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The Waco Siege – BPR Interviews: David Thibodeau [Part 1]

David Thibodeau in 1999. Image credit: John Anderson

David Thibodeau is a survivor of the 1993 siege against Mount Carmel, the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. The Branch Davidians are a breakaway sect of the Seventh Day Adventists. The siege began on February 28, 1993 as a result of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF)’s failed attempt to raid the compound for suspected possession of illegal firearms. Six Branch Davidians and four ATF agents were shot to death in the initial raid, at which point the FBI intervened, initiating what would become a 51-day siege of the compound. During this time, FBI negotiators managed to secure the release of 35 people. On the morning of April 19, the FBI inserted incendiary tear gas cannisters into the building. At noon, as tear gas continued to be put inside the structure, a fire broke out. The source of the fire remains in dispute: those inside maintain that it was ignited by the tear gas, while the federal government claims the Branch Davidians set it purposely in a mass-suicide attempt. Nine people, including Thibodeau, managed to escape the blaze. The remaining 76, including 25 children, died inside. Thibodeau is one of only four survivors who was not sentenced to prison time.

Thibodeau, a professional drummer who initially came to the group after being recruited to play for Branch Davidian leader David Koresh’s band, was 23 at the time of the fire. He began speaking publicly about his story, and in 1999 released his book A Place Called Waco: A Survivor’s Story, recounting the siege and his initial involvement with the Branch Davidians. In 2018 the book was republished under the title Waco: A Survivor’s Story and became the subject of the Paramount Pictures mini-series Waco. The siege’s chief hostage negotiator Gary Noesner’s book, Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator, was also inspiration for the series. Part one of Noesner’s interview is located here. Thibodeau has been a featured guest on C-SPAN, The Today Show, and at the Paley Center for Media, among others. He currently resides in Waco, Texas with other survivors.

Amelia Spalter: How do you respond when asked if you were in a so-called “cult”?

David Thibodeau: All the things we now call religious institutions started as a small group of people who were usually castigated and looked down upon as holding extreme beliefs. The original factions of even mainstream religions today were all very odd and strange. I differentiate between them by trying to find religious movements founded on sincerity, those that are trying to get a true connection to God. There are people who will take advantage of people for seeking that true connection. Like how the FBI said over and over that David Koresh was a con man, that “He’s just a thug interpreting the Bible at the barrel of a gun.” I tell people that the one reason people followed David was to learn the Seven Seals. He wasn’t a con man, he knew the scripture inside and out, from Genesis to Revelation. When he gave a study, it was like he lived it. It was believable, in fact, it was more than belief. There would be moments where you’d go, “I’ve read that Bible passage 10 times before and never understood the meaning until David gave a study.”

You know, after David was shot on the first day of the raid, he called his mother. He said, “I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to give you the seals, I’ll be coming back in the clouds and I’ll be merciful.” Someone in shock from being shot, who says, “I’m sorry I couldn’t teach you the seals, Mom,” is not a con man. It’s an odd point because psychologists like to say he has a God complex, which is probably 100% true. But he also understood the scripture on a deeper level than anyone I’d ever seen. Some of the stuff that he said seemed very, very outlandish to me. But the fact that he would back it up with scripture made it real.

AS: What were your thoughts when you came to realize that David Koresh practiced polygamy, but his followers were expected to remain celibate?

DT: It wasn’t until David had this new light experience that he said, “Okay, from now on those that are married will be as though they are not,” because he was fathering kids with the women for God. When I first came on to the group I noticed that there seemed to be a lot of single women that had babies. Once I figured out that they were all David’s wives and children, I was like, “How do they all live together without killing each other?” That was a miracle in itself. I was led in slowly, obviously, because that’s how groups do it. But the more that I got into it, the more I understood. So, what to most people would be extremely odd and strange, to me was like, “More power to them. That’s the way they want to live.” Because I came into the group as a drummer living in Hollywood. I didn’t want to have wives and kids. I wanted to have girlfriends that would hopefully go away after a while. I was a very shallow young man, you know, I just wanted to play music. David Koresh was the opposite of that. He wanted to marry these women and have children with them for God. The whole thing was so foreign to the way I was raised. My feminist mother was shocked and horrified. David respected women, he just married them all.

AS: When accused of believing he was Jesus Christ incarnate, David Koresh responded that he was “the Lamb.” What does that mean?

DT: Where the Seven Seals get really confusing [and where the Lamb comes in] is in Revelation. God is on the throne, He holds the book in His hand, and no man is worthy to reveal it. One person comes up and grabs the book out of the hand of God, and it is the Lamb who was slain [earlier in the scripture]. He is now the guy that is able to teach the Seven Seals. Because David was claiming to reveal the Seven Seals, people, especially some religious leaders, were very offended. They heard it as, “You’re claiming you’re Christ, you’re claiming you’re God.” David always said, “No, I’m claiming that I can reveal the Seven Seals. Why don’t you let me show you?” I was the kind of person who said, “Okay, I’ll give you a shot. Show me.” Maybe it was a naïve, but still, I had my mind blown.

