“Waco: American Apocalypse” is the story of one of the biggest gunfights that happened on American soil in the year 1993. David Koresh, the leader of the Branch Davidian cult, considered himself to be the second coming of Jesus Christ, and he believed that he had been sent to earth with the mission to spread the word of God. The Branch Davidians came under the radar of the authorities because they were manufacturing a lot of weapons and simultaneously breaking many federal laws. Moreover, Koresh was accused of child abuse, and the authorities had reason to believe that he was practicing polygamy too. Those few who unfortunately became a part of the 51-day standoff still remember each and every detail of the catastrophe as if it had happened yesterday. So, let’s understand what really happened at Mount Carmel in Waco and which narrative was closer to reality, i.e., the one that the FBI had or the one that the Branch Davidians believed in.
What Is ‘Waco: American Apocalypse’ About?
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) got a tip that a lot of illegal activities were happening in Mount Carmel, where David Koresh used to stay with his followers. The Branch Davidians were stockpiling a lot of weapons, and the authorities got wind that they were violating federal gun laws by converting semi-automatic assault rifles to automatic ones and also making grenades. There were also rumors about the Messiah practicing polygamy and marrying underage girls. The ATF decided to conduct a raid, and we believe that, though the outcome of the raid wouldn’t have been what they wanted, they were not wrong in wanting to conduct it. If anybody had seen the armory maintained by Branch Davidians, they would have been shocked at the number of bullets and guns they had in their possession. David Koresh had told his followers that an apocalypse was going to come when they would have to take a stand against the government and fight for their community, spreading the word of God.
The fact that the ATF was going to conduct a raid was kept a secret, but accidentally, they got lost and asked for directions to Mount Carmel from a man named David Jones, who they later found was a part of the cult. The ATF had lost their element of surprise, and as soon as they reached the Mount Carmel compound, the war began. The ATF said that the Branch Davidians started firing at them first, but David Koresh claimed the opposite. The ATF had underestimated David Koresh, and they hadn’t expected that he could retaliate with such force. Four ATF agents got killed in battle, and they had to ask for a ceasefire as they realized that they would be massacred if they didn’t do so. Larry Lynch from the sheriff’s office and Jim Cavanaugh from the ATF started negotiating with David Koresh and asking what they wanted in return for releasing the women and kids that were inside the compound. The tactical unit of the FBI, the Hostage Rescue Team (HRT), was called as it had become a matter of national importance and ceased to be just a local crackdown. That’s when Gary Noesner took over the reins from Jim Cavanaugh and started negotiating with David Koresh.
Now, according to the Branch Davidians, the law enforcement authorities were the personification of Satan himself, and though society thought that the women and children stuck there needed to be saved, nobody, in reality, wanted to come out. They were scared that the FBI would either put them in jail or shoot them at sight as soon as they went outside their fortress. David Noesner was trying his best to win the trust of David Koresh and asked him what was stopping him from coming out and surrendering. David said that he got these revelations where God told him what to do, and as of then, he was being told not to leave the premises. Noesner struck a deal with him; Koresh agreed to release two people every time his recorded message was played on the radio. Noesner was able to rescue a lot of kids through this strategy, though Koresh didn’t get the response that he was desperately seeking after his message played multiple times on the local radio and became a hot topic of discussion throughout the nation.
Now the authorities were keeping the kids in the Waco Methodist Children’s Home, and one of the negotiators came up with the brilliant idea of recording the kids and sending the tape to the branch Davidians in order to convince the parents to come out and take responsibility for their kids as they needed them. Kathy Schroeder, a member of the cult, got worried when she saw her child in one of the videos, as she thought that he was not doing well. Kathy decided to come out, and Noesner realized that he was on the right track and that, given time, he would be able to make each and every member, including Koresh, surrender.
The Conflict Between HRT and Gary Noesner
There was a lot of miscommunication between the FBI negotiators and the HRT, and Noesner felt that it was impeding his negotiation. Noesner was promising David Koresh one thing, but the HRT was doing the complete opposite, and that was making Koresh lose trust in the negotiators. Koresh had started believing that the negotiators didn’t have any power over the HRT and that it was useless to engage in a conversation with them. Now Bob Ricks, the on-ground commander, and Chris Whitcomb, the HRT sniper guy, wanted to take a more aggressive approach, and they wanted David and his men to know who was in charge. Noesner complained about it to Jeff Jamar, the head of the entire operation, and he told him that if the HRT gave him time and did what he was asking them to, then he would be able to bring out each and every person alive.
Now, it has to be understood that it was not an easy decision to make for Jeff, as he was also answerable to a lot of people, and there was a huge amount of pressure being put on him to deliver a favorable result as soon as possible. A lot of taxpayers’ money was being wasted every day, and the HRT guys were losing patience. The decision of the authorities to send Kathy Schroeder to prison was also vehemently opposed by Noesner. He said time and again that the foundation of his negotiations was mutual trust, and if he lost that, then he would also lose the cause.
Noesner knew that Koresh wouldn’t respond positively to tactical intervention, as he was extremely averse to this bullish attitude since he had been a victim of abuse early in his life. That is why Noesner was of the opinion that it was necessary for the authorities to try and make Koresh realize that they wanted to find an amicable solution. But HRT was in no mood to listen to anything that the negotiators were asking them to do. They played loud noises on huge speakers to break the morale of the Davidians, and Noesner was very sure that everything was going to go downhill from there. On March 25, 1993, Noesner was formally removed from his position under the pretext that he had a training program to attend in the Middle East, though he believed that the HRT and the FBI high command had ulterior motives behind replacing him. We can’t say for sure that Noensner would have been able to resolve the issue if he had stayed on board, but it cannot be denied that he could have saved a lot more people. Even though it was taking a lot of time, his tactics were working, and after he left, not a single person came out to surrender.
