Righting Waco: Confessions of a Hollywood Propagandist
On Monday morning, March 1, 1993, I read the Los Angeles Times account about the shoot-out between the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) and the Branch Davidians, a religious sect outside of Waco, Texas led by a self-proclaimed messiah, David Koresh. It was obvious that this had the makings of a TV movie, but an hour later, when my agent called, I was surprised by the speed things at which were moving. Trying to claw its way out of the ratings basement, NBC had already given a production commitment to the producer of the In the Line of Duty franchise, a series of movies about police officers killed in the line of duty — but only if he could deliver the movie by May sweeps, less than three months away. In order to meet the airdate, pre-production would have to start immediately and the script would have to “lock” in about ten days. That is, all the essential characters and scenes would have to be in place so that casting, location scouting and the design and construction of costumes and sets could begin. Such speed was unprecedented; no one had ever created a television movie that fast. Furthermore, the project was complicated by the fact that there was as yet no ending. The FBI had just begun the siege of the Davidians that would last for more than 50 days.
NBC offered me Waco because I’d just written their Amy Fisher movie. There were several reasons I accepted. It was work, no small consideration in a shrinking television market. They were offering good money for a project that would take no more than six weeks, start to finish, and was guaranteed an airdate. Also, it was an opportunity to write about serious subjects — religion and the conflict between church and state – that are ordinarily anathema to the networks because they’re considered controversial and, even worse, “ratings poison.”
By then I’d written over thirty movies with ten produced and had already struggled through the inevitable cycles of what everyone in Hollywood calls “The Business.” Earlier in my career, I’d made my reputation writing about social issues such as adolescent suicide and euthanasia. The last few years, however, such movies had gone out of style and so had I; I’d been 18 months without work until I broke into the ripped-from-the-headlines genre with “Amy Fisher.” True, Waco was going to be stressful — the ultimate rush job — but I liked the challenge, and the allure. The media was full of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians. The shoot-out and siege had already become a national obsession and I was being offered an opportunity to tell the story! There’s a Hollywood maxim: A script can be either fast or good. I wondered, could I deal with the pressure of deadline and collaboration, write the fastest TV movie ever and still make it good?
I came to call Waco my “mushroom project”: I lived in the dark and how the script grew depended on what I was fed — and what I chose to eat. The Davidians were being held incommunicado by the government and no one in the BATF or the FBI would talk to us. I had to work from the public record. In theory, this means that you’re a historian carefully sifting through sources to create a story that’s factually accurate. In practice, it means you’re trusting the accuracy of the original source material and the objectivity and judgement of the journalists who wrote the articles upon which you’re basing your script. This is especially true — and, as it turned out, problematic — if you’re writing a script about an event that’s still in progress. What can you include? Almost anything.
While all of us involved in the Waco project recognized the dangers inherent in creating a story about a historical event as it was still unfolding, writing from the public record didn’t seem to be much of a problem — at first. I had the “Sinful Messiah” (Koresh’s term for himself),a series of articles from the Waco paper that told a convincing story about Koresh and the Branch Davidians and was being bruited for a Pulitzer Prize. Also, within days, the media produced a lot of additional material about Koresh and the Davidians. There seemed to be a consensus: David Koresh was a hypocritical, power-mad, child-molesting, psychopathic, cult Svengali hiding his corruption behind religion; his followers were brainwashed zombies.
Since the deadline precluded my travel to Texas, the producers hired a document researcher to collect information from the media and the internet, and a Pulitzer-Prize-winning reporter to do field interviews with anyone who knew Koresh and the Davidians. He was also to talk to any of the BATF officers who had been involved in the firefight. Both researchers began feeding me information. Unfortunately, there was little to be had. The BATF wasn’t talking and the media just kept repeating the same stories about Koresh and the Davidians — stories that by sheer repetition and in the absence of testimony from the Davidians, completely cut off from the world by the FBI, began to assume the status of fact.
