Baylor professor reflects on deadly siege at Branch Davidian compound

“It’s not fair that this continues to be dumped on Waco,” said author and Baylor professor Robert Darden.
Published: Apr. 20, 2018 at 2:49 AM CDT
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It’s a cross one Central Texas city has unfairly had to bear for 25 years.

“It’s not fair that this continues to be dumped on Waco,” said Robert Darden, author and professor of journalism at Baylor University.

It’s known across the country as the ‘Waco Siege,’ some even use ‘Waco’ as a verb because of it, but the infamous standoff between federal agents and Branch Davidians at their Mount Carmel compound happened 15 miles outside of Waco in another McLennan County community called Elk.

"It was not a part of Waco's life until the day the smoke could be seen,” said Darden. “I don’t think the folks of Waco would ever mention it again if it wasn’t somebody from the outside mentioning it.”

While the smoke is gone, it hasn’t cleared.

The final assault at Mount Carmel was the deadliest day of a 51-day deadlock with cult leader David Koresh and his religious zealots who refused to come out of the compound surrounded by the ATF and FBI.

"Everybody was trying to figure out what could be done to get 'em out,” said McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara, who was working for the U.S. Marshals Service in Waco at the time.

“The whole world was watching."

On February 28, 1993, in a botched raid to serve search warrants at the compound following an investigation over the stockpiling of illegal weapons and explosives, four ATF agents and six Branch Davidians died in an hours-long shootout.

"I think everyone will agree that once the government had realized they lost the element of surprise, they should have backed out and come up with plan B,” said McNamara who was part of a large team of various law enforcement officers staged at Texas State Technical College (TSTC) to assist the ATF.

"They knew exactly what they had out there, and yet they still sent those boys and girls into the jaws of the dragon,” said Darden.

The jaws of religious radicals under a leader who encouraged the traditionally peaceful group to own arms, wanting to create an ‘Army of God.’

“He split the men and the women and worked on them differently and began relationships with the women, just classic, nothing new, nothing creative, nothing particularly charismatic, he just was convincing and he cut them off from all other form of input,” said Darden who is considered an expert on the religious group and their polygamist demagogue.

Darden co-authored “Mad Man in Waco,” a title inspired by a song the wannabe rock star recorded and sold in an attempt to make enough money to bond his ‘henchmen’ out of jail; a small group of men who bought into Koresh’s message, and helped him overthrow the once wild leader of the sect, George Roden, the son of longtime leader Lois Roden, an elderly woman with whom Koresh had an affair.

"God picks his messengers, it's not a hereditary thing,” said follower Clive Doyle. "She turned the pulpit over to him.”

Although Roden was shot, not fatally, Koresh and his men avoided serious jail time, and the Koresh ‘kingdom’ becomes official.

“Ya know it’s not like these were stupid people, there were lawyers and nurses in there,” said Darden. “They were all searching and kind of confused, and what Koresh had that nobody else had is he had every answer."

Answers he engineered through scripture and tested on people around the globe including Australia, the United Kingdom, California, Massachusetts, and Hawaii.

Koresh took every opportunity he could to grow his congregation, even using music to recruit new followers.

“He knew i was a drummer, ‘I’ve got a new kit, it’s going to be a lot of fun,’ but I never did take him up on it,” said Darden, a music industry insider who wrote for Billboard Magazine at the time.

People who knew Koresh as a young man said he was obsessed with rock and roll and women; two things rumored to have been behind his disfellowship from the Seventh Day Adventist Church in 1981.

Born in Houston, Koresh, whose real name was Vernon Howell, was born to a 14-year-old single mother and had a dysfunctional childhood.

Dyslexic, Howell eventually dropped out of Garland High School; at one point he goes into construction, at another he travels to California to try to make it in music, and fails.

By 1982, Howell had moved to Waco and joined the Branch Davidians, an offshoot of ‘the Shepard’s Rod’ (or Davidians) which split from the Adventist church in the 1930s due to disagreements over prophecy, according to representatives with the North American Division of Seventh-Day Adventists.

In 1990, Howell legally changes his name to David Koresh, after two kings, and starts ‘breeding’ the church he wants, citing scripture to justify taking his follower’s wives and multiple young brides.

“We talked to everybody, and here was a guy who had a cafeteria of choices and liked that cafeteria and did everything he could to keep it, and it was including, by the end, younger and younger girls,” said Darden. “I don't know that he had to work all that hard, these people were already broken down, and the ones with any backbone had either left or he'd spent a lot of time breaking them."

"You had a guy claiming to be Jesus Christ, hot-rodding around town, bedding down with 12, 14-year-old kids,” said McNamara. “It makes me sick.”

Doyle, a native of Australia who comes to Waco in the 1960s and ends up becoming one of Koresh’s most devout followers, denies knowing his two daughters, Karen and Shari, were in the group of Koresh’s teenage brides, and said there was no child abuse, at least on their side.

