Former FBI negotiator talks about Waco and How It Became His Personal Tragedy

by Kseniya Kirillova


In early 1993, the country’s attention was riveted on a 77.8 acre ranch in McLennan County, near Waco, Texas where federal agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had more than 100 members of a religious cult known as the Branch Davidians surrounded.

Over the next 51 days, negotiators, led by FBI Agent Gary Noesner, former Chief of the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit, Critical Incident Response Group, tried in vain to talk cult leader David Koresh and his followers into surrendering the compound and turning themselves over to federal agents.  Tragically, negotiations were unsuccessful and tensions between the two sides escalated, eventually culminating in an assault by agents on the compound and a fire that claimed the lives of those inside.

FBI Agent Gary Noesner
Retired FBI Agent