A powerful new documentary has revealed the stories of 23 Britons who were killed when US law enforcement agencies stormed the Texas compound of cult leader David Koresh in 1993.
Marking 30 years since the siege, the two-part docuseries produced by ITVX speaks to British survivors, relatives of those who died, US law enforcement officers and cult experts to paint a vivid picture of events.
Using new testimony and reconstructions, the documentary series depicts how Koresh travelled to Britain to recruit Seventh Day Adventists to his sect – the Branch Davidians – and explores how he managed to convince them he was the son of God.
As well as secret FBI audio recordings during the negotiations, the programme features rare camcorder footage of UK residents inside the compound for the first time after they left their lives behind to Waco, Texas to worship Koresh.
The series also delves into how authorities realised something was badly wrong there, leading to an intense 51-day stand-off which culminated in a massive gunfight and sparked a blaze that engulfed the compound and killed 86 people.
Here, MailOnline previews both episodes of ITVX’s docuseries ‘Waco Untold: The British Stories’.
The Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, is shown engulfed by flames in this April 20, 1993, file photo
Cult leader David Koresh is pictured
Waco, Texas: FBI And ATF Agents Sifting Through Rubble Following The Branch Davidian Fire
Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and local Texan authorities shown in a file photo dated 26 March 1993 standing at a checkpoint near the Branch Davidian compound
The first programme explores how Koresh, born Vernon Howell, travelled to Israel in 1985, became convinced he was a prophet, then took over the Mount Carmel complex outside Waco as the leader of the Branch Davidians.
In 1988, he visited Newbold College in Berkshire, speaking at unauthorised meetings. Albert Yates, a former police superintendent who gave evidence at the inquest into the deaths of Brits at Waco, says: ‘David Koresh was a very, very convincing person. And when you’re searching for answers to something as complex as the second coming of Jesus Christ and Koresh appears to be providing the answers, you’re vulnerable. In their vulnerability they wanted to believe.’
Once he returned to America, his closest disciple Steve Schneider spoke to students. Dimplets Taylor, who attended meetings, says: ‘I think it was a brainwashing situation… By the time he had finished speaking to the group they were just thinking that there’s a better life somewhere, let’s pack our bags and go and see.’
Psychology student Diana, 28, decided to join Koresh in Texas. Sam Henry, her father, says after he visited her in Texas and was perturbed by speaking to Koresh, his wife and the rest of his five children moved there without him: ‘I came back to Manchester, England, and I told my wife what transpired between me and David Koresh. She never said a word, but my wife began to attend these meetings. It never dawned on me that she would join them.’
Sam’s family was joined by Cliff, whose sister Elaine explains how he told her about his move: ‘They were telling him that he was an incredibly talented artist and they were going to get him on a fantastic art course, which would help promote his art skills… I felt a little bit uncomfortable about it. But equally, I was excited for him because this sounded like an amazing opportunity. ‘
Meanwhile, Derek Lovelock, 35, gave up his life in Manchester. He explains his motivations: ‘My life really changed when I met David Koresh. A better way of living. A better way of thinking. That’s what it was to me.’
But once people had joined Koresh’s cult, his motivation changed and money became a key factor. Dimplets says: ‘People had sold their property and given their money to David, and they were even told to get in touch with their family to get them to sell their property.’
By 1989, Koresh had introduced a new way of living at Mount Carmel – ‘The New Light’ – and annulled all marriages of those staying at the compound. Marc Breault says: ‘I was aware that he was sleeping with other women. And then Koresh took me aside and he said, you know, his favourite wife was the 12-year-old. And I didn’t know what to do because he had the blessing of the parents. That was really the start of, okay, I got to think about this now.’
For the British families of those at the compound, concerns were rising. Michael Johnson, the nephew of cult member Winston Blake, says: ‘I remember my mother on the phone to Uncle Winston and she was saying, you need to come home… And then the next thing I heard was him saying it’s not that easy… I think that’s when alarm bells started ringing.’
By this time the local newspaper had become interested in Mount Carmel. Reporter Darlene McCormick Sanchez says she got a call from Australia, where Mark Breault and his wife had moved and contacted the authorities: ‘They were concerned that young girls were being raped and that some small children were being abused and that David Koresh was in total control out there.’
Koresh’s compound is seen ablaze in this camcorder footage
Derek Lovelock gave up his life in Manchester to join Koresh in Texas. He survived and tells his story to ITVX
Darlene called the FBI about their concerns, but no intervention came. Koresh had started talking about a battle to the death, says Derek: ‘A literal battle where people were going to be killed. It said in the scriptures, you know, they talked about this, sacrificing your life for God.’
