Feds had 'Showtime' in Waco, Texas 20 years agoBill Clinton, when campaigning for president in the autumn of 1992, visited workers at an electric utility plant outside Waco, Texas. He may or may not have known that he drove past a religious compound called Mount Carmel, originally built by the Branch Davidians but controlled at that time by another Seventh-Day Adventist splinter group led by Vernon Wayne Howell, a.k.a. David Koresh.
By: William H. Benson, Regional Columnist
Bill Clinton, when campaigning for president in the autumn of 1992, visited workers at an electric utility plant outside Waco, Texas. He may or may not have known that he drove past a religious compound called Mount Carmel, originally built by the Branch Davidians but controlled at that time by another Seventh-Day Adventist splinter group led by Vernon Wayne Howell, a.k.a. David Koresh.
So immersed in apocalyptic literature were Koresh’s followers that they were armed and ready for Clinton, but his motorcade passed by without attacking them, astonishing those inside the compound.
The actual attack, code-named “Showtime,” came at 9:45 a.m. on Sunday morning, Feb. 28, 1993, 20 years ago today, when more than 75 special agents for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms approached Mount Carmel with an arrest warrant for David Koresh for violating gun laws.
Although an undercover agent named Robert Rodriguez had warned his superiors that morning that Koresh knew the attack was coming, that he had been tipped off, the agents went ahead, and walked into an ambush. David Koresh told his people to prepare themselves, that “The Assyrians are coming.”
Agents approached the front door, but Koresh slammed it shut. No one is sure who fired first, but a gun battle erupted first at the door that morning that raged for the next two hours throughout the compound while helicopters circled overhead. Four ATF agents were shot, killed and carried away.
Three of Koresh’s followers were shot and killed instantly: Peter Gent, Winston Blake and an armed woman named Jaydean Wendell. Two others were severely wounded: Perry Jones and Peter Hipsman. Forensic evidence later indicated that they were subsequently shot at close range and killed, victims of mercy killings. David Koresh was shot in the hip that morning but survived.
At 5 p.m. that evening, ATF agents shot a sixth person, Michael Schroeder, who was trying to gain access into the compound after working at his job all day.
It was a botched arrest attempt. “It was as if the agents had gone to war,” and that “the government appeared to have lost.” The media arrived with cameras, and the stand-off continued for 51 days.
Questions surfaced. Why did the ATF not call off the operation once the agents knew that Koresh knew? Why did the ATF not arrest Koresh when he was alone in Waco? He drove into town several times every week. How did he get all the guns, and what religion would stockpile guns and ammo? The answers to those questions elude us still.
What happened in Waco, Texas, is a hornets nest. Stick in your hand, and you are sure to feel a sting. This tragedy circles around issues of scriptural authority, of laws inscribed into the legal code, of the government’s authority to intrude into people’s lives, and of Constitutional rights spelled out in the first and second Amendments: freedom to worship and right to bear arms. The pros and cons line up straight, facing each other with little room for deviation, discussion or consensus.
Some filtered out, but nearly a hundred committed to Koresh chose to stay inside the compound.
The public gradually learned that David Koresh considered himself a Messiah, the Lamb of God, that he held the secret to the Seventh and final Seal, and that although he demanded celibacy from his followers, he practiced polygamy, siring as many as “17 children.” Even though the Seventh-Day Adventist church frowns on eating meat, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes, David Koresh did all three and could cite a Bible verse to justify each. Psalm 18: “Smoke went up out of his nostrils.”
The ATF special agents went to Mount Carmel, acting as governing officials, to administer the law because of their office, but according to one media observer, James M. Wall, “these officials entered a situation already heavily stacked against them. Neither the Treasury Department officials, nor the FBI, seemed to comprehend the dangerousness of a charismatic who was immersed in apocalyptic literature. To the Davidians, the long siege that followed was proof that the final days were imminent.”
It was Janet Reno, Bill Clinton’s attorney general, who gave her approval to an FBI plan to inject tear gas into the compound and punch holes into the walls to allow those inside a means to exit. On April 19, armored tanks did just that, but only nine people escaped. Seventy-six people died inside, consumed by the fire that broke out hours after the last tear gas canister was injected, or crushed by falling chunks of concrete when tanks pushed over the walls, or by self-inflicted gun shots. It was all too painful, too tragic, to see the smoke and flames and know the children perished. Yet it happened.
The government published the Danforth Report on July 21, 2000, and inside its 1,001 pages, it declared that David Koresh and his fellows were responsible, that they “spread fuel throughout the main structure of the complex and ignited it in at least three places causing the fire which resulted in the deaths of those Branch Davidians not killed by their own fire.”
David Koresh, 33 years old, died that day, as did his wife and his several children and dozens more.
Benson is a historian from Sterling, Colo.