at Waco

by Albert K. Bates

This article was originally published in Communities Magazine in the summer of 1995.

Like many Sundays at Mt. Carmel, morning prayers on February 28, 1993 were followed by breakfast. Victoria Hollingsworth had been cleaning up when asked to go to the room where they met for Bible study and worship. She waited there with the other women and many of the children until David Koresh came in. There was silence. He said, "They're coming. Get back to your rooms and watch. Don't do anything stupid. We can work this out."
About the author:
Albert Bates is a retired public interest attorney and paramedic and author of numerous books on law, energy and environment. He has lived in intentional community for the past 23 years and currently serves as an instructor in appropriate technologies. He asks that we remind readers that the opinions he expresses are his alone and do not reflect the views of any groups he is associated with.

For months he had been telling them that the Apocalypse was imminent. It was to be the fulfillment of the prophesies they had studied all their lives -- the hour when the seals would be broken, the wicked would die by fire, and Yeshua (Jesus) would come again in Glory.

Back in her room on the second floor, Hollingsworth, a 59-year old black woman from England, told her four children to put their shoes on and get dressed. She looked out the window and saw two cattle trailers pulling up to the front of the building.

"A lot of men were jumping out in dark suits, dark uniforms," she later remembered. Almost immediately I heard shots." Hollingsworth and her children fled out into the hall and lay down. As frightened and weeping women and children hid, concussion grenades exploded inside.

In her room, Kathy Schroeder was helping her son, Jake, finish dressing her youngest child, Brian, when the shots came through her window. She and the children dropped to the floor and slid under a bed, where they remained, frightened and weeping, for two hours.

In the next room, Sheila Martin had been combing the curly hair of her 6-year-old, Daniel, when she glanced out the window and heard the shots. She grabbed Daniel and her 4-year-old, Kimmie, and knelt on the floor. Bullets smashed her window, sending shards of glass cascading over her 11-year-old, Jamie, who screamed as he bled from a cut over his left eye. Blind and crippled from infantile meningitis, Jamie could not see what was happening. He was terrified but Martin could not reach him because of the gunfire from outside.

On the third floor, 75-year-old Margaret Lawson and 77-year-old Catherine Matteson gathered children in a schoolroom to get them away from the gunfire and bombs going off below. Suddenly the ceiling erupted with a burst of machinegun fire from helicopter gunships. The elderly women shielded the children with their own bodies. Miraculously, none of the machinegun fire struck anyone in the crowded room. Elsewhere, the steel rain killed Peter Gent, Peter Hipsman as he lay in bed, and Winston Blake as he sat on the edge of his bed, eating french toast.

One of the mothers crouching in the hall, listening to Jamie Martin screaming, decided to take the law into her own hands. Jaydean Wendell, 34-year-old mother of four, had been a police officer before coming to Mt. Carmel. She picked up a rifle, went into her room, climbed onto a bunk bed, and took aim on her attackers. After the firing stopped, she was found in that position, a bullet through the top of her skull.

David Koresh had known what was going to happen for over an hour before the ATF arrived. He was called from Bible study by fellow church member Perry Jones, whose son, David, had just come in from Old Mexia Road, where at 8:30 a.m., he had stopped his truck to assist a newsman who had become lost looking for the Seven Seals church. David Jones, a government postal carrier driving his yellow Buick with "U.S. Mail" painted on the door, pointed to the Mt. Carmel complex, and asked what was happening. The newsman warned that some kind of law enforcement action was about to take place, and that there would likely be shooting. Just then, the two had to step back from the road to avoid a speeding car going by, packed with armor-clad ATF snipers.

When Koresh returned to Bible study from his talk with Jones, he was so upset he couldn't speak. His Bible slipped from his grip. One of his parishioners, ATF undercover agent Robert Rodriguez, came forward to catch it. David looked at him and said, "The Kingdom of God is at hand, Robert." He walked to the window and looked out. "They're coming, Robert, the time has come."

Rodriguez was shocked. Perhaps David had seen agents outside, converging on the building more than an hour before the planned assault. As an excuse to leave, he said he had to meet someone for breakfast. Just then, other parishioners entered the room, blocking the doorway. His heartbeat pounding in his ears, Rodriguez contemplated jumping through the window to escape. He repeated that he had to leave for a breakfast appointment. David approached him and in a manner the agent believed highly uncharacteristic, clasp his hand. He said, "Good luck, Robert." Rodriguez stammered, "What do you mean?"

Koresh said, "You know what I mean. We know they're coming. Robert... " and David paused for effect, staring into the agent's eyes, "it's up to you now."

Rodriguez drove hastily to the nearby undercover house which the ATF had rented two months earlier, blinking his headlights as he raced along the dirt road. Pulling up in a cloud of dust, he scolded the agents inside for leaving the windows open in broad daylight. He told them he could see a camera lens all the way from Mt. Carmel. He phoned the Special Agent in Charge, Chuck Sarabyn, who was operational commander for the raid, and reported that David Koresh knew an ATF raid was coming. He thought Sarabyn understood and would call off the raid. Sarabyn asked what the people inside were doing when he left. "They were praying," Rodriguez said.

The Cult Awareness Network (CAN) defines a "cult" as a group that: regularly utilizes deception; systematically uses thought reform techniques; has an authoritarian structure; claims to be the repository of Ultimate Truths; divides the population between "us" and "them"; and demands excessive amounts of time, money, and energy from members.

The Christian worshippers headed by David Koresh and the federal agents who attacked them both meet that definition of a cult. In the Spring of 1992, members of CAN persuaded at least one congressman that the Waco group was dangerous. Allegations included child abuse, multiple marriage, sex with teenagers, mind control, and large quantities of illegal automatic weapons and explosives. ATF was already investigating the group because of a UPS driver's report that a package he was delivering had broken open, revealing hand grenade parts. Seizing the opportunity to garner favor with Congress, ATF stepped up its investigation in July, 1992.

