The Waco Siege: What Really Happened at Mount Carmel
By: Kelly Oakley
The Waco siege of 1993 was a tragic event that captured the attention of the world. The 51-day standoff between federal agents and members of the Branch Davidian religious group ended in a deadly fire that killed 76 people, including 25 children.
Netflix has released a new docuseries coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the tragic event that explores the events leading up to the siege and provides a closer look at the people involved on both sides of the conflict.
The Waco Siege Documentary
“Waco: American Apocalypse” is a three-episode documentary directed by Tiller Russel that explores how Branch Davidian leader and “prophet” David Koresh’s unsavory activities promulgated an investigation before the federal government raided his Mount Carmel compound in a bloody beleaguerment.
The documentary features never-before-seen footage from inside FBI negotiation units, news stations, and CGI imagery that bring viewers into the foreground of the siege.
At the core of the conflict between the besieged Branch Davidians and the federal government was a philosophical dissent between religious liberals and gun ownership. The siege contested how Americans regarded the federal government and radicalized countless anti-government extremist groups. To this day, Waco is still used as a rallying cry.
Who were the Branch Davidians and what did they believe?
The Branch Davidians were founded in 1935 by Victor Tasho Houteff, a Bulgarian immigrant who came to the United States with 11 followers after being exiled from the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Houteff and his followers settled on a plot of 375-acre land outside of Waco, which he biblically named Mount Carmel. On this land, Davidians would live, raise children, and prepare for the end of civilization. In line with Seventh-day Adventist tradition, the Davidians focused on the brutal prophecies in the Book of Revelation and believed that the Second Coming was impending.
Houteff proclaimed himself to be a prophet and built a vast following in Waco. After his death in 1955, his widow, Florence, insisted that she had inherited his prophetic gift. Florence claimed that her late husband uttered the date of the Second Coming to her before his death—April 22, 1959.
Nearly 1,000 Davidians made their way to Mount Carmel to await Christ’s return. But Wednesday trickled through to Thursday with no forthcoming. After failing to fulfill the prophecy, the Davidians lost faith in Florence and most of Mount Carmel was sold off after a mass exodus of followers.
Florence was then succeeded by the Roden family—Benjamin, his wife, Lois, and their son George. Benjamin and Lois believed that God spoke through them and that the Davidians must carry on their message. Benjamin died in 1978, and Lois had enough prestige to be appointed as president.
Who was David Koresh?
The Rodens reigned over the Branch Davidians until 1987 when one of Lois’s disciples, Vernon Howell, staged a violent raid on Mount Carmel, and in 1990 implemented himself as the new Davidians’ leader, and changed his name to David Koresh.
Koresh’s five-year run as the leader of the branch of Davidians was fertile and vociferous. Davidians admired his proficiency and understanding of the Bible. He typically focused on the brutal interpretations of the Book of Revelation and the Seven Seals in his sermons.
As one Davidian would say, “I learned more from him in one night than in a lifetime of going to church.” Koresh’s charming disposition and broad knowledge of scripture secured a flock of devout acolytes.
Living conditions at Mount Carmel
The Davidians’ devotion to Koresh sacrificed a moralistic existence. Deprivation and solitude ensued. Those staying at Mount Carmel endured treacherous living conditions. Their compound didn’t have indoor plumbing, electricity, or heating which meant that Davidians had to use outhouses and buckets.
Bible studies were held multiple times a day. Food and water were rationed, while discipline, punishment, and abuse were abundant. Adults regularly beat children, and Koresh demanded total compliance with his strict and arbitrary indoctrination.
Males were to remain celibate, whilst Koresh had polyamorous relationships with women and girls (some as young as ten) and fathered at least 16 children.
The Davidians and gun ownership
The Branch Davidians held a pervasive belief in an impending apocalyptic end, viewing the incompetent and overzealous federal government as the embodiment of evil, which they referred to as Babylon.
In the 1990s the federal government imposed rigid laws to control gun ownership and cracked down on liberal and antidemocratic groups in the U.S.
