Twenty years ago today, the federal government began its siege on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, that would end 50 days later with the Mount Carmel Center up in flames and the death of cult leader David Koresh and 75 of his followers. In all, 86 people died during the siege.
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms descended on the compound on Feb. 28, 1993, in an attempt to execute a search warrant of the grounds amid allegations that the Branch Davidians were stockpiling weapons. They were met with resistance, and the FBI was called in to end the standoff after four ATF agents were killed.
Koresh persuaded his followers that he was the Messiah and cautioned against interacting with outsiders. The Branch Davidian leader also had multiple wives and had sex with his followers’ children, some as young as 14.
Looking back, could the standoff have ended earlier? Could different tactics have been used to get more women and children out of the compound? Had different strategies been used, would Koresh have ever set fire to the building?
The FBI’s best strategy for ending the standoff involved throwing tear gas into the compound “to make life more uncomfortable” for those inside and encourage them to leave the building, said Carl Stern, chief spokesman to then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno (Reno, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, is in poor health and no longer speaks to the media.)
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“Ms. Reno was concerned about the people inside the compound,” Stern said, and on April 17, 1993, Reno approved a plan to shrink the compound’s usable space “that might influence Koresh to resume letting the women and people come out” by using both tear gas and tanks to ram certain parts of the building.
“The decision that was made to shrink the usable space was probably a reasonable one, under the circumstances,” Stern said. “The plan itself was not unreasonable.”
On the first day of the siege, Koresh allowed four children to leave the compound, with about 20 more being released in the early days of the siege. The last women and children the cult leader allowed to leave exited the Mount Carmel Center on March 21.
“The objective was to get him to let people go,” Stern said.
The effort to use tanks to “shrink usable space” within the compound and the tear gas tactic did not go as planned, but Stern said the FBI had no reason to believe that Koresh would ultimately set fire to his own compound.
During conversations between Koresh and the FBI hostage rescue team, the cult leader intimated that he “was very, very upset that these heavy vehicles the FBI was using might damage his car,” Stern said.
“This was not a man on the verge of committing mass suicide,” he said of Koresh. “He was egotistical and he wanted to keep telling his stories … It seemed clear that Koresh was intent on surviving.”
In fact, Reno was so confident that the FBI plan would work that she left a Waco strategy session for a luncheon on the day Koresh set the fire.
“When those flames broke out, the people in Justice were flabbergasted,” said Stern, who was present at the meeting. “Your heart sank. It was horrible.”
While the official Waco account is that Koresh was heard over transmissions encouraging followers to douse the compound with flammable liquid, there are still those who doubt the accuracy of the government's story.
Supporters of the Branch Davidians believe the FBI was responsible for the fire and said the government was fully to blame for what happened. Critics say the bureau should not have used tear gas (Reno was given assurances that using the gas would not cause long-term effects in survivors) and that the gas was what caused the fire.
Alex Jones, the controversial radio show host and founder of infowars.com., is among one of the biggest critics of the Waco siege, and also believes the FBI engaged in a coverup.
"These are thugs who wanted to engage in terrorism against the American people, and I say their terrorism has failed and this lie is starting to unravel," Jones told "Extra" in 1999.