In-Depth

In-Depth: The Tragedy In Waco Remembered, 25 Years Later

The deadly end to a weeks-long siege of a religious compound prompted serious soul-searching among law enforcement about how tense confrontations are handled.

Twenty-five years ago this week, what began as a law enforcement raid on a religious compound outside Waco ended with a massive fire and more than 80 people dead.

The lesson from the violent standoff between federal agents and the “Branch Davidians” varies depending on who you ask. But at a minimum, it prompted some serious soul-searching among law enforcement about how tense confrontations are handled.

To better understand how the tragedy continues to reverberate today, Houston Public Media teamed up with the Houston Chronicle to hear from some of the people who were there as the standoff unfolded.

“Bullets were striking around my feet and then the realization came, ‘hey stupid, they’re shooting at you,'” said Gary Orchowski, a senior operations officer at the time with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

He was among those that attempted to raid the Davidians’ compound in search of illegal weapons. An ensuing gun battle left multiple agents and Davidians dead and set the stage for what was to come. Orchowski said the raid couldn’t have gone much differently, given the firepower the Davidians had.

Orchowski said it seems like after Waco, the public turned against law enforcement. But in his view, he and his partners were on a “humanitarian mission,” not just looking for guns, but also trying to protect children in the compound that former Davidians had said were being abused by the group’s leader, David Koresh. 

Houston attorney Dick DeGuerin sees the agents’ behavior during the standoff much differently.

“There’s no question it was an attack,” he said.

DeGuerin helped negotiate what was supposed to be a deal between Koresh and the authorities: Koresh would be given time to write down his religious message for the world to read in exchange for his surrender. But the deal collapsed when authorities grew impatient, and 51 days after the first botched raid, decided to drive the Davidians out by pumping tear gas into the compound.

“It was a full blown assault,” DeGuerin said. “They were in the process of demolishing the building, and in that process is when I believe the fire started accidentally.”

Eric Evers, one of the ATF agents shot during the initial raid, said a “mission mindset” took hold on that first day.

“When we realized that the element of surprise was lost, I know that as we were driving up, each and every one of us was wondering, ‘well, why are we going through with this if we know the element of surprise was lost?'” Evers remembered.

He said his biggest lesson has to do with how a group mentality can take hold during these kind of situations. Evers said if any of the agents involved in the raid had spoken up and questioned why it was still moving forward, even with the surprise lost, he felt it could have been called off.

“But we were all in the mindset of, ‘we can be successful, we’ve been successful in the past,'” he said.

“There were mistakes made, decisions that, in hindsight, shouldn’t have been made,” said ATF agent James O’Flaherty, who was involved with the Waco investigation from the start.

“I know that everyone that was on the ground that day did what they had to do. There’s a lot of brave men and women that day. We’d all love to change what happened, there’s not one person that wouldn’t change what occurred that day,” he said, referring to the initial raid.

DeGuerin, Koresh’s former attorney, stresses what he sees as a crucial miscalculation in the whole ordeal: the failure of the authorities to look at the situation from the Davidians’ perspective.

“They saw no reason to leave their home,” he said of the people living in the compound. “They believed that they were under siege by the people the Bible said they were going to be under siege by, so they refused to leave their home.”

As the Houston Chronicle has reported, the tragedy at Mount Carmel did lead to changes. The ATF now gives team leaders on the ground the authority to start or end an operation, and authorities are more patient with negotiations. As former FBI agent and Waco negotiator Clinton Van Zandt put it, “time is a friend of ours, time is not an enemy.”

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Travis Bubenik

Travis Bubenik

Energy & Environment Reporter

Travis Bubenik reports on the tangled intersections of energy and the environment in Houston and across Texas. A Houston native and proud Longhorn, he returned to the Bayou City after serving as the Morning Edition Host & Reporter for Marfa Public Radio in Far West Texas. Bubenik was previously the...

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