“The Waco siege was one of the first events in our nation’s history where there was 24/7 cable coverage,” journalist and author Jeff Guinn says of the 1993 siege at the Branch Davidians’ Mount Carmel compound outside Waco, Texas. But despite it being widely televised, many questions remain about what happened there—specifically what, or who, started the fire that destroyed the compound and killed dozens.
In its wake, the 51-day standoff at Mount Carmel claimed the lives of four federal agents and 82 Branch Davidians, including 25 children and the religious group’s leader, David Koresh.
For his book “Waco: David Koresh, the Branch Davidians and a Legacy of Rage” Guinn interviewed those directly involved in the deadly siege to scrutinize various oversights by the FBI and ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) that proved devastating. According to Guinn, these missteps led to federal agents receiving erroneous intel about how many Branch Davidians were at Mount Carmel, whether they were actively armed and if they were privy to the imminent raid.
Guinn spoke with A&E True Crime about what can be learned from Waco and how an FBI coverup continues to stoke the fires of government distrust three decades later.
How did Koresh’s messaging about the Biblical “end times,” provide a perfect storm for the events at Mount Carmel?
The great problem, the reason the conflict occurred—let alone lasted so long—was that nobody involved tried to understand the other side.
[Stream Waco: Madman or Messiah in the A&E App.]
Koresh’s hold over his followers was [convincing them] they were special, that they had to bring about the beginning of the end times. That meant they had to fight the forces of Babylon [the Biblical symbol for worldliness and evil], which to them was the government agencies. The Branch Davidians believed they were saving eternal souls.
When investigating Mount Carmel, the ATF only cared about the illegal weapons and guns being altered to fully automatic. They hear that this is an apocalyptic group that may charge out of Mount Carmel at any time to kill civilians. They believe they are saving lives.
[To the agents,] the Branch Davidians were a bunch of religious fanatics following a phony prophet. To the Branch Davidians, everything the agents did fulfilled Koresh’s prophecies. There was no working around it because neither side wanted to work around it.
The initial Child Protective Services investigation into Koresh exacerbated his paranoia about the end times. How did these investigations contribute to the control he exerted over the Branch Davidians?
Koresh needed some proof that the end times were about to descend. His followers were living under very primitive conditions at Mount Carmel, and they hated the place. You can keep people putting up with that kind of thing maybe for a year or couple of years, but sooner or later you have to make what you’ve prophesied happen.
The CPS investigation came about because they were told by former Branch Davidians that children as young as a year old were being beaten there and Koresh may have been having sex with underage girls. For Koresh, this was a government agency that might order the Branch Davidians to stop disciplining their children in the way they believe the Bible mandated. The investigation was a lifesaver [for Koresh]: He finally had something specific to [cite as] evidence that this [end times] is all starting now. In one sense, it was a catalyst because it began preparing the Branch Davidians for what they believed was coming next, which was an actual assault by Babylon.
In the book, you write about how the ATF botched their intel before raiding Mount Carmel. How did ex-Branch Davidians’ allegations about Koresh and their former church essentially doom the agency’s assignment?
The ATF never factored in that the informants had not been at Mount Carmel for at least a year. In that year, a lot had changed there. At the time the members left, the guns were kept in a locked vault, and they only had access to them when Koresh opened the vault. The ATF assumed this meant that when they carried out the raid the morning of February 28, all the guns would be locked away and it would take the Branch Davidians at least 15 minutes to get into the vault, get the guns, load the guns and get into defensive positions.
[However,] in that year, Koresh actually handed out the guns to most of his followers. They had them in their rooms, which were in this huge structure that had a 360-degree view. They also had several magazines for each gun in their rooms. That meant when ATF arrived, [the Davidians] would immediately fire at them. That’s why [the ATF] were caught off guard, and that’s where the gunfire and slaughter began.
You emphasize the raid’s success hinged on an ‘element of surprise,’ because federal agents didn’t want Koresh and his followers to know they were approaching. However, in the days leading up to the raid, officials publicly accused local media of compromising their operation by reporting on Koresh’s pending investigations. Why did the raid still proceed as planned?
It was a decision made by two ATF agents in charge of the operation (Chuck Sarabyn and Phillip Chojnacki). They either misunderstood or deliberately misstated what they were told by undercover agent Robert Rodriguez, who was at Mount Carmel on the morning of the raid. There has always been a question as to whether Rodriguez told his superiors that the Branch Davidians knew the agents were coming and to call it off, as that’s what he’s always claimed. Or if he simply told them that the Branch Davidians were reading stories about it in the paper but [he] didn’t see any guns [at Mount Carmel].
