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20 years after Waco: The precursors, the investigation, and the raid

Part one of a four-part series

It has been 20 years since a nation watched the deadly drama slowly play out at Mt. Carmel, a “religious” compound 10 miles Northeast of Waco Texas.

The horrific ending was first prophesied and eventually orchestrated by the “prophet,” who held the power to peacefully end the confrontation at any time, but chose not to.

The man at the center of the tempest was born Vernon Howell, who in a quest to appear biblical, took up the name David Koresh.

Rise of Koresh
Koresh was a high school drop-out, who longed to be a rock star. His musical talents went undiscovered, so he became a preacher after realizing he possessed an extraordinary ability to memorize scripture and mesmerize followers as he manipulated the meaning of each verse he read to suit his own design.

Ostracized from a Seventh Day Adventist community after asking the pastor for his 15-year-old daughter’s hand in marriage, Koresh gravitated to the Branch Davidians at Mt. Carmel. The manner in which Koresh took control of the Davidians speaks to the uniqueness of this sect.

Koresh bedded the matriarchal septuagenarian leader of the sect, claiming he was sent from God to implant his seed. The liaison did not produce a child, but following her death Koresh positioned himself to lead the sect.

Koresh’s move was resisted by the son of the deceased matriarch, who Koresh claimed disinterred a corpse for Koresh to resurrect, to provide proof Koresh was sent by God. Eventually this conflict led to a gun fight, which both survived. Court room battles ensued and at the end of the legal wrangling, the son found himself in a mental facility and Koresh became the undisputed “spiritual leader” of the Branch Davidians.

From the outside looking in, the Davidians were a cult. From the inside looking out, they were a faith community preparing themselves for Koresh’s Apocalyptic vision of a death by inferno at the hands of the “Government Babylon.”

While preparing for the Apocalypse, Koresh practiced polygamy and had sex with many young women. The youngest was just 12.

The group raised money by selling some weapons legally, but they caught the attention of the ATF when they began altering semi-automatic AR-15’s to fully automatic. They also were suspected of manufacturing grenades.

The Investigation
The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms conducted an eight-month investigation of the Davidians. Agents posed as students and rented a place across the road from Mt. Carmel. The agents showed an interest in joining the community, while gathering intelligence.

The investigation uncovered enough probable cause to justify an arrest warrant for David Koresh and a search warrant for the compound. This “Faith Community” was stock piling explosives, ammunition and military grade weapons, including automatic weapons.

Tensions built when a local newspaper, The Waco Tribune-Herald, ran a series on David Koresh called “The Sinful Messiah.” This documented not only the militaristic weaponry, but also the fact that Koresh was having sex with underage girls.

One troubling headline read, “The Law Watches But Does Little.”

The Raid
After a great deal of planning and training, at 0500 hours on February 28, 1993 ATF staged cattle trucks for transport of 76 agents in multiple teams to conduct a dynamic entry of the compound. The plan was to:

1.) Protect the children
2.) Discourage, or overcome any resistance
3.) Secure the weapons
4.) Secure the facility to facilitate a warrant search

Sunday was chosen for the raid, because according to intelligence, Koresh secured all weapons on Sundays.

Before the ATF moved, one local photographer attempting to cover the raid became lost. He asked postman David Jones for directions to Mt. Carmel. During this contact, the photographer warned the postman of the “secret” raid. Jones gave the photographer directions then rushed to Mt. Carmel, to advise his brother-in-law, David Koresh, of the imminent incursion.

After an under-cover-agent witnessed the preparations, that agent hurriedly slipped away from Mt. Carmel to inform the BATF Commander the element of surprise was lost. In spite of this critical intelligence, the fateful decision was made to proceed with the dynamic entry.

As agents announced their presence with bull horns, Koresh appeared at the door, recited scripture and slammed the metal door shut. Koresh deliberately dismissed this opportunity to submit to the lawful search warrant precipitating what was to follow.

Shortly after the door slammed shut, a gun battle erupted. Because the media was present, some of the most incredible footage of a police gunfight ever recorded in history was brought into living-rooms nationwide. 

Agents on a roof, attempting to secure the armory by entering through a window, took automatic weapons fire through the wall. One agent was wounded flattened out and then slid quickly down a ladder to escape.
Two agents and two Davidians were killed, during the unsuccessful attempt to secure the Davidian’s Armory. Another agent was killed by a pre-positioned sniper, while providing covering fire for the agents withdrawing from the armory.

Out-gunned agents were seen firing hand guns toward unseen adversaries, who were maintaining a deadly barrage with high powered scoped rifles and automatic weapons.

After a sustained 45-minute gunfight, a Lieutenant from the McLennan County Sheriff’s Department began to negotiate a truce. A cease fire was declared two hours after the fight had begun. The ATF, running low on ammunition, were allowed to gather their killed and wounded and pull back.

The solemn retreat included 20 agents who had been shot in the violent encounter. Four agents who made the ultimate sacrifice were Steve Willis, Robert Williams, Todd McKeehan, and Conway LeBleu.

The ATF locked down the perimeter. Later that evening, three armed Davidians attempted to break through that perimeter to enter Mt. Carmel. This attempted breach triggered a gun fight, during which one Davidian escaped, one was wounded, while a third was shot and killed.

Finally, after the longest day in BATF history, night had fallen, quiet had returned, and the siege had begun...


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