Final Paper

University of Mary washington


The Truth


Alex Young


Professor Nabil Al-Takriti


I hereby declare upon my word of honor that I have neither given nor received unauthorized help on this work.  Signature:












            The story of the siege at Waco is a story of extremes.  In the nearly twenty years since the siege in Waco, Texas captured the nation’s attention; there has been no shortage of opinions, commentary, or analysis about what happened.  When an event of such size, scope, and significance occurs, the standard rule is that a certain amount of time has to elapse before we can begin to see it with clarity.  This standard is what is referred to as the concept of historical distance.  However, the further away this particular event becomes, the more we seem to lose grasp of the situation with clarity.  At the very least there are two factions: one argues that the Branch Davidians were a group of brainwashed cultists who committed suicide.  The other says that the federal government overstepped its authority and killed people needlessly.  The actual story, however, is much more complicated and intricate than just these two views.

            Here are the basic facts: on February 28, 1993, agents of the federal law enforcement agency the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, or ATF, sought to execute a search warrant on the property of a place known as Mount Carmel Center ten miles northeast of Waco, Texas.[1] It was home to a small Pentecostal sect identified simply as “The Branch Davidians.”[2]  The group was a split, an offshoot, of The Seventh Day Adventist Church; advent meaning the second coming of Christ.[3]  They were led by a young, dynamic, high school dropout, born a bastard, whom they viewed as a messianic leader.  His name was David Koresh.[4]  The Davidians studied the Bible as literal truth, and believed that Armageddon, the Bible’s final conflict between God’s chosen people and forces of an armed apostate power called “Babylon,” was nigh.[5]  A gun battle ensued between the ATF and the Davidians that would become the longest standoff in U.S. law enforcement history.[6]  The end result was four agents and six Davidians were killed, along with many others wounded.[7]  Afterwards, a 51 day siege was waged between the Davidians and the Federal Government. 

            On April 19, 1993, after 51 days of standoff, Federal Agencies of the ATF and FBI led a final assault on the Branch Davidian complex, Mount Carmel, using tanks and teargas.[8]  In the end, the building erupted in flames. On the day of the final assault there were 83 Davidians left inside Mount Carmel.  Among them 74 died in the fire, including 21 children (plus two stillborn fetuses), and nine survived.[9] 

            The conventional narrative that the general public knows is that the Branch Davidians were a cult led by a charismatic shepherd whose apocalyptic vision led his flock to their fate, which ended in a fiery mass suicide.[10]  Over the course of the last twenty years, a body of new information has come to the fore that has led many to dig deeper into the nature of what exactly happened.  So much surrounding the specifics of the events that happened during the siege in Waco has been a source of fierce debate and even more intense speculation.  So much so, in fact, that it is difficult to separate the facts from the fiction.

            In order to understand the historical and cultural significance of the events in Waco in the spring of 1993, one must understand the events that both preceded and followed in its wake.  During the 1980s and 90s, a new wave of social, political, and religious radicalism swept across the American landscape.  Led by extreme rightwing elements, primarily associated with Neo-Nazis and the Militia Movement, most of these individuals centered their efforts and livelihood in rural parts of the American Midwest.[11]

            In August, 1992, survivalist Randy Weaver and his family remained held up in his remote mountaintop cabin, due to his refusal to appear for federal firearms charges.  An eleven day standoff ensued between the Weavers and the Federal Government.  In the end, three people died: a U.S. Marshall, Weaver’s wife Vicky, and his fourteen year old son Sammy.[12]  Afterwards, it was determined that the Federal Government had overstepped its authority and issued a financial settlement with the Weavers.[13]

            In March, 1993, during the standoff in Waco, a young army officer and survivalist traveled to Waco to see what was happening.  His name was Timothy McVeigh.  Two years to the day after the fiery inferno consumed the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, McVeigh brought his revenge to Oklahoma City.  This led to the deaths of 168 people, including nineteen children.  McVeigh, when asked later, cited the events at Ruby Ridge, Idaho and Waco, Texas as being his two primary motivations for bombing the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.[14]

            In the immediate aftermath of the tragic events in Waco, most media accounts of the Davidians took their lead from the official reports issued by the FBI in their daily press conferences.  A prime example of this is Clifford L. Linedecker’s book Massacre at Waco Texas: The Shocking True Story of Cult Leader David Koresh & the Branch Davidians (1993) first published in July, 1993.  Only three months after the siege ended.  This was well before any real time had passed in order for any real sort of perspective on these events could evolve.  This makes Linedecker’s treatise highly questionable in its analysis.  This is only one of “several books, all essentially supportive of the government’s positions, published by commercial houses in the wake of the April 19th fire.”[15]  Although while his book is characteristic of what people thought at the time, and continue to think even now, this left out much of the story.  Members of the media were never allowed to come and talk directly to the Davidians and allow them tell their side of the story without going through the FBI.  Due in no small part to this, there was never any sense of trying to tell the American public who the Davidians really were.[16]  Most of what the public saw and heard about the Davidians were either lies, misstatements, half-truths, or exaggerations.  The key point that this illustrates is that the perception and the reality do not always go hand-in-hand.  And consequently, the truth becomes skewered in the process.

