After taking on the stories of both Tonya Harding and The Menendez Brothers, ABC's Truth & Lies is tackling another true crime mystery. On Jan. 4, the docuseries is tackling a strange and violent moment that dominated news in the early 90s. What happened in Waco, Texas in 1993 is still up for debate and should make for a compelling investigation.
The "Waco siege" on the religious group compound run by David Koresh, according to CBS, began when the group was suspected of weapons violations and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives obtained a search and arrest warrant to enter the premises. What followed was a gun battle, a standoff that lasted almost two months, a siege, a teargas attack from the FBI, and a massive fire that engulfed the compound. Four ATF agents and six Davidians were killed in the initial battle, before the FBI was brought in to negotiate. Weeks later, the incident ended with 76 dead, including Koresh.
For years, it was believed that the government raid was responsible for the deaths of all those men, women, and children. But with so few living witnesses, there are still unanswered questions. Did the teargas start the fire, or something else? Presumably, the documentary special will investigate that.
"David Koresh and [right-hand man Steve] Schneider were lying next to each other in their little room," said chief medical examiner Dr. Nizam Peerwani in a 1995 interview with Frontline, "which we call the communication room. And David Koresh had a single gunshot wound up his forehead. A high velocity gunshot. When the bullet entered his forehead and exited at the back of the head. Schneider was shot once in the mouth, the bullet entered the upper palate and also had exited in the back, also had a high velocity gunshot wound. The question is: Did David Koresh shoot himself and Schneider shoot himself? Or did Schneider shoot David Koresh and then turn around and shoot himself? Certainly both are possible. We cannot be certain as to what really transpired."
Peerwani told Frontline that he personally believed that the civilian Davidians in the compound were trying to escape or go underground at the time of the fire, and does not believe that the FBI's gas attack is responsible for any of the deaths. He also found children with stab wounds, gunshot wounds, and a woman with a fractured neck inside the compound.
According to PBS, the evidence is such that nobody knows who shot first. And conversations recorded by surveillance bugs planted in milk cartons that the FBI had delivered to the compound suggest that the Davidians may have started the fire themselves. Though 50 people died of smoke inhalation, the incident is still not believed to have been a mass suicide. Did Koresh torch his own people and take his own life to avoid arrest? That is also possible, but has not been proven.
Byron Sage, the now retired head of the FBI's negotiating team in Waco, thinks that something even more sinister was going on with the leader and his flock. "I would submit to you that we played right into the hands of David Koresh," he said in a 2000 interview with CBS. "He had an apocalyptic end in mind, apparently, and he used us to fulfill his own prophecy." Sage noted that Texas, at the time, was the country's leader when it to capital punishment. Facing murder charges spelled doom either way.
CBS also investigated whether or not the FBI fired gunshots before the fire that either killed Davidians or kept them inside the burning building. Photographic evidence is not conclusive, and Sage insisted that no FBI agents fired shots on that fateful day. "Our reason for being there was preservation of life," Sage told CBS, "not to contribute to the loss of life. Approximately 27 children perished on that day. That loss of life, any loss of life, is something that I think all of us would have moved heaven and earth to try to change."
There are so many conflicting accounts about what happened in Waco, and the evidence does not tell a complete story. Perhaps this new documentary will shed new light on the chaotic event.