Several government agencies had already conducted investigations into the charges of illegal weapons possession, child abuse and statutory rape, but cleared the group on all counts. The charges apparently came from a venomous child custody dispute between a church member and her former spouse.

After failing to supplant David Koresh as Mt. Carmel's minister, parishioner Marc Breault quit the Seven Seals group at the end of 1989 and moved to Australia. He then threw himself into a campaign to discredit his former mentor, in the process leading away most of the Australian members of the church.

The Australians hired a private detective and signed affidavits alleging that Koresh was guilty of the statutory rape of two teenage girls, tax fraud, immigration violations, harboring weapons, child abuse, and exposing children to explicit talk about sex and violence. However, apostate visits to California and Texas local police, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the Internal Revenue Service resulted in no action. Breault and his wife's visits to California and Waco in 1991 were also fruitless. County Sheriff Gene Barber said that "Breault's complaints, along with the others, stemmed from 'sour grapes.'"

Church members admit Koresh devised various "tests" of his followers' faith in God and his prophecies--from long study sessions, to communion twice a day, to food deprivation, to relinquishing wives to the exclusive sexual favors of David Koresh. Still, they assert Breault's claims are exaggerations or lies that he concocted to subvert Koresh and take control of the group.

In his 1993 book, Inside the Cult, Breault says he "became a cult buster," devoted to the destruction of the Seven Seals church. Breault's statements, in his book and elsewhere, reinforce the view that his motives were less than altruistic.

Breault brought his allegations about Koresh and his followers to the Australian television producers of A Current Affair. Reporter Martin King, who co-wrote Breault's book, visited Mount Carmel and interviewed Koresh in January of 1992. The program that eventually aired portrayed Koresh as a sex-crazed, gun-loving religious fanatic.

Breault also informed David Jewell that his daughter, Kiri, then living at Mt. Carmel with her mother, was slated to become one of Koresh's wives. Jewell sued for custody and in January, 1992, Breault and other former members testified at the custody hearing in Michigan. Kiri Jewell, in poignant testimony later to be repeated on national television, described a sexual liaison with David Koresh when she was only 10 years old.

Allegations of child abuse are a common tactic in child-custody disputes, and as a result of Jewell's and Breault's efforts, local authorities began an investigation of the charges. Officials of the Child Protective Services division of the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services and the Sheriff's Office visited Mt. Carmel in February and March, 1992. They found no evidence of child abuse. Examinations of the children produced no indication of current or previous intimidation, but they served to alert caseworker Joyce Sparks to the extent to which Koresh controlled the group and held the allegiance of the members and their children through peer pressure. Sparks undertook to study the group to better understand their complex philosophy and the dangers it might hold.

Breault contacted the FBI, accusing Koresh of a number of other crimes besides child abuse. Many of the Mt. Carmel "defectors" gathered by Breault eagerly cooperated with BATF and FBI investigators. That a number of former members were willing to make these allegations certainly suggests that there were problems with Koresh's leadership of the group. However, a February 23, 1993 FBI memo, obtained later by the Dallas Morning News, stated that no information had been developed to verify the allegations of "child abuse and neglect, tax evasion, slavery and reports of possible mass destruction."

Despite the familiarity of the Sheriff's Department with the Mt. Carmel group, the ATF raid planners did not inquire about the possibility of peaceful arrest. They did not attempt to arrest Koresh when he left Mt. Carmel to go shopping in Waco or jogging 4 days each week along Double EE Ranch Road. They did, however, talk to Joyce Sparks, and she had a warning for the agents.

Sparks warned that the Millenialist group had a deep mistrust of "Babylon" and were prepared to resist attack if forceful entry was attempted. Later she explained her thinking to Congress. "I think the raid was a mistake. Once the raid started, the end was inevitable. So once that happened, children were going to die. We recovered an arsenal of weapons but we lost 20 children. So I think there is a flaw in that thinking." Sparks lamented that she had warned the agents, and they had understood the implications of her warning.

For ATF upper echelons, a "resistance" scenario couldn't be better if it had been scripted by Hollywood.

The apocalyptic church at Mt. Carmel made their living by selling weapons. They were licensed to own, sell and buy any type of gun, even fully automatic machine guns (legal possession of a machine gun only requires completing a form and paying a $200 tax). Church members obtained all required licenses and permits and cooperated fully with authorities during repeated investigations. In May, 1992, when they learned of ATF interest, David Koresh telephoned the ATF office and invited them to come out and talk.

While many of us find the trade in assault-style weapons repugnant and the juxtaposition with Christianity incongruous, numerous examples in American history make this the rule, not the exception. The Mormon Church financed settlements in Utah, world missions, and its great Tabernacle partly on the patent fortunes of the Browning family, inventors of the breech-loading Winchester, the repeating rifle, the box-magazine rifle, the machine-gun, and the automatic rifle -- all standard equipment of the U.S. Army from Wounded Knee to the Mekong Delta.

David Koresh gave away harmless hand grenade casings at gun shows in order to attract business to his booth -- the same casings "uncovered" by the UPS. Moreover, only a day before the fateful February raid, ATF site commanders received a fax from ATF experts in San Francisco saying that all of the weapons in the Mt. Carmel inventory were legal and that none of the "conversion kits" which the group had purchased could be used to convert semiautomatic rifles to illegal rapid-fire weapons.

There _were_ 48 fully automatic assault rifles in Mt. Carmel, built by David Koresh as part of a legal contract with Hewitt Handguns, a local dealer. Using money the church put up, David Koresh assembled AR-15's from parts which had been bought by Hewitt. The finished rifles were restricted to resale to licensed owners or dealers. In 1993, there were more than 234,000 private Americans licensed to own fully-automatic machine guns.

