The 51-day siege in Waco, Texas, is one of the most controversial law enforcement operations in modern American history.

The Branch Davidians were a religious sect formed by a split from the Seventh Day Adventist Church in the 1950s. In 1955 they set up the headquarters of their church on a 77-acre ranch, which they named Mount Carmel Centre, just outside Waco, in Texas. The sect gradually grew into a community of around 100 people. David Koresh, originally from Houston in Texas, joined the sect in 1981, after a failed attempt at rock stardom in Hollywood, and he became leader of the sect in 1988.

The US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) first opened an investigation of the Branch Davidians on 4th June 1992, following receipt of a tip about the possible manufacture of illegal firearms within the Davidian residential complex. When sect leader David Koresh found out about the possible investigation, on 30th July 1992, he invited ATF officials to visit the ranch to inspect his inventory and records but the ATF declined the invitation, choosing instead to continue their clandestine investigations, and amassing evidence against Koresh.

“Within the local Waco community rumours grew about strange practices occurring within the Branch Davidian complex, and the local newspaper, the Waco Tribune-Herald, pressured authorities into taking action against the growing sect within their midst.”

Meanwhile, with more than seven months notice of the ATF’s interest, and the growing media pressure, Koresh told his followers to prepare for a possible assault by government authorities, and began to make serious preparations for the defence of the complex, in the event of any attack.

By January 1993 the ATF were convinced that they had amassed enough information about Koresh to arrest him, and sought assistance from Army Special Services to mount a raid on the Mount Carmel complex. An arrest warrant for Koresh was obtained on 25th February 1993.

Unaware of the official activity, the Waco Tribune-Herald newspaper published an article on 27th February 1993, as part of a planned series, containing allegations of physical and sexual abuse against children at Mount Carmel. The newspaper piece also included tales of polygamy and underage marriage, describing a dangerous religious cult ruled absolutely by the authoritarian David Koresh, who had a large harem, with whom he had sired more than a dozen children. Despite an investigation by child protection services, which denied that any abuse was evident, the stories stoked local fears about goings-on at the compound.