51 nights in Waco, Texas

This article was published by the Anderson Valley Advertiser in 1999, about events that took place six years before that. It's still pertinent, I believe, because history repeats, especially when we let the bad guys get away with murder.

The article was rewritten or edited at the AVA before publication, or before it was posted to the web many years later, and that's their right. I ain't mad at 'em. But there's no source listed for the factual claims, so I want to clarify: This was written as a review of a 1997 documentary, Waco: Rules of Engagement, after I'd spent an afternoon at the downtown San Francisco library, researching and verifying enough of the facts to convince me the documentary was legit. I'd still recommend the film, for further information and nightmares.

In the summer of 1992, a gun dealer named David Koresh sent a message to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). He asked several questions about the regulations which cover modifying certain guns, and asked the ATF to send an agent to inspect his dealership's inventory for any possible violations. The ATF never replied.

Instead, they investigated Koresh, who was also the minister of a small Christian church called the Branch Davidians. Within a few months, ATF agents obtained a search warrant by swearing to a judge that they suspected drug dealing, child abuse, and weapons violations were taking place.

Let's pause and ponder that search warrant:  

Drug dealing? The only evidence of the Davidians involvement with drugs is that a few years earlier, Koresh had found a meth lab near the church — and called the cops to report it. 

Child abuse? That's more plausible. State child welfare authorities had twice investigated charges of child abuse among the Davidians, but never arrested anyone, never pressed charges, never took custody of any children. Absolutely, investigate and prosecute as necessary. What's odd, though, is that drug dealing and child abuse would not be within the ATF's purview. Remember, it's the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. 

Weapons violations? These were at worst technicalities, a tax matter. Koresh could have been charged with re-manufacturing a few dozen guns — the modifications he had asked ATF about in the first place — but it would’ve been completely legal if a $200 fee had been paid, and paperwork filed. 

Other claims were made after the raid — that the Davidians were crazy, Koresh thought he was Jesus, they had a massive stockpile of weapons, and their buildings were a compound or a fortress or anything but a church with housing and a tornado shelter, etc. None of that was mentioned in the search warrant, though, and it’s mostly moot, ain’t it? This is America, where people are allowed to be crazy, think they’re Jesus, stockpile weapons, and fortify their homes.

When criminal activity is suspected, police agencies are supposed to investigate and, if there's sufficient evidence, make arrests, using force only when necessary. How much force should be necessary to serve a search warrant on this man, this church? 

When Child Protective Services had investigated the abuse charges, Koresh and others showed them around the village, answered their questions, and let them talk to and examine the children. 100% cooperation.

A few years earlier, when an internal squabble within the church had led to gunshots, the sheriff simply called Koresh and told him a cruiser was on the way. Koresh sat on the front steps and waited for the police to come, then rode quietly to the station for questioning. 100% cooperation.

Koresh was known to go jogging daily, and shopping in Waco at least weekly, always alone and unarmed. By all past indications, one or two agents could have knocked on the front door, shown their badges and warrant, and Koresh would've invited them in. 

That's not what happened, of course. Instead, the ATF borrowed the facilities of Fort Hood, a US Army base, and staged extensive rehearsals for a military-style raid of the Davidians’ church. And then, on the morning of February 28, 1993, more than 100 ATF agents in full combat gear arrived at the church in several flatbed trucks, while National Guard helicopters hovered overhead. Shots rang out, and soon, four ATF agents and six Davidians were dead. 

What had happened? 

The Davidians say Koresh went — unarmed — to see what the ruckus was, and was shot in a hail of bullets as soon as he opened the door. The ATF says the Davidians opened fire on them as they drove up.

Good news, though — we shouldn't have to wonder, or take anyone's word for it, because the ATF had assigned an agent with a video camera to record everything. Let's simply roll the tape and see what happened. 

There’s video footage of agents planning and gathering for the raid, agents en route to the church, agents arriving — but, curiously, there's no video footage of what happened in the first moments of the raid. The video shows ATF trucks pulling up to the church, with agents standing in flatbed trucks — but if the Davidians had opened fire with automatic weapons, as we're told, while all those agents were exposed and unprotected, it's hard to imagine the ATF death toll wouldn't have been much, much higher. 

And then the video stops. ATF says there's no video of the moment or minutes when the Davidians opened fire on them. Well, that's peculiar.

When the video starts again, agents are seen walking in the open, directly in front of Davidians' windows — not terrified, crouching behind barricades, as you would expect during or after a gun battle. 

Then there's a long, chaotic shootout, which ended two hours later — when the ATF ran out of ammunition and backed away. One must wonder, if the Davidians weren't simply defending themselves, why they let ATF agents retreat, literally waving a white flag.