The parts cost Hewitt $400 and the finished weapons sold for up to $1400. Had Koresh completed the 100 weapons called for in the contract, his profit share would have been $50,000. But when ATF paid a visit to Hewitt Handguns in July, 1992, the company got nervous and canceled the contract, leaving Koresh holding an inventory of 48 completed AR-15's which he was neither licensed to own nor sell.

Clash of Destinies

That fateful Sunday, when Sarabyn took the call from Rodriguez, he looked around his command center at Texas State Technical College. On the tarmac three helicopters -- a Blackhawk and two Jet Rangers -- were warming up. ATF had obtained the helicopters and several Bradley fighting vehicles by concocting a phony story about a methamphetamine lab (the drug connection was necessary for a civilian police agency to obtain use of military weapons and personnel).

Their search warrant would expire on Sunday. Sarabyn had reserved 153 Waco hotel rooms for Sunday night and ordered thirty dozen donuts for the Civic Center, where 80 late-model, four-door black sedans with extra antennas had arrived, putting the assault force 9 miles from Mt. Carmel. The heavily armed, "Death Squad"-suited agents were milling around the parking lot in full view of the highway. A half dozen reporters were en route to the site of the raid. It was now or never. Despite the warning from Rodriguez, Sarabyn gave the go-ahead. The code-word for the operation was "Showtime."

The command team flew to the Civic Center where Sarabyn told the agents that Koresh was expecting them and they had to hurry. The assault force loaded into two cattle trailers and headed for their date with destiny. In the truck pulling the first trailer, Sarabyn kept radio contact with his second in command, James Cavanaugh, in the undercover house. The two cattle trucks passed two press vehicles parked about a quarter of a mile from the ranch. The press vehicles followed the ATF convoy up to the front of the Center.

David Koresh dialed 911. After consulting the police, the operator advised him that federal agents were coming; he should step outside and surrender. He hung up. As the agents inched closer to the front of the building, the door opened and Koresh stepped out. He was unarmed and holding his left hand upraised. He said: "What's going on? There are women and children here." A shot was heard. Koresh ducked back in the steel door as the front of the ATF line erupted with gunfire.

The first shot may have been the ATF shooting itself in the foot. As the assault team climbed to the roof, the lead agent on one ladder reached for his pistol and accidentally discharged it while still in the holster, wounding himself in the leg. The shot may have sounded to agents and reporters in the front of the building as if it had come from within the compound. After the ATF riddled the steel front door with armor-piercing bullets, they paused to allow agents to advance, break the first floor windows and throw in concussion grenades.

After the explosions, some church members began returning fire. They had rifles, shotguns and pistols, but videotape makes clear they had no automatic weapons and no grenades. Several of the agents wounded in the initial barrage were struck by friendly fire. One agent crouched behind a truck was struck in the head by a shot probably fired from the undercover house, 260 yards away. Three others were wounded after they entered the upstairs gun locker and found themselves in an empty room, all of the guns having been taken to a gun show. They saw what they thought was a figure in the shadows and fired. Hearing the gunfire, the agent behind them tossed a grenade into the small space and then shot his rifle into the room without looking, striking one of the agents inside. He was then hit in the head by fully automatic fire coming back from the three agents inside.

Some of the agents in the front of the building recalled that they first thought bullets were coming from the building, but then realized they were coming from all directions. ATF agent Rick Cook said, "It was surreal." Wayne Martin, a 42-year-old black lawyer in Waco who knew many of those in the Sheriff's Department, redialed 911.

"There are men, 75 men around our building shooting at us," said Martin. "Tell them there are children and women in here and to call it off." Lt. Larry Lynch, of the county sheriff's department, apparently unsure of what was unfolding, came to the telephone. "Hello, I hear gunfire. Oh shit, hello, who is this? Hello?"

Martin: "Call it off!"

Lynch: "Who is this? Hello? Hello? God Almighty!"

Martin: "Help! We're being attacked! This is the Mt. Carmel Center! We're under attack!"

The 911 operator disconnected them. A few minutes later, Koresh redialed 911, noting that he had been trying to call in.

"This is who?" asked a dispatcher.

"David Koresh, Mount Carmel Center. We're being shot up all out here," Koresh said, as Lynch returned to the telephone. "You killed some of my children. We told you we wanted to talk... There is a bunch of us dead and a bunch of you guys dead. Now, now, that's your fault."

Lynch: "Okay, let's try to resolve this now. Tell me this, now, you have casualties, how many casualties, do you want to try to work something out? ATF is pulling back, we're trying to, uhm--"

Koresh: "Why didn't you do that first?"

Lynch: "Okay, all I'm, all I'm doing is handling communications. I can't give you that answer, David...."

Koresh: "Yeah, well, really. let me tell you something."

Lynch: "Okay."

Koresh: "In our great country here, the United States, you know God has given us a rich history of patriotism. We're not trying to be bad guys."

Lynch was trying to reach Cavanaugh or anyone in authority at the ATF command post, but they would not respond. Martin came back on the speaker phone.

Martin: "I'm under fire!"

Lynch: "Are you hurt?"

Martin: "I'm okay."

Lynch: "Wayne, cease firing. Do you hear me, Wayne? Cease firing."

After a long pause, with only the sound of gunfire, Martin came back on. "I have a right to defend myself. (pause) They started shooting. (pause) They started firing first. There are women and children in here!"

Lynch: "Let's try and resolve this. I'm trying to make contact with the forces out there."

"Stop firing!" Off phone, Lynch hears Martin say, "Stan, don't return fire, okay?" There is a distant reply. "We haven't been." Then a storm of gunfire. "They are attacking us again!"

Lynch: "No, they're not!"

Martin: "Yes, they are! Don't call me a liar!"