AS: Sometimes, participating in David’s Bible studies would take all night long.  What were the nature of those studies?

DT: Usually the long, long Bible studies occurred during Passover and the two-week festivals of God. That’s when people would come from all over to learn the Seals and he would give the 12-hour long studies. In those two-week periods, you would be up all night. But it wasn’t like that most of the time. Usually we’d have dinner, play music, and then the study would begin. Sometimes it would be an hour, sometimes it would be four or five hours. However the spirit moved him. But he was always talking about the scripture. It was constant. That was amazing. You already have your followers. You’ve already got your wives. If that’s what you’re in this for, why would you put all these hours into teaching scripture to the same people over and over again?

AS: Did you worship David Koresh?

DT: No. People didn’t spend time with David because he was so charismatic. It wasn’t like that. Nobody worshipped him. It was the fact that he could just go into such depth with the scripture. It was almost like getting a free education. That’s why about a third of the people there had left seminary schools to be at Mount Carmel. The studies didn’t have to be long; they learned more from David in five or ten minutes of one study than they had in years at seminary school. That’s why there were so many people there at the end, in 1993.

AS: Do you feel the children who died were victims of government error or the strategic mistakes of David Koresh?  

DT: Everyone who died, all those kids who died, died for their faith. The government came in and shot and killed people for their faith, then stayed for 51 days until eventually everyone left was gassed to death or burned to death. I have regrets that the kids didn’t make it out. I wish that they would have, I really, truly do. I place some blame on David Koresh for not letting them out, but I also understand why you won’t send your kids out to a hostile force that has surrounded you in a siege-like situation. So, I understand both sides, but I really wish that the kids would have survived. Those kids that did survive who may be reading this, I hope all have very happy, productive, and fruitful lives.

AS: Do you think the ATF had valid reason to attempt a dynamic entry in their initial raid?

DT: No, they didn’t. They could have just knocked on the door and served the search warrant. Why did they plan to come in shooting? David did not attack the town of Waco with the firearms that he owned. He did have some illegal firearms, it turns out that he was manufacturing some fully automatic ones, but there were four weapons altered into fully automatics found altogether. They made it look like there were hundreds. There were only four.

The ATF are trying to play the victims after coming in with 75 men shooting at a bunch of women and children living in a community group in the middle of nowhere in Texas. They attacked us. They came with their helicopters shooting at the back of our building. When the federal agents took the stand, they talked about [the failure of the raid] like, “Oh my God, we opened the doors and the Branch Davidians wiped us out. They just started shooting!” Only four of you died over 45 minutes. If we were sitting in every window with guns just waiting to ambush you, then why did we make a 911 call? Never in the history of the world have the people doing the ambushing also made a 911 call.

AS: Had the raid been successful, would the ATF have found anything actionable?

DT: The other side of the argument does have some validity. There were a lot of firearms at Mount Carmel. But it’s not as many as people think. I believe 76 firearms came out of the building altogether. It was made to sound as though there were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds. There weren’t, because we were selling a lot of the guns at a gun show. So, both things were going on there. I don’t want to just whitewash this one way or the other. I want to tell the truth.

AS: What do you say to the common criticism that David Koresh is at fault for the deaths because he did not take any opportunities to lead people out?

DT: They gassed kids to death, and they have the gall to say it was all David Koresh’s fault? They gassed the kids to death. American law enforcement officers gassed American children to death. They went to the structure where the kids were and put so much tear gas in there that they anesthetized all the mothers and children in that little concrete structure. Most young men with good physiques could not have gotten out of that situation. What happened was not fair, and worse, the way it has been portrayed is not historically accurate.

AS: Did any major not-for-profit organizations offer to help defend the survivors who were arrested upon exiting the compound?

DT: Where was the ACLU? Nowhere to be found. Where was Amnesty International? Nowhere to be found. What did these groups have to say when Mount Carmel burned down with children inside? “Religion and guns? Sorry, you’re on your own.” It’s not even the polarization of religion and guns. It’s the fact that the government is responsible for much of the funding to those sorts of groups. At the end of this thing, you were a Branch Davidian cultist against the world. I couldn’t believe it, because I’d never even considered myself a Branch Davidian. I was a drummer who happened to be learning the Seven Seals from this guy, David Koresh. I never even considered myself to be a particularly religious person.

But I’m not expecting, and am definitely not calling for, a revolution or anarchy in the streets or anything. I am not a big government guy, however at the same time, I’ve been able to talk about my experiences for the last 27 years without having to worry about persecution. I’m in a country that allows me to tell my truth. I hope that doesn’t change, because I would not do well in jail. If I’m ever thrown in jail for my words, that would truly be the end of this experiment we call democracy.

AS: When you embarked on your public-speaking tour as a left-wing guy from Maine, what was your initial reaction to the far-right being most receptive to your cause?

