent some Branch Davidian members and their families, warned that over the weeks of the stand-off there were troop movements across the nation and trainloads of U.N. tanks sighted in Portland, Oregon. As Peter Jennings said on a special report in the aftermath of the Branch Davidian’s destruction, “this is a warning of things to come.”

A writer for the magazine Soldier of Fortune suggested that the ATF was motivated by nothing more than petty vindictiveness. On February 21 Koresh was interviewed by an ATF agent and, in an apparent fir of hubris, screened a pro-gun group’s anti-ATF video for his interrogator’s benefit. On February 25 the ATF applied for the search warrant that resulted in the crisis.

Speculation aside, the only on-the-record purpose for the initial attack was to serve that search warrant. There is no evidence that the ATF informed the Branch Davidians of their intent to serve the warrant (though an ATF agent is said to have shouted something about it as the assault got underway), or that the Davidians refused them entry. Under the law, both must take place before law enforcement may use force to serve a warrant. The ATF could have asked for a special “no knock” warrant, but did not.

In a taped phone call after the initial raid, a puzzled Koresh told an ATF negotiator, “It would’ve been better if you just called me up or talked to me. Then you all could have come in and done your work.”

There are even doubts over whether the Branch Davidians were engaged in anything illegal at all. It is true that they were well stocked with arms and explosives – but popular assumptions to the contrary, there is nothing against the law about either, as long as all the paperwork is in order. At least some of the explosives had been purchased to excavate a ditch for a swimming pool. The pool was still under construction when the commune found itself at war.

Midway through the stalemate, the ATF suddenly announced that the Branch Davidians were manufacturing methamphetamines in a secret commune laboratory. No one bothered to ask, first of all, where this information came from, and second, what it had to do with anything. The ATF has no jurisdiction to enforce laws against drugs. Nor does the ATF have any authority to nab child molesters, another charge that helped demonize Koresh in the national media.

It is likely the drug-lab story was concocted to explain the Bit Brotherish black National Guard helicopters circling over the site in violation of a Texas law that forbids use of state helicopters by federal authorities except in drug cases.

The methamphetamine allegation, significantly, never appeared in any legal document. As on skeptical reporter noted, it’s not a crime to lie to the press, but fudging before a judge carries a few consequences.

On the other had, the ATF affidavit filed in applying for the February 28 search warrant was not a model of accuracy. In it, ATF agent Davy Aguilera claims – in what later served as evidence of Koresh’s fanaticism – that on April 6, 1992, Koresh warned a Texas Human Services official that he was a “messenger from God” and that when he revealed his true nature, “the riots in Los Angeles would pale in comparison to what was going to happen in Waco, Texas.”

Scary stuff, except that when Koresh issued this alleged threat the L.A. riots were still three weeks away.

The ATF also claimed that they had to bust up the Davidians because Koresh, Hitler-style, had been bunkered up in there for weeks. In fact, he ventured into town at least once a week. He had sauntered out to a Waco night spot just two nights before the February attack.

The ATF never officially charged Koresh et al. with anything worse than illegal weapons possession. Five years before, Koresh and six associates were arrested by local police on attempted murder charges. Yet they cooperated fully (and were later acquitted). And how did the Waco sheriffs manage to avert the bloodletting that the federal authorities found ineluctable?

“We treated them like human beings,” said Waco D.A. Vic Feazell, “rather than storm-trooping the place.”