Contrary to their intelligence assessment, ATF was not dealing with a "destructive cult" of compliant, brainwashed robots. Douglas Wayne Martin was a graduate of Harvard Law School. He had a wife and seven children. For seven years he was an assistant professor at the North Carolina Central University School of Law. Many who knew Wayne Martin describe him as a quiet, jovial and religious person, and found it hard to believe he could have been involved in anything so violent. He was routinely described as professionally competent in court. "It was common knowledge that he was a Davidian," said McLennan County Commissioner Lester Gibson, "but he never talked religion."

Most of the Seven Seals group of Seventh Day Adventists had come to their beliefs through a lifetime of religious instruction. They firmly believed that powers of evil were loose in the world that denied God and his judgment. They felt that as God's chosen disciples, they would be attacked by the godless Babylonians and needed to arm themselves for their own defense. The raid only confirmed the Bible's message. What occurred in Waco was a collision between two passionately held violent world views; one based in biblical prophecy, the other in the myth of the American west. Neither understood the basic symbols and values of the other.

The gunfire continued unabated for over an hour. Only when the ATF ran out of ammunition did the agents take the call from Lt. Lynch, who negotiated a cease fire with Wayne Martin. In the following days, ATF agents accused administrators of covering up details of the raid.

When the assault team retreated, it was overwhelmed by the carnage. There were at least 32 casualties, many from "friendly fire", and there was no plan for helping the wounded. By 12:30 the government's wounded were beginning to reach hospitals. For those left inside, their wounded dying, their dead unburied, the ordeal had only just begun. David Koresh told his followers what would be coming next. The chariots with flaming torches foretold in the Book of Nahum: armored vehicles and military tanks.

The Siege

While the ATF's second in command negotiated a cease fire, the incident commander, Phillip Chojnacki, was on the phone to Washington. The ATF Director's first reaction was to task three more teams of special agents to the scene, but, with overall commander Chuck Sarabyn nowhere to be found, Chojnacki asked his superiors to request an FBI hostage rescue team. When the FBI's special agent in charge, Jeffrey Jamar, arrived at 5:30 pm, he found the ATF in disarray. Jamar had no special training for hostage rescue or siege negotiations and his lack of sensitivity to the situation would be critical to the eventual outcome. Jamar informed Washington that the FBI needed to take command of the site.

Treasury Secretary Benson and Deputy Secretary Altman briefed Bill Clinton on the events in Waco immediately after video footage hit CNN. But rather than a realistic summary, they gave Clinton a heavy dollop of ATF propaganda: dozens of women and children held hostage by a paramilitary cult led by a violent and brainwashing "prophet" armed to the teeth with machine-guns and explosives. Now he had killed four agents who peacefully served a lawful search warrant.

Clinton expressed two basic concerns: (1) to insure the safety of the children, and (2) to negotiate the peaceful surrender of Koresh and his followers. This became the FBI's ostensible mandate. However, within a week, site commander Jamar had formulated an "emergency assault plan".

Jamar's weapon of choice was not tear gas -- not even a gas at all. It was CS (O-chlorobenzalmalononitrile) a fine particulate banned from warfare by the Chemical Weapons Convention. Use for domestic law enforcement is against international law and numerous UN human rights conventions. Military branches which use CS are advised by the label that it is lethal in closed areas and should never be used indoors. Moreover, CS in aerosol is extremely flammable, and can be explosive in closed spaces. When burned or mixed with water, it produces a witches' brew of by-products, including hydrogen chloride, carbon monoxide, and hydrogen cyanide. Jamar's "emergency plan," was an abandonment of the two prime objectives.

FBI's behavioral scientists arrived from Washington and advised that the usual strategy -- coupling negotiations with increasing tactical pressure -- was inapplicable, and that this strategy could "eventually be counterproductive and could result in the loss of life. Every time his followers sense movement of tactical personnel, Koresh validates his prophetic warnings that an attack is forthcoming and they are going to have to defend themselves."

The Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) called upon two regular consultants from the FBI's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime to analyze Koresh. While these psychiatrists specialize in criminal behavior and have no expertise in religious charismatics, they recommended, "Since these people fear law enforcement, [FBI should] offer them the opportunity of surrendering to a neutral party of their choosing accompanied by appropriate law enforcement personnel."

Jamar rejected the advice and ordered that the recommendations be redrawn to favor increasing tactical pressure. Jamar and his superiors viewed the group's religious beliefs as a convenient cover. He continued to refer to the people in the compound as hostages, ironically ignoring that they were his hostages.

Dutifully, the FBI's behavioral scientists redrew their recommendations to suggest ways of increasing the discomfort levels inside the church including interrupting water and power, moving equipment and manpower suddenly, controlling television and radio reception, and cutting off negotiations.

Later, Jamar made sure that the Justice Department investigative panel was provided with only the rewrite, that tagged Koresh an ordinary criminal, a "con man" whose followers were "dupes."

Having gotten the recommendations he wanted, Jamar began his 2-month reign of terror. He brought up psy-ops equipment from Ft. Hood -- HumVees outfitted to carry loudspeakers and spotlights. For 24 hours a day, he broadcast obnoxious sounds at the church: high-decibel oscillations, a telephone busy signal, rabbits being slaughtered, elevator music, Tibetan chanting and more. Using U.S. and British Special Forces, he placed wireless television bugs in virtually every room inside the church and obtained infrared images from specially-equipped overflights. The FBI even used Russian psychics to beam disorienting and discouraging messages at the church.

Within the first few days of the siege, Koresh's lawyer, Dick DeGuerin, arrived at the scene but was turned away at an ATF roadblock. His attempts to telephone Jamar were unsuccessful and he was told to "write a letter." DeGuerin wrote to Jamar requesting to confer with his client. Jamar denied the request.