Various groups were concerned that the government would misuse its violent capabilities. David Koresh worried that the government might curtail Americans’ rights to bear arms. The Branch Davidians stockpiled weapons and sold equipment at gun shows, while Koresh had a sense of impending persecution.
A former Davidian had notified the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms of Koresh’s illicit activities, prompting an investigation that would yield search and arrest warrants.
But when 76 ATF agents descended on their compound to execute these warrants in February of 1993, they unknowingly started one of the deadliest U.S. government actions in history.
The Waco Seige
The federal agents assembled a formidable force to apprehend Koresh, intending to overpower and immobilize him. Despite Koresh frequently leaving the property for runs, the authorities opted to make the arrest while he was inside his well-armed compound. However, the Davidians had been tipped off about the raid and made preparations.
A gunfight ensued, killing four ATF agents and six Branch Davidians. Nearly 900 law enforcement officials surrounded and isolated the compound, but their prolonged efforts to negotiate a peaceful resolution ultimately failed.
Agents tried various strategies to surrender the Davidians, including turning off the compound’s electricity and using sleep deprivation tactics by shining spotlights and blaring loud sounds on the complex.
On the morning of April 19, in an effort to end the siege, the FBI pressured new attorney general Janet Reno to allow them to use tear gas. Tanks descended onto the compound and, a massive fire broke out, leading to the deaths of 76 Branch Davidians, 20 of which were children.
These actions confirmed an incompetent federal government. As the fire engulfed Mount Carmel, author Kevin Cook explains, “One of the largest government forces ever gathered on American soil did little but watch and wait.”
Firefighters didn’t intervene out of fear that the Davidians would fire rounds at them. In the aftermath of the inferno, a number of the deceased had been fatally shot, including Koresh. While some of the wounds appeared to be self-inflicted, others did not.
Last day of the siege
The events of the final day of the siege, especially the cause of the fire, are the subject of debate. Some argue that Koresh intentionally started the blaze to fulfill the group’s apocalyptic prophecy.
Kevin Cook, author of “Waco Rising: David Koresh, the FBI, and the Birth of America’s Modern Militias,” corroborates the theory that Davidians started the fire.
According to Cook, “The fire didn’t start until noon. This is six hours after the initial movement of the combat vehicles that inserted the tear gas. The FBI had smuggled listening devices into the compound and there were voices saying, “Light the fire.”
One of Koresh’s followers said “We don’t light it until they come in. Isn’t that right?” Ultimately, their compound diminished and they fell from the public light, but the Davidians left a formidable legacy.
The lasting impact of the Waco Seige
Waco remains a powerful symbol that continues to influence extremist and patriot militia groups in the US today. The events have inspired militia movements that call for strong institutional protection and broad Second Amendment rights to defend against what they see as government overreach.
One Department of Homeland Security official said, “The modern-day militia movement owes its existence to Waco.”
Timothy McVeigh, a right-wing extremist, bombed the Oklahoma City Federal Building on April 19, 1995, which coincided with the second anniversary of the Waco raid. He cited the injustices that occurred during the Waco siege as motivation and tragically killed 168 people.
Alex Jones, a far-right radio host known for promoting conspiracies, raised funds to build a new Branch Davidian compound in 2000 as a protest against the events that occurred at the original location. I
Mike Vanderboegh, the co-founder of the Three Percenters militia, warned, “Waco can happen at any given time. But the outcome will be different.”
Where are the Branch Davidians now?
All nine of the survivors of the Waco raid were detained on various charges but have since been released. Former Branch Davidians continue to express their loyalty to Koresh and hold the belief that he, along with the other deceased Davidians, will be resurrected.
Survivor Kathy Schroeder said, “David was our Christ, giving us the truths from God.”
Clive Doyle, a survivor of the Waco siege who is now 72 years old, resides in Waco and continues to attend Bible study sessions every Saturday with fellow survivor Sheila Martin.
“We survivors of 1993 are looking for David and all those that died either in the shootout or in the fire,” Doyle says. “We believe that God will resurrect this special group.”
On a verdant stretch of land east of Waco, lies a new Branch Davidian community, they are named Branch, The Lord Our Righteousness, led by Charles Pace. Twelve people call it home, and they too, are preparing for the end of times.