This dearth of information created a technical problem. Even though the BATF agents were supposed to be the heroes of the movie, facts about the men who had died were hard to come by. I didn’t want to intrude on their families’ grief, and BATF stonewalling made it impossible for me to get a sense of the four dead agents as real people. I didn’t want to fictionalize them. I wanted to honor the dead with full personalities, not cop clichés. But nearly all I had as source material a BATF training film that showed agents being prepared for combat with a paramilitary, take-no-prisoners mindset. And given the BATF’s official silence, in the end I was forced to characterize the dead agents with simple idiosyncrasies: This one wore a bandanna, pirate style, that one liked to cook gumbo, another drew caricatures. Despite my best efforts, and the talents of some fine actors, in the finished movie the BATF officers ended up looking flat and one dimensional, especially compared to Koresh.
At the same time they were trying to find information about the BATF agents, the researchers also began searching for videotape of the Davidian leader, something I hoped would help offset my lack of personal contact with the man who was the antagonist of this drama. A TV documentary from Australia gave me the best feel for his charm, charisma, passion, zeal and cruelty. Although it, too, was critical of the Branch Davidian leader, because it showed the living, breathing, preaching man, it at least provided some emotional nuance and a spiritual context.
In recounting any event there’s an historical truth — what really happened — and a narrative truth — the meaning of the event to those who were participants. With Waco, both were controversial from the beginning. The BATF claimed that the Davidians ambushed police officers serving a legal search warrant. The Davidians insisted that they had acted in self defense when the BATF agents attacked without first identifying themselves.
In the early days of March, 1993, it was impossible to know who was telling the truth. However, before I could write the first draft of the script it was necessary for the production team to decide what we believed had happened before and during the BATF raid — the historical truth. But how could we do that when the opposing points of view were fundamentally irreconcilable? Since the government’s story was the only one available and we were working under deadline, we reluctantly decided to accept the BATF’s “facts”: Koresh was a criminal trafficking in illegal arms, and a child molester; the Davidians were a cult that had ambushed and murdered law enforcement officers in the legitimate exercise of their duty.
We desperately needed more information. In hindsight, the prudent and ethical thing to do would have been to wait. Professionally, however, it was unthinkable to return to NBC and say, look, this is a lot more complicated than we thought; we have to know more before we can make this movie. We had committed to work with the information available. Fortunately — or not, if you were inside Mt. Carmel, the Davidians’ home and church — most of this information was consistent. Everyone the researchers talked to seemed to say the same thing: The Davidians were a cult and Koresh was a dangerous megalomaniac who abused children and trafficked in guns. The government had every right to intervene in the name of public safety lest Koresh lead the Davidians on an apocalyptic rampage or, like Jim Jones, into mass suicide. Besides, ours was a movie about law enforcement officers who died in the line of duty — so we rationalized our decision — and it made sense to adopt as our narrative truth the historical truth the government was promoting.
We also had to choose an ending. No one knew how long the siege was going to last, but it looked like it might go on for quite a while. Everyone agreed that for dramatic purposes the best ending would be apocalyptic — some sort of confrontation between the Davidians and the government. I remember how that mutual agreement hung like a corpse from a gallows in the air conditioned silence of the producer’s office, and how quickly everyone present cut it down, agreeing that to wait for such an ending would be unconscionable. Finally, we decided to focus on the rise of Koresh and the Davidians, the BATF’s investigation, and to end the movie with the abortive raid and shoot-out. Everybody regretted that we wouldn’t be able to tell the story of the siege, but if the ratings for Ambush in Waco were high enough, it seemed likely that NBC would buy a second movie.
Writing the first draft of Waco proved challenging and exciting at the level of craft — and increasingly disturbing at the level of content and theme. Within just a few days it became apparent that much of the information about Koresh and the Davidians was suspect. It turned out that many of the “facts” published about Koresh came from disaffected Davidians who had “escaped” from the “cult.” While they were apparently sincere in their disillusionment with Koresh, they had a powerful vested interest in convincing the world — and themselves — that the only reason they’d ever joined the Davidians was because they had been “brainwashed” and “coerced.” They offered a circular argument to the media: The fact that people like them had been vulnerable to “brainwashing” proved that the Davidians were a “cult”; only a cult would have had the power to brainwash people like them. Some even claimed to fear for their lives and had fled as far as Australia to escape what they characterized as Koresh’s wrath and vengeance.