DT: I would give talks for any group that would have me, but at the time, I couldn’t get liberal platforms like NPR or PBS involved. Nobody wanted to hear what a Waco survivor had to say because it was guns and religion, not to mention no one wanted to be reminded about a bunch of dead kids. The only people that were interested were constitutional groups, and they were incredibly wonderful. They sponsored me to listen to what I had to say, and it wasn’t just political, they were genuinely interested.

But there was this one time I was invited to speak, and I’m looking out at my audience, and I noticed everyone’s got white shirts on and they’ve all got very short hair. Finally, I’m like, “Oh my God, this is a group of skinheads.” I’m looking out and thinking, “I can’t let this go unanswered. What should I do?” So I told this story. “David once said in a Bible study, ‘I hate black people. And I hate yellow people, and I hate red people, and I hate orange people.’ And everyone’s like, “Where’s he going with this?” So I continued, “David said, all the people with me are people of light. People of light want to know who God really is, and I like those people, color doesn’t matter.” I told this group about how we had just about every different race and creed. Your race and your creed did not matter at Mount Carmel. The surviving kids later told me they didn’t know what racism was until they went to public school after the community of Mount Carmel was killed.

AS: At what point during the siege did you lose hope for a peaceful conclusion?

DT: It was around 10:30 am on April 19th and they’d been gassing us for three or four hours. I was listening to the radio, and they cut into the program with a breaking-news alert. They said, “The FBI is using tear gas to try to get the Davidians out of the building, and the Davidians have fired at the FBI’s CEVs.” CEVs are tanks, of course they never said tanks. They continued, “The Davidians have fired at the FBI’s CEVs 80 to 200 times, and to the credit of the FBI, they have not fired back at the Davidians.” As I listened to that, I knew that we were dead. I knew that we were not going to reestablish negotiations. I lost all hope at that point. Because we were not firing at the tanks.

The fact that no one inside fired at the tanks even after they’d been driven through the living room showed amazing restraint on behalf of every person inside that building. Of course, most of us were smart enough to know that a .223 round wasn’t going to do anything against an armored tank. But still, when you’re being assaulted like that and you have access to a firearm, the instinct is to defend yourself. My people did not shoot at those tanks.

AS: In your book you explain that it was not until several years after the fact that you began experiencing PTSD severe enough that you could no longer speak publicly about the events. What changed?

DT: I went maybe a year or two not realizing that people had been shot at the back of the building. When the fire began, it was so loud that I couldn’t hear anything. I hate to say this, but I don’t even remember hearing gunfire out the back of the building. I still didn’t believe that people were shot, even though I’d read the autopsy reports which indicated that they had been. I had to see the infrared video in a documentary, Waco: The Rules of Engagement, before I could see for myself that people were shot trying to escape the fire by leaving out the back of the building. That’s when I changed as a person.

I went from being someone who could talk about everything publicly in front of an audience to being the angry asshole that could no longer control himself because I would go over my story and become so angry that I would raise my voice, just totally lose it. I became Alex Jones, and who wants to become Alex Jones? I didn’t want to be that guy yelling and screaming at people, it’s not who I am. I stopped talking about it because I could no longer be in control of myself. I had that much anger in me, I still do, and I hate it. I hate that I’ll snap for no reason. That’s why I’m a really good drummer. Lots of time hitting the drums to take out frustration. It exorcises a lot of demons, as they say down South.

AS: How did the mothers attempt to mitigate the effects of the psychological torture, such as blasting the compound with the sounds of dying rabbits, that was being deliberately inflicted on the children by the FBI’s tactical response teams?

DT: The kids were incredibly resilient. I remember playing cards with Joseph and Isaiah, Julie Martinez’s young children. There were tanks going by and the kids were looking at them out the window. What could I say? I’m like, “Yeah, that’s something you don’t see every day.” Then the tanks started running over pieces of property, so we just looked out the window and watched it happen. The next day at the press conference, the federal agents said, “The Davidians are putting their kids in the windows, holding them up as shields.” You’re running over someone’s car in a tank. You don’t think a kid’s going to be interested in seeing that happen? I was interested in seeing that happen. Only the kids truly know how they suffered. They didn’t show too much fear. They went on with their lives, even during the siege. I don’t know if we can know what the long-term effects on them are, though. When the kids came out, they were doing drawings of a house with their crayons. They put little dots all through the roof. The person that was caring for the children said, “What’s that?” A child goes, “That’s bullet holes.”

AS: How did the community explain what was happening to the children?

DT: We tried to continue living life believing that God was in control and this siege was just an experience that the people of God had to go through. The bottom line is, every one of the group believes that this was a part of a plan that God had written many, many years ago. That belief made it bearable because, you’re on the side of God, where can you go wrong there? For me, coming out and leaving the premises would have been wrong, because I would have been leaving God. It had nothing to do with David Koresh. I didn’t feel like I would be leaving David Koresh or worry I would disappoint David. Looking at it scripturally, I would be disappointing the Heavenly Father.

*Part two of this interview is located here.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that 44 people had been negotiated out. 35 were negotiated out, the remaining nine escaped during the fire.

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