by Willy Wegner, translated by Claus Larsen
Showtime for Branch Davidians
We are in the previous republic of Texas – the lone star state. Somewhere in that vast area, we find the city of Waco, in McLennan County, with a population of more than 100,000. A city that became known all over the world in 1993 – but not for the good.
About 15 kilometers from Waco there was a group of buildings known as Mount Carmel Center. It was home to the Branch Davidians, a religious commune with about a hundred people. Their leader was 33-year old Vernon Wayne Howell, later to be known as David Koresh, and as Jesus himself. Koresh was at home with the Bible, a gun fanatic and enjoyed music and women – especially young women. As the commune’s polygamist patriarch, he was the father of many of the children, with many of the women there.
David Koresh’s devotion to guns was not particularly atypical. In the middle of 1990’s, the 17 million Texans were the proud owners of 60 million firearms. There is little doubt that the number has increased since then. One American journalist wrote, that there were more registered gun dealers than obstetricians: It was easier to buy a gun than get help to give birth to a child.
The Branch Davidians were originally a break-away group from the Seventh Day Adventists, a break that happened as far back as the 1930’s. Toward the end of the 1970’s, the leading prophet of the Davidians was Lois Roden, the widow of Benjamin Roden, who had built the cult since the beginning of the 1060’s. When Lois Roden died in 1986, her son George thought he would become leader of the cult.
He quickly discovered that he had a competitor in Vernon Howell, who also lived at Mount Carmel, together with his wife Rachel. While Howell was knowledgable about the Bible, George Roden was not. Howell also was charismatic and was trusted by the other members of the cult. In 1984, Roden forced Howell and his wife out of Mount Carmel at gun point. Quietly, several of the other Davidians followed suit and joined Howell elsewhere.
The war over who the true prophet was continued and took a turn for the grotesque. Late in 1987, George Roden dug up a coffin with a long-time gone Davidian. Then, he challenged Howell to a competition: Who could make the dead rise from the dead would win. Instead, Howell filed a complaint to the authorities over Roden’s inappropriate handling of a corpse. The authorities demanded evidence, so Howell and seven armed followers sneaked in at Mount Carmel to take pictures of the coffin. Roden discovered what they were up to, and a gunfire ensued, where Roden was wounded.
Howell and his followers were accused of attempted murder. The case went to court in April 1998, but the seven followers were acquitted, while Howell’s case was to go before a jury. The jury could not reach a verdict, and the case was dropped. Roden himself was so threatening to the judge that he himself landed a six month long sentence for contempt of court.
Howell jumped at this opportunity, and returned to Mount Carmel. For 16 years, nobody had paid land taxes to the authorities, who now repossessed the property. Howell paid all the taxes in March 1988, paving the way for the exiled Davidians to return legally to Mount Carmel.
George Roden was a constant threat to the Davidians, but in 1989 it was over for him: He was locked up at an institution for the criminally insane: He had killed a man with an axe.
The Davidians believed in the return of Jesus and the Book of Revelation, with the end of the world, death to all sinners and salvation for the true believers as a core tenet. They saw themselves as the true believers, and believed that a living prophet would lead them to salvation – and that this prophet was David Koresh, which he also believed himself. In the beginning of 1990, Vernon Howell had changed his name to David Koresh, a symbolic change of name. David after King David, who according to the Old Testament had united Israel, and the hebrew name Koresh for Cyrus, the Persian king who liberated the Jews from Babylon.
In the summer of 1992, there was an investigation of David Koresh regarding a suspicious package arriving my mail. The package was for him, but had unfortunately been damaged. The mailman saw that the content consisted of inactive hand grenades and some black gunpowder. The mailman reported this to the police in Waco, who sent message to the the FBI Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The ATF agent Davy Aguilera was assigned to investigate the case.
The ATF is an organization stretching back to the days of Prohibition, where they fought liquor smugglers. The ATF had a suspicion that something illegal was taking place at Mount Carmel, a violation of the federal gun laws.
However, Koresh and some of his closest associates earned money by participating in gun shows. Among the goods sold were inactive – fake – hand grenades, a rather profitable and perfectly legal business. Koresh also sold survival gear and packets of rations. Additionally, he collected gun parts which he sold through a licensed gun dealer, since nobody at Mount Carmel could do so.
From June to August 1992, the ATF agent Davy Aguilera investigated several companies which had sold guns or gun parts to David Koresh. He discovered that Koresh from March 26 to August 12 had spent $43,000 on guns.
