Author Sifts Through the 'Ashes of Waco'
ALISON STEWART, host:
An historic 911 call was made 15 years ago today. The caller: a member of the Branch Davidians, a reclusive religious sect that settled in Waco, Texas.
Unidentified Man (Member, Branch Davidians): Hello.
Lieutenant LYNCH (Police Officer): Yeah, this is Lieutenant Lynch. May I help you?
Unidentified Man: Yeah, there are 75 men around our building, and they're shooting at us in Mount Carmel.
Lt. LYNCH: Mount Carmel?
Unidentified Man: Yeah. Tell them there are children and women in here and to call it off.
Lt. LYNCH: All right. Hello?
(Soundbite of gun shots)
Lt. LYNCH: I hear gunfire.
STEWART: The gunfire came from federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The events of February 28, 1993 triggered a standoff that ended 51 days later, when the FBI seized the Branch Davidian compound with tear gas and armored vehicles. It exploded into flames. More than 70 people were killed, including a dozen children, women, and the group's leader, David Koresh.
What followed were congressional hearings, criminal trials, countless media reports over the last decade and a half, that have sought to answer questions raised by the standoff and its violent end.
On this 15th anniversary of the ATF raid, we're joined by Dick Reavis. Reavis covered the story for the Dallas Observer and went on to write the definitive book on the siege, "Ashes of Waco." He appeared as a witness at the congressional hearings. He is now a journalism professor at North Carolina State University. Good morning, Sir.
Mr. DICK REAVIS (Professor, North Carolina State University; Author, "Ashes of Waco"): Good morning.
STEWART: Let's take us back to February 27, 1993. Had the general public heard of David Koresh or the Branch Davidians at this time?
Mr. REAVIS: No, ma'am, and even most people in Waco hadn't heard of them.
STEWART: You as a reporter, did you know what was going on up on this area that they called Mount Carmel?
Mr. REAVIS: Not before it happened. The people at Mount Carmel had been there quietly for many years and never attracted much notice.
STEWART: So the Davidians centered in this area. They led this sort of communal, regimented life. They ate together, they grew their own food, they committed to long intervals of Bible study. Couples were separated; marriages dissolved. Koresh had these spiritual wives. How did they end up in Waco?
Mr. REAVIS: Many years before, in 1934, a man who led a split off the Seventh Day Adventist Church started leading his flock towards Israel and decided to stop at what he thought was halfway, which turned out to be Waco, and they founded Mount Carmel in 1934.
STEWART: Now for those who are either too young or really don't remember the details, the law enforcement officials that approached that compound on February 28, why did they originally go there?
Mr. REAVIS: They were looking for prohibited weapons. They thought that David Koresh and his people had converted some AR-15s to automatic fire.
STEWART: They had gotten reports that this was happening, or had they been watching this group?
Mr. REAVIS: They had been watching it by computer and had noticed them ordering parts to make the conversion.
STEWART: All right, so they went up there, and then things took a horrible turn. What made the approach to the compound turn violent?
Mr. REAVIS: It's hard to say because we don't know who fired first or whether the first shot came from the air or the ground. But the unique factor about it was that Koresh's people knew that the ATF was coming and thought that a Biblical scene was being replayed or a prophesy was being played out that the Army of Babylon was attacking them and that if they resisted, they might be taken directly to heaven - even without dying.
STEWART: Well, the FBI quickly took over the responsibility for trying to resolve this standoff, which then lasted 51 days. Can you describe for us the kind of back and forth that went on between the Davidians holed-up in the complex and the FBI?
Mr. REAVIS: There was a - how do you say - the FBI disconnected the telephone line to Mount Carmel and put in a line which only went to FBI negotiators. So for the next 51 days, people at Mount Carmel talked to these FBI negotiators about many things - about the Bible, about their children, you name it.
STEWART: So on April 19th, at about 5:59 a.m., the FBI informed the Branch Davidians that they were about to begin a tear-gas assault, and it was something like six hours that this assault went on?
Mr. REAVIS: No, the assault went on for less than three because the building burned down.
Mr. REAVIS: Go ahead - and they began their assault by knocking holes in Mount Carmel with tanks. The FBI announced that this is not an assault.
STEWART: That's the government's version, that it wasn't an assault?
Mr. REAVIS: That was what they told the people in Mount Carmel with the loudspeakers. They rammed tanks through the building.
STEWART: When you first arrived on the scene as a reporter, Sir, as you were covering this over this period of time, is there any one instance or any one interaction that really stands out to you that you still carry with you to this day?
Mr. REAVIS: I can't think of anything in particular. My big surprise was when I found that the people at Mount Carmel were not street-corner Evangelist, and did not - made no attempt to try to convert me. And I asked them why, and they said well, we can't explain our religion in 15 minutes.
STEWART: One of the government's arguments was that agents moved in to rescue children that were being sexually assaulted by Koresh. When you testified as an expert witness in front of the congressional committee on Waco - this happened in '95 - you questioned that. Let's play a clip of the statement.
(Soundbite of congressional hearing)
Mr. REAVIS: I don't understand why two-thirds of the search warrant is about child abuse and statutory rape when the ATF has no jurisdiction over those offenses.
STEWART: Can you explain further what you meant by that statement, Sir?
Mr. REAVIS: Yes. The ATF is a federal agency and has no authority over sexual offenses, which only the states can prosecute. That's the question I was raising, what authority did the ATF have to look into the question of child abuse? It's authority is over guns.
STEWART: We're speaking with Dick Reavis. He was a reporter who did various in-depth stories for the Dallas Observer about the situation in Waco. He also wrote the definitive book the siege - on the siege, "Ashes of Waco." Sir, could you stick around for one more minute? I do want to ask you one or two more questions about the legacy of Waco, but we need to take a quick break.
Mr. REAVIS: Okay.
STEWART: Thank you so much. Stay with us here in the BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News. We've got more coming up in just a few minutes about - on the 15th anniversary of the beginning of the Waco standoff.
(Soundbite of music)
STEWART: Thank you for listening to the BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News. We're going to continue our conversation with Dick Reavis, author of "Ashes of Waco." Today is the 15th anniversary of that first day that started that 51-day standoff in Waco, Texas between the FBI and the Branch Davidians.
And sir, what happened to the Branch Davidians? Are they still around?
Mr. REAVIS: They are still in touch with each other, those who physically survived. I would guess there are about 30 of them now. Most of them live near Waco.
STEWART: And when you think about the legacy of Waco and what happened on that compound between this group and between the FBI and the ultimate violence that happened there and the burning down of the compound and just the way things happened over those 51 days, what do you think is the legacy of Waco?
Mr. REAVIS: Well, David Koresh was a dictatorial figure who had prohibited weapons and who invited the ATF to send inspectors in to see what he had, but instead we decided to invade him. It's kind of like the war of Iraq, and it's had - how do you say, it was a mini-version of the war in Iraq. We go in to arrest him, people get killed. The situation degenerates into more death.
STEWART: Have all the questions about Waco been answered for you, or do you still have any questions in your mind, considering all the research that you've done?
Mr. REAVIS: There are all sorts of questions that we can't answer, especially about the role of the tear gas in the fire. I think we will die not knowing many things, and it may be not possible to know some of them.
STEWART: Dick Reavis, author of "Ashes of Waco" and now journalism professor at North Carolina State University. Thanks for taking the time today, sir.
Mr. REAVIS: Mmm-hmm.
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