Waco Revisited

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