The new Waco TV series is moving right along as it recounts the events in early 1993 that ultimately lead to the infamous 51-day standoff that the ATF and FBI had with David Koresh’s followers, whom we now refer to as the Branch Davidians. The standoff’s origins might be the most controversial and most questioned aspect of the events that transpired, as survivors from both sides tell different stories about how it all began. Episode 3, “Operation Showdown,” showcases the beginning of the power struggle between Koresh and FBI Negotiator Gary Noesner.
Those of us who are familiar with what happened at Mount Carmel have a lot of questions, and this show doesn’t seek to solve them. There are a lot of different sides here, and while David Thibodeau’s memoir shows Koresh in a sympathetic light, the ATF and FBI—still reeling from bad publicity as a result of their deadly errors at Ruby Ridge, ID—portray Koresh as a mentally ill and violently unstable person, perhaps in an attempt to save face when things go south in Texas.
The ATF’s primary involvement was the result of a UPS driver seeing grenade parts in a damaged package to be delivered to the compound, and it seemed to escalate from there. The Davidians did sell weapons at gun shows—one of their many business ventures to bring income to the cult—but it remains unclear whether or not they had a cache of illegal weapons at the compound itself. Thibodeau’s account states that Rodriguez never found anything in any of his eight trips to the compound, and Noesner claims that an unnamed undercover agent of the ATF found illegally modified weapons in the compound. On February 28, 1993, it is the intent of the ATF to serve a no-knock warrant. Noesner describes the plan in his memoir, Stalling for Time:
The plan had been to execute a search warrant on the compound and an arrest warrant on weapon’s charges against the group’s leader, Vernon Wayne Howell, also known as David Koresh. There were also past allegations of child abuse, so the plan included securing the group’s children, then conducting a thorough search. But apparently the action had been carried out more like an assault than an investigation.
The raid hinged completely on the element of surprise. In 1995, Robert Rodriguez and other high-ranking members of the government testified to two House subcommittees who were investigating the botched raid (read coverage from the New York Times and the LA Times) that the raid was to be called off if secrecy was compromised. This is why Rodriguez’s warning to his boss that they knew the raid was coming is a pivotal moment and the focus of this episode. The true aftermath of this isn’t fully felt until the raid ended later in April, and I’m sure future episodes will explore that.
This episode also shows the first time the FBI is called in to take over. Four ATF agents were killed in the initial firefight, along with a few of the Davidians. Clearly, things did not go as planned, and Thibodeau’s recollection in his memoir is a thrilling and horrifying account of just how deadly and tragic that first day really was. Regardless of who you side with in this conflict, there is no doubt that innocent lives were taken. Mothers and children were literally caught in the crossfire between the federal agents and the more militant members of the cult. And the show captures it very well. It’s heartbreaking to watch at best.
Noesner finally reaches out to Koresh after a ceasefire is called, and we get a sense of how difficult it really is to reason with someone who is so firm in their beliefs. It’s these moments that remind me of some cult psychology I learned from listening to the Heaven’s Gate podcast. What happens when a cult leader begins to lose his grip on his followers? He must ALWAYS be right or they’ll slip away. The leader of Heaven’s Gate, Marshall Applewhite, experienced this exact thing when his co-leader died, and it’s rather interesting to see how that event not only shook the foundation of the faith of this cult but also radically changed it from a “regular” doomsday cult into mass suicide.
David Koresh risked a similar problem. Noesner struck an easy deal with him—we’ll broadcast your message on national TV, and everyone will come out of the compound peacefully. What David didn’t consider was that the general public is harder to persuade en masse—he works better one on one—and the news networks had a field day lampooning Koresh and his followers as crazy people. I wonder—when things didn’t go according to plan, when the world did not embrace him as a messiah—if he opted for Plan B, just as Applewhite did. (Keep in mind, the Heaven’s Gate suicides happened after Waco, so I’m not attempting to say that Koresh was influenced by Applewhite in his actions).
Koresh had been preaching for years that the government was going to bring about the cult’s apocalypse. Were Koresh’s illegal weapons modifications, statutory rape allegations, and polygamy meant to draw their attention to him in the first place? We can never know what was going on in his mind, but Waco certainly makes a valiant attempt to find out, drawing from sources of inspiration both inside the compound and in the FBI. This fictional account of what happened at Waco certainly continues to rivet.
See also: Waco: “Visions and Omens” Episode Review
Ardi Alspach was born in Florida, raised in South Carolina, and now resides in New York City with her cat and an apartment full of books. By day, she's a publicist, and by night, she's a freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter at @ardyceelaine or check out her website at ardyceelaine.wordpress.com.