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The Branch Davidians are a religious group originating from the Seventh-day Adventist church. In the 1930s, Victor Houteff claimed that he was God's new prophet for the church. His claims were not accepted and he left to form the Davidian Seventh-day Adventists. In 1959, a split of this movement formed the Branch Davidian Seventh-day Adventists, headed initially by Ben Roden. The group established a settlement outside of Waco, Texas. Leadership and occupancy of the property had been the subject of inner conflict among the Davidians before Vernon Howell took charge in 1990.
When Howell took control of the group he changed his name to David Koresh, invoking the biblical Kings David and Cyrus. From its inception, the group was apocalyptic, in that they believed themselves to be living in a time when Christian prophesies of a final divine judgment were coming to pass. Davidians under Koresh believed prophesy to foretell a cyclic series of events, described as a spiral, with history returning to prophetically foretold events but each time, advanced in terms of cosmological progress. Koresh supported his beliefs with detailed biblical interpretation, using the book of Revelations as the lens through which the entire Bible was viewed.
On February 28, 1993, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) raided the Branch Davidian ranch in a rural area near Waco, Texas. The raid was conducted due to allegations of illegal weapons present on the property. The raid resulted in the deaths of four agents and five Davidians. The subsequent 51-day siege ended on April 19 when the compound was completely consumed by fire killing between 72 and 86 men, women, and children, including Koresh.
A Texas newspaper had investigated reports that the Koresh had abused children in the building, and was publishing a series about the allegations at the time of the raid. Koresh openly advocated polygamy for himself and selected others in the group, and asserted himself married to several female residents of the small community. His sect was said by some to be a cult for its authoritarian structure. Survivors of the raids, former members and families of members have widely varying accounts of the group's beliefs, practices and demeanor.
Justification for the raid, as widely repeated in initial media reports, was a report by a delivery company that a package of grenade casings had been shipped to the Davidians. Later investigation revealed the casings were legal dummy grenades often used for paperweights or sold to military enthusiasts. The media also repeated what officials had told a judge who signed the warrant, that there was evidence the Davidians were converting semi-automatic weapons to automatic weapons.
At the time, new Brady Bill regulations had prohibited the manufacture or importing of certain semi-automatic weapons. The ban drove a profitable market for the newly regulated semi-automatic rifles, commonly called assault rifles already in the US. Gun dealers could assemble guns from parts and sell rifles with more assault or military-style features than could be obtained from manufacturers. The same rifles could be converted to automatic rifles if sold under the license of an approved gun dealer. The Davidians were not licensed gun dealers at the time, but were until shortly before the raid lawfully assembling weapons under a contract with a licensed dealer. Through what some authors say was pressure by BATF agents, their dealer removed his umbrella of protection from the Davidians. At that point, the Davidians could still possess parts and assemble semi-automatic rifles, but could not resell them in large numbers or convert them for automatic fire.
The warrant also alleged the Davidians converted rifles to automatic rifles, and that the quick forceful raid, or "dynamic entry" was essential to prevent the occupants from destroying evidence of converted rifles. Questions after the raid centered on whether the automatic conversions involved re-tooling the trigger mechanisms, or whether the Davidians had in their possession legal hell-fire triggers, a spring-loaded mechanism that helps shooters rapidly fire semi-automatic rifles. Officials said the large number of agents trained in assault tactics was necessary because of the potential firepower inside building.
The BATF practiced the large-scale raid at another location for several days before launching the assault near Waco. The raid occurred shortly after a change of administration, when senior agency veterans were otherwise struggling to show Congress why it should continue funding a unique law enforcement agency to control firearms, tobacco and alcohol.
Agents approached the compound on that Sunday morning in trailers covered to appear as cattle trailers hauled by a local rancher. Some of the first shots during the raid are reported to have occurred near the front door. There is no agreement as to the shots' motivations or origins. Books written about the incident suggest the first shots fired might have been at dogs that approached the agents as they spilled from the trailers. Images of the initial raid, with the agents retreating under fire, were broadcast worldwide by television crews BATF agents had invited along during the raid.
During the gunfire, Koresh called the local sheriff to ask why the agents were shooting at them. He asked for a cease-fire. The sheriff, in audiotapes broadcast after the incident, said he did not know in advance of the raid and did not know how to contact the BATF agents involved in the raid.
