Did federal agents use the best advice available in dealing with Koresh and the Branch Davidians?

Experts on cults are questioning the government’s role in the Branch Davidian tragedy, from the February 28 raid on the 77-acre compound in Waco, Texas, to the April 19 assault that ended in the deaths of David Koresh and 85 of his followers.

Despite a 51-day standoff, cult experts and church historians say federal officials failed to understand the unique nature of this aberrant religious community. Ruth Tucker, religion professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, says the FBI seemed ill-prepared to handle the eventual outcome in which members apparently set fire to the compound after it was battered by tanks.

“In the minds of his followers, David Koresh was the Messiah,” says Tucker. “To come out with your hands up is not what a messiah is supposed to do.” Tucker says government officials didn’t understand that the idea of surrendering, lengthy trial proceedings, and possible prison terms were unthinkable for Koresh and his followers.

“Koresh was paranoid and delusional,” says sociologist Ron Enroth, professor at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. “In a trapped, cornered, surrounded situation, a horrible outcome is possible.”

FBI spokesman Bob Ricks, who by the end viewed Koresh as a habitual liar, said the leader had promised there would be no mass suicides. Ricks said the FBI thought tear gas and the sight of bashed walls would spur mothers to flee with children in their arms. Yet Tucker notes there had been no attempt during the siege to negotiate directly with the mothers.

Jonestown revisited?

“No one consulted those of us who are real cult experts,” says Margaret Singer, University of California-Berkeley, ...

Subscriber access only You have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.