KCPD Chief remembers deadly standoff in Waco

Executive Editor

Nestled in a Central Texas field where chirping crickets replace the roar of highway traffic, a small white church stands overlooking a U-shaped white gravel driveway. It is about six minutes off of Loop 340 in Waco and its hidden location is serene with lush green grasses, blooming dandelions and draping trees. Standing in front of the church today a visitor wouldn’t realize the history of the area and the war zone it once was.

Nineteen years ago a religious group called the Branch Davidians led by Vernon Howell, who later changed his name to David Koresh, occupied this area of Mount Carmel. The group believed Howell was Christ and that the end of the world was coming in a cataclysmic confrontation between the Branch Davidians and the government.

At about 9:30 a.m. Feb. 28, 1993, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) began to execute an arrest warrant for David Koresh and a search warrant for the Branch Davidian compound.

Kilgore College Police Department Chief Martin Pessink was working in special operations (SWAT) for the Waco Police Department at the time of the raid. He explains his side of the story based on his first-hand observations and information he received.

“What led up to the warrant was that UPS had received packages to deliver out to their compound and one of the boxes fell and broke open and it spilled out a bunch of fragmentation hand grenades,” Pessink said. “This was not in the city of Waco; it was out in McLennan County so they notified the sheriff’s department. That’s what prompted the investigation by ATF and the sheriff’s department.”

When ATF tried to serve the warrant on Feb. 28, 1993, the agents came under immediate gunfire, according to the “Report to the Deputy Attorney General on the Events at Waco, Texas.”

“That morning my wife woke me up and said ‘You better come see what’s on the television,” Pessink said. “It was on Channel 10 and what we saw was live footage from the Branch Davidian compound of a shootout between the Branch Davidians and officers with the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms uniform that were trying to serve the warrant.”

Pessink immediately strapped on his gear– a handgun, extra magazines, a utility knife, tear gas– slipped on his bullet-proof vest, military-style black battle dress uniform and Kevlar helmet. He then waited for his pager to buzz calling him to duty.

Within an hour of seeing the TV report, he was called into his office. Waco PD had no knowledge of the situation before officers were briefed on the scene.

“We pulled up on a driveway of an adjacent ranch probably about 500 yards away from the Branch Davidian compound and there was a large water tower in the center of the compound, and the ATF agent there that was briefing us pointed to the tower and said there was a guy up there with a Barrett .50 caliber rifle. These things have an accuracy of up to a mile for hitting a man’s set target so we all ducked behind our truck,” Pessink said.

There are differing viewpoints on who fired the first shots; however, Pessink explains the tactics the ATF used in the raid.

“When ATF was getting ready to plan this raid they were at Texas State Technical College. Somehow someone involved out there, not associated with ATF, knew one of the reporters from Channel 10 and called him and said, ‘They’re staging for a warrant and I think they are going to the Branch Davidian compound.’ He (the reporter) was there and ineffectually alerted the Branch Davidians by his presence that someone was coming so they prepared ahead of time,” Pessink said. “The tactics that ATF used in serving the warrant have been questioned for 20 years, but one of the things you do in a tactical operation is try and establish an element of surprise. If you can go through with surprise, rapid response and fast control of a situation in most cases you can do it without firing a shot which has happened time and time and time again and that’s what they (the ATF) were relying on.”

ATF officers had planned on hiding in a covered cattle trailer to serve warrants to Koresh and the compound.

“Since this was a ranching area, a large truck pulling a cattle trailer was not going to appear unusual unless somebody had dropped a dime (made a phone call) and told them that they were coming, which is what happened,” Pessink said. “So when the truck pulled through the gate the guy with the Barrett .50 put in a round at the engine, killed the engine, blocked the truck, stalled it and opened fire on the trailer. He blew one guy’s head off, shot another through the vest. They were just killing these agents.”

The agents who exited the trailer and started making their approach to the house encountered machine-gun fire coming through the walls, through the windows from the house itself, Pessink notes.

“These folks were armed with grenades, machine guns, high-powered rifles and the argument from the Second Amendment bunch is the right to keep and bear arms and stuff like that, but there are limitations to what type of arms,” Pessink said. “Of course, machine guns, grenades and high explosives are not included in that unless you pay the taxes.”

Four ATF agents and six Branch Davidians died in the initial raid.

Even though Mount Carmel was essentially outside of Waco, the Waco PD still had officers out there trying to help get the situation under control on Feb. 28.