Who Was Responsible For The Fire At Mount Carmel?
When Dick Deguerin, the criminal defense lawyer, was allowed to go inside the compound in Mount Carmel, the HRT guys, especially Chris Whitcomb, opposed the decision, as they found it wrong to send a third party into a zone of conflict that is primarily experiencing a hostage situation. The Davidians, on the other hand, started hoping that maybe they would be able to come out alive, as Deguerin had told them that he would get them an opportunity to tell their side of the story in court. David Koresh had told Deguerin that he was writing his thesis and that as soon as it was completed, he would surrender, but the FBI did not believe him. The officials said in the press conference that David had earlier made such promises, and it was not certain if he would actually stand by his word or if it was another tactic used by him to stall the FBI. At this point, the FBI had accepted that the negotiations were a failure and needed to take active and more aggressive steps to bring the Davidians out of their fortress.
Dick Rogers, the HRT commander, flew to Washington during this point in time and met Janet Reno, who had just assumed the position of the attorney general of the United States of America. Now, it was believed that the FBI told Janet only one side of the story in order to get the permit to throw tear gas inside the building. Deguerin and even Lee Hancock (a Dallas Morning News reporter) believed that the FBI didn’t show the videos that David Koresh had sent to prove that the children were happy staying with him, as it would have put Koresh in a good light.
On April 19, 1993, David Koresh was told by the FBI that they would be throwing tear gas inside their compound. The FBI constantly told Koresh that it was not an assault, but it didn’t seem like it. Chris Whitcomb noticed after the tear gas had been thrown that there was smoke coming out of one part of the building. He thought that the Davidians would come out eventually, but nobody did, and soon people noticed that the entire building was engulfed in fire. According to FBI officials, the Davidians themselves started the fire because they wanted to commit suicide, but David Thibodeau, who was still inside the compound at that point in time, said that they had every intention of surviving and that he never saw anybody lighting fire. Bob Ricks called Thibodeau a liar, and it could never be proved who was responsible for the fire. David Thibodeau was one of the lucky ones who was able to come out of the building alive, but a majority of the Davidians died inside the facility itself.
Gary Noesner agrees in “Waco: An American Apocalypse” that they didn’t save all the lives that they could have. Not a single person came out of the compound after Noesner left, and he believes that though Koresh was responsible for the deaths of innocent people, it couldn’t be said that the FBI didn’t commit mistakes either. Dick Deguerin believes that it was a clear-cut case of unreasonable search and seizure, and that David Koresh actually had the intention of coming out and surrendering. Heather Jones, whom we saw telling her side of the story in the docuseries “Waco: American Apocalypse,” was the last child to come out of Mount Carmel alive. Out of the 82 people who had died in Mount Carmel, 28 were children. The president said in the press conference that the FBI tried to deal with the situation without bloodshed, and he put the entire blame on Koresh for the catastrophe that had put a blot on the history of the United States of America. What happened in Mount Carmel had a deep impact on society, and the catastrophe radicalized a lot of people like Timothy McVeigh, who in 1995 bombed Oklahoma City and claimed that it was avenging the deaths of innocent people who had died during the Waco Siege.
Where Are Gary Noesner And David Thibodeau Now?
Noesner and Thibodeau appeared on a TV show together during the release of the 2018 miniseries “Waco” and even worked as consultants on the entire project. The Paramount miniseries was based on two nonfiction novels written by David Thibodeau and Gary Noesner. They gave their valuable testimonies in the Netflix docuseries “Waco: American Apocalypse” as well, through which we came to know that they sort of agreed on a lot of things that happened inside the Mount Carmel compound. Both Noesnar and Thibodeau believe that though the FBI chose to call the people inside the Mount Carmel building hostages, they were staying inside out of their own free will. Noesner says that though the media and the authorities portrayed David Koresh as this fanatical person who had lost his mind, in reality, he was a sensible man who knew what he was doing and made quite valid arguments throughout the course of the negotiations. But in addition to that, Noesner also believes that he has used religion to his advantage a lot of times.
Koresh knew that the people followed him blindly, and they did consider him the second coming of Jesus, but Noesner isn’t sure if he himself believed in his narrative or not. Noesner agrees that he was intentionally removed from his position and that the training program was merely a cover. He accepts that he had some differences of opinion with the FBI officials, which they didn’t appreciate, and that is why they deemed it fit to remove him from the picture and opt for a course that the negotiators had vehemently protested against, i.e., tactical intervention. David Thibodeau, who lives in Maine now, still says that contrary to what the FBI microphones had recorded, nobody was ever told to put the place on fire, and neither did he see anyone doing that. Noesner was removed in the first phase of the 51-day standoff, so he wasn’t present in sight when the fire broke out, but he does accept that the FBI did try to shape the narrative time and again, as they were in complete control of what information went out in the media. After retiring from the FBI, Noesner went on to work for Control Risks, a global consultancy, and though he harbors a lot of regret for not being able to save the Branch Davidians, he also feels proud of the fact that he was able to take out 35 people and prove his point that, had he been kept on board, there would have been lesser damage.