Beginning in 1995, in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, which occurred two years to the day after the fire that consumed the Branch Davidian complex, new versions of the story began to be published.  These newer versions of the story sought to paint a more rounded, in-depth portrait of what actually happened.  These included works such as The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation (1995), by Dick J. Reavis, a reporter for the Dallas Observer.  Reavis gives us the story the daily press did not.  A definitive, critical, in-depth examination of “what happened at Mt. Carmel, near Waco, Texas, from both sides-the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) and the FBI on one hand, and David Koresh and his followers on the other.”[17]  In that same vein, Why Waco?: Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America (1995), by James D. Tabor and Eugene V. Gallagher, carefully studies and analyzes the theology and biblical doctrines that were central to the Davidian’s philosophy.  Lending credibility to their arguments, Tabor is a University of North Carolina religious studies professor who served as a consultant to the Davidian’s attorney’s during the siege.  That, coupled with the fact that Tabor and Gallagher challenge the notion that the Branch Davidians were a cult by speaking to how the previous two decades of anti-cult awareness shaped public perception about unconventional religious groups.  Another book that helps to underscore the importance of scratching beneath the surface of these events is Stuart A. Wright’s Armageddon in Waco: Critical Perspectives on the Branch Davidian Conflict (1995).  In his anthology of essays, Wright draws on commentaries from some of the leading scholars in sociology, history, law, and religion to explore all the facets of this confrontation.[18] 

Credence must also be paid to the role that the media played in shaping the public’s perception of what happened.  One of the first film commentaries ever made about this story was a telefilm, produced by NBC as part of a franchise, which premiered in May of 1993.  Less than a month after the siege ended.[19]  The film was titled In the Line of Duty: Ambush in Waco.  In this film, Tim Daly, of Wings fame, assumes the lead role as David Koresh.  His portrayal is very much in sync with the image most know by way of the news media in its critique of Koresh and his group.  This was based on what the Federal Government told the public in its daily press conferences.[20]  Koresh is portrayed as a fiery, fiercely megalomaniacal person.  Who will stop at nothing to bring about a final confrontation between God’s People, the Davidians, and the forces of an armed apostate power called Babylon, or the Federal Government.  The climax of the film comes at the end with an epic gun battle between the ATF and the Davidians; which shows that the Davidians fired in unison dressed in black shrouds.[21]  In the epilogue the filmmakers state that Koresh and his group “died by fire as he had willed.”[22] 

In 1997, four years after the siege and two years after this more critical body of literature began to appear, documentary filmmakers joined the discussion.  That year, William Gazecki directed an Emmy Award winning, Academy Award nominated documentary called Waco: The Rules of Engagement (1997).  This film was the first serious, sensible, critical film analysis that tried to raise public awareness of things that had been left out of much of the public discussion.  In this film, Gazecki makes great efforts to try and help clarify what really happened, what remains uncertain, and what has been made up or exaggerated.  This is achieved by drawing on eyewitness testimony, commentary from scholars and journalists, and archival and evidentiary materials.  This source helped to round out the portrait in a more nuanced, factually based manner.

In that same vein, is Jason Van Vleet’s 2003 film Waco: A New Revelation.  What distinguishes Van Vleet’s film from Gazecki’s is that A New Revelation includes the commentary of former officials of from the FBI, CIA, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army, and the Texas Rangers.  In the commentary tract, the filmmakers make reference to the fact that the officers of these agencies have been harassed.[23]  This adds another layer of intrigue to this story.

 What these sources represent is an evolution in the way this story has been considered and covered by both the media and more analytical research.

            Of course, this serves to underscore that there remain to this day many questions related to the specifics of what happened.  Who fired the first shots?  Why were tanks used against American citizens on American soil?  Why was the ATF allowed to continue its participation, along with the FBI, in the standoff?  Why was the back of Mt. Carmel closed to television cameras?[24]  Who authorized, and why is it, that toxic tear gas fired into the building on the final day of the siege; especially due to the fact that there were still 21 children in the building?  On the final day of the siege, why did the FBI say: “This is not an assault!  We will not be entering the building!” and then go knocking in the walls with tanks, including the front door?  How and who started the fire?  To this day, these questions still do not have answers.

