Before a deadly fire put an end to the Waco siege, Austin officers were part of the team who tried to solve it peacefully.
There’s no extravagant memorial to remember the lives lost at the Mount Carmel compound outside Waco, where the federal government laid siege to the Branch Davidian sect 25 years ago. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you might miss it.
“You just drove away from it,” Rick Shirley recalled telling a couple of tourists asking for directions years ago. He pointed to an area down the road where, back then, small stones were scattered through a grove of crape myrtle trees, each stone bearing a name of someone who died in the siege.
It was the mid-1990s, and Shirley, then an Austin police officer, had just finished spending some time at the memorial, looking at the names of the dead and thinking about the weeks he spent on the negotiation team that attempted to persuade the Branch Davidians and their leader, David Koresh, to end the 51-day standoff peacefully.
The siege, instead, ended with a fire that consumed the entire compound and with the deaths of 76 people inside, including Koresh.
The Waco siege became etched into the nation’s collective memory, but for the negotiators who sought to resolve the situation through diplomacy instead of force — and who, outside of the inhabitants of the compound, gained more insight into Koresh’s final thoughts than anyone else — those days became an indelible, defining moment in their lives.
Christi Woodward of Waco looks over crosses placed on a hillside several miles from the destroyed Branch Davidian compound on April 29, 1993.
Shirley, one of seven Austin officers who assisted in the negotiations, said he used to go back to the scene about once a year. Every time he went, he said, Shirley tended to linger on the stones bearing the names of the more than 20 children who died.
“I reflect a lot on what happened that day,” he said. “And it’s going to be that way until I die.”
A shepherd and his flock
Koresh, born Vernon Howell, became the leader of the Branch Davidians in the 1980s. The religious group had lived at the Mount Carmel Center since the 1950s, and when Koresh took control, he declared himself the messiah and the second coming of Christ. Koresh began stockpiling weapons, set up 24-hour armed watches at the compound, “annulled” the marriages of the married couples there and forbid female Davidians from having sex with anyone but him. He fathered several children who were raised at the compound.
The weapons were what caught the attention of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The agency obtained a search warrant for the compound and an arrest warrant for Koresh that accused him of possessing illegal weapons. On Feb. 28, 1993, nearly 100 agents moved in to execute the warrants.
But things did not go as the ATF planned, and a gunbattle erupted between the Branch Davidians and the agents. Four agents and six Davidians died that day.
Agents withdrew and began to communicate with the people in the Mount Carmel Center via phone. The siege had just begun.
A call for backup
As both sides traded shots at Mount Carmel that morning, Shirley was sipping his coffee in his Leander home and reading an article in the American-Statesman about the Branch Davidians and the law enforcement officials who were monitoring them.
“I’d never heard of them,” Shirley said. “It was all new information to me.”
When then-Austin police Sgt. Jack Kelly first called him around noon and told him the Austin Police Department would be sending some negotiators to the compound, Shirley still wasn’t fully aware of how badly the situation had deteriorated.
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents look after one of their wounded after they leave the Branch Davidian Compound on February 13, 1993.
Rod Aydelotte/Waco Tribune-Herald
Shirley, five other officers and two Austin Police Department psychologists gathered the equipment they needed, piled into two unmarked Austin police cars and made the trek north up Interstate 35.
It was midnight when they arrived, he recalled. They approached the compound in the dark with a slight sense of unease.
“We didn’t know they’d be directing us into the perimeter spot — into the line of fire,” he said. “We had to drive with our lights off, otherwise we’d be a target. … You could hear a pin drop. It was a very eerie and surreal environment.”
The negotiation team eventually settled into their makeshift headquarters — an office in a massive airplane hangar near the compound — though they thought they would likely head back after the FBI arrived. But the lead federal negotiator, who had worked with the Austin officers before and held them in high regard, insisted that they stay.
“I stopped the team leader for the Austin Police Department negotiating team and said, ‘What are you doing?’” recalled Byron Sage, the FBI negotiator who headed the team at Waco. “He said, ‘Well, we figured you guys had this and you didn’t need us anymore,’ and I said, ‘Bullshit. I need the best negotiators I can get.’”
At the time, the average FBI negotiator had less hands-on experience attempting to defuse standoffs than Austin police negotiators did, Sage said.
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents arrive in Waco to assist local authorities.
“Even though the bureau agents go through tremendous training, the FBI is not usually called on to assist in hostage or crisis negotiations on a regular basis,” he said. “If we got two or three call-outs in a year, that’d be a pretty substantial year. These guys, Austin PD, get two or three every month. They added an incredible amount of expertise to a very stressful and difficult situation.”
The Austin officers called their chief and got permission to stay, thus becoming a crucial part of the seven-agency team of 52 rotating negotiators that toiled to get into Koresh’s head — and keep him from getting into theirs.
Negotiating with Koresh
A negotiation team — at least one of this scope — often consists of a primary negotiator, an assistant to help direct the conversation, and a team of researchers and note takers. During his 30 days there, Shirley was primarily the historian, painstakingly documenting the conversations the team had with the Branch Davidians and doing additional research to help the negotiators in their conversations.
The vast chunks of time the negotiators spent on the phone were usually in conversation with Koresh.
“The first thing I noticed about him was he was unusually calm and controlled,” said Sage of the first time he talked with Koresh.
Byron Sage, an FBI Supervisor in Austin, points to an aerial photo of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco while testifying on Capitol Hill Thursday, July 27, 1995, before a joint House subcommittee holding hearings on the 1993 raid on the compound.
The two sides had not yet reached a cease-fire and bullets were still flying on the first day, Sage said. He could hear people screaming on the other end of the phone when he introduced himself to Koresh over the phone. With then-McLennan County sheriff’s Lt. Larry Lynch listening in, Sage asked Koresh what he should call him. Mr. Howell? Vernon? David? Mr. Koresh?
