Waco Rising: David Koresh, the FBI and the Birth of America’s Modern Militias 
by Kevin Cook.
Holt, 272 pp., £18.99, January, 978 1 250 84051 6
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Waco: David Koresh, the Branch Davidians and a Legacy of Rage 
by Jeff Guinn.
Simon & Schuster, 383 pp., £20, February 2023, 978 1 9821 8610 4
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Vernon Howell​ – better known as David Koresh – arrived at Mount Carmel, the Texas base of a Seventh Day Adventist splinter sect called the Branch Davidians, in the summer of 1981. He was 21 years old and looking for a new church. A ‘wandering bonehead’, as he would later describe himself, he had been kicked out of a mainstream Seventh Day Adventist congregation in Tyler, Texas for having sex with the 15-year-old daughter of a church elder (or at least trying to), and for refusing to stop haranguing church leaders about the correct interpretation of scripture. His reception at Mount Carmel was chilly. Most of the hundred or so people who lived in the cluster of trailers and cheaply built houses outside Waco were significantly older or younger than Howell. One of them remembered later that Howell had a hard time expressing himself, and tended to talk about rock and roll and his masturbation habits. They let him stay because they needed a carpenter and handyman, but they didn’t expect him to last long – new arrivals tended to leave after they realised what it was like to live in a community plagued by fire ants and without toilets and running water.

Defying these expectations, Howell thrived. The Branch Davidians in Waco were led by a woman in her sixties called Lois Roden, who had become known across the Bible Belt a few years earlier for claiming that the Holy Spirit was female. Howell took to her instantly. Before long he was sleeping with her, trying to get her pregnant, despite her age, in the hope of creating a new generation of leaders in time for the apocalypse (Howell thought this would happen in 1995). She bought him a new guitar, which he used to write Christian rock songs, and took him to Israel – his first trip out of the country. Lois’s son, George, who considered himself a prophet and the true successor to the Branch Davidian leadership, wasn’t keen on his mother’s new boyfriend. He railed against Howell from the pulpit, calling him a rapist, and chased him and his followers out of Mount Carmel at gunpoint. Howell abandoned Lois, married a 14-year-old called Rachel Jones and travelled around with his followers recruiting new members, waiting for the right moment to return to Mount Carmel and drive George out. His chance came when Lois died from cancer in 1986. The following year, Howell and George had a gunfight: George was shot in the chest and hand, and Howell charged with attempted murder. But the trial ended in a hung jury, and Howell became the Davidians’ leader. In 1990 he changed his name to David Koresh; the petition he filed at a California courthouse said that he was ‘an entertainer and wishes to use the new name for publicity purposes’.

It wasn’t long before Koresh caught the attention of two law enforcement agencies: the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and the FBI. The Davidians had been converting semi-automatic rifles into automatics and selling them at gun shows for a handsome profit. This wasn’t illegal, but paperwork had to be filed and taxes paid, and the Davidians had done neither. In 1992, a UPS driver called the county sheriff’s office to say that he had dropped a package he was delivering to the Davidians and fifty grenade shells had bounced out. Worried about the size of the arsenal Koresh and his followers seemed to be amassing, ATF agents set up a surveillance operation. The operation failed to produce much hard evidence that the Davidians had violated gun laws, but a judge gave them a search warrant anyway. On 28 February 1993, the ATF attempted to raid Mount Carmel. A fierce gun battle followed, in which four ATF agents and five Davidians were killed.

The FBI then took over and conducted a 51-day siege of the compound. It seems to have been a frustrating experience for everyone. Government agents sometimes blared out loud music or the sound of crying babies or power drills in the middle of the night. During phone calls with the hostage negotiators, Koresh embarked on lengthy monologues about his beliefs. He assured the FBI that the Davidians would emerge peacefully from Mount Carmel after he had finished writing down his revolutionary interpretation of the Book of Revelation, but as the weeks passed the government started to get impatient. The siege ended on 19 April when the FBI sent in tanks, which breached the walls, and fired tear gas into the buildings. Several hours later, the compound went up in flames. Seventy-six Davidians died, including 23 children and Koresh himself. He was 33 years old, the same age as Jesus when he was crucified.

The events of 19 April have generated a great deal of disagreement over the last thirty years. The first debates, which started immediately after the siege, concerned who was to blame for one of the deadliest days in the history of American federal law enforcement. For the ATF, the FBI and the Department of Justice – whose head, the Clinton-appointed attorney general Janet Reno, had signed off on the tear-gas plan – the episode was a disaster from start to finish, as two new books by the journalists Kevin Cook and Jeff Guinn make clear. Among the most damning details is that the ATF didn’t need to carry out the February raid in the first place. Koresh had a cordial relationship with the county sheriff, Jack Harwell, who would drive out to Mount Carmel and ask Koresh to come down to the station whenever the police needed to talk to him about something. According to Harwell, the ATF never discussed the details of the raid with him.