A semi-automatic gun only shoots one bullet each time you pull the trigger, but will automatically load the next shot, ready to be fired. A fully-automated gun will automatically load and can fire more than one shot per trigger pull. The first weapon was legal to own, if it was made before September 13, 1994, when President Clinton signed a new gun law.
The files show that Aquilera already knew in July 1992 that Koresh was making a business deal with a licensed gun dealer by the name of Henry McMahon. The deal was that Koresh bought kits necessary to manufacture AR-15, a civilian semi-automatic version of the military’s M-16. He would put together these legal weapons and sell them through McMahon. It was a promising deal, since the price would be considerably lower than what the weapon would normally fetch. Even though both Koresh and McMahon stood to make a lot of money from this, McMahon backed out after being threatened by Aguilera, leaving Koresh with a lot of AR-15 kits.
On July 30, Aguilera together with fellow agent Jim Skinner had a meeting with McMahon, where they asked a lot of questions about his collaboration with Koresh. McMahon went to phone Koresh and was told that if they wanted to come see the guns, they were more than welcome. The agents declined.
On the face of it, it seemed irrational. The ATF could have checked whether Koresh had illegal weapons or not, but there must have been a hidden agenda that it wasn’t going to be that easy. Instead, ATF continued planning a larger operation against Koresh, by the name of Showtime.
Most of the weapons at Mount Carmel were for selling, even though they also had their own guns for self-defense. The cult received threatening letters and had an on-going war with George Roden, even though Roden was committed to an institution. They feared that Roden would escape and return to Mount Carmel.
At one of the first meetings, held in the beginning of December 1992, at the ATF department in Houston, about Operation Showtime against the Davidians, agents Phillip Chojnacki, Chuck Sarabyn and Ted Royster were appointed to plan and carry out the operation. Assistance was sought from the Texas National Guard, which took a series of photos from the air of Mount Carmel, later to be used for strategic planning.
Nevertheless, the plans were cancelled at the end of December 1992, after a meeting at ATF’s headquarters in Washington. The top brass demanded a better reason if the operation were to be carried out. The evidence gathered was not strong enough, so further investigations were needed. That was explained in a congressional hearing in April 1993, where the director of the ATF, Stephen Higgins stated that there was not enough information in December 1992 to arrest David Koresh.
Davy Aguilera then began interviewing several former Davidians in January 1993, with the goal of collecting sufficient information to get Koresh arrested and Mount Carmel searched for illegal weapons. One of the former members was March Breault, who had a strained relationship with Koresh, and were to prove himself to be a key figure for ATF.
After having left Mount Carmel in 1989, March Breault started his own private and persistent crusade against Koresh, playing a strange double-part as both “cult killer” and cult leader. Breault came from a Roman Catholic background in Hawaii, and joined the Davidians in 1986. He left in disgust, because he couldn’t stomach Koresh’s sexual behavior. He claimed to have been Koresh’ trusted man.
Breault began by spreading a series of rumors. One was that he feared that Koresh considered human sacrifice, especially of small children. There were rumors that Koresh would orchestrate a mass suicide, and that Koresh was out to kill Breault. The rumors were repeated so many times, spawning new ones, that the old dissidents began to believe their own press.
Together with other Davidian dissidents, they hired a private detective by the name of Geoffrey Hossack, in March 1990. His job was to dig up dirt about Koresh. Breault persuaded his friends to accuse Koresh of various crimes: Violating immigration laws, sexual intercourse with minors, limiting cult members access to food and water, and the aforementioned child sacrifices.
In September 1990, Hossack got a meeting with several authorities and presented the charges based on his material. But both the FBI and the district attorney Bill Johnston threw out the material and closed the case.
This was very frustrating for Breault and his followers, who after this strived to get the media’s attention. Some of these former members had been thrown out of the cult, others had left on their own.
In October 1990, Breault collaborated with an Australian TV station “Channel Nine” and their program “A Current Affair”. The Australian TV crew travelled to Mount Carmel, and expected to find an evil, manic gun-toting child abuser and a religious fanatic who had brainwashed his followers – a potential Jonestown. Breault wrote, together with one of the journalists from the show, the book “Inside the Cult” shortly after the catastrophe, as part of “The Real World”, but was nothing but Breault’s own view of the world.
It was due to talks between these paranoid gossip mongerers and the ATF agent Aguilera that spawned a new interest in Koresh. The organized cult killers did what they could, and the agents from ATF and FBI were willing listeners.
