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The Waco Siege – BPR Interviews: David Thibodeau [Part 2]

David Thibodeau in present day. Image credit: Ursula Coyote

*Part one of this interview is located here.

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 a 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 two of Noesner’s interview is located here. Thibodeau has been a featured guest on C-SPANThe Today Show, and at the Paley Center for Media, among others. He currently resides in Waco, Texas with other survivors.

Amelia Spalter: There are reports that another fire survivor, Clive Doyle, is in charge of the Branch Davidians now. Is he considered David Koresh’s successor?

David Thibodeau: Oh no, no. Clive is going to discos every night and bringing home women left and right. The guy’s just a party animal. No, I’m kidding. He’s the nicest guy ever, and also like, 80 years old. He’s so sweet, he has no desire to run anything or be in charge of anyone. Clive used to visit all the survivors in jail. He kept in touch with people. He did the memorials every year. Sometimes on Sabbath he would have Bible studies. But he hasn’t tried to carry it on. He does not claim to be any kind of religious leader. He’s just doing what you should do according to the scripture. You visit the followers, you feed the hungry, you help the poor. That’s what Clive has done. He is not there to convert anyone to or convince anyone of anything. He’s just living life the best way that he can. He believes that his role scripturally is to try to be a good person who keeps people together. Clive is definitely someone to look up to.

AS: Many group members, yourself included, still live together in Waco. Mount Carmel has been fully rebuilt since the fire; why aren’t any of you living there? 

DT: Because of a hateful individual named Charlie Pace, who was the man that was running the property at Mount Carmel. He’s kicked all the survivors off the land. He’s a terrible person. He got the land after Clive finally left it because Charlie wouldn’t stop being a thorn in his side over so many years. Charlie Pace has basically squatted on the property for so long that he has driven everyone else off and is in control of it now. He put these banners up that basically say people who followed David and died during the siege are in hell, and those of us still alive are going to hell. Nobody can deal with him. He’s one of these guys who thinks the world is flat. I don’t even know how to fully explain Charlie. We don’t want anything to do with him, so we don’t go out to the property anymore.

AS: What is the most productive way for people who still have strong feelings about what happened at Waco to channel their energy?

DT: In the past I would have said, “Write your congressman,” but they’ve lost all my respect. I’ve got no faith in Congress or the Senate or anything else in the government anymore. I wish I did. The lack of justice is such that it’s hard for me to have faith in any institutions like that. So now I don’t know. I wish I were leading a movement, but I don’t hear voices that tell me where to go. I would like to be more radical, and at least get a petition up to Congress, but I don’t trust them, so I don’t want to play their game.

AS: Which types of people who disagree with your interpretation of what happened have been the hardest to engage with in meaningful discourse?

DT: Most people, especially with an education, think they’re smarter than the scripture and that the scripture was written by men to control other men, so therefore if you believe in it, you’re believing in a lie that’s meant to control you. You should learn as much as you can. But you can go to an Ivy League school, and if you still look down on everyone who believes differently than you, then in spite of your education, you haven’t really learned as much as you can. I often meet people who are very, very intelligent that dispute my first-person account of events by saying, “No, I learned about you in college.”

There are only two kinds of people that I can’t reason with. The first are the incredibly stupid, who saw what they saw on television and immediately made up their minds to hate me. But I can’t reason with the other extreme either, the highly intelligent people who have read everything on the subject, so feel they know everything about it. They look down on me. It’s the people in the middle, that can see both sides, who are reasonable. Those are the people who should be running the world.

AS: Did an ATF agent really take David Koresh to a firing range, alone, and hand him a gun?

DT: An undercover agent took David Koresh to a firing range, I imagine to try and get more information out of him. The ATF seemed to think if the agent shot guns with him, that he’d start talking about manufacturing guns or be like, “Hey, have you ever tried a fully automatic?” Then they said he never came out of the house in the three days before they attacked. They had just taken him to a firing range and voluntarily shot guns with him! That blew my mind.