The ATF’s needlessly risky plan wasn’t without safeguards, but they were all ignored. The bureau’s director, Stephen Higgins, stressed beforehand that surprise was essential. If there was reason to believe that the Davidians knew about the raid, or if they changed their routines in any meaningful way in the days leading up to it, the agents were supposed to call off the operation. But the ATF didn’t try very hard to maintain the element of surprise. It booked 153 hotel and motel rooms around Waco the night before the raid, and some agents ran errands while wearing jackets that said ATF on the back. Word of this didn’t get back to Mount Carmel, but at around 8.30 a.m. on the morning of the raid a cameraman for a local TV station flagged down a passing mailman, said he needed to film a raid that was about to happen, and asked if the man knew the way to Mount Carmel. The mailman, David Jones, was a Branch Davidian, and rushed back to tell everyone. When Jones got to the compound, Koresh was talking to Robert Rodriguez, an ATF agent who had gone undercover as a Davidian. Rodriguez left the building and informed his superiors, but they decided to go ahead with the raid anyway. By the time the ATF team arrived at the compound at around 9.40 a.m., the Davidians were ready to fight.

The other main subject of debate is who started shooting. As ATF agents rushed out of their cattle trailers and approached the compound, Koresh opened the front door and stepped out. He talked to them for a moment, then walked back inside. After he shut the door, the bullets started flying. The video evidence is inconclusive, and both the ATF and the Davidians have long maintained that the other side was first to open fire. On balance, it’s more likely to have been the Davidians. (This is also the view of the reporters who were near the scene.) They had been preparing for a battle against the forces of Babylon for years, and their weapons weren’t just for selling: Koresh organised regular training exercises and shooting drills. One Davidian, Kathy Schroeder, later said that ‘when the agents were outside our door, the Seventh Seal finally came alive for me. The prophecies were being fulfilled.’ The ATF, meanwhile, had no good reason to shoot without provocation. They didn’t want Koresh dead.

But who was responsible for the fire? It’s not surprising that something set the compound alight: as Cook writes, ‘Mount Carmel was a tinderbox on its best day.’ It was a draughty, rickety construction, a series of connected buildings that formed a rough L-shape. The roofs were flat or gently sloping, and a central three-storey observation tower provided a vantage point. The Davidians had built the compound more or less on their own after Koresh took over, and during the siege they blockaded it with mattresses, sheets and bales of hay. The case against the FBI rests on the Davidians’ claim that agents fired pyrotechnic canisters along with the tear gas. The FBI denied this for years, claiming it had only used non-combustible ‘ferret’ rounds, but in 1999 it admitted that it had fired a small number of potentially incendiary canisters. This caused exactly the uproar you would expect: the attorney for the estates and families of the dead Davidians thundered that ‘the conspiracy of silence is beginning to crumble.’ But the fire didn’t break out until four hours after the incendiary rounds were used, and they weren’t fired at the buildings but at a construction pit 75 feet away.

The case against the Davidians, meanwhile, is convincing. The FBI had placed listening devices inside the compound, and on the morning of the fire several Davidians were recorded having conversations about setting the buildings alight. Koresh asked a man called Steve Schneider about ‘two cans of Coleman fuel’. ‘Empty,’ he replied. At another point, a voice that Cook describes as sounding like Schneider’s said: ‘I want a fire around the back … let’s keep that fire going.’ One Davidian, Graeme Craddock, remembered hearing someone say, ‘Light the fire,’ followed by someone else objecting, before the order was repeated. But this wasn’t necessarily an act of mass suicide, even if many of the Davidians believed that dying in a battle against Babylon would ‘translate’ them to a higher form of spiritual life. Guinn speculates that Koresh, inspired by a passage from the Book of Zechariah, envisaged a holy fire that would protect the Davidians, surrounding the buildings and keeping out the government marauders. Even decades later, some of the Davidians continue to regard the blaze as a great victory for God. ‘Those that died in fire attained a place in the future event,’ Schroeder told Guinn. ‘While the rest of my friends became … translated through fire, I was left behind.’

