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Report to the Deputy Attorney General on the Events at Waco, Texas: Executive Summary

U.S. Department of Justice
Washington, D.C. 20530


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Report to the Deputy Attorney General on the Events at Waco, Texas
February 28 to April 19, 1993

Executive Summary


On February 28, 1993, at approximately 9:30 a.m. Central Time, agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) came under heavy gunfire while attempting to execute an arrest warrant for Vernon Howell, otherwise known as David Koresh. The warrant authorized Koresh's arrest for federal firearms and explosives violations. An accompanying search warrant authorized the ATF agents to search the compound where Koresh and his followers, known as the Branch Davidians, lived near Waco, Texas. Four ATF agents were killed and sixteen were wounded during the shootout with the Branch Davidians on February 28. Additionally, a number of individuals inside the compound were killed and injured; however, the number killed by ATF gunfire cannot be precisely determined.


Within a few hours of the incident, and at the request of ATF officials, the FBI dispatched trained negotiators to the scene in Waco. By that afternoon, the FBI, in cooperation with the ATF and Department of Treasury officials, had also sent in advance units of its elite Hostage Rescue Team. The next day (March 1, 1993), also at the request of Treasury Department officials, the FBI became the lead agency responsible for resolving the standoff with the Branch Davidians.


The Branch Davidians, an offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventists, strongly believed that the Second Coming of Christ was imminent, and that the end of the world was approaching rapidly. The Davidians had armed themselves heavily in anticipation of an apocalyptic showdown with government agents, who they likened to the Babylonians and Assyrians of Biblical times. David Koresh had been the "prophet" or leader of the Davidians since 1987.


When the FBI assumed responsibility for resolving the standoff, it faced an unknown number of men, women, and children who had barricaded themselves in a large compound, and who refused to surrender. They were heavily armed with hundreds of weapons, including fully automatic machine guns and .50 caliber rifles, and with hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition. They had already demonstrated their willingness to use those weapons on February 28.


During the next 51 days, over 700 law enforcement personnel participated in the effort to end the standoff. Between 250 to 300 FBI personnel were present in Waco at any given time, along with hundreds of officers and agents from other federal, state, and local agencies.


Negotiations, perhaps more accurately characterized as discussions, began with Koresh, Steve Schneider (Koresh's chief lieutenant), and others during the gunfight on the 28th. These discussions continued over the telephone, as well as face-to-face, until April 19, 1993. overall, the FBI spoke to approximately 54 individuals inside the compound for approximately 215 hours.


Between February 28 and March 23, 1993, 35 Davidians (14 adults and 21 children) departed the compound. In addition, another 9 Davidians (all adults) survived the fire that destroyed the compound on April 19. Evidence developed by the FBI strongly suggests that most or all of the individuals who left before the fire were "expelled" because Koresh considered then weak or troublemakers.


The FBI's paramount objective throughout the standoff was to convince Koresh and the others inside the compound to surrender peacefully, without any further loss of life. Accordingly, the FBI operated under rules of engagement prohibiting any FBI agent from firing a weapon, unless the agent or another person was in imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm. The FBI did not fire a single shot during the entire standoff, including during the tear gas operation on April 19, when the Davidians repeatedly fired on the FBI.


The FBI's strategy for obtaining a peaceful surrender was to attempt to negotiate with Koresh and his followers, while also employing tactics to gradually increase the pressure on those inside the compound. Those tactics included periodically tightening the perimeter around the compound, denying certain comforts such as electricity, and broadcasting loud music and irritating sounds over loudspeakers. According to many agents involved in the standoff, the negotiations and tactical components of the FBI's overall approach were not always coordinated and., on occasion, were in conflict with each other.


In their conversations with the Branch Davidians, the FBI-s negotiators urged the compound's residents to come out and surrender, either individually or as a group. The negotiators were respectful, but firm, and engaged in hours of religious dialogue with Koresh and his chief lieutenant, Steve Schneider Koresh, in addition to preaching, was alternately threatening, conciliatory, and full of unkept promises. The conversations can be fairly summarized as the Branch Davidians promising to come out eventually, but refusing to give any firm timetable when this might occur, other than when God gave the instruction to Koresh.


During the standoff, the FBI sought the advice of numerous experts. one issue of particular concern to the FBI was the possibility of mass suicide. on this subject, the experts provided conflicting advice and information. Interviews of former Branch Davidians and those who had departed the compound during the standoff also produced inconsistent information about the possibility of suicide. In the course of the negotiations, the FBI repeatedly asked Koresh and others inside the compound about suicide. Koresh and the others consistently denied that suicide was an option.


Seven weeks after the standoff began, the Attorney General approved an FBI request to introduce nonlethal tear gas into the compound. The Attorney General based her decision on a number of factors, including the impasse in the negotiations, the extreme difficulty in maintaining a safe and secure perimeter around the compound, the risk of disease caused by deteriorating sanitary conditions in the compound, the remaining Davidians' refusal to leave any time in the foreseeable future, and the Davidians' ability to hold out for many more months, given their large stockpiles of food and water.


The Attorney General and her senior advisers, with input from the FBI and the U.S. military, reviewed several options before concluding that inserting tear gas was the only viable, non-lethal option. The plan was to insert gas periodically over a 48-hour period, to then withdraw, and then to wait as large numbers of people left the compound. The Attorney General approved the operation on Saturday, April 17, ordering that it be implemented beginning Monday, April 19.


[Material redacted as required by statute.] On April 19, the FBI telephoned the compound at 5:591a.m. to inform the Davidians that tear gas would be released into the compound, and to assure them that the FBI was not launching an assault. At 6:02 a.m., an FBI tank with an attached boom began inserting gas into the compound. The Davidians opened fire on the FBI's vehicle within two minutes.


[Material redacted as required by statute.]


At 12:07 p.m., the Davidians started simultaneous fires at three or more different locations within the compound. This was established by a team of independent arson experts; by video shot from an aircraft utilizing Forward Looking Infrared Radar (FLIR) technology; by observations of FBI agents who saw an individual appearing to light one of the fires; by statements from survivors admitting that the Davidians set the fires; and by [material redacted as required by statute). The fires rapidly engulfed the compound in flames and smoke.


At approximately 12:25 p.m., the FBI agents closest to the compound heard what they described as "systematic" gunfire. Many agents believed at the time that those inside were killing themselves, killing each other, or both.


The remains of 75 individuals (50 adults and 25 children under age 15) were recovered in the ruins of the compound. At least 17 of those individuals died of gunshot wounds, including several children. Another child was stabbed to death. In addition to the 75 persons who died during the April 19 fire, five other bodies, all with gunshot wounds, also were recovered. Those five bodies were of the Davidians presumably killed during the February 28 shootout with the ATF. Some of those five bodies showed evidence of having been shot from inside the compound. At least one of those five bodies showed evidence of suicide.


Nine individuals survived the fire. On August 6, 1993, a superseding indictment was returned by a federal grand jury in Waco, Texas charging five of these individuals, along with seven others, with conspiracy to murder federal agents, as well as numerous other charges. The trial of this case is scheduled for early 1994.

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Updated February 14, 2018