Given the source of these “facts,” I began to wonder about the wisdom of using what now seemed a biased view of Koresh and the Davidians as the basis for my script. The producers, the director and the researchers all agreed that the apostates’ stories sounded suspiciously uniform, sometimes even rehearsed. And several of us suspected that the government’s silence and rigid control of information suggested that there was much the BATF and the FBI didn’t want the public to know. Government agencies proud of what they’ve done trumpet their accomplishments to the world. The BATF issued a gag order. But nothing we had learned directly contradicted what they were saying. Although perhaps exaggerated, the basic government line on Koresh still seemed essentially true. Besides, by then I’d already written half, and had only a few days until deadline.
I kept on writing.
Then information contradicting the government’s version of historical truth — the who, what, when and why of the raid — began to circulate. There were rumors that the raid had been unnecessary; the BATF could have arrested Koresh at any time when he went to Waco or jogged along the country roads around Mt. Carmel. Indeed, it was said that Koresh himself had invited the BATF officers out to Mt. Carmel to inspect his weapons. The government denied all of this. The government also denied that the military helicopters seen in news video buzzing around Mt. Carmel like angry hornets during the BATF raid had flown with doors open and that any officer fired from the helicopters. Evidence also emerged that it had been a BATF public information officer’s invitation to the media to cover the raid that had alerted the Davidians and probably contributed to the deaths of the four officers we intended to eulogize in the movie.
Once I finished the first draft, the doubts I’d caged in order to finish the script on time broke loose. But because information was so tightly controlled and we still had no actual proof that the government was lying, revisions of the script continued to reflect the government’s version of the BATF’s investigation and raid. Also, the script was almost locked; once that happened, any changes would cost a lot of money. Everyone agreed that if we found out for certain that the government was misrepresenting what had happened, we would revise the script accordingly, even if that meant asking NBC for a delay. Despite the best efforts of our researchers, however (and hundreds of journalists camped around Mt. Carmel), we could not disprove the government’s story.
Still, I became increasingly dubious of the government’s characterization of Koresh. Since he was the antagonist of the movie, his character was important to the dramatic construction of the script; the stronger the antagonist, the stronger the protagonist(s) who must overcome him. If he really was as powerful as the apostates claimed, then the BATF’s raid and the officers’ martyrdom would gain in meaning and dignity. But what if this was a tragedy rather than a melodrama? What if Koresh was, in reality, less powerful, more complex, even sympathetic to some degree? I didn’t know if that would prove to be the case, but I was determined to avoid demonizing him further based solely on the unverified testimony of apostates. This was easier said than done. While there was a lot more information available about Koresh than about the raid, to appreciate its relevance and meaning you had to be willing to look beyond the hardening public perception of Koresh. This was often difficult, even for my colleagues. Because of the extensive media coverage of the event, almost everyone in the country had become a vicarious participant, and the government worked hard to make certain that the media presented — and the public believed — the truth it was selling. Government spokesmen met any suggestion that Koresh might just be a confused human being with amused skepticism, ridicule or even angry indignation. When word circulated that Koresh’s lawyers were trying to sell the rights to his story, many people took that as evidence that he was a megalomaniac looking for his fifteen minutes. This ignored the fact that the selling of movie rights by an accused had long been standard practice in order to pay for legal fees.
Meanwhile, I began to learn more about David Koresh — a religious name he’d taken to signify what he saw as his status as a prophet and messiah. He’d been born Vernon Howell and had grown up an illegitimate, fatherless, dyslexic, ninth grade dropout from a small town in Texas. At the age of twelve he’d spent hours on his knees in prayer and memorized the New Testament. Secular reporters and “religious experts” suggested that he found in religion meaning for an otherwise marginal life, as well as a way to act out his psycopathy. Why is it, I found myself wondering, that a child who masters the piano at the age of twelve is celebrated as precocious, but if he prays and memorizes passages of scripture, he’s considered bizarre?
What surprised me most was the silence of religious groups and leaders. With rare exceptions, prominent church men and women who ordinarily would have railed against such pathological interpretations of the spiritual life stood mute. It appeared that not even they were prepared to acknowledge what seemed to me a fundamental fact about David Koresh: however disturbed he later became, early in life Vernon Howell had been a sincere and deeply spiritual boy. If we were to understand him, we had to understand where his beliefs had come from.
