Twenty years ago today on February 28, 1993, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms raided the Branch Davidian cult compound in Waco, Texas, prompting a gun battle in which four agents and six cult members were killed. The federal agents were attempting to arrest the leader of the Branch Davidians, David Koresh, on information that the religious sect was stockpiling weapons. A nearly two-month standoff ensued after the unsuccessful raid.
The roots of the confrontation between the federal government and the Branch Davidians went back 10 years before the Waco siege. In 1983, a young man named Vernon Howell showed up at the Mt. Carmel headquarters of the sect. Lois Roden and her son, George, were competing for leadership of the commune at the time. Lois had an affair with Howell, but died shortly thereafter. George Roden tried to take charge of Mt. Carmel, but Howell challenged his leadership, claiming that he was the Lamb from Revelation, and that his children would be descended from God.
Roden responded by posing a contest to Howell. Whoever could resurrect an exhumed corpse would prove their worthiness to rule the cult. Howell declined the challenge, going instead to the sheriff to have Roden arrested for illegally digging up a body. When the police wanted no part of it, Howell and Roden ended up in a gunfight that left Roden injured. While Howell was awaiting trial for attempted murder, Roden was jailed for contempt for filing “the most obscene and profane motions that probably have ever been filed in a federal courthouse” in an unrelated case. Howell took over the cult and the Mt. Carmel compound in Roden’s absence, and later got a mistrial on the attempted murder charge
Soon, Howell started his own harem, declaring himself the only one allowed to have wives. Reportedly his many wives included girls as young as 12. Howell changed his name to David Koresh in 1990. Not long after, he began filling the cult member’s heads with apocalyptic warnings and insisting that they arm themselves. In 1992, a deliveryman accidentally dropped a package and saw that it was filled with grenades.
It was against this background that the federal government obtained a warrant for Koresh’s arrest. To Koresh the failed raid served as proof that he really was being persecuted. When federal agents moved in to end the siege on April 19 with tear gas, a fire broke out. Koresh and about two dozen others shot themselves to death or were shot before the fire engulfed the entire compound. Others died in the fire or the rubble of collapsing buildings, bringing the death toll to 80 Branch Davidians. Only 11 members escaped with their lives.