Eighteen years ago, on April 19, 1993, the federal government’s siege of the Branch Davidian compound at Mount Carmel near Waco, Texas, ended dramatically and tragically in a fire that consumed the compound, killing 76 people, including more than 20 children. The event remains a powerful symbol- depending on who you ask- of either the dangers of cults or the federal government’s heavy-handedness and over-reach.
The investigation of David Koresh, the Branch leader, began in May 1992 after Chief Deputy Sheriff Daniel Weyenberg of the McLennan County Sheriff’s Department informed the ATF about suspicious United Parcel Service deliveries to the Branch Davidian compound, including kits used to convert semi-automatic AR-15s into fully-automatic M-16s.
On Feb. 28, 1993, the ATF attempted to execute a search warrant at the compound. A two-hour gun battle erupted which resulted in the death of four agents and six Branch Davidians. After the subsequent 51-day siege led by the FBI failed to get the Branch Davidians to peacefully surrender, a second assault was ordered by Attorney General Janet Reno, who was concerned about the Davidians’ ability to indefinitely hold out, possible continuing potential sexual child abuse and the potential of mass suicide. Her decision to act was supported by President Clinton.
The Department of Treasury’s official report on Waco is careful to make clear that the Branch Davidian group came under investigation for law enforcement reasons, in particular concerns about illegal firearms and allegations of systematic child abuse. However, that hasn’t stopped the spread of the opinion in certain circles that the Davidians were, in fact, targeted for their religious beliefs by the federal government. Chillingly, what happened at Waco was Timothy McVeigh’s primary justification for the Oklahoma City Bombing exactly two years later.
The report also makes clear the minimization of the potential loss of life was a primary consideration in the planning process, even if that wasn’t the result. There was extensive discussion about the possibility of mass suicide, ala Jonestown in 1978.
At that time, the most recent previous operation of similar scale to Waco for the federal government, the 1985 siege by ATF and the FBI of the 360-acre Arkansas compound of the white supremacist group The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord, had successfully ended peacefully with the group’s surrender.
Since Waco did not end well, and especially after the Oklahoma Bombing, everything connected to it has subsequently been dissected by both pro- and anti-government commentators without a whole lot of middle-ground agreement about what happened and why. Any web search brings up any number of passionate theories.
From the government’s point-of-view, however, one outcome has been the determination that armed responses will absolutely be the last possible resort going forward. In fact, and as the Hutch Report notes, it was likely the Yearning for Zion Ranch, a Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints sect, even though credible reports of polygamy involving minors had been floating around for years, wasn’t targeted due to a reluctance stemming from Waco until authorities felt they had no choice but to act in 2008.