Another example. It was apparently true that Koresh exercised great influence with the Davidians. In their devotion to him as a prophetic source of wisdom and authority, those living his message at Mt. Carmel certainly sacrificed much of their individuality. But so what? There are many charismatic preachers in this country who exercise spiritual, economic and sometimes sexual influence over their followers. Some are condemned as sinners but they’re often allowed, even encouraged, to repent and no one characterizes them as leaders of a “cult.”
And what about that “cult?” Was that what the Branch Davidians were, or just what the government wanted everyone to believe? Anyone familiar with American history knows that this would not be the first time the government had set out to inflame and prejudice the public by using the “C” word as a weapon. The Mormons in the last century were also reviled as “cultists” and their leader, Joseph Smith, was murdered by a mob. Seldom, however, had a group been so effectively stigmatized by repeated use of the word as the Davidians. I found this disturbing and ironic. The more I learned about the BATF the more it seemed to me that there was something cultlike about the agency. In their almost military sacrifice of individuality and their absolute and reckless obedience to an archetype of authority, BATF officers didn’t seem all that different from the Davidians. Both groups were made up of true believers who had sworn allegiance to those they served, even unto death — the Davidians to Koresh and God, the BATF to the laws and government of the United States. Koresh was excoriated for promoting a violent us-against-them apocalyptic world view. But the BATF training film I saw portrayed a black and white world, too — good police against evil criminals — and spent considerable time (as did Koresh with his followers) preparing agents for violent death in a violent world — a kind of personal apocalypse.
It also seemed to me that the more successfully Koresh and the Davidians were demonized as a “cult” the easier it became for the public to believe the worst about them — to believe without question. The most inflammatory examples of demonizing had to do with the Davidians’ sexual practices. It was apparently true that Koresh had been sexual with many of the wives of his followers, and that several had borne him children. This was a form of polygamy, a practice that had provoked the persecution of the Mormons in the last century. Like the Latter Day Saints before him, Koresh’s motivation was presumed to be lecherous (even by Mormons); no one seemed to consider the possibility that, while bizarre, such a practice could be genuinely spiritually-motivated and an arrangement entered into by the free will of all concerned.
The same was true of Koresh’s possible sexual abuse of young girls. There were allegations (though without proof) that he had forced himself on a ten-year-old, and there was convincing evidence that he had had sex with girls as young as 13. Without doubt, he had tried to hide this fact from the world. Certainly he had broken the law. But once again, critics ignored the spiritual context that would allow us to understand, if not condone, this practice. Even the apostates reluctantly acknowledged that Koresh never entered into a sexual relationship without the consent of a girl and her parents. Rather than deal with the complex psychology and morality of such a situation, the government and the media instead demonized Koresh as “other,” the kind of monster we can approve of destroying with a clear conscience.
I also wondered why it was assumed that the way Koresh exercised influence over his followers through intimidation and threats of physical violence. Little credence was given to the possibility that the Davidians really believed in Koresh and his teachings, and that their decision to remain in Mt. Carmel was an affirmation of their faith. Davidians had moved in and out of Mt. Carmel pretty much at will for years. Even the apostates’ “escapes” turned out, on closer examination, to have been no more dramatic than a bus trip out of town. But when during the course of the siege it became clear that none of the adults in Mt. Carmel were being held against their wills, some “cult experts” shifted the emphasis of the argument. They claimed that Koresh’s “mind control techniques” were so powerful that even if they weren’t being physically coerced, the Davidians had been stripped emotionally of their will to resist and escape.
Despite my doubts, however, I kept writing, a second draft, and then a third. It was by now increasingly difficult to find ways to include my evolving point of view, partly because I couldn’t prove it and partly because other members of the production team disagreed. While I did my best to humanize Koresh and tried to explain his actions in the context of his beliefs, I had only limited success. I couldn’t speak to any Davidians who didn’t despise him and the longer the siege continued and the more virulent the government’s propaganda became, the more people believed the complete demonization of Koresh. This included many of my movie colleagues, as well as the actors, all of whom by then had been cast. Although I wrote several new scenes designed to make Koresh more complex, they all ended up on the editing room floor. Once the script “locked” I was reduced to polishing dialog. And after they started shooting early in April on a set constructed around an abandoned school in Oklahoma even that was no longer possible.