Lacking a credible legal reason, the ATF began in January 1993 a systematic surveillance of Mount Carmel. Eight agents moved in in a house across the compound, under the disguise as being from West Texas and students at the Polytechnic School in Waco. The “student leader” was Robert Rodriguez, and was over 40 years old. The other agents were chosen for their youthful looks, even though they were all in their mid-30’s.
The “students” drove around in three new cars, which caused some Davidians to wonder. They checked the license plates and discovered that the owners were not listed, but that all cars were registered at the same address in Houston, far from West Texas. A few days later, Koresh told a neighboring family that they were now living next to secret agents.
After some weeks, ATF realized that there was no sign of any illegal activities. Koresh hadn’t purchased any guns since June 1992. It was decided that an undercover agent should be sent to Mount Carmel.
That was Robert Rodriguez, who arrived at the compound in February. His cover was blown immediatedly, since Koresh had guessed who he was. Koresh spent the time entertaining Rodriguez with merry guitar playing and Bible quotes.
According to Aguilera, Koresh had told Rodrigues that he believed in the right to carry guns, but that the Government possibly would take away that right. He also asked Rodriguez if he knew that if one were to buy a so-called “drop-in-Sear” for an AR-15 rifle, it wouldn’t be illegal, but if one bought an AR-15 with a Sear, it would be.
At one point, Koresh showed Rodriguez a video produced by the Gun Owners Association. The video presented provocatively the ATF as an organization who sought to violate gun owners’ rights through threats and lies.
Koresh were almost playful with his knowledge that Rodriguez was a “secret” government agent, and that he didn’t have anything to hide. What he didn’t realize was that he – so to speak – was playing with fire.
The written statement that Davy Aguilera on behalf of ATF gave under oath to a judge to get a search warrant and a warrant for the arrest of Koresh, was nevertheless primarily based on material already known in December 1992, apart from a few interviews with former Davidians. The information was eight months old, but ATF got their warrant for Operation Showtime. A central condition for the execution of the operation was that it had to have the element of surprise.
On February 25, the ATF people began their training at Fort Hood. The same day, Davy Aguilera, together with state attorneys Bill Johnston and John Phinizy their request for a verdict to judge Dennis S. Green. It meant that they had a search warrant for illegal possession of firearms for both Mount Carmel and a rented garage known as “Mag Bag”, as well as a warrant for the arrest of David Koresh.
According to ATF, there was an illegal amphetamine lab at Mount Carmel. In the years between 1985-1988, during the power struggle between George Roden and David Koresh, Roden had previously rented some rooms to people who were not Davidians. Among these were Donny Harvey and Roy Wells. These two had in fact established an amphetamine lab in their rented rooms. When Koresh took over Mount Carmel, he found the lab, and called the local cops who removed the lab from the premises.
The ATF claimed that there were 11 Davidians who had been found guilty of some illegal activities. It turned out that the number was one: The ATF used outdated information to frame the Davidians as drug addicts, circumstantial evidence that was more than five years old, and which had nothing to do with the case.
On February 26, the whole operation was almost cancelled, when the ATF told the Treasury of the plans. Nevertheless, the director of the ATF, Stephen Higgins, convinced the Treasury that, due to a planned series of articles in the Waco Tribune-Herald, February 28 could be the last chance they had. Higgins also reported that the organizers had ensured him that Operation Showtime would be cancelled, if the moment of surprise was lost.
The decision was made on February 25, and Operation Showtime could commence on February 28. This is worth remembering, because when the raid was botched, the ATF accused the Waco Tribune-Herald of warning Koresh indirectly. The day before the raid the newspaper would begin printing a series of articles about Davidians, titled “The Sinful Messiah”, written by Mark England. The ATF claimed that the article would tip off the Davidians about the operation, since it was to begin on March 1 – illegally, since that would be the day after the actual given day. But indirectly, it was the ATF who warned Koresh, as will later be clear.
The editors received a fax in April 1992 where it was claimed that Branch Davidians planned a mass suicide and that children were abused at Mount Carmel. This fax led to an investigation by Mark England and Darlene McCormick that took eight months, and led to the articles. The fax most likely came from March Breault, who also became an important source for the articles. At first, the ATF tried to get the newspaper to postpone the articles until the operation was over, but the editor refused.
The weekend before the operation were to start, the editorial staff got a tip from the ATF that they should stay close to the phone. There would be a raid on Sunday. The newspaper’s journalists and photographers followed the ATF to Mount Carmel and hid in a ditch for protection when the shooting was expected to begin.