Waco​ never fell out of public consciousness, but there was renewed interest in what happened there after the election of Donald Trump, as commentators and historians scrambled to locate the roots of MAGA politics. The connection between Waco, hard-right militia groups and conspiracist media outfits is easily made. The white supremacist Timothy McVeigh travelled to Waco during the siege and was outraged by what happened. He blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 on the second anniversary of the fire, killing 168 people. The far-right radio show host Alex Jones read the Department of Justice’s October 1993 report on the siege as a teenager and was so outraged that he decided to embark on a career that would turn him into the US’s most prominent conspiracy theorist; he led a memorial service at Mount Carmel in 2000. ‘Before Waco, the number of armed militia groups scattered around the country numbered in the dozens,’ Cook writes. ‘By 1995 … there were 441.’ A number of those groups were founded on the anniversary of Waco; many referred to Waco as the Alamo of the hard right, the moment when it became impossible to ignore the fact that the federal government would never allow Americans to live the way they wanted. Waco inspired many of those who stormed the Capitol building on 6 January 2021, and it remains a potent rallying cry on the right.

But if Waco hadn’t happened, the hard right would have chosen some other outrage as the Alamo of the late 20th century. And although militia membership surged in the two years after the fire, it declined just as dramatically following the Oklahoma City bombing, as a result of a federal crackdown as well as discomfort on the right at the murder of scores of civilians in cold blood. Plenty of other factors contributed to right-wing radicalisation in the years leading up to Trump, particularly 9/11, the racism of the war on terror and the experience of losing grinding wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (defeat in Vietnam had a similarly galvanising effect on the right).

Then there is the question of Koresh himself. He has remained a figure of enduring fascination over the past thirty years, rather like Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber (although Koresh wrote much less and was much more charismatic). Koresh was an ambitious zealot, a talented showman and a narcissist, but he never articulated a politics of his own, and he wasn’t a white supremacist – Mount Carmel was a surprisingly diverse community that included Jamaicans, Hispanics, Black Britons and an African American with a degree from Harvard Law School. In contrast to televangelists like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, Koresh didn’t try to influence government policy, and although he imagined a future in which he was an international celebrity, he never made any serious attempt to attain that fame. Instead, he seemed happy to rule over his dusty little kingdom. For a boy who had been abused by his father and periodically abandoned by his mother, whose classmates had nicknamed him ‘Mister Retardo’, and whose only real consolation in life seemed to come from sex, a community of people who adored him and obeyed his every command was a kind of paradise.

Koresh sexually abused children as young as ten throughout his time as leader of the Davidians. Rachel Jones was only fourteen when he married her, although he did have her parents’ consent, which made the union legal in Texas. Soon after the wedding he told Jones that God had commanded him to sleep with her younger sister as well. Another girl, Kiri Jewell, testified to Congress that Koresh assaulted her in a motel when she was ten. Koresh also used sex to inflict pain on the men at Mount Carmel, as if to make sure they were too demoralised to challenge his leadership. In 1989, he told the Davidians of a ‘new light’, or message, he’d received from God. All the marriages at Mount Carmel were to be dissolved, and the men were to remain celibate – except for Koresh, who could marry as many of the female Davidians as he wanted. There were sham legal marriages to keep the government happy, but inside the compound Koresh took at least a dozen more wives and fathered at least twelve more children between 1989 and 1993. On the day of the fire, two women at Mount Carmel were pregnant by him. They gave birth during the conflagration, and their incinerated babies were among the corpses found in the rubble.

There was no limit to Koresh’s sexual ambitions. Taped to his motorcycle was a photograph of Madonna, who Koresh believed would eventually hear about the Davidians, move to Mount Carmel, fall in love with him and become one of his wives. He told one of his lieutenants that God had spoken to him in a dream and said, ‘I will give thee Madonna.’ He espoused a theology in which he and his friends and lovers were the most important people in human history and every inconvenience they faced was a divine trial: this is the way teenagers feel. In the recordings of his negotiations with the FBI, Koresh doesn’t sound like McVeigh or the white supremacist militia leaders who tried to keep Trump in power on 6 January, but he often sounds like Trump himself. ‘Some people say I’m one of the hottest musicians,’ he told one FBI negotiator. No one ever said that.

The FBI negotiations were always going to fail. Koresh was never coming out. Why would he? At Mount Carmel he had built a world in which he had absolute sexual authority and everyone thought he was a prophet. After the siege, he would always be someone whose followers had killed four federal agents, and he would be sent to prison. That wasn’t going to work for him. When he was arrested in 1987, after the gun battle with George Roden, he called his mother and begged to be bailed out. ‘I just can’t take much of jail,’ he told her. Koresh liked to say that all the work they were doing at Mount Carmel – the prayer and breeding and spiritual purification – was so that the Davidians could be part of the ‘wave sheaf’, God’s elect, and enjoy a better life with their lord in heaven. But he never wanted to go anywhere else. He had built his own heaven on Earth.

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