On March 22nd, Jamar called a strategy meeting. He viewed the tactics to date as modestly successful. Several dozen church members had surrendered and there was an average of 2 new surrenders each day. But from eavesdropping surveillance he knew that many of those remaining were only becoming more committed. Jamar recommended "stress escalation", and failing that, execution of the emergency plan.

On March 26, Jamar gave Koresh a noon deadline to send out 10 more individuals. When none came out, he bulldozed the church members' parked cars, and used helicopters to shine searchlights and blare loud music at the compound throughout the night. Fixed loudspeakers emitted a barrage of laughter, squawking birds, and sirens. On March 28, he cleared away all cars, trees, fences and other obstructions around the buildings.

The next day Jamar allowed Koresh to speak to his lawyer. On April 1st, DeGuerin obtained Koresh's commitment to surrender following Passover. He advised Jamar that he had instructed his client not to speak with the FBI except to arrange the surrender, but Jamar refused to recognize the attorneys' instructions, and kept the loudspeakers on.

On April 6, Steve Schneider called the negotiators and complained about sacrilegious music from the loudspeakers during Passover. The FBI disconnected him. The next morning, Schneider left the church and walked out toward the FBI forward command post. FBI snipers threw flash grenades, forcing him back inside. An hour later, Koresh advised the negotiators that Passover would continue for 7 more days.

On April 9th, Steve Schneider again walked toward the armored vehicles which contained the forward negotiating team. FBI snipers again threw flash grenades at him, forcing him to retreat. Schneider phoned the negotiators and screamed that he should be allowed to meet with them. Seconds later, he again approached the vehicles. Again he was "flash-banged."

At the end of the day, Jamar asked Washington for permission to initiate the "emergency plan." White House Chief of Staff Mac McLarty took it up with President Clinton on April 11th. On April 13, a White House meeting took place. Justice Department's Webster Hubbell was asked why the FBI had changed its mind about negotiating until Koresh surrendered. Hubbell said that it was because Quantico's only HRT had been in Waco for a month longer than expected, and both Sage and Jamar's assessment was that negotiations would produce no further results. Hubbell pushed for the assault.

The President wanted the military to review the assault plan. The next day Janet Reno met with commanders of Delta Force, other military representatives, four Justice Department lawyers, seven FBI officials including Director William Sessions, and Dr. Harry Salem, who was brought in to assess the effects of CS gas on children.

"I find it hard to accept a deliberate plan to insert CS gas for 48 hours in a building with so many children. It certainly makes it more difficult to believe that the health and safety of the children was our primary concern. Based on my own medical knowledge and review of the scientific literature, the information supplied to [Reno] seems to minimize the potential harmful consequences for infants and children."
"If you keep laboratory animals in that atmosphere long enough--40 minutes to an hour--then _all_ will develop pulmonary edema and die.... When you get it in your lungs, it inflames it, fluid gets into your lungs and you develop pneumonia... the [one recorded case of this kind of exposure] was saved by intensive care, positive pressure and all the rest, for 28 days. If all these babies _had_ come out, where was the equipment to put them into intensive care?
-- Dr. Alan Stone, outside reviewer for the Justice Department.
After questioning Salem, Reno was persuaded that CS was non-lethal and would not permanently harm the children or pregnant women. When she asked why the standoff had to be resolved soon, Rogers and others fed her four lies:

* Koresh had broken every promise he had made;
* negotiations had broken down;
* no one had been released since March 23rd; and
* it appeared no one else would surrender.

Reno said she was not yet ready to make the decision.

Unbeknownst to Reno, on April 15, several individual church members attempted to leave the compound and were "flash-banged" back by the FBI. On April 16, Koresh advised Jamar that he had completed interpreting the first of the Seven Seals, and he would surrender when he had finished interpreting the remaining Seals. Jamar asked Koresh to put it in writing, then checked with Koresh's lawyer, Dick DeGuerin, about how long it might take Koresh to complete the Seven Seals. "A week or two" was DeGuerin's estimate, adding that the tapes he had been allowed to send in from religious scholars had persuaded Koresh to come out and survive as a messenger instead of dying as a martyr. Jamar assured DeGuerin that the negotiations had "all the time in the world."

Jamar knew the church members had only 16 ounces of water per person per day, and that could be stopped at any time if HRT snipers were told to put holes in the one remaining water tank.

Jamar gave the surrender letter to Larry Potts. Potts passed Koresh's offer to surrender up the chain of command to Janet Reno.

The Pizza Meeting

On April 16, Special Assistant Hubbell met with Deputy Assistant Attorney General Mark Richard and Public Affairs Director Carl Stern. Hubbell told Richard, who was serving as FBI-liaison, that Reno had disapproved the attack plan. Richard didn't like it.

Stern commented that the plan might be viewed by the public as something akin to Saddam Hussein gassing the Kurds. This infuriated Richard, who said the FBI would not be pleased, but it would accept Reno's decision, and would be asking for permission to withdraw its HRT.

After Richard crossed the street to the Hoover Building, Director Sessions called Reno and asked her to reconsider.

On April 17th, Louis Alaniz, who had snuck into the church after the raid, managed to sneak back out. He got past the FBI inner perimeter and was taken into custody at the outer perimeter, a mixed force of FBI, ATF, National Guard, Sheriff's deputies, and Texas Rangers. He was the first church member to successfully surrender since Jesse Amen managed to get out on April 4th.

Later, church member Graham Craddock would comment, "These are people who lowered their trousers and bent over, exposing their backsides to us. Do you think we wanted to send our children to these people?"

That night, Janet Reno met in her office with her closest aides over pizza. It was Saturday night and Washington was growing quiet. Her lights burned late because now Waco had her full attention.

William Sessions crossed the street from his office in the inner sanctum of the gargantuan J. Edgar Hoover Building and took the back elevator to Reno's cramped corner office.