“He very calmly said, ‘Agent Sage, have you ever heard a person die? Then you know how to pronounce my name. It’s like that last exhalation of breath. Ko-resh.’ Larry looked over at me, and we knew we were up against a very difficult situation,” Sage said. “I’ve never heard something like that before or since, and I never want to again. Any time I tell that story, the hairs stand up on the back of my neck to this day.”
Shirley recalled Koresh being angry early in the negotiations.
“Early on, there was a lot of finger-pointing on his end — ‘y’all did this’ and ‘y’all did that,’” Shirley said. “We reminded him that the initial raid was by the ATF and not the FBI. You try to separate yourself a little bit.”
They spoke to him about how many people were in there and what they needed, such as food and medical care. As time went on, however, Shirley recalled that Koresh spent most of his time talking theology, quoting Bible passages and attempting to convert the negotiators.
“He was extremely knowledgeable on passages of the Bible,” Shirley said. “He was quoting scripture so rapidly, it gave me the impression he had nearly the entire Bible memorized. … It gave him the ability to manipulate the words for whatever purpose he wanted.”
At one point, Shirley said, the negotiator whom Koresh was speaking to decided to interrupt him.
Negotiators during the stand-off at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco that lasted 51-days. Austin police Officer Rick Shirley.
Contributed by Rick Shirley
“David,” he said, “let’s talk about something else.”
Koresh suggested they talk about food. He asked what they were eating — steak, probably, Koresh begrudgingly speculated, Shirley recalled.
Nope, the negotiators replied. For days, they’d been eating Whataburger from Bellmead, a city next to Waco.
Koresh paused for a moment, then said, “If it turns out I really am Jesus Christ, I’m going to let the world know that Whataburger in Bellmead keeps their chicken patties for three months before they cook them.”
Of all the things Koresh said, that moment of absurdity is one that has stuck with Shirley the most, he said.
Shirley said he thinks it’s unlikely that, if they’d had more time, they would have been able to persuade all the Branch Davidians to exit the compound. But maybe they could’ve gotten some of the parents who had children on the outside to come out.
It’s tough to speculate, though, he said. It didn’t help that the tactical team’s actions often contradicted what the negotiating team was trying to convey — mainly, that they wished them no harm, Shirley said.
When an individual does something that makes the standoff safer and a little closer to ending, negotiators are “supposed to follow that up with a reward — either through building up their ego or actually giving them something. But when people would come out, we’d do something like tow his car,” Shirley said.
Picture of David Koresh that hung in one of the negotiating rooms. The negotiations wrote "The Christmeister" after a Saturday Night Live skit.
Contributed by Rick Shirley
The standoff was, at the time, the longest barricaded siege between the U.S. government and civilians. The siege began to take its toll on the negotiators because, no matter what they said, the vast majority of the Branch Davidians would not come out, Sage said.
“You become psychologically emaciated,” he said. “Because we were so totally committed to doing everything and anything we could do to convince these people to come out.”
On the last day of the siege, Sage had ordered the Davidians to come out. Sage told them officials were going to inject tear gas into the compound.
“We banked on the fact that if I and my loved ones were in a room and somebody inserted tear gas into that room, I would move heaven and earth to get my loved ones out of that environment. … But what we had underestimated was the sheer level of control that David exerted over those people inside,” Sage said.
Fire engulfs the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, April 19, 1993. Seventy-six Davidians, including leader David Koresh, perished.
When Sage started seeing smoke and fire coming from the compound, he began to beg them over the loudspeaker to come out.
“I put the TV to my back so I could concentrate on begging them, literally — ‘David, don’t do this. Don’t let end it this way,’” Sage said.
When he finally stopped trying to reach the Davidians and turned off the loudspeaker, “that was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done in almost 38 years of law enforcement,” Sage said. “Because we were admitting to ourselves that we had failed in our efforts to get those people out peacefully.”
On the day the compound went up in flames — which also happens to be the date of his wedding anniversary — Shirley had already rotated back into Austin. He watched the scene play out on TV, horrified.
“I was just standing there, glued to the TV, looking for people to come out and kids to come out. And it didn’t happen — some people did get out, but no kids,” he said.
When he saw the compound almost entirely engulfed, Shirley realized he wouldn’t see any children come out.
“It didn’t take long for that place to burn. It was like a tinderbox to begin with, the way it was built. Then the wind just spread that fire. Just whipped it up. And it didn’t take long at all. … You’re seeing this fire really start getting going and really building up, and you’re not seeing people coming out, and it’s like hell has come to Waco,” he said.
Lives here and hereafter
It’s been a while since Shirley visited the memorial in Waco, but he still thinks about those who lost their lives.
FBI investigators later determined the blaze had been arson and said the Branch Davidians set the fire. Many of the victims died of gunshot wounds, including some that were self-inflicted, the medical examiner determined. Survivors of the fire say a mass suicide was never planned.
Shirley said that, to some extent, the negotiators understood the thinking of the Branch Davidians – they wouldn’t be worth their salt as negotiators if they couldn’t properly empathize with them.
“They loved their children,” he said. “They just had a different outlook about life here versus life in the hereafter. To them, having that life in the hereafter is more important than here.”
But Shirley sees those two lives as equally important. He became a police officer and negotiator to save the lives on this side, he said, and the tremendous loss of life that day still haunts him.
“We were successful at getting a number of people out of there, but obviously we didn’t get everybody out,” Shirley said. “When you lose 23 children that you hope you could possibly get out of there, along with the adults that were inside there, then it weighs heavily on you. Forever.”
Staff writer Mark D. Wilson contributed to this report.