            Over the last twenty years it is clear that our understanding of the complexity of these events has grown profoundly.  However, our understanding is greatly impeded by the fact that so much has either been lost or remains hidden.[25]  The central problem of this story is one of perspective.  Given the multitude of angles and aspects to this drama, it is crucial to note that no one side is entirely right or wrong.  Personally, I think the truth falls somewhere in the middle.  What that truth is, that remains the shade of gray.  What serves to complicate our understanding of these events, even further, is the fact that in today’s world we have a wealth of not just information, but misinformation.  In 1993, most of the American public received their news from only three to four major TV outlets.  Now in the age of the internet with all of these different media outlets there is no shortage of opinions on any given subject.  Just because someone has an opinion does not necessarily mean that they have a point.[26] 

            So what is the truth?  There are no easy answers.  We seem to be no closer to any real sort of conclusion about what really happened.  The more time passes, the more peripheral our focus becomes to the point of something myopic.  Whenever the subject of Waco comes up there are always assumptions.  Most of what seems clear is not as clear as people think.  The truth is I am not sure that we will ever know for sure what actually happened.  It becomes even more difficult as time passes for us to find out what actually happened.  This story is much more complicated than what most people assume.





Breault, Mark, & Martin King. Inside the Cult: A Member’s Chilling, Exclusive Account of

Madness and Depravity in David Koresh’s Compound. New York: Penguin Group,

Signet, 1995.


Doyle, Clive, Catherine Wessinger, & Matthew D. Wittmer. A Journey to Waco: Autobiography

of a Branch Davidian. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., 2012.


Haldeman, Bonnie, & Catherine Wessinger. Memories of the Branch Davidians: The

Autobiography of David Koresh’s Mother. Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2007.


Hardy, David T. & Rex Kimball. This Is Not an Assault: Penetrating the Web of Official Lies

Regarding the Waco Incident. Bloomington, Indiana: Xlibris Corp, 2001.


In The Line of Duty: Ambush In Waco, DVD. Patchett Kaufman Entertainment; Directed by Dick

            Lowry, 1993; 2003.


Kopel, David B. & Paul H. Blackman. No More Wacos: What’s Wrong With Federal Law

Enforcement and How to Fix It. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1997.


Linedecker, Clifford L. Massacre at Waco, Texas: The Shocking Story of Cult Leader David

Koresh and the Branch Davidians. New York: St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 1993.


Martin, Shelia, & Catherine Wessinger. When They Were Mine: Memoirs of a Branch Davidian

Wife and Mother. Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2009.


Michel, Lou, & Dan Herbeck. American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City

Bombing. New York: Harper, 2001.


Moore, Carol. The Davidian Massacre: Disturbing Questions About Waco Which Must Be

Answered. Virginia: Gun Owners Foundation, 1995.


Newport, Kenneth G. C. The Branch Davidians of Waco: The History and Beliefs of an

Apocalyptic Sect. Oxford University Press, 2006.


Penningroth, Phil. Aug 25, 2001. Righting Waco: Confessions of a Hollywood Propagandist.

            Killing The Buddha: M’m, M’m, God!

            waco-confessions-of-a-hollywood-propagandist.htm (accessed Nov 30, 2011).


Reavis, Dick J. The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.


Stern, Kenneth S. A Force Upon the Plain: The American Militia Movement and the Politics of

Hate. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1996.



Tabor, James D. & Eugene V. Gallagher. Why Waco?: Cults and the Battle for Religious

Freedom in America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.


Thibodeau, David, & Leon Whiteson. A Place Called Waco: A Survivor’s Story. New York:

            Perseus Books Group; PublicAffairs, 1999.


Waco: A New Revelation, DVD. MGA Films, Inc.; Directed by Jason Van Vleet, 2003.


Waco: The Rules of Engagement, DVD. Fifth Estate Productions; Directed by William Gazecki,

            1997; 2003.


Walter, Jess. Ruby Ridge: The Truth and Tragedy of the Randy Weaver Family. New York:

Harper Perennial, 2002.


Wright, Stuart A. Armageddon in Waco: Critical Perspectives on the Branch Davidian

Conflict. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

[1]  The purpose of the warrant was to arrest Koresh for the possession of 48 illegally modified weapons for the purpose of distribution and profit.  Curiously however, 2/3 of the search warrant was for child abuse and statutory rape.  The ATF has no jurisdiction over the latter offenses.  Waco: The Rules of Engagement, DVD, 1997; 2003.

[2]  Waco: A New Revelation, DVD, 2003.

[3]  Waco: The Rules of Engagement, DVD, 1997; 2003.

[4]  Dick J. Reavis, The Ashes of Waco (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995)

[5]  Waco: The Rules of Engagement, DVD, 1997; 2003.

[6]  Waco: A New Revelation, DVD, 2003.