Reno leaned over her desk and asked him what the FBI would do if children were endangered, such as being held up to windows or threatened to be shot. He said the FBI would "back off" in such an event, but that once the action was underway, tactical decisions would be in the hands of the site commander.

Reno knew the site commander would be the same man who commanded the Randy Weaver standoff at Ruby Ridge. Whether or not she had learned that a homicide indictment against her site commander was being considered by an Idaho Grand Jury, she didn't like the idea of giving him tactical control.

"Not good enough. I want you to get the hell out of there. Don't take any risks with the children." Reno said.

Reno still hadn't approved the raid. Sessions leaned a little harder. He would not leave his people there indefinitely. Reno didn't budge.

Someone made a comment that Koresh was beating babies. Reno's face flushed and she demanded to know what that meant. She was told that the FBI had learned through its listening devices that the church members were "beating babies."
"Only when there is clear evidence of criminal wrongdoing can authorities intervene in the free exercise of religion, and only then with appropriately low levels of intrusiveness."

-- Nancy T. Ammerman, an outside reviewer for the Justice Dept.


Her analysis was not published in the official report.

Reno had been previously informed that Koresh had sexually abused minors, and that he continued to have sex while recovering from his wounds. She knew that sanitary conditions had deteriorated, something that would cause the health of the infants to suffer. Maybe all the pressure had pushed him over the edge?

No one told Reno that child psychiatrists and social workers had extensively interviewed and "de-programmed" all of the dozens of children who had left during the two-month siege and had produced not a shred of evidence of any abuse, sexual or otherwise. Given crayons and asked to draw what they remembered of the February 28th attack, the children drew pictures of helicopters shooting from the sky. Rapid taps of the crayon tips drew holes in the roof of their house.

Abruptly, Reno changed her mind and approved the FBI attack plan. The execution was set for Monday morning. Some of those present were able to finish their pizza. Janet Reno could not.

Marching Orders

The limited plan approved by Reno was to send two Combat Engineering Vehicles (CEVs) inside the HRT's concertina wire just before sunrise. A CEV is an M60 tank which has been modified with a boom to assist in knocking down walls and delivering CS gas. Each CEV would be equipped to project CS using the Mark 5 delivery system -- 15 one second bursts per charge, 6 charges per vehicle, each burst propelled 55 feet by a specially-modified flame thrower. There were enough backup materials at the site for 1800 bursts per vehicle. After the CEVs delivered aerosol CS, a Bradley vehicle near the building would deliver ferret liquid CS rounds into an unfinished construction area near the main structure, to deny access to this zone by church members.

It was hoped that by introducing CS at opposite ends of the compound, church members would be forced out the front door and surrender. If firing commenced from the compound, the Bradleys would deliver liquid ferret rounds into all windows and openings in the church. These were 40 mm shells delivered by grenade launchers that can penetrate a wall or hollow door from 20 yards away.

The vehicles would then stand down and wait. If all church members failed to exit the church after 48 hours, the CEVs would begin disassembling the church and continue until all occupants were located.

Church members who exited the compound and surrendered would be moved in an orderly fashion to a designated area behind the vehicles where they would be searched and turned over to waiting ATF personnel for handcuffing and transport.

Children would be escorted to representatives of the Texas Child Welfare Protective Services who would be manning portable shower stalls to wash away the CS residues. The children would be given fresh clothing and escorted to a waiting shelter.

An orbiting helicopter with SWAT personnel aboard would apprehend and arrest subjects attempting to flee from the site. The plan called for controlled arrests over a two day period. There was no urgency.

"This is not an Attack"

At dawn on Monday, HRT Commander Rogers ordered the plan into action. As the two CEVs moved inside the wire, Rogers moved his command tank to a position approximately 240 yards directly in front of the church. FBI negotiator Byron Sage phoned the compound at 05:59 am. "We're in the process of putting tear gas into the building. This is not an assault. We will not enter the building." The person on the other end threw the phone out the window.

FBI recordings later showed that at about this time, Koresh and others inside began assembling molotov cocktails to throw at the tanks. From a conversation with Steve Schneider the day before, negotiators knew there was no fire protection within the building. Had the senior commanders known of the incendiary devices, they might have called off the tank assault. Unfortunately, no one was monitoring the tape devices at 6 am.

Sage began reading a prepared script over the loudspeakers: "We are in the process of placing tear gas into the building. This is not an assault. We are not entering the building. This is not an assault ... you are under arrest. The standoff is over. We do not want anyone hurt. Follow all instructions. This is not an assault. Do not fire any weapons. We do not want anyone hurt."

What the FBI was saying and what the combined force was doing were two distinctly different things.

Later, under cross-examination at the murder trial, FBI agent Tom Rowan said he saw a "man with a shoulder weapon" firing out of a window at the CEVs. He said that he "kept firing gas canisters at the window until the man stopped shooting."

Rowan testified he used his launcher to fire a flash-bang at "an area where someone in aerial surveillance had seen a person coming out of a door or window." Rowan said that everyone's orders were to keep the church members inside the church.

By 06:31, the HRT reported that the entire building had been gassed. By 07:09, "the HRT reported that the Ferret rounds had been delivered through all the windows ... where movements or gunfire were detected."

That should have ended it, but HRT members used their 400 ferret rounds so quickly that the FBI's command center in Washington sent out a bulletin at 07:45, "canvass[ing] all FBI field offices to locate more Ferret rounds." By 09:20, the FBI's Houston field office had delivered an additional 48 Ferret rounds to the scene.

The FBI attack plan had called for the Texas Child Welfare Protective Services to be present. At 9:30 am, Joyce Sparks received a call at home from the governor's office, asking why she was not out at the compound. She said she had not heard the attack was underway. She immediately placed a call to the FBI office but was told she didn't need to come, that there would be no one coming out. She hung up the phone and turned to her husband. "They intend to kill them all," she told him. There would be no showers or change of clothes waiting for the children.

