For most of their history, the Davidians and later the Branch Davidians had lived in isolation from the Waco community. As a city with deep religious roots, Branch Davidians were generally accepted and allowed to practice their religious beliefs without interference. The group had garnered some attention from local media in 1987 due to a shootout at the new Mount Carmel Center. But five years later, the Branch Davidians were thrust into the national spotlight.
Vernon Howell, who changed his name to David Koresh in 1990, had assumed leadership of the Branch Davidians and increasingly incorporated radical ideas into his messages. He claimed that God instructed him to build an Army of God to prepare for the end of days, and encouraged the stockpile of ammunition and weapons. Koresh also stated he was told by God to procreate with the women in the group to establish a “House of David,” and to this end took several wives. While never directly claiming to be Jesus himself, Koresh had proclaimed that he was the final prophet.
On a routine delivery to the compound in 1992, local UPS representative Larry Gilbreath discovered firearms, inert grenade casings, and black powder in a broken package. Gilbreath contacted authorities, and in May, Chief Deputy Daniel Weyenberg of the McLennan County Sheriff’s Department contacted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). A formal investigation was launched in June that year, and the ATF began surveillance from a house across the road from Mount Carmel Center. In addition to allegations that Koresh and his followers were stockpiling illegal weapons, Koresh was also accused of sexual abuse. On February 27, 1993, the Waco-Tribune Herald began publishing “The Sinful Messiah” series, which alleged that Koresh had physically abused children at Mount Carmel and had committed statutory rape by taking several underage women as brides.
The ATF obtained search and arrest warrants for Koresh and other followers on weapons charges, noting the many firearms the group had accumulated. The ATF originally planned their raid of Mount Carmel for Monday, March 1, 1993, using the code name “Showtime.” The date was changed to February 28 in response to the Waco Tribune-Herald’s series on Koresh, which the ATF had tried to prevent from being published. Any advantage of surprise was lost early that morning when a KWTX-TV reporter, who had been tipped off about the raid, asked a mail carrier for directions, who was actually Koresh’s brother-in-law. The ATF commander ordered the raid move forward, despite being informed that the Branch Davidians were aware that ATF agents were coming. At 9:45 a.m., a gun battle began. ATF agents stated they heard shots coming from within the compound, while Branch Davidian survivors claimed the first shots came from ATF agents outside. By the time a ceasefire was announced at 11:30 a.m., four ATF agents had been killed, and another sixteen had been wounded. Five branch Davidians were killed, and later that day, a sixth was killed by ATF agents. That evening, four children were permitted to leave Mount Carmel, and Koresh, who had been wounded, was interviewed by CNN and spoke to KRLD in Dallas.
For the next forty-nine days, the FBI Hostage Rescue Team worked to negotiate a peaceful end to the siege. In the first few days, a supposed breakthrough was made when Koresh agreed that the Branch Davidians would leave the compound in return for a message, recorded by Koresh, being broadcast on national radio. But Koresh told negotiators that God had instructed him to remain in the building and wait. Despite this, nineteen children were released. As time passed, the FBI used increasingly aggressive techniques, such as sleep deprivation by means of all-night broadcasts and recordings of loud noises and pop music, to try to force all the Branch Davidians out. Koresh later forced a group of eleven followers to leave, and they were arrested as material witnesses, with one person charged with conspiracy to murder.
On April 19, US Attorney General Janet Reno approved recommendations by the FBI to mount an assault. Explosives were used to puncture holes in the walls of the buildings of the main compound so tear gas could be pumped in, in hopes of flushing the Branch Davidians out without harming them. Around noon, three fires broke out in different parts of the building and spread quickly. While the government maintains that the fires were started deliberately by Branch Davidians, others, including some Branch Davidian survivors, believe that the fires were started either accidentally or deliberately by the FBI. Only nine people left the building during the fire. The remaining seventy-six Branch Davidians, including children, were killed either by rubble, suffocation from the effects of the fire, or shot. Footage of the blaze was broadcast live by television crews, who had remained near the compound throughout the siege.
Extensive investigations took place following the siege, and the events that transpired in Waco transformed the way federal officials conducted future operational tactics. Four months after the fire, a federal grand jury indicted twelve of the surviving Branch Davidians for aiding and abetting the murder of federal officers, along with the unlawful possession of firearms. Four members were acquitted, and the remaining eight were convicted, but only for firearms-related offenses. By 2007, all members had been released from prison. Nothing remains of the original compound, but a new Branch Davidian community now exists on the property called Branch, The Lord Our Righteousness.