I found another agent, Phil Lewis, who was in the room with Sarabyn when Rodriguez made the call [to Sarabyn]. Lewis was in the undercover house with Sarabyn. For the first time, we have objective first-person testimony—Lewis heard the whole call and he stated, unequivocally, that Rodriguez said, ‘they know we’re coming.’ Chuck didn’t want to believe that.
In the Treasury Department investigation [after the siege], it was revealed that the leaders did not want to call it off no matter what. There’d been a lot of money poured into preparing for the raid, and ATF already had a terrible reputation [from their botched siege at Ruby Ridge in Idaho, where a man barricaded himself to avoid being arrested by the agency on weapons charges, resulting in the death of the man’s child and wife as well as a Deputy U.S. Marshal].
What’s behind the longstanding misconception that the ATF shot Koresh at the beginning of the raid when he opened a door to confront them?
That comes out of a bigger discrepancy about who fired first. ATF claimed the moment agents started spilling out of the cattle trailers, the Branch Davidians opened fire on them. The Branch Davidians claimed Koresh opened the door to tell the agents to wait because ‘there are women and children in here,’ and agents responded with gunfire.
We know now, and it’s been corroborated by other Branch Davidians, that Koresh wasn’t hit at all. It was another Branch Davidian who was mortally wounded. Later in the raid, Koresh was on a catwalk with a rifle. The only two ATF agents who had gotten into Mount Carmel at the time claimed Koresh fired down at them. They said they fired up at him and hit him in his thumb, wrist and side.
During the siege, the way the Branch Davidians presented the story through the media made it appear that Koresh was immediately shot. He was not; he was hit more than an hour into the raid.
You highlight possible theories as to what caused the fire at Mount Carmel, including the FBI’s use of CS gas (a potentially-fatal tear gas) in combustible canisters. Why did the FBI choose that route to end the siege?
The FBI, who took over the operation for the ATF after the first day, reported to the Justice Department and, eventually, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. But for most of the siege there was no attorney general [because] Reno hadn’t yet been confirmed by the Senate. So there was no one to say, ‘Go in there and get them out no matter what you have to do’ or ‘No, we forbid you from doing anything like that.’
The original plan the FBI sent to the Justice Department [stated] that the use of CS gas was a possibility, but it was absolutely safe and would only be inserted gradually over the period of a couple of days so the fumes would become so annoying it would drive out the Branch Davidians —not pose any danger to them. Also, because it [would be] inserted gradually, there wouldn’t be clouds that could be combustible.
Reno approved the plan once she became Attorney General. Though, in the interim, the FBI considered it as Plan A. Lead FBI negotiator Byron Sage told me there was also a Plan B—not presented to the attorney general. [In that plan,] as agents and tanks approached to start inserting CS gas, if a Branch Davidian fired at them, they would insert everything at once. They went to Plan B. Though they promised to only use non-combustible canisters for the CS gas, they used at least a few combustible canisters because the other canisters were bouncing off the walls.
The FBI tried to cover it up by saying they never did this—until it came out that they did. [However,] the combustible canisters did not ignite, and they were fired six hours before the fire started. But the fact the FBI lied about that led a lot of people to think they’re lying about everything.
What evidence did you uncover of an FBI coverup at Waco?
In the FBI’s storage, there were photos of a couple of combustible rounds where the shells had not exploded. They were photographed by an FBI analyst named Farris Rookstool, who cooperated with the government investigation and helped investigators find an audio tape of one of the tank drivers asking permission to fire these rounds and being granted permission by one of the FBI agents in charge.
Rookstool cooperated with me for my book—the first time he ever talked to anyone [publicly]. There are now records that the FBI [intentionally] used combustible rounds and never admitted to getting caught. They simply said it was a misunderstanding.
What do you believe is the most crucial takeaway about what transpired at Waco?
We have to look at Mount Carmel and think about two important things. The first is the responsibility of government agencies to fully investigate those they are about to act against. Not just say, ‘Well, that’s all stupid stuff. We don’t need to know what it is,’ because that kind of knowledge counts.
The other thing is we have to get some pragmatic limit to religious freedom. The Branch Davidians felt that if they had to use their guns to kill for Jesus—which Koresh taught them—they would do that. Where does public safety come into play? Because it puts others in grave physical danger.
Until we resolve these questions, we’re always going to be open to these kinds of tragedies. I guarantee something like this will occur again.