At 10:00, Reno left her command post in Washington for a scheduled luncheon appearance in Baltimore. Her departure could not have come at a worse time. Almost as soon as she was out of the situation room, violence against the church by the armored vehicles escalated dramatically.

Instead of standing down for 48 hours and letting the gas do its work, the two vehicles moved in aggressively to attack any location where the infrared cameras or television bugging devices indicated that church members were hiding. One tank took up a position blocking the trap door to a root cellar, which would have provided safety for church members if they could have reached it.

At 11:30, on Rogers' orders, CEV-2 breached the back side of the compound, concentrating on the corner of the building above the cellar where the FBI knew that the women and children had gathered to escape the CS gas. It was standing room only for the cellar's occupants, wet blankets over their heads, infants cradled in their arms, coughing and wheezing from hours of intense gassing. As the smoke, toxic gases and heat began to increase, some of those standing in the cellar began to collapse. Those still able began to recite the 23rd Psalm, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want..."

Ordered to clear a path to the cellar, the tank plunged into the gymnasium and bulldozed its way through the two-story-high structure as the roof and walls caved in. The tank operators felt the floor give way, showering those inside with large chunks of jagged concrete. They backed CEV-2 out before it could plunge through the floor into the writhing mass of bodies below. As they backed, the tank knocked over lanterns and cans of fuel, and crushed a pressurized tank filled with liquid propane.

In the cellar were Audrey Martinez, 13, and three other girls ranging in ages from 2 to 14, a 7-year-old boy, a l-year-old too badly burned to determine its sex, and Rosemary Morrison, 29--all buried alive before any fire reached them.

Two sisters, Jennifer and Katherine Andrade, aged 19 and 24 years respectively, died from inhaling toxic fumes, as did 17 others found later. Four others nearby died from blunt trauma. Rebecca Saipaia, 24, and a young man were burned to death. An unidentified 2-year-old boy, specified in the Justice report as "Doe 33," reportedly died of a stab wound to the left chest, although the principal pathologist suggested the cause was a puncture wound from falling debris.

Nine died from gunshot wounds, including 9-year-old Abigail Martinez and two unidentified children, a 6-year-old girl and an infant. It is an open question whether these bodies were shot where they were found or were pushed into their final position by the CEVs which systematically bulldozed the burning church complex into a central pyre.

Instants after their mothers, Aisha Gyarfas and Nicole Gent, expired, two infants were born through the process of a primordial biological survival reflex. Both lived only moments before succumbing to gas, falling concrete, and fire.

FBI line agents admitted later they had orders to return fire if fired upon and that once the CEVs began disassembling the building, the attack force had come under fire. Videotape footage shows 21 adults attempting to exit from the building at one time or another. James Riddle, Stephen Henry, Neal Vaega, Lisa Marie Farris, and Abigail Martinez died of gunshot wounds to the forehead. Phillip Henry and Novellette Hipsman, both British citizens, died of gunshot wounds to their foreheads and chests. Mary Jean Borst died of a gunshot wound to the back. Five unidentified church members, aged 30, 25, 15, 12, and 6, died of gunshot wounds to the head and chest. A 30 to 50 year old female died of multiple gunshot wounds to the left back and thorax. An infant died of a gunshot wound to the head.

Audiotape recordings made by the FBI but excluded from the trial jury as prejudicial provide a poignant tableau: the sounds of grumbling tank engines and clanking tracks, followed by the sound of splintering wood, crashing walls and roaring gas. Then the sounds of men and women praying fervently, and little children--all of them now dead--crying out in terror for mom and dad. Then the loud-speaker voice of FBI Special Agent Byron Sage, repeating over and over, "This is not an attack. This is not an attack."

Showdown in San Antonio

Nine church members escaped the burning building. Within a few days, a 10-count indictment charged 12 church members with federal firearms violations, murder, and conspiracy. The conspiracy charge allowed the government to hold 3 defendants who were not even present at the raid.

Judge Walter Smith, a close personal friend of the FBI Director, ruled out use of the 911 tape; challenges to the legality of the warrants; the requirement and service and execution of a warrant; the use of the words "assault" or "attack" in reference to ATF actions; discussion of the church members killed by the ATF agents; or any use of the Treasury or FBI reports analyzing the mistakes made in the raid. These pre-trial rulings would lead to sustained objections whenever defense questions could be interpreted as suggesting governmental misconduct.

Nonetheless, Texas Ranger Captain David Byrne testified that his crime scene processing team was kept at bay after the fire while the ATF was "obviously altering outside evidence. I disagreed with that." On the witness stand, Byrne expressed his concern that ATF agents had salted the scene with bogus evidence.

At later Congressional hearings, it would be revealed that the Department of Justice had halted the Treasury Department after-action shooting investigation of the February 28 raid when it became apparent that the ATF agents' stories didn't jibe with the facts. The U.S. Attorney also forbade Texas Rangers from interviewing anyone in command of the initial assault.

Texas Ranger Sergeant Fred Cummings revealed that half of Mount Carmel's metal double front-door was missing--the half publicly identified as key evidence because the "spray pattern" of entry holes confirmed that ATF fired a burst of machine gun fire at Koresh as he tried to surrender. He also acknowledged that he observed "trash" being loaded into a dumpster by FBI agents before the scene was processed for evidence.

Koresh's handiwork for Hewitt Handguns, 48 fully automatic rifles, were paraded before the jury, but despite all the talk of .50 caliber machineguns--ostensibly the reason for keeping 1000 reporters at a barricade 2 miles from Mt. Carmel--none were in evidence.