[7]  One of the six Davidians killed was one of the church elders, Perry Jones, 64; David Koresh’s legal father-in-law.  Koresh and survivor Clive Doyle reported that Perry was wounded by bullets that came through the front door.  According to survivor David Thibodeau: “I didn’t know if Perry had died from his wounds, or if he killed himself, or if he’d gotten one of the guys to put him out of his suffering.  Kathy Schroeder later claimed that Neal Vaega killed Perry as an act of mercy and that she heard David give Neal permission to do this.  Perry’s body [along with three of the other five] was preserved from damage during the fire because we buried him beneath the dirt floor of the tornado shelter, and the official autopsy reported that Perry was killed by a single bullet wound fired point-blank into his mouth.  But all of those autopsies are suspect.  Stored in a faulty cooler at the Fort Worth medical examiner’s office, Perry’s exhumed body partially decomposed before examination.”  David Thibodeau & Leon Whiteson, A Place Called Waco: A Survivor’s Story (New York: Perseus Books Group, 1999), 176-188.

[8]  The teargas used at Mt. Carmel was CS gas, which contains Methylene Chloride, not regular teargas.  Effects include, though are not limited to, nausea, vomiting, and disorientation.  “A U.S. Army toxicologist [U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno] consulted unaccountably assured her that the gas would “cause temporary distress but no lasting damage.”  And in the rush of events climaxing during the second week of April, Reno later admitted that she hadn’t known then that the U.S. was a signatory to the international convention banning the use of CS gas in warfare.”  Ibid., 257.

[9]  Ibid., 355.

[10]  Even though it has never been satisfactorily established who or how the fire was started.  In the Line of Duty: Ambush in Waco, DVD, 1993; 2003.


[11]  Specifically, parts of Montana, Colorado, and Idaho.  Kenneth S. Stern, A Force Upon the Plain: The American Militia Movement and the Politics of Hate (New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1996).

[12]  Jess Walter, Ruby Ridge: The Truth and Tragedy of the Randy Weaver Family (New York: Harper Perennial, 2002).

[13]  Lon Horiuchi, the officer who shot and killed Vicky Weaver, at Ruby Ridge, also held a sniper position at Sierra 1, the sniper post in front of Mt. Carmel, the Davidians home.  He reported that there was no sniper fire from Sierra 1 on April 19th, the final day of the siege, and there were four expended shell casings found on the floor.  Waco: A New Revelation, DVD, 2003.  Ibid.

[14]  The Davidians rebuilt their church and placed a memorial stone in recognition of the 168 lives that were taken in the Oklahoma City bombing to show that they disavow anyone killing others in the name of their lost love ones.  Lou Michel & Dan Herbeck, American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing (New York: Harper, 2001).

[15]  Dick J. Reavis, The Ashes of Waco (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 301.

[16]  Since the American media only knew what they were being told by the FBI, the story was really only one-sided in its consideration of the Davidians.  Several times during the siege, the Davidians tried to get the negotiators to allow members of the media to come in and mediate between the Davidians and the FBI due to breakdowns in the negotiating process.  Waco: The Rules of Engagement, DVD, 1997; 2003.

[17]  Ibid., Dust jacket; Front Flap.

[18]  Stuart A. Wright, Armageddon in Waco (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), Cover; Back Flap.

[19]  Phil Penningroth is the author of this film’s screenplay has since disowned it.  Penningroth,

[20]  Ibid.

[21]  While the film mentions at both the beginning and ending epilogue that the events of this film were still being investigated at the time, it still goes so far as to say that Koresh and his group “died by fire as he had willed.”  Even though it has never been satisfactorily established who or how the fire was started.  In the Line of Duty: Ambush in Waco, DVD, 1993; 2003.

[22]  In the Line of Duty: Ambush in Waco, DVD, 1993; 2003.

[23]  Waco: A New Revelation, DVD, 2003.

[24]  On the day of the final assault, there was a FLIR [Forward Looking Infrared] camera flying three miles overhead.  A FLIR camera records thermal signature patterns as opposed to a regular camera which records light.  It recorded the only footage we have of what went on at the back of Mt. Carmel.  The footage shows tanks ramming into the gymnasium and also shows thermal signatures consistent with both gunfire and pyrotechnic detonations directed into the building, even during the fire.  The fire that consumed Mt. Carmel was actually three separate fires that began in three separate locations within a three minute period, after the tanks made their last insertion of teargas into the building.  Waco: The Rules of Engagement, DVD, 1997; 2003.

[25]  Author’s Note: By hidden I mean information remains classified for various reasons.

[26]  Author’s Note: This of course brings up questions of credibility.  How do we know what constitutes a reliable source; especially when one of the players in this drama is the United States Federal Government? 

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