After restocking on bullets, the ATF came back, accompanied by an army of FBI agents, and the Davidians refused to surrender. For 51 days, a standoff ensued. One by one, some of the Davidians came out with their hands up, and were taken off to jail. Inside, the others saw television coverage of this and it reinforced their resolve to hold out no matter what. 

Finally, on April 19, 1993, the church burnt to the ground — as the FBI ordered fire trucks to stay away. 74 people were killed, including 22 children. 

A lot of questions remain unanswered, virtually un-asked in the major media, about all this. Here are five pieces of the puzzle:

1.) It is common knowledge that a written report must be filed any time an American law enforcement officer fires a weapon in the line of duty, but no reports were filed by any of the ATF agents involved in the initial raid. According to an internal ATF memo, agents were ordered by Bill Johnston, an Assistant United States Attorney, not to investigate, and not to file reports — explicitly because of fears the evidence might show the Davidians were innocent.

2.) On the morning of the fire, FBI tanks pierced the church's walls, and pumped huge amounts of CS gas into the church, for more than six hours. CS gas is toxic and extremely flammable; the FBI had cut off the Davidians’ electricity weeks earlier, and knew that kerosene lanterns were burning in the building. When CS burns, it produces hydrogen cyanide, the same gas used in prison executions. It's a strategy that could kill in three different ways, yet the FBI maintains that the Davidians committed suicide.

3.) “The FBI never fired one shot during the entire standoff,” stern-faced agents tell us, under oath. Perhaps what they mean is, military officers did the firing, not the FBI, and they used machine guns, not “single shots,” to kill Branch Davidians trying to escape from the flames. The evidence of many, many gunshots — fired into the burning building, from outside — is plainly visible on the FBI’s infra-red heat-sensitive film of the fire.

4.) The eleven Davidians who survived were charged with the murder of four ATF agents in the initial raid — and all were acquitted, under Texas law which explicitly allows citizens to defend themselves if police officers use unreasonable force. Yet all eleven Davidians were imprisoned by US District Court Judge Walter Smith Jr., who used technicalities to simply disregard the jury's verdicts and impose his own. Can Judge Smith get away with that? Apparently he has; there's been no mention of it in the media since the sentencing, more than five years ago — and these people are still in jail.

5.) The bullet-ridden front door of the church, which might help answer the original question of who fired first during the initial raid, was taken away by authorities as evidence — and lost. And after the fire, the FBI took possession of all the evidence — and lost much of it. The ruins of the church were bulldozed before the ashes had cooled. Needless to say, this is not the typical way a crime scene is managed.

Recently, there have been revelations that the FBI lied and withheld evidence. It turns out there were tapes of certain conversations, although FBI agents have testified there weren’t. It turns out flammable objects were fired into the church before the fire, although FBI agents testified that this hadn't happened. It turns out there were FBI videotapes filming the church (from several different angles!) as the flames broke out, although the FBI had always maintained that no such video exists. A few people who were there say that someone with automatic weapons was shooting at the Davidians during the fire, despite years of FBI claims to the contrary. 

Still, its been a long time since 1993. There's been a lot of testimony, a lot of editorials, and a lot of people are tired of it. They just don't care any more.

I don't know which is worse: knowing that the American government can commit mass murder of its own citizens and cover it up, or knowing that even as the evidence mounts, the media and the public's reaction will be somewhere between a yawn and “Three cheers for the killers!”

“Both sides were wacky in Waco,” some people say, “so I’m not taking sides.” I'd say there's a big difference between citizens breaking the law (if the Davidians did) and the law breaking the law.

If we want to even pretend that a Bill of Rights protects our freedom, we should be concerned when the government disregards the Constitution and the law, and kills people with impunity, without a trial, without evidence. Even if Koresh was “wacky,” even if he wasn’t much like you or me or anyone you know, that shouldn't make it OK to kill him, along with his family and friends. Wearing a badge isn't supposed to mean the authorities can get away with murder.

edited, 8/24/2021


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  1. This is more serious than i expected to find here, you surprise me, but I agree. I am old enough to remember Waco and from day one it smelled funny.

    1. I have not re-researched anything, but it smelled funny in 1993, still smelled funny in 1999, and it still stinks.

  2. You're a conspiracy nut?

    1. I'm skeptical by nature, and reject all the top ten conspiracy theories. Evidence is required.

      When the evidence is presented, from credible sources not easily debunked, it's nuttiness to look the other way.

    2. If that's you're takeaway from reading this, and (hopefully) seeing the documentary, then I'm sad.

    3. It makes you sad that I don't rush to believe such accusations. That makes me sad.

    4. Your sadness makes me sad. Watch the film, then see if you can articulate an opinion.


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