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Steve Boggs: Setting the 1993 Branch Davidian tragedy in proper context 25 years later

Steve Boggs: Setting the 1993 Branch Davidian tragedy in proper context 25 years later


About a year ago, our newspaper began receiving inquiries from various television production companies about the Branch Davidians. The Trib, as the newspaper of record for the 1993 Branch Davidian raid, siege and fire, possesses thousands of photographs from that era — a visual treasure trove for production officials preparing 25th anniversary specials. Predictably, most of them sought images of Vernon Howell (David Koresh), guns and the fire.

Only one TV producer asked to use the Feb. 27, 1993, front page of the Waco Tribune-Herald. That’s the day the Trib began publishing its Pulitzer Prize-nominated “Sinful Messiah” series, which first exposed allegations of child abuse, child sexual abuse and weapons hoarding in the secretive group. That TV production company begins airing its six-part series, titled “Waco,” this Wednesday. (Read Carl Hoover’s review in Friday’s edition.)

It soon became clear that all this 25th anniversary attention would not only reopen old wounds here in Waco, it would also give fresh ink and air time to ridiculous conspiracy theories born of this tragedy. We’ve seen hints of revisionist history in the TV specials that have already aired, and it’s only going to get worse as Feb. 28 and April 19 get closer.

The images captured by veteran Trib photographer Rod Aydelotte and his staff have become iconic over the years. But the stories themselves were never transcribed and placed on the Trib’s website, which did not exist in 1993. Now they are readily available, at no charge, to people who want to know more about the events of 1993 in Waco. We encourage readers to utilize this section on our website as a way to separate fact from fiction as the 25th anniversary approaches and the story of the Branch Davidians is retold once more. It is a touchstone, easily searchable and exhaustive in detail.

If you lived in Central Texas in 1993 and read the Waco Tribune-Herald’s coverage of these events, then you already know more than most about Howell, the Davidians and the questionable actions of our government. You already know that the Davidians loved to buy just-past-ripe bananas in bulk and make smoothies of them. You know all about George Roden, the original Mount Carmel in Waco and how Koresh came to be militarized.

You may also know the name, age and hometown of every single victim who died in the April 19 fire.

For the rest of us, the story of the Branch Davidians seemed to be about guns and religious liberty. Sadly, that impression persists to this day. I had never heard of “The Sinful Messiah” series before former Trib city editor Brian Blansett spoke at an Oklahoma Press Association convention years later.

The Trib staff of 1993 covered the Branch Davidian saga from the beginning as an intensely local story. Each and every article is rich in detail and perspective, unerring in context and refusing to bend to the national narrative that Koresh was simply a religious gun nut. We’ve been interviewing members of the Trib staff from 1993 for a special anniversary package to be presented next month. Their recollections of that time period signal many common themes, chief among them the fact that Vernon Howell preyed on young girls.

“The Sinful Messiah” series was expertly researched, with every detail verified. We invite you to read all seven installments before venturing into other parts of our archive. We’ve also included stories from the 1959 end-of-the-world episode at Mount Carmel, which led to a split in the original religious group and gave rise to the “Branch” in the Branch Davidians. There’s also the strange story of a murder in 1950 of a Davidian follower on her way from California to her native Jamaica.

We make these stories available to help counterbalance a misguided narrative that’s been repeated so many times it has become accepted as fact. With help from a team of paid and volunteer staff, I’ve spent the better part of a year reading each and every story filed by this newspaper about Howell and his followers. To say I was uninformed about 1993 before this exercise would be an understatement.

We’re still constructing additional pages on the site, one of which will feature nothing but columns, editorial cartoons and remarkable letters to the editor published in the Trib during the 51-day siege. Here’s one of them: “If David Koresh is going to sit back and think about things, the ATF and FBI should remove all the ambulances, barricades, the command post, the helicopters, the hundreds of officers surrounding the compound and line up the Army tanks in front of the compound with about 10 funeral hearses in the background. Let David Koresh sit back and think about that.”

That letter was published on April 18, 1993, under the headline of “Send in the Hearses.”

Hindsight is rich in irony.

Steve Boggs is editor of the Tribune-Herald.

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