It was a story that fascinated and repelled the US: in February of 1993, agents from the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (the ATF) raided the compound of a strange cult known as the Branch Davidians. It all went very badly, and ten people died.
Who were these people? What were the beliefs of the Branch Davidians? And how did it turn out so badly?
The Mt. Carmel Davidians
“Davidians” are an offshoot group of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Begun in the 1800s, the Davidians split off from the Adventists, and most gathered in Texas at a place they named “Mt. Carmel,” just outside of Waco. This was where the group waited for a “New Messianic Age” and the apocalypse, which their leader said would begin in 1959. By the 1960s, a group known as the “Branch Davidians” was the last surviving group of believers of this religious group.
The roots of the confrontation between the ATF and the Davidians went to 1983. In 1983, two people were competing for leadership of the Branch Davidians: Lois Roden and a man named Vernon Howell. In the end, Howell took over the Davidians.
Vernon Howell/David Koresh
Howell moved quickly to reshape the Davidians, claiming to be the spiritual heir of the biblical King David. He quickly changed his name to David Koresh. Koresh claimed he was was a messiah from God and took several “wives” from the congregation, some as young as 12 years old.
In 1989, he claimed he was the “perfect mate” for all the female members of the congregation and stated his intention to create a new lineage of children to rule the world. He proclaimed that he was the only man in Mt. Carmel who could have a wife.
Koresh did not claim to be Jesus Christ, but rather a version of the “Lamb” from the biblical book of Revelations who would open the seven seals and bring about the end times and Armageddon. Koresh believed this time was imminent.
Accusations of Child Abuse and Gun Trouble
Koresh began to run afoul of the law when it became known that several of Koresh’s “wives” were underage. A former member of the cult brought this fact to authorities’ attention when in 1992 he went to court to seek custody of his daughter (to be able to get her out of the cult).
The trial and accusations of statutory rape coincided with Koresh beginning a retail gun business. This combination brought significant attention from authorities, who additionally worried that the large presence of weapons and the end time philosophy might make the group especially volatile.
In early 1993, ATF agents sought and received a search warrant for Mt. Carmel and an arrest warrant for Koresh. They made the fateful decision to make a surprised forced entry instead of serving the search warrant.
This initial entry proved to be ineffective. The ATF agents were not able to enter the heavily fortified compound, and four agents died in the intense firefight that followed.
This failed attempt only served to further convince Koresh that he was under attack, leading him to fortify the compound even further and arm his cult members.
In April of 1993, the FBI in concert with the ATF led another attack on the compound. It turned into a firefight, and federal agents fired tear gas into the compound. This may or may not be the cause of what turned out to be a massive fire (there is some evidence that the cult members set the fire).
In the end, during the fire and the struggle, Koresh and about 24 others shot themselves to death or were shot before the fire engulfed the whole compound. Some others died in the fire or the rubble of collapsing buildings. In the end, 76 Branch Davidians died in the ATF/FBI raid. Only 11 Davidians escaped. 16 federal agents were wounded in the struggle.
Eight Davidians stood trial for murder, manslaughter and weapons violations and were convicted.
The events of the siege and raid are still disputed by some who claim that law enforcement was responsible for the deaths and had acted inappropriately. It is this belief that may have fueled the Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh in his war against the government.