Failure to secure the scene was in part a result of fortification the Davidians had prepared. Lower sections of walls had been filled with concrete, providing effective cover against small arms fire for those inside. The Davidians had also constructed underground refuges that likely protected some of the uninvolved occupants from indirect gunfire as agents swarmed the structure in a hail of bullets. Some tactical analysts have also suggested agents suffered from their own crossfire during the most intense moments of the firefight.
Government officials established contact with Koresh and others inside the compound at some point after they failed to rapidly secure the scene and retreated. The FBI took command of the scene soon after the initial raid. For the next 51 days, communication with those inside included telephone contacts with various FBI negotiators who reportedly were not always in touch with front-line tactical units surrounding the building and pressing those inside to come out. Outside the building, tracked vehicles pushed aside vehicles from parking areas, and began circling the building. Amplifiers were used to broadcast sounds at the building in a psychological warfare tactic intended to fatigue those inside. The Davidians hung banners from high places in the building, seeking help from those outside the government siege.
As the standoff continued, Koresh, seriously injured by a gunshot to his side, and his closest male leaders negotiated delays, usually so he could write religious documents he said he needed to complete before he surrendered. His conversations, dense with biblical imagery, alienated the federal negotiators who treated the situation as a hostage crisis. The Davidians released videotapes to agents during the siege, in which children sat by Koresh, asking among other things if the agents were going to come kill them. Their willingness to stay by Koresh vexed the agents who were unequipped to work around the Davidian's religious zeal.
Newly appointed U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno approved the recommendations of veteran FBI officials to proceed with the final assault after being told children were being abused inside the besieged complex. Armored vehicles retrofitted for gas warfare approached the building from two sides, upwind on a day when strong sustained winds gusted above 25mph. As the fighting vehicle first forced the tube of its gun into the building, debris and structural damage compromised a stairway. A few people spilled out, diving from windows and were immediately arrested by FBI agents. Most remained inside as fire, broadcast worldwide from gyro-stabilized lenses set up at the nearest point FBI officials allowed press observers, engulfed the building.
The cause of the fatal fire is disputed. The government claims that the fire was intentionally set by Koresh and his followers as a suicidal act. Others claim that the fire was caused by the FBI's use of flammable CS gas grenades injected into the wooden buildings. The government points to audio and infrared visual recordings made just before the fire broke out to support their contention. Critics note that CS gas was injected into the building by armored vehicles in an unsafe manner immediately before the fire broke out.
There have been unsubstantiated claims that some Branch Davidians were shot or fired upon as they tried to flee from the rear of the building. The claimants point to flashes of light on government aerial visual recordings as evidence of weapon fire at fleeing civilians. The government says that these flashes are reflections of sunlight on broken glass in the compound as the aircraft passed over.
The fact that fire crews were prohibited access to the burning buildings until they were reduced to ash has led many people to severely question the motivations of the FBI site chief. The FBI states that fire crews were not allowed into the compound due to the danger of explosives within the fire and possible weapons fire from surviving inhabitants.
Autopsies revealed some of the women and children found beneath the remains of a concrete wall of a storage room died of skull injuries. The wall was in the path of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle that penetrated the structure while injecting the usually non-lethal chemical weapon. Other victims were recovered from an underground crawlspace, which also had been in the path of the Bradley vehicle. Autopsy photographs depict bodies of other children locked in spasmic death poses unique to cyanide gas poisoning. Burning CS gas produces cyanide.
Critics claim that people in authority during the Waco massacre have never been properly investigated for their failures and instead have been awarded promotions and awards for their actions.
This controversial incident fueled anti-government attitudes across America, most notably in the case of Timothy McVeigh, who was convicted of planting explosives in front of the Alfred E. Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City Oklahoma City bombing. McVeigh visited the Branch Davidian site during the standoff and in an interview at the time was critical of the government for its actions there. McVeigh stated that the bombing was a retaliatory strike for the raid at Waco, and for other raids by federal agents.
Adults who left the building after the April 19 raid were charged with crimes, a few convicted and sentenced to long jail terms for charges other than murder, but many of those sentences were later reduced or convictions overturned. Most charges were dismissed in court or resulted in acquittals.
Critics also protest the use of assets belonging to the National Guard and claim that this involvement was a violation of the Posse Comitatus Act. The government denied allegations that a National Guard helicopter that circled during the April 19 raid served as a platform for a large-caliber machine gun fired toward the building.
The assault on the ranch occupied by members of Koresh's group became a focus of rage for numerous Americans who are critical of the government.
Davidians continue to own and use the site and have since erected memorials at the scene of the deaths.