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Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Sun-Times
Richard Roeper

‘Waco: American Apocalypse’ details the errors that worsened a deadly siege

The Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, is engulfed by flames on April 20, 1993, after a 51-day standoff between cult members and the ATF. (AP file)

In the premiere episode of the powerful three-part Netflix documentary series “Waco: American Apocalypse,” we’re reminded of a pivotal moment when everything could have changed just before the 51-day Waco siege that resulted in the deaths of 92 people,

On Feb. 28, 1993, ATF agents were poised to swoop in to execute arrest and search warrants against David Koresh and the Branch Davidian cult for possession of illegal weapons, including dozens of machine guns and 100 hand grenades. Says ATF Special Agent Bill Buford: “We decided to go to a dynamic-type entry, which was pulling up front, getting out, and trying to make entry into the building before any of them could arm themselves.”

Local news organizations had been tipped off to a possible law enforcement raid. A television photographer was having trouble finding the road to the Mount Carmel Center compound, so when he crossed paths with a local mailman, he asked for directions and explained why. What the photog didn’t know was that the mailman, David Jones, was a member of the Branch Davidians. Says Jones’ daughter Heather, who wound up being the last child to leave the compound alive, “[M]y dad drove back to Mount Carmel and told David they were on their way.”

‘Waco: American Apocalypse’

The element of surprise was gone. Nevertheless, the ATF went ahead with the raid, with 100 agents engaging in a furious shootout with cult members — “the largest gunfight on American soil since the Civil War,” as the documentary puts it. Four agents were killed; several cult members were killed, and others, including Koresh, were wounded. It was the shocking and tragic beginning to a terrible spectacle that held a nation and the world in its grasp for nearly two months before the compound was burned to the ground and 76 Branch Davidians died.

In the years and decades since the Waco siege, we’ve seen a number of documentaries and dramatic interpretations of events, from the NBC docudrama “In the Line of Duty: Ambush in Waco” in 1993, through the Emmy-winning documentary “Waco: The Rules of Engagement” (1997) and the six-episode limited series “Waco” starring Taylor Kitsch as Koresh and Michael Shannon as FBI hostage negotiator Gary Noesner. (Shannon is to reprise his role in “Waco: The Aftermath,” streaming on Showtime next month.)

Questions and controversies and conspiracy theories will forever surround the events at Waco, and while it’s impossible to satisfy everyone and nail down every single essential truth about what happened over the course of those 51 days, “Waco: American Apocalypse” director Tiller Russell (“Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer”) does a consistently solid job of giving voice to the story from a myriad of sides, from federal agents to Branch Davidians to journalists who covered the story.

As the series reinforces, we know for sure that mistakes, in some cases huge mistakes, were made by law enforcement. We know with equal certainty that David Koresh was no martyr, no hero, no savior. The delusional, narcissistic, controlling and megalomaniacal Koresh is the one who had his cult members stockpile weapons, and the one who played life-and-death games during the negotiations, at one point promising to let everyone leave the compound peacefully, only to renege at the last moment. And while some surviving Branch Davidians insist they didn’t start those fatal fires at three separate locations inside the compound, the series gives no credence to those unsubstantiated claims. Koresh was a monster claiming to be a messiah.

Branch Davidian leader David Koresh appears in a police line-up in 1987. (AP)

In addition to some impressive computer-generated imagery, never-before-seen footage of the FBI negotiation units during the standoff and previously unreleased news footage, “Waco: American Apocalypse” features a number of sobering and insightful, in-depth interviews. Newspaper and TV journalists talk of covering the story. Buford of the ATF recounts taking multiple shots while inside the compound and being determined to make it outside: “If I’m gonna die, I’m going to do it outside with my friends.”

In a chilling moment, Kathy Schroeder, a Branch Davidian survivor, says that during the standoff, “If [federal agents] had entered the building, we would all commit suicide. There was an actual grenade handed to me because I was the one woman that could have pulled that pin and killed the four or five women in the room that I was in. It wasn’t a matter of, ‘How is this affecting me as a person?’ because, I’m not a person, I’m God’s tool.”

Kathy Schroeder, a Branch Davidian member who survived the raid, is interviewed on “Waco: American Apocalypse.” (Netflix)

Chris Whitcomb, a former FBI Hostage Rescue Team sniper, speaks of having Koresh in his sights during the standoff and contemplating taking him down, even though it would most likely result in Whitcomb facing criminal charges. “If I shoot him here, now, it’s over. They all come out. I’ll go to jail for the rest of my life, but I save 90 lives. … Do I think about it a lot? Hell, yeah.”

Director Russell favors a straightforward approach throughout, with an occasional exception, e.g., a montage of newsreel footage of wounded and killed ATF agents being helped by their brethren on Day One, accompanied by the sounds of “Wish It Was True” by the White Buffalo. It’s like a scene out of an Oliver Stone or Ridley Scott movie, but so much more visceral, because this is not a re-creation of events, this is real. Thirty years later, it’s still a shock to the system.

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