1993: Feds Raid Branch Davidian Compound in Waco

On February 28, 1993, federal agents tried to arrest David Koresh at his Waco, Texas, compound. A gunfight ensued, killing 10 and beginning a 51-day standoff.

The Waco Seige

David Koresh, born Vernon Wayne Howell, was a member of the Branch Davidians, an apocalyptic sect that had split from the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in the 1950s. In 1987, he formed his own sect and led an attack on leader George Roden. By 1990, he had assumed control of the Branch and moved its headquarters to the Mt. Carmel Center in Waco, Texas.

Koresh allegedly took many wives, had sex with young teenage girls and abused children. He also stockpiled weapons and preached that the end of the world would occur when the U.S. government attacked the church. Local authorities contacted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) to investigate Koresh and his weapons arsenal.

The ATF began surveillance of the Mt. Carmel compound in late 1992 and prepared for a raid. The operation was carried out ineptly from the start: middle-aged agents posed as college students, drawing the attention of Branch members. A plan for the raid, scheduled for March 1, was not drafted until February 23, and then it was not distributed. The raid then had to be moved up a day because the ATF’s search warrant expired on February 28.

Koresh was tipped off about the raid on the morning of February 28 after news of it was leaked to the media. He confronted an undercover ATF agent who had joined the Branch, but allowed him to leave; the agent told his superiors that Koresh knew of the raid, but the ATF thought it could still proceed.

At 9:30 a.m., 76 ATF agents approached the headquarters with an arrest warrant for Koresh. When Koresh refused to surrender, a shot was fired, inciting a shootout; it is not certain which side fired the first shot. Four ATF agents and six Davidians were killed that day, while Koresh was injured. That night, Koresh gave interviews to CNN and a local news station.

The raid marked the beginning of a 51-day siege of Mt. Carmel. Koresh negotiated by telephone with agents seeking the group’s voluntary surrender while armored vehicles surrounded the headquarters. Most of the over 90 residents stayed inside, although 10 children were released to safety.

As the siege wore on, some agents argued for the use of force. By mid-April, authorities decided negotiations were futile, and newly appointed Attorney General Janet Reno approved the use of tear gas to flush out the compound’s occupants.

On April 19, vehicles with spray booms pumped tear gas into the building, and agents fired pyrotechnic tear gas rounds at a nearby tornado shelter. Gunshots broke out and a fire started, engulfing the building. Seventy-five people, including Koresh and all of the 21 children inside, died.

Sources in this Story

Controversy Over the Waco Siege

The tragedy sparked controversy over the government’s use of violence. Reno, the FBI and the ATF defended their actions as being necessary, and placed blame for the fire on Branch members.

In a July 1995 op-ed published in The Washington Post, Steve Higgins, the former director of the ATF, defended the actions of his agency. He stressed the need for intervention, and the potential danger posed by Koresh’s stockpile of weapons. Citing Jonestown and other cult suicides, he wrote, “The day has long passed when we can afford to ignore the threat posed by individuals who believe they are subject only to the laws of their god and not those of our government.”

A 1996 report by the House Republicans was highly critical of Reno, calling her decision to authorize the April 19 raid “premature, wrong, and highly irresponsible.” Still, the report found Koresh had the “ultimate responsibility” for the disaster.

The 1997 documentary “Waco: The Rules of Engagement” revealed new, controversial information, including the implication that federal agents fired on Branch Davidians while the fire was burning.

In August 1999, the FBI, after denying for six years that it could have started the fire, admitted that it fired “a very limited number” of potentially incendiary tear gas canisters into the compound. Reno responded by forming an independent inquiry headed by former Republican Sen. John C. Danforth.

The Danforth Report, released in November 2000, largely absolved the government of responsibility for the fire and deaths of Branch members, though it did conclude that federal agents covered up information from investigators.

In an unfavorable review of the Danforth Report, Timothy Lynch of the Cato Institute chronicled numerous wrongdoings committed by federal agents that went unpunished. He wrote that the report “raises deeply disturbing questions not only about the tactics used at Waco but, more generally, about the mindset often found in America’s increasingly militarized law enforcement agencies.”

The Waco incident incited anti-government anger among right-wing militants, including Timothy McVeigh, the architect of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings. McVeigh cited Waco as one of his motives for the bombing, which occurred on April 19, exactly two years after the Waco fire.

Reference: News Stories About Waco

The Cult Education Institute, an organization that tracks controversial religious movements, has an archive of articles on Koresh, the siege, the trials of surviving Branch members, the investigations and the controversy surrounding the incident.

Related Topic: Cults in the United States


In the 1970s, Jim Jones, the leader of the California-based Peoples Temple cult, established a community in Guyana called Jonestown to create a communist utopia. In 1978, after Representative Leo Ryan of California was killed while investigating the town, a mass suicide ensued in which over 900 people died from drinking cyanide.

Heaven’s Gate

In 1997, 39 Heaven’s Gate cult members committed suicide, believing that the bright Hale-Bopp comet indicated it was time to “shed their earthly bodies” and enter a “higher plane of existence.”