Only when the ATF – the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms – was informed about grenades being delivered to Mount Carmel did the authorities consider intervening. As they staged up near the compound, a news crew accidentally tipped off a postman who was part of the cult, meaning Koresh had 40 minutes to prepare.
Local sheriff Parnell McNamara says: ‘So Koresh has a call to arms. Everybody get the guns.’
In the initial firefight with authorities, Koresh was hit by gunfire, and the families inside realised the deadly nature of what they faced. Cult member Sheila Martin says: ‘I realised my little handicapped boy was in front of the window and he was screaming. The shots from outside started coming through and I kept wondering, is this how he’s gonna die?’
The second programme explores the response by the US authorities that led to the 51-day siege, their approach, what life was like for those inside the Mount Carmel compound with David Koresh, and the continuing impact from it. It also looks at the British authorities’ involvement.
ITV News US correspondent Bill Neely, who was at the scene, says: ‘Waco was 30 years ago. And you might think it’s history. It doesn’t really matter any more but the aftershocks of Waco are still alive today.’
On February 28, federal agents launched their first assault, but failed to make the Davidians stand down. One of Koresh’s British followers, Derek Lovelock, says: ‘It was in prophecy. But who started it? Who made it come true? The authorities, didn’t they? They attacked it and they made it come true.’
After their failed assault, ATF agents were ordered to stand down and the FBI took charge. With more than 100 people inside including children, multiple armoured vehicles, including tanks, were now circling the compound while negotiations started.
On the first night, a small group of children was released. Sheila Martin, who had been inside, eventually was released, and says: ‘Once David started negotiating with the negotiators about these tapes and coming out, the thought of death and what’s going to happen to us, I think that left us.’
In Britain, watching the scenes unfold, relatives unable to speak directly to their loved ones felt they were being kept in the dark. Elaine Sellors, whose brother Cliff had joined the cult, says: ‘We tried to ask the authorities if they could find out and nothing happened. We just didn’t get any help or any response at all. And I think we just felt totally helpless.’
The FBI’s tactical and negotiating teams came into conflict, says FBI behavioural scientist Gregg McCrary, when it came to how to flush out the Branch Davidians. He says: ‘The negotiators were totally opposed to this playing of music, shining bright lights in here, playing sounds of Tibetan chants.’
ATF agents storm Koresh’s compound
Cult member Sheila Martin says: ‘I realised my little handicapped boy was in front of the window and he was screaming. The shots from outside started coming through and I kept wondering, is this how he’s gonna die?’
The sister of cult member Bernadette Monbelly tells how her sister was lost to the cult
David Koresh’s lawyer Dick DeGuerin says there was a surrender plan in place: ‘The only ethical advice that a lawyer can give to a client or potential client who’s wanted by the police is you have to surrender. So we basically had a plan in place for that to happen.’
The deal was with the help of two religious scholars – one of whom, Phil Arnold, says: ‘We made the point that his prophecy so far had only reached a few people, and therefore he should surrender so that the second phase of his work could begin – maybe from prison.’
But they didn’t know other FBI supervisors were in Washington trying to convince the attorney general Janet Reno to send in the tanks and tear gas. On April 19, the order to send in tanks was given. Derek, who was inside the compound, says: ‘The tank came through the front of the building, straight into the chapel, all the way back to the workshop swinging its barrel around like that, the people in that tank could have killed us and nobody would have known any better. That was really scary.’
While Sheila Martin had been released, at that moment nearly 80 Branch Davidians were still inside the compound, including her four eldest children. She says: ‘They seemed to think that once this tear gas or whatever they sent into the building, that everything was just going to be a few hours. And I just kept thinking I eventually would see my other children.’
Cameras caught the moment smoke started pouring from the building. Gail Monbelly, whose sister Bernadette, 31, was inside, said: ‘I had come home from work and the phone rang and my mum was on the other end of the phone and she said, ‘There’s been a fire’. And I said, ”What fire?” And my mum said, ”Just put the TV on”, and she hung up on me. It was a surreal experience. The thought of knowing that my sister would never come back. It was the first time I heard my dad cry out in pain.’
Derek describes the scenes inside: ‘It was so hot in there it was melting kitchen appliances. I recognised some of the voices and I heard them scream out and I knew that the flames had reached them.’
Among those who visited Mount Carmel was Timothy McVeigh, who bombed government offices in Oklahoma two years later and said he was angered by Waco.
His was the first of the long-term reverberations felt after the Waco siege, says Bill Neely: ‘The victims of Waco are largely forgotten, but they’re not forgotten by those people who wanted and still want perhaps to subvert democracy. The freedoms that they believe were enshrined in law, the freedom to carry weapons, the freedom of expression, freedom of religion were turned against them.’
- Both episodes of ‘Waco Untold: The British Stories’ are now available on ITVX.
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