Denied nearly all subpoenas, defense attorneys called only 11 witnesses. In his summation, defense attorney Dan Cogdell said: "Ninety people lost their lives in the name of gun parts. Make no mistake, [government officials] want us to pay for their mistakes."

Doug Tinker, the soft-spoken senior attorney, concluded, "The government showed that they have gas masks. And they did. The adults had gas masks. The children didn't. They don't fit children, folks. They don't fit children and the evidence will show that CS gas kills children. The government used CS gas. I'm proud of our country, but I'm not proud of what they did here. They killed children."

After just 3 days of deliberation, all 11 defendants were acquitted of murder and conspiracy. Seven were found guilty on lesser charges (possessing a firearm during the commission of a violent crime) and the others were cleared completely. Smith said the jury had misunderstood his instructions. He dismissed the lesser verdicts on count three because they were predicated on the murder and conspiracy charges, of which all defendants were acquitted. Jurors later said their finding of guilt on the lesser charge reflected their conclusion that neither side was blameless.

A week later, in a bizarre ruling, Smith reversed the jury and his own ruling and entered guilty verdicts against 7 defendants. The group as a whole received 240 years, 170 on charges of which the jury had found them innocent. Fines and restitution totaled $9,675,500. Jury foreman Sarah Bain was weeping outside the courtroom as she told reporters, "I'm extremely upset, and at least two thirds of the jury will be as upset as I am." Another juror told the N.Y. Times, "The judge ignored the jury's conclusions."

The 51-day siege had cost federal taxpayers an estimated $13 million, not including state costs, or costs for the use of military equipment and personnel. The trial cost another $1.3 million, and the CS gas an estimated $20 million.

The Legacy

On April 22nd, Bill Clinton responded to criticism for the deaths at Waco, saying, "I do not think the United States government is responsible for the fact that a bunch of fanatics decided to kill themselves," he growled. "The bureau's efforts were ultimately unavailing because the individual with whom they were dealing, David Koresh, was dangerous, irrational and probably insane... Mr. Koresh's response to the demands for his surrender by Federal agents was to destroy himself and murder the children who were his captives as well as all the other people there who did not survive.

"I hope... that others who will be tempted to join cults and become involved with people like Koresh will be deterred by the horrible scenes they have seen...There is, unfortunately, a rise in this sort of fanaticism all over the world. And we may have to confront it again."

When asked by Congressman William Hughes why the FBI would consult groups like CAN, Janet Reno replied that she was concerned about the negative affect of cults on children, that "if a child is in a cult situation for any length of time," he or she might experience "permanent damage."

This statement caused Methodist Minister Joseph Bettis to write the Attorney General, "[F]rom the beginning, members of the Cult Awareness Network have been involved in this tragedy. This organization is widely known for its use of fear to foster religious bigotry. The reliance of federal agents on information supplied by these people, as well as the whole record of federal activity deserves your careful investigation and public disclosure... Cult bashing must end, and you must take the lead."

In early May, a coalition of 16 religious and civil liberties organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Conference on Religious Movements, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Episcopal Church, the General Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists, the National Association of Evangelicals, the National Council of Churches of Christ and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations issued a statement which read in part, "We are shocked and saddened by the recent events in Waco... Under the religious liberty provision of the First Amendment, the government has no business declaring what is orthodox or heretical, or what is a true or false religion. It should steer clear of inflammatory and misleading labels. History teaches that today's 'cults' may be tomorrow's mainstream religions."

While there are many lessons to be learned from Waco, and few have yet to penetrate the corridors of the Justice and Treasury Departments, perhaps the most salient concern is the erosion of separation between the military and the police forces in America today. The use of psychological warfare, poison gas and pyrotechnic devices, helicopters, tanks and assault vehicles, and special operations involving the intelligence assets of other nations being deployed within the United States are ominous forewarnings of a KGB-zation of domestic police forces.

To Americans fed up with crime in the inner cities and frustrated with a punishment system that serves to create more criminals and increase their effectiveness, the escalation to military levels seems a justifiable progression. But to those of us for whom the Constitution still holds the promise of a free society, where innocence is presumed and the government is one of strictly limited powers, the leap is too far, too brutal, and too difficult to rescind. David Koresh may have been deluded, or he may have been a prophet. He, and those with him, didn't deserve what America dished up.

At his worst, David Koresh was a pedophile and a petty tyrant who held his followers and his children too closely to him after he had been marked for death. At his best, David Koresh was a modern-day martyr in the mold of John Brown, calling upon the federal government to face up to its secret sins or plunge into civil rebellion. If the latter interpretation is justified, we ignore what happened in Waco at our peril.

As hearings on Waco resumed in Congress, the convicted church members were being shuttled between separate federal prisons. Some remain defiant of authority and are tormented by their captors, who mock their religion, refuse them showers and yard privileges and harass them mercilessly. Thirty-six-year-old Livingston Fagan, who has a masters degree in Theology, describes his experience in Terre Haute: "I had my feet kicked from under me. On one occasion, I was thrown to the floor. I had my clothes stripped from off me. I was chained hands and feet and then on my back, I was in a crouching position and this guy went on to point out to me that if I did not obey him, I would be treated like a bitch. It was very clear that this individual was going beyond the call of duty." Refusing work, refusing strip searches, refusing to speak when spoken to, Fagan and others are made to go naked, left in isolation cells, and refused outside communications.

But as Paul Fatta told a reporter recently, "I'm suffering. I don't like it. I want to be outside. But there are promises in scripture... that's what I'm waiting for. Whether I'm out there in the so-called free world, it really doesn't matter. I'm beyond that. The issue to us is relative to what God is doing, not what man is doing. Man has already demonstrated his willing incompetence."


Albert Bates

Some other works by Albert Bates available on-line:

Back to | The Farm | Intentional Communities