Waco Revisited

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The National
Geographic channel recently aired a program on the Waco incident
of 1993 entitled: The Final Report, Waco Tragedy. Expectations
were high because the production crew was the same one which had
produced a credible documentary on 9/11 several months earlier.
Advertised as an unbiased, critical review of the evidence, it fell
far short of expectations.

As someone
who covered
the Branch Davidian standoff and trial for a local newspaper
,
I was disappointed in the shallowness of the report. The producers
left out too much that was relevant to a proper understanding of
events.

Although a
thorough analysis of what happened is beyond the scope of this article,
a few examples of errors and omissions on the part of the National
Geographic special are in order.

The producers
bought the government claim that the Branch Davidians possessed
unregistered automatic weapons — an illegal act. Yet, the prosecution
presented no proof at trial, the jury never ruled on the issue,
and news footage of the shootout showed no automatic weapon fire
coming from the Davidian complex. When a Waco gun dealer from whom
David Koresh — the group's leader — and some Davidians had purchased
firearms called Koresh during a visit by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco
and Firearms (BATF) agents, Koresh invited the agents to inspect
the Davidian compound at Mt. Carmel, hardly the act of someone with
something to hide. Instead of accepting his offer, the agent-in-charge
chastised the gun dealer for communicating with Koresh!

The National
Geographic special left out the several other reasons the government
gave at various times to justify the attack on the Davidians: suspicion
of a drug lab on the property, child abuse, and Davidian plans to
take over the city of Waco. The last two are too ludicrous to rebut.
However, not only the initial raid, but the entire siege was funded
out of money dedicated to the war on drugs. How, then, did violations
of gun laws become a pretext for the raid?

The reason
for the raid was not suspicion that the Branch Davidians possessed
weapons illegally, as the government and National Geographic portrayed,
but to shore up support for the BATF at budget time because of negative
publicity over sexual harassment, and heavy handed treatment of
gun dealers and owners for minor, mostly paperwork, infractions.
The agency was also looking for favor from an administration dedicated
to gun control.

Why the Branch
Davidians? Several months earlier, a delivery person reported to
authorities that when he dropped a package addressed to someone
at Mt. Carmel, a hand grenade fell out. The delivery person might
not know the difference between a live hand grenade and a de-milled
one, but BATF agents should. The de-milled hand grenade was the
type sold as a novelty at gun shows and curio shops. Several Branch
Davidians were known to sell survival, novelty and other items at
gun shows to support themselves and their families. Once BATF determined
that the grenade had been de-milled, that should have been the end
of the investigation. Instead, the agency seized on an opportunity
to shore up its image and influence Congressional budget makers.

BATF thought
they had picked an easy target — a small, isolated religious community
of about 150 people, mostly women and children, with few community
ties and a survivalist mentality which was then unpopular at best
and suspicious at worst. (It is interesting to note that since Hurricane
Katrina, there has been no criticism of survivalists.) They even
invited the press to document this staged event. Their mistake was
in picking on a tight-knit congregation with a dynamic leader whose
prophetic writings predicted a deadly clash with an over-reaching
government.

The National
Geographic special made no mention of the plethora of evidence that
disappeared from the scene after fire destroyed the compound. Texas
Rangers reported that the federal agents would not allow them to
secure the area as a crime scene, but destroyed or confiscated much
of the evidence. On page 266 of his book, One
Ranger
, published in 2005, the well-known and respected
Texas Ranger H. Joaquin Jackson remarked:

u201C . . . Joey
Gordon, Ranger pyrotechnics expert . . . had the balls to refute
the FBI determination about the Branch Davidian fiasco in Waco.
He knew it didn't happen like the Feds reported, and he said so.
. . . if the Rangers had handled the Branch Davidian investigation,
there would have been no bloodshed. The Feds came looking for
a fight in Texas and they found one and then they lied about who
provoked whom. Ranger Joey Gordon helped put things right. If
you didn't know that, you do now. . . .u201D

The government
tried eleven surviving Branch Davidians. The jury found them all
not guilty of the most serious charge — conspiracy to commit murder.
They found some of them guilty of aiding and abetting manslaughter,
and using a weapon during the commission of a crime. U.S. District
Judge Walter Smith originally set aside the convictions on the firearms
violation since the defendants could not logically be guilty of
using a weapon in a commission of a crime for which they had been
acquitted. The judge, however, reversed himself under pressure from
prosecutors and allowed the inconsistent verdict to stand, a shameful
act.

When I interviewed
jury foreman Sarah Bain after the trial, I asked her why, after
finding the Davidians not guilty of the major charge, the jury had
found them guilty of anything. She admitted that the jurors had
not understood the judge’s instructions for the firearms charge.
She also said that, although jurors felt the government was primarily
at fault, they thought the Branch Davidians shared some blame for
the siege. She and the other jurors were horrified, however, by
the harshness of the sentences. She had earlier sent Judge Smith
a letter on behalf of herself and several other jurors encouraging
him to be lenient since it was the jury’s intent to administer “a
slap on the wrist.”

A far more
accurate portrayal of the incident is William Gazecki’s documentary

Waco: The Rules of Engagement
, which was an Oscar nominee
for the Best Documentary in 1997.

June
12, 2006

Benedict
LaRosa [send him mail]
is the author of Gun
Control: An Historical Perspective
and other works.

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