On February 28, 1993, the U.S. government attempted to enter the Mount Carmel Center ranch housing members of the Branch Davidian religious cult. They were executing a search warrant for the alleged possession of a stockpile of illegal weapons, including ones members had allegedly modified for automatic firing capabilities. They were also seeking out the leader David Koresh in hopes of a peaceful surrender. But the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) agents did not expect the gunfight that would ensue.
The 51-day standoff that marked one of the largest such conflicts in the country’s history, and the tragic end to the story, is chronicled in Waco: American Apocalypse. The three-part Netflix docuseries features never-before-seen material and interviews from law enforcement, ATF agents, FBI snipers, journalists, and survivors.
The situation is described succinctly by the mother of one of the few survivors, David Thibodeau. She opines that the sordid story was the result of both the federal government and David Koresh abusing their power. “And the outcome,” she declares, “[was] some of our ugliest history.” Along with harrowing accounts, the docuseries reveals shocking events and details, some of which had never been known in such detail before. Here are the five biggest revelations:
While the date of the raid went back-and-forth, a planned day of February 28, 1993 was finally agreed upon. The element of surprise was important, however, given how many guns were in the facility, to prevent a gunfight. However, Koresh was tipped off that the ATF was coming beforehand, which gave him time to prepare.
How was he tipped off? A reporter who had somehow gotten hold of the details of the raid, was lost on the road looking for the compound. He stopped to ask a seemingly friendly postal worker for help, not knowing the postal worker was a Branch Davidian member. The postal worker gave directions and inquired about why the journalist was headed there. He recklessly told him about the pending raid, and the postal worker, who was also Koresh’s brother-in-law, immediately headed back home to alert Koresh of what was coming.
According to Branch Davidian David Thibodeau, Perry Jones, a prominent member of the Branch Davidians, had been shot in the stomach during the gunfight. Thibodeau sorrowfully recalls how Jones was slumped over, coming down the stairs, begging someone to kill him to be “put out of his misery.” There was no hope for help unless he agreed to go outside and meet with ATF agents for medical attention. But everyone inside, including him, refused.
Thibodeau says that stories to this day report that Jones died from a gunshot wound to his stomach. But he advises that the Branch Davidians granted Jones his wish, saying he was “removed from the Earth so that he would not have to suffer anymore.”
Sniper Chris Whitcomb, who was called in as a member of the last line of defense when the gunfight finally slowed and negotiations began, reports that at one point in time, he had a clear shot at Koresh. He looked through his scope and distinctly saw Koresh pull the curtain aside and look out a window on the upper level.
He recalls how he went back-and-forth about what to do in that moment. Given his skills and the clean shot he had, Whitcomb said there was “almost zero margin for error. No question what was going to happen.” Whitcomb agonized over the decision. He knew if he did it, he would go to jail for the rest of his life. But he also realized killing Koresh would mean it was all over and he would save all those people inside the compound. Whitcomb says he’s still haunted by that moment and the “what ifs.”
Whitcomb also recalls that, after Mount Carmel was completely engulfed in flames, he sat up for a moment and saw a bullet fly by his head. He looked through his scope once again and noticed someone in a window pointing a rifle. This means, he realized, that this individual wanted their last act on Earth to be to shoot him in the head. “That’s commitment,” he said.
The person was trapped in the building, which was almost entirely ablaze, yet still shockingly managed to try to perform one last act of God, in their eyes.
While many people are aware of the alleged miscommunications and mistakes made by ATF agents, the U.S. government, and the FBI, the docuseries delves deeper into how the various sides all wanted the same outcome. but were adamant about using very different tactics. The Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) was hoping to slowly talk with Koresh, build trust, and get him to send people out one by one. They wanted to do things peacefully.
On the other hand, another side of the FBI believed that brute force was the only way to get things done, get things done quickly, and end the standoff. They tried various tactics, including broadcasting recordings of annoying, grating sounds all night to force the residents into a state of sleep deprivation. They also used tear gas grenades and Combat Engineer Vehicles, and had snipers positioned at every corner. Many people believe the failure to agree upon a method and the confusion it caused contributed to the standoff lasting so long. This eventually resulted in the explosive and tragic outcome.
You can now stream all three episodes of Waco: American Apocalypse on Netflix.
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