“The intelligence we were receiving said Vernon Howell was threatening to shoot their way out of the compound and go into town and take over one of our hospitals,” Pessink said. “We put out SWAT team officers on the exit of the roads that were leaving out of the compound.”

After they returned to town the next day, however, the city administration said its city officers would not go back to the scene. They did, however, secure the hospital one more day.

Pessink says that a year before the raid, his SWAT unit trained in an abandoned house on an intersection between the highway that led to the compound and the loop on the East side of Waco. This house stood beside a mechanic’s garage.

“We didn’t know that the mechanics running the garage were Vernon Howell’s lieutenants and at that date they went out there and told them ATF was out there so they barricaded themselves then,” Pessink said.

According to the “Report to the Deputy Attorney General on the Events at Waco, Texas,” Howell confirmed on March 2, 1993, that there were 43 men, 47 women and 20 children inside the compound. Before given this head count, ATF officers and other law enforcement agents on the scene knew there were innocent victims inside the compound. Negotiations immediately followed the initial raid.

“Our negotiators were working with the county’s negotiators trying to get those kids out,” Pessink said. “We stayed there for 24 hours. That’s how I spent my 33rd birthday, laying in a ditch out at Mount Carmel.”

The ATF raid ended when FBI took over negotiations, but a 51-day standoff followed.

Negotiators tried to compromise with Howell many times to get him to surrender peacefully. The FBI and Hostage Rescue Team teams used many tactics to force those inside the compound to come out – like playing loud noise to induce sleep deprivation. They also allowed Howell to record an hour-long audiotape where he preached about his special knowledge of the Seven Seals and the end of the world according to the Book of Revelations and his promise to surrender peacefully after the tape was broadcast.

The tape was broadcast nationwide over the Christian Broadcast Network and in Texas over KRLD. Howell did not surrender as promised because he said God had spoken to him and told him to wait to surrender.

Over the course of the standoff, 38 Davidians either escaped or were released by Howell. Some releases were part of FBI’s negotiations.

On April 19, FBI executed plans to end the standoff by inserting tear gas into the compound. The FBI attached aerosol canisters of tear gas to the booms of the tank recovery vehicles. Before injecting the gas, FBI called inside the compound and warned that gas was about to be introduced and it was not an assault so no one should fire any weapons. Two minutes after the gas plan was initiated the Davidians began shooting the vehicles. FBI then inserted gas into the entire compound.

The compound caught fire shortly after. There are differing views on who started the fire. The “Report to the Deputy Attorney General on the Events at Waco, Texas,” says “the Davidians started fires at three separate locations within the compound.”

Pessink agrees.

“Vernon Howell was going to make his prophecy come true. Regardless of the situation he had a prophecy of death by fire and he was going to make this happen,” Pessink said. “The conspiracy theorists tell us that FBI burned this place down, but they burned themselves up. There were recordings at one time from inside the building saying that ‘the fire is lit, the fire is lit, the fire is lit’ and that’s never been really made public for whatever reason, but that was provided in the Intel briefings for law enforcement that was involved in this after the fact.”

Nine Davidians survived the fire; Koresh was among the dead.

“Folks find it hard to believe that 78 people allowed themselves to be burned up in a building, but in Jonestown, Guyana, 900 either drank the Kool-Aid (poison), took an injection if they didn’t want the Kool-Aid or somebody shot and killed them,” Pessink said.

On April 19, 1993, the compound burned. On this day, Pessink was 35 miles away securing a local hospital, but he could see the mushroom clouds go up from the explosives inside the compound. He explains that the Davidians had more than just grenades stockpiled because there is a difference in a fire plume and an explosive plume. He also says that most of the children who they found in the aftermath had bullet holes in their heads where somebody had shot them before the place burned.

“It was a bad and long-winded deal,” Pessink said. “Before that happened no one know where Waco, Texas, was. After it happened everyone knew where Waco was.”

April 19, 2012, marked the 19th anniversary of the “Waco event.” For many, this day is a day of mixed emotions and remembrance.

“I still get a little antsy when the anniversary comes around, especially on April 19. That seems like a rally day for things to happen,” Pessink said. “Even though Waco is a large city, it has a population of over 100,000, we always had that small town, rural, it can’t happen here, type of belief. I think the change with everybody is that anything is possible. Things like this are not isolated to other areas. Things like this can happen in your town too. Don’t get caught unaware. This probably changed everybody involved to some degree. The tragic loss of life that was involved in that situation, in both law enforcement and civilian– everything that took place out there– just makes you stop and reflect.”

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