30 Years Ago: Gunfight between ATF agents, Branch Davidians leaves 10 dead
WACO, Texas (KWTX) - Thirty years ago today, long before Waco evolved into the global headquarters for Magnolia magnates Chip and Joanna Gaines, it reluctantly became known as the home of David Koresh and his Branch Davidian followers.
Four agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives – Conway LeBleu, Todd McKeehan, Robert Williams and Steven Willis – and six Branch Davidians were shot and killed Feb. 28, 1993, during one of the largest law enforcement operations in the country at that time.
A huge firefight erupted at the Branch Davidian compound near Elk, Texas as more than 100 ATF agents emerged from two cattle trailers pulled behind pickup trucks. Their mission was to serve arrest warrants for weapons violations on Koresh and his sect members.
Instead they were met with a volley of gunfire from inside the ramshackle prairie compound, including fire from .50-caliber rifles and automatic weapons. The sporadic gun battle lasted more than two hours and ended only after a ceasefire was negotiated. That allowed the ATF to collect the fallen agents and tend to the more than 20 who were wounded and eight who were injured.
The failed raid started a prolonged standoff between government agents and Koresh and his followers that ended 51 days later on April 19 in a blazing, wind-swept inferno that seemed to accomplish Koresh’s self-fulfilling prophesy that he and his followers would die at the hands of the government, or “the Beast,” in Koresh’s words.
Surviving sect members said tanks that rammed holes in the compound walls so agents could insert military-grade tear gas on the morning of April 19 knocked over lanterns, igniting the fire. Listening devices inserted in the compound with deliveries of milk for the children picked up Koresh’s followers talking about spreading fuel to feed the flames.
Koresh and 80 of his followers, including 21 of Koresh’s children, died in the fire. Nine escaped the burning building, including Clive Doyle, who lived in Waco until his death in June 2022. Doyle, who lost a daughter in the fire, was accused of helping set the fire because of burn patterns on his hands and fuel on his clothing. He believed until the day he died that Koresh was the anointed one and would return from the grave.
Waco city leaders, Chamber of Commerce officials and city residents were irked that media outlets referred to Koresh’s Mount Carmel home 17 miles east of Waco, as “Waco.” They went out of their way to point out that the raid and standoff were not in Waco but closer to a small community known as Elk. They wondered aloud why former President George W. Bush’s Prairie Chapel Ranch near Crawford was referred to as “Crawford” and the Branch Davidian tragedy was so closely associated with the city of Waco.
The details of the tragedy have been discussed, debated and, in certain circumstances, debunked by historians, journalists, theologians, law enforcement officials and lawmakers. It has been fodder for dozens of books, documentaries, made-for-television movies and even a comic book that featured Koresh’s face rising from the flames and smoke over the compound.
Two years after sect members died in the fire, Timothy McVeigh, who was photographed outside the Branch Davidian compound during the 51-day standoff, detonated a truck bomb outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 186 people. Prosecutors said McVeigh blew up the building as revenge for how the government handled the Branch Davidian situation, but surviving followers of Koresh, including Doyle, hated the fact that McVeigh used “Waco” as motivation for his deadly actions.
At least four new books and a dramatic series have been produced to mark the three decades since the Branch Davidian saga, some of which include interviews with ATF agents who participated in the raid and members of the FBI hostage rescue and special operations teams who have not spoken publicly before.
Best-selling author Jeff Guinn, a longtime Fort Worth Star-Telegram staff writer, discovered an interesting new twist for his book, “Waco: David Koresh, the Branch Davidians and a Legacy of Rage” - a revelation that Koresh plagiarized his prophecies from Cyrus Teed, a contemporary of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, who lived in Florida.
Guinn learned of Teed while researching his 2019 book, “The Vagabonds,” and found that Teed also called himself Koresh, the Hebrew pronunciation of the Persian king Cyrus. Teed, like Koresh, also claimed to be the Lamb, the one who would open the Seven Seals of God in the Book of Revelation.
Guinn, who also has written books about cult leaders Charles Manson and Jim Jones, found Teed’s book “Koreshanity” in the Waco library, which includes major similarities to David Koresh’s sermons.
Guinn’s book also links the Branch Davidian, Ruby Ridge and Oklahoma City incidents as fuel for the anti-government militia movement that led to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Former Treasury Department agent and IRS criminal investigator Dan Morris’ new book, “Ranch Apocalypse,” also was released in time for the 30-year commemoration and is billed as “The Untold Story.”
Morris, who was part of the second-wave of agents assigned to assist in the arrest of the sect members on Feb. 28, 1993, leans heavily on the relationships he has built with the former ATF agents over the years to get them to talk about their experiences during the deadly firefight and afterward.
A three-part Netflix series, “Waco: American Apocalypse,” is set to air March 22 and is directed by Tiller Russell.
“Since this story first erupted thirty years ago, it’s fascinated the world as an iconic and tragic moment in American history,” Russell said in a news release. “A prophetic leader with an apocalyptic vision, a fierce debate over the right to bear arms, and testing the constitutional limits of religious freedom – it has powerful and provocative elements that still reverberate today.”
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