AS: A couple of people unrelated to either the Branch Davidians or law enforcement entered Mount Carmel during the siege, and among them was Jesse Amen. What happened when you let him in?

DT: Oh yeah, Jesse “Lord Lightning” Amen. He walked up one night, past the FBI barricades during the siege, and came into the compound saying, “I’ve got 50,000 people that are ready to come to your aid.” We were like, “Yeah, bring it on, we could use that.” There were definitely some characters throughout all this, but he really was a trip. David Koresh got down and washed Jesse’s feet when he showed up. He said, “Hey, if these people have got the cojones to come into this place right now, I’m going to wash their feet.” It’s an old Jewish ritual.

AS: Is COVID-19 a harbinger of the end times, or the great tribulation, spoken of in the Seven Seals?

DT: 25 years ago I would have said, “Oh yeah, this is it. This is the time of trouble.” Now I think it depends on what’s going to happen. In other words, if we stay inside for a couple months and the virus goes away, or at least begins to dissipate, fine. If it doesn’t, or if it comes back and we’ve got to go through this again, I don’t know if we’ll survive. It could be chaos in the streets at that point. I’m hoping that doesn’t happen. We’re definitely going to see authority take over like we haven’t yet in this country, which is why you’re getting a lot of protests.

AS: The stay-at-home orders have occurred over almost exactly the same days you were forced inside your home under siege 27 years ago. Has living through an involuntary isolation period made voluntary quarantine easier or harder? 

DT: I’m an old guy, I don’t like crowds unless I’m behind a drum set, so it doesn’t really affect me right now. I’ve got a TV to watch the end of the world on, and I’m pretty happy overall, so I’m not going to take any risks. I did everything I wanted to when I was younger. But if I were 20 or 30; yeah, this would be tough. I feel for the younger generation having to go through this.

AS: After the siege, you were based in Maine for quite some time. What led you to return to Waco, even after everything that happened there?

DT: We were trying to work with Charlie Pace to get Heather Jones a place to stay in one of the mobile homes on the Mount Carmel property. Heather Jones was one of the kids, now grown up, that was negotiated out during the siege. For her, being on the property was everything, because she’s a Jones. Her dad, David Jones, was the mailman who found out the ATF were coming when a news crew stopped his mail truck to ask for directions to Mount Carmel to report on an impending attack there, not realizing who he was. [That’s how we knew the ATF were coming.] David Jones died in the fire. So Heather lost her dad and she also lost all her cousins, all of David Koresh’s kids were her cousins. Since pretty much her entire family died in the fire, being on the property meant a lot. But now she’s leaving because she can’t deal with Charlie either.

For many months, we were trying to work with Charlie to negotiate use of the property. But he was upset with all the people who would come out to visit, because they only came to talk to us, [people who were here in 1993], none of them wanted to talk to him. He ended up kicking everyone off the property, saying, “God has told me that he doesn’t want you in this sanctuary. You don’t have to leave entirely, maybe you can pitch a tent outside the building or something.” I’m a 400-pound guy. “Yeah, I’m going to live in a tent in 100-degree weather, Charlie. Thanks so much.” There’s not much we could do about it unless we convince the people of Waco to make Mount Carmel a historical site, which would take years, though it is something we might still do. But the bottom line is, Charlie Pace kicked the survivors off the property. He’s more than a nemesis. He is a blight on society.

AS: What lessons from the events at and aftermath of the siege at Mount Carmel should we apply to similar situations in the future?

DT: Don’t believe everything you hear. If the media is doing everything in their power to demonize someone, there is probably more to the story. There’s a famous quote, one of my favorites. In the 1800s, Senator Henry Clay said, “The devices of power and its minions are the same in all countries and in all ages. It marks its victim, exciting the public hatred to conceal its own abuses and encroachments.” That’s exactly what happened with Waco.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.