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20 years after Waco: The standoff, the negotiations, and ill-fated plan

Part two of a four-part series

On February 28th, 1993 — as the gun battle raged inside and around the Mount Carmel Compound of the Branch Davidians 10 miles Northeast of Waco — Lieutenant Larry Lynch of the McLennon County Sheriff’s Department initiated negotiations between the Branch Davidians and law enforcement. After speaking with Davidian Wayne Martin, Lynch connected them with ATF Special Agent James Cavanaugh.

Lynch’s and Cavanaugh’s give and take with Koresh’s Lieutenants began with frantic screaming in the midst of an intense gun fight, but they calmly eased the dialog toward a conversation with a purpose. The two were able to successfully negotiate a cease fire.

The ATF agreed to break off the assault, while the Davidians allowed the removal of dead and wounded without further hostile fire from either side. This accomplished, the ATF locked in a perimeter, beginning the marathon siege.

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.”
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.”

Multiple Agencies Involved
From day one, Cavanaugh (and FBI negotiators who followed him tirelessly) attempted to end the siege peacefully. Throughout these negotiations, Koresh continually quoted scriptures that he interpreted to suit his own ends, but balked at coming out.

When the FBI was summoned to help, Special Agent Jeffrey Jamar of the San Antonio FBI Office assumed over-all command of the situation.  The Texas Rangers were called upon to conduct an investigation of the raid-shoot-out and other agencies assisted securing the perimeter.
The FBI Hostage Rescue Team was brought in to handle the tactical operation and the FBI Critical Incident Negotiation Team (CINT) was called upon to take over negotiations.

Cavanaugh initially continued negotiating and arranged for some early Davidian exits. On March 2nd, there appeared to be a major breakthrough — the Davidians agreed to come out. For a little while, even the Davidians were joyous in the thought that they would not suffer Koresh’s predicted Apocalypse.

They were in line to exit, with mothers holding the hands of children (who had their jackets on and personal bundles tucked under their arms). For a brief shining moment those children had a future.

Koresh abruptly called the negotiated deal off, claiming he had been told by God not to leave. Future denied.

The Siege
As the siege continued, the rules of engagement directed law enforcement personnel not to fire unless there was an imminent threat. This directive was followed even as sniper-teams watched heavily armed individuals, who had killed law enforcement officers, move about within range.

Meanwhile the negotiators constantly labored to achieve the best case scenario, a peaceful resolution.

Simultaneously SWAT busied itself, preparing for the worst case scenario.  Armored Bradley Fighting Vehicles were regularly moving about the perimeter. Vehicles, fences, boats and some small structures were gradually removed from no-man’s land to deny the Davidians cover.
At night the FBI Tactical Unit, attempted to wear the occupants down. Stadium lights stayed lit, helicopters hovered, while loudspeakers played recordings of Tibetan chants, rock music, dentist drills and screaming rabbits.

Meanwhile, Special Agent in Charge Gary Noesner’s CINT continued to negotiate for the peaceful resolution of this stalemate. This proved difficult since they were negotiating with a self-proclaimed prophet, who needed the “Government Babylon” to make its move to bring about his prophesy of an apocalyptic inferno.

Further Negotiations
During negotiations, the FBI negotiators stepped out of their procedural comfort zone in an attempt to resolve the stand-off. At one point they allowed the local Sheriff, Jack Harwell to negotiate. He had established a relationship with the group before the raid. Harwell’s efforts were praised. He was described as a “natural.”

The FBI also broke with protocol by allowing Davidian attorneys to enter the compound in an attempt to negotiate an end to the stalemate. This effort appeared to bear fruit since Koresh promised the attorneys he would come out “after Passover.”

Passover came and went. Koresh informed the FBI he now would not come out until he completed composing his interpretation of the meaning of the biblical “Seven Seals.” With this revelation, the FBI patience with Koresh was about used up.
During the nearly two-month siege, 668 law enforcement personnel had seen action, including 25 different primary negotiators attempting to convince David Koresh to step down peacefully from Mount Carmel. Koresh could have done so at any moment, but didn’t.

Last Attempts
At times, during the negotiations Koresh had said he missed Cavanaugh. Cavanaugh had left the scene on March 4th, after the FBI had taken over. In April, Special Agent Cavanaugh was requested to return in the hope he could convince Koresh to come out.

Later, during testimony in front of a Congressional Subcommittee’s Investigation, Cavanaugh described negotiations with Koresh, which always turned into biblical lectures.

Cavanaugh said, “I fully respected their religious beliefs. I think all other negotiators did also. I do not mean to be sarcastic, but my feeling was they can worship a golden chicken if they want to, but they can’t have submachine guns and hand grenades and shoot federal agents.
"I played the role as policeman. I did not try to fool the Davidians that I was something else. I think that was one reason why Koresh certainly trusted me from the beginning.”

The best efforts of everyone there had failed to dislodge Koresh.

The Plan
By mid-April, Incident Commander Jeff Jamar was convinced Koresh would not come out.

Attorney General Janet Reno agreed with this assessment and also had concerns. Reno was worried about a possible impending Jonesborough-like mass-murder-suicide, including the children, with the FBI standing idle on the sidelines.

There was also the matter of law enforcement resources stretched to the limits in an operation which was costing approximately a million dollars a week.

Jeff Jamar submitted a tactical plan for Attorney General Reno’s approval. It was designed to bring pressure to bear on the Davidians and hopefully bring the siege to a successful conclusion.

Attorney General Reno discussed the matter with President Clinton, and with his blessing, Reno approved the plan.

On April 19, 1993, the ill-fated plan would be put into motion...

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