"If you're talking about putting them through hell, sure the ATF and FBI were abusing the children,” Doyle said of the agencies’ tactics and use of psychological warfare to try to get them to come out during the siege.

Now, 77, Doyle disputes theories that he or his group started the fatal fire on the final day of the standoff or fired the first shot during the initial raid.

"We didn't shoot 'em just because we hated the government,” said Doyle. “They (the ATF) wanted to prove something to their bosses, they wanted to put on a big show.”

“They certainly weren't willing to alter their plan the way they'd practiced it and planned it out so that people could be saved.”

Doyle also denies the widely held belief that the fire was a mass-suicide.

"I never heard David tell everybody they have to die,” said Doyle. “I never heard him say ‘this is the way it's got to be,’ but if I’da bought into it, then I’da been one of those charcoaled people that were out there on April 19, 25 years ago."

On April 19, 1993, 76 people, who besides Koresh were mostly women and children including Doyle’s 18-year-old daughter Shari, were killed during the fire.

"Hindsight’s 20/20: did everyone, me included, underestimate the resolve of those people out there? Absolutely we did,” said McNamara.

Doyle, who escaped through a hole in the building caused by tanks dispensing tear gas, was one of only nine survivors.

"I think that they've (the ATF and FBI) gone after some of the survivors, not all of them per say, but the ones that have been speaking out all these years,” said Doyle.

"If the FBI thought or believed that David was a mad man, a crazy man, were you trying to push him over the edge? It doesn't make any sense."

A lot of things about the siege still don’t make sense to Doyle who said everyone inside wanted to come out, but a lack of trust lead to failed negotiations.

"The idea was there wasn't supposed to be any more bloodshed,” said Doyle about a broken agreement to allow Koresh to finish writing his religious manifesto the ‘Seven Seals.’

“They prevented the people that were coming out there to stop the fire and all that, they didn't lift a finger, that's why they raised the flag when it was all burned down like they were the victors."

Andy Harwell, the son of the late Jack Harwell who was the Sheriff at the time, said right or wrong, his father felt responsible for the people in his county.

“He didn’t like to take work home with him, but I can see from his reactions that he was very concerned, he was Sheriff of this county and those folks lived in this county,” said Harwell. “It seemed to me that his main concern was to try to get it resolved peacefully, without having what happened ultimately.”

The McLennan County Clerk, Harwell got to serve in office alongside his father for several years before he passed, and said the siege took a toll on him.

"He told me he wished he could have convinced the ATF and FBI to back off and just give it time...let things cool down,” said Harwell.

KWTX reached out to FBI officials who apologized for not being able to do an on-camera interview but provided a statement about changes and lesson learned since the siege.

“Since the siege at Waco, Texas significant changes have been made regarding the FBI’s Critical Incident Response Group (CIRG) that houses tactical personnel, negotiators, SWAT, HRT, as well as behavior analysts,” said David Sundberg, Chief of the Tactical Section and Commander of the Hostage Rescue Team. “CIRG now brings every component under one umbrella.”

“Specialists now train and operate together before an incident occurs to better respond,” said Sundberg. “We now have Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) with our law enforcement partners that enable us to operate in a more inclusive and uniform approach.”

While Doyle said there were probably mistakes made on both sides, he feels the agencies involved are responsible for the tragedy.

"’Do you think the government learned anything?’ I says ya, they learned not tell the press ahead of time and have them all there filming it,” said Doyle.

Darden said the media was not to blame.

"The fact you (agents) didn't grab him (Koresh) when you could have and the whole thing would have fallen like a deck of cards - is that the press' fault?” said Darden. "He was a self-consumed narcissist, I know that's true, and I know the FBI handled it incredibly badly.”

"I hope and pray there will never be a situation similar to what happened outside of elk."

Darden said it doesn’t matter who started or finished the siege, both sides were culpable, however, he believes the evangelist cult leader who claimed he’d unlocked part of the Bible’s apocalyptic-themed book of Revelation, was going to fulfill his own prophecy at any cost.

"They are with every expectation that this is going to end up in flames,” said Darden.

McNamara agreed and said the responsibility ultimately lies with Koresh.

“It would have been a different situation had Koresh not kept the kids in there, we were really limited as to what action we could take because he basically was using those kids as shields,” said McNamara.

"This was the situation that Vernon Howell/Koresh had been waiting for.”

Doyle denied any ‘end of world’ prophecy was being fulfilled back then.

“Don't buy into all of the hate and all of the accusations that are thrown out there, whether it’s from le or anyone else,” said Doyle. “People got all kinds of tall stories you know."

‘David’s’ stories, however, are ones Doyle still lives by; 25 years after Koresh’s death, Doyle’s faith in him remains unrattled, still believing Koresh, and the rest of his followers including his daughter Shari, will be resurrected, and ultimately saved.