By the time In the Line of Duty: Ambush in Waco aired on NBC in May, 1993, the siege of Mt. Carmel had ended in fire and Koresh and most of the Davidians were dead or in jail. Seeing Mt. Carmel go up in flames, I wept for those who died — I felt like I knew many of them personally. Meanwhile, the movie won the ratings war and was widely praised for its artistry and craft, especially my portrait of Koresh and Tim Daly’s performance as the “cult leader.” For me, such praise was a bitter reward. Watching the movie, I felt a strange mixture of pride and chagrin. By then I believed that what had been presented to the world as the destructive work of one crazed man and a bunch of zombies was really the collision of cultural forces. In our lust for money and fame, I believed that we had missed the opportunity to tell that larger, more important story. Sadly, in the end, I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do — written a movie that was both fast and good. But what did “good” mean? I had used my talent to create a drama so effective it convinced millions of people that the lies they saw on the screen were true.
From then on, almost every week brought new revelations about the Davidians’ relative innocence and the government’s deceptions. My remorse grew as I realized how much I had contributed to the simplified, wholly negative image of Koresh and his followers. I wanted to tell the truth about what had happened, this time including the Davidians’ point of view. I wanted to frame the story as a conflict between two world views, the secular and the religious, a conflict that raised important cultural and constitutional questions about the relationship between church and state. To that end I pitched another movie to the producers and NBC. I called it The Sinful Messiah, but I intended that the audience understand what Koresh meant by that term, a meaning far more subtle and interesting than the simplistic, hypocritical rationalization for sin so frequently mocked in the media. This new movie would tell the story of the siege — the misunderstandings, misjudgments, pride and arrogance on both sides that had led to the deaths of so many innocents. Because of the ratings success of the first movie, NBC bought the idea. A week later, however, citing a concern about the exploitation of tragedy as well as the recent congressional hearings condemning violence on television, NBC backed out of the deal. CBS passed. The producer didn’t bother to take the project to ABC or HBO. Fox wasn’t yet a major player. The Sinful Messiah was dead.
With the abandonment of the second movie I felt as if Koresh, the Davidians and the children who had died in the fire had been consigned to a place beyond memory. And what of the suffering of the FBI agents who had presumably tried to save them, and failed? For me, it was too late to cancel The Sinful Messiah. I had been too close to what had happened during those 51 days, both in and out of Mt. Carmel. Even at a distance I, too, had been burned.
That was the end of my active Waco involvement, but I kept current. For the next three years I followed the congressional hearings that revealed much of the BATF’s perfidy and cover-up. I felt foolish by how at completely I had been misled and ashamed at how I had misled others in Ambush in Waco. I also read many of the books written about the raid and the siege. Most were right wing political screeds or quickie knock-offs that fed the public’s prurience about the Davidians’ sexual life and its prejudice about “cults,” but a few were more substantive works. I cringed when I read in Why Waco: Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America (University of California Press) by James Tabor and Eugene Gallagher:
Perhaps the television production that had the single greatest impact on the American perception of Koresh and the Branch Davidians was the ABC (sic.) made-for-television movie, In the Line of Duty: Ambush in Waco . . . By any measure it was a sensationally dramatized hybrid of fact and fiction, essentially the King-Breault book [an apostate’s critical view of Koresh] and the Waco Tribune-Herald series [“The Sinful Messiah”], with a strong pro-law enforcement BATF message thrown in for good measure, presented at prime time. The Dallas Morning News called it “an effective and engrossing tale with a vivid performance by Tim Daly as David Koresh.” The Davidians come across as cowering zombies, powerless under the control of their charismatic leader. At no point is any aspect of their biblical or theological motivation portrayed, nor a more natural and human side of their personalities. The filmmakers tried to make a strong case for the necessity of the BATF raid, which contradicts in many places the Department of Treasury’s own official evaluation of its action. The television movie, airing as it did barely one month after the April 19 fire, powerfully cast in stone the images, for millions of Americans, associated with the names of Waco or Koresh.
Day by day a few — very few — investigative journalists began the process of discrediting the BATF’s version of historical truth. One by one, most of the rumors that had circulated about the BATF’s malicious bungling and cover-up were proved true. The raid had been unnecessary; agents could have arrested Koresh at any time when he went to Waco or jogged along the country roads around Mt. Carmel. The government’s helicopters had flown with doors open in the attack and officers had fired down into the buildings. Furthermore, it came to light that the BATF had secured the use of Texas National Guard helicopters by telling the governor of Texas that the Branch Davidians were running a methamphetamine lab even though their undercover officers knew this not to be true. The FBI later perpetuated this lie in order to secure military armaments for the siege — tanks, armored cars — from the resources allocated to the War on Drugs. Moreover, it had indeed been a BATF public information officer’s invitation to the media that had alerted the Davidians to the raid and probably contributed to the deaths of the officers we had eulogized in the movie.1
Further investigation also began to implicate the FBI. During the siege, the agency had claimed that Koresh was using threats of physical violence and “brainwashing” to hold the Davidians against their will. Later, two videotapes surfaced. Shot by the Davidians at the FBI’s request in order to present their point of view to the world, in these tapes a number of Davidian children, adolescents and adults, including the wounded Koresh, speak of their decision to remain in Mt. Carmel as an act of faith. FBI officials had promised the Davidians that the tapes would be released to the media. Later, the FBI admitted it had withheld the tapes for fear that such convincing spiritual testimony would generate too much public sympathy for Koresh and the Davidians.
The FBI also confiscated autopsy results so that that it was impossible to verify independently how the Davidians had died. Had they shot themselves, as the government claimed, or had someone else shot them? All of it taken together began to seem like the fulfillment of a Davidian prophesy that during the siege had been dismissed by most as paranoid hyperbole: that the government’s agenda was to isolate and demonize the Davidians in order to secure public acquiescence for the destruction of physical evidence and the possible killing of anyone who had witnessed the BATF’s bungled and possibly illegal raid.
The more I learned about what had really happened, the more I regretted the flawed movie I’d written. Eventually, the revelations became so disturbing and my remorse so painful that I decided to try again to write The Sinful Messiah. By then I realized that the earlier rejection of this second Waco movie had been a blessing in disguise. Despite my good intentions, given how little of the truth had been known and could be proved in 1993, had someone commissioned the movie then I would have risked repeating the mistakes I’d made with Ambush in Waco.
In 1996 I again pitched The Sinful Messiah to the networks. No sale. Waco was old news. When I suggested that there was evidence that the government had lied and that Koresh may not have been the monster everyone thought, executives looked at me askance. Wasn’t I the guy who’d written the Waco movie? When I argued the importance of the conflict between church and state, their eyes glazed over. HBO executives were more intelligent and gracious but the result proved the same (although several years later they would air a powerful revisionist documentary critical of the government’s handling of Waco). It felt strange and disheartening to realize that I had helped create the public perception that now prevented even intelligent people from seeing Koresh as other than a demon and the Davidians as anything but gullible fools.
Since no one would commission a script and I doubted I could get backing for a feature, I decided to write a play. It had occurred to me that I could be more truthful exploring the Davidians’ and FBI agents’ intellectual and spiritual dramas on the stage. Before I could do this, however, I needed to know more about what had gone on inside Mt. Carmel during the siege, and about the failed negotiations between the Davidians and the FBI. Since FBI and BATF officials and agents still refused to talk about Waco, I began to contact people who had written on the subject. I told them the truth: I was the writer of Ambush in Waco; I had changed my mind about what had happened and needed their help to write a play that would tell the truth about Koresh, the Davidians, the raid and the siege. Understandably, people were suspicious. But once Dick Reavis, the author of The Ashes of Waco, became convinced that I was sincere, he introduced me to several people in Texas. These included Koresh’s defense attorney, Dick DeGuerin, Clive Doyle, the leader of the surviving Davidians, and Philip Arnold, the director of the Reunion Institute, a religious analyst critical of both sides of the Waco conflict and one of two theologians who had futilely attempted to translate Koresh’s theology to the FBI during the siege. Arnold also had in his possession copies of many of the BATF/FBI-Davidian negotiation tapes.
By trying to locate people and collect information I set off tremors in a network of Waco activists. One day I got a call from a man named Mike McNulty. Although later I would come to regard Mike as one of the most impressive spiritual and political activists I have ever met, during that first conversation I thought I was talking to a genial member of some right wing militia. Some of the things he told me about Waco were hard to credit. His indictment of the government went way beyond misunderstanding, misjudgment and the collision of worldviews into a world of paranoia — so it seemed to me. Who could credit his accusation that the FBI had shot the Davidians as they tried to escape from the fire? Or his conviction that Delta Force commandos had been present at the final assault? Where was his proof, I wanted to know. Coming, he told me, coming, in an investigative documentary called Waco: the Rules of Engagement. I was intrigued and disappointed — someone had beat me to it. I also felt uneasy. If McNulty’s accusations about the government’s duplicity and violence proved true, then the climate of fear, loathing and hatred of Koresh and the Davidians that I had helped create with Ambush in Waco had contributed to a public apathy that fostered a cover-up of official crimes so serious they called into question the nature of democratic government in America.
Once convinced that I was really just writing a play, McNulty wished me well and suggested that we talk again after I returned from Texas — I’d decided to go to Houston to do interviews and hear the negotiation tapes, and to Waco to visit Mt. Carmel and meet with the few Davidian survivors. I first spent several hours talking with Dick DeGuerin, Koresh’s attorney and one of only two men allowed by the FBI into Mt. Carmel during the siege. He described how imminent Koresh’s surrender had been when the government chose to attack. I then spent several days listening to tapes and discussing Waco with Philip Arnold. It was both eerie and moving to hear the actual voices of Davidians I had portrayed — and misrepresented — as characters. I heard gunfire and screams of fear, rage and pain during the BATF raid. I listened as Koresh preached to FBI negotiators — “bible babble,” they mocked — in the vain hope that by converting them God would save his people. I heard in the tone and the words of Koresh’s loyal and more pragmatic lieutenant, Steve Schneider, the hope that God and the government would spare them, and the sad conviction that the time for martyrdom had come.
For the first time I also saw the Davidian videotapes. There they were, ordinary folks, many of them people of color, some speaking in foreign accents. Adults, adolescents, even a few children, all bore witness to their faith with humility, dignity and hope. Even if you disagreed with their theology and their belief in Koresh as a prophet, you could not help but be moved by their sincerity, their righteous anger at the injustice of their persecution and their determination to die for their convictions if it turned out, as Koresh had prophesied, that the government proved itself the embodiment of the Beast of the Apocalypse.
From Houston I drove to Waco and then out to Mt. Carmel. I didn’t know the way but it was easy to get directions; many people before me had traveled the gravel roads to see the place where the Davidians died. All that’s left now is a charred foundation marred by garish signs posted by one of the many militias that have made Waco a rallying cry. But a few hundred yards from where the buildings once stood, across the road on which the BATF attacked, lies a field of grass and a memorial garden created by the survivors. Crepe myrtle trees grow beside rough and polished gray stones, each engraved with the name of a Branch Davidian who died — and a tree and a stone for each of the four BATF agents who died there, too.
By then it was clear to me that the journey itself had become as important as any work of art. Yes, I was there to research a play, but I was also there as an act of atonement for my part in the demonization and destruction of Koresh and the Davidians. This didn’t mean I was blind to Koresh’s faults. It was clear that he had been an angry, controlling, seductive, manipulative, deceitful man, and as proud as Lucifer. Indeed, the more I learned the more it seemed to me that it was this sin of pride, compounded by the government’s ignorance, arrogance and taste for vengeance, that had brought about the deaths of so many people. Still, could anything he or the Davidians had done justify the government’s final solution?
The more I came to know the Davidians as living, breathing human beings — even those who were dead, through the magic of tape — the more I realized how much damage I had done with the characterizations in the movie. This was brought home to me during a luncheon hosted by Clive Doyle and the surviving Davidians, a small number of old people, mostly women, and some mothers with young children who had left Mt. Carmel before the fire.
We met in a Waco restaurant where the Davidians often gathered after church. They were kind, gracious and wary. In their presence I felt shame for what I had done, fear that they would condemn me and hope that somehow I could write something that would help change the public perception of what had happened at Waco. The night before I’d spent hours refining a speech to explain how I planned to artistically right the wrong I felt I’d done them and those who had died or gone to prison. Looking around the table, however, I knew art wasn’t the point. What could I possibly create that would ease Sheila Martin’s recurrent nightmare of her husband and two teenage children burning to death in the fire? How could anything I wrote replace Clive Doyle’s daughter, or bring back Irma Doyle’s only grandchild? Could a play offer septuagenarian Catherine Matteson the support in her old age that the lost Davidian community had promised? Certainly, I wanted to write something that would make a difference. But sitting there, I realized that there was something I needed even more than their cooperation — forgiveness.
After telling them who I was and why I was there, that’s what I asked for. Graciously, they gave it — but gracious didn’t mean easy. One Hispanic woman at the end of the table spoke up. Her family had seen Ambush in Waco and, taking it as truth, blamed her for introducing several relatives to Koresh’s “cult,” an involvement that had led to their deaths in the fire. Ever since the movie aired, her family had shunned her. “I do forgive you,” she told me. “But I want you to know that your movie destroyed my life.”
Ars longa, vita brevis – art endures, life is short.
It’s been eight years since the Davidians died. Many of the survivors are in federal prison, and the government has absolved itself of any wrongdoing. Mike McNulty’s movie Waco: the Rules of Engagement was released in 1997 to controversial acclaim (including an Academy Award nomination and an Emmy) but has since drifted into obscurity, and there’s been no interest at all in my play, The Sinful Messiah. People want to forget. It’s over, they say. Not for me. I’m reminded every time I walk into Blockbuster and see my movie, Ambush in Waco on the shelf. But I don’t talk about it much anymore. Many Hollywood friends think I’ve made too much of this — it was only a TV movie, for God’s sake! — and believe I’m assuming far more responsibility than I deserve. It’s true that I was on the periphery of this event, where I remain. But how am I to make peace with the fact that in years to come people yet unborn may still mistake Ambush in Waco for history? If it’s the role of artists, like prophets, to bear witness to the truth, then what responsibility does an artist have for truths he willfully ignores, and for lies he repeats as gospel?
1FOOTNOTE: These claims are supported by Congressional testimony by witnesses, BATF and FBI agents, and others involved. The pilots who flew the helicopters acknowledged their presence, while evidence of gunfire comes from video footage obtained by researcher Mike McNulty. While the footage does not show the gunfire, it is shot from inside the helicopters,
and gunfire can be heard clearly. Conclusions from this testimony can be found in “Investigation into the Activities of Federal Law Enforcement Agencies Toward the Branch Davidians” the 1996 report of The House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, in tandem with the House Judiciary Committee.
Author’s Note: While there is not yet a definitive work about Waco, three books and three films have, to my mind, convincingly discredited the government’s version of events. From the Ashes: Making Sense of Waco, edited by James Lewis, raised a series of thought provoking procedural and cultural questions about Waco, many only now beginning to find answers. The Ashes of Waco by Dick Reavis and Why Waco by James Tabor and Eugene Gallagher, both written within a couple of years after the raid, siege and fire, began a serious examination of the events. This has been deepened and expanded by Waco: the Rules of Engagement, and a second documentary by Mike McNulty, Waco: a New Revelation. The process has continued with “discoveries” and admissions by the government: that the FBI used incendiary devices that may have started the fire that killed the Davidians; that Delta Force commandos were present and may have participated in the final assault. If true, this would constitute violation of the Posse Commitatus Act which forbids the use of military force against American citizens. Despite these new facts, however, in 2000 the Danforth Commission, appointed by the Justice Department, found no evidence to support the contention that the government intentionally killed anyone at Waco and the imprisoned Branch Davidians subsequently lost their chance for a new trial. Since then Mike McNulty and several colleagues have disputed the Danforth Commission’s findings in a new documentary The F.L.I.R. Project. Infrared evidence shows that several men whose identities are as yet unknown fired weapons into Mt. Carmel as the Davidians tried to escape from the fire.
Phil Penningroth is a freelance writer who lives in Longmont, California. His new movie Heartland Ghost will appear on Showtime early next year. With his former wife he is the author of A Healing Divorce: Transforming the End of Your Relationship with Ritual and Ceremony. He is currently writing a screenplay, compiling a book of ceremonies and researching a memoir about his grandfather who served as a YMCA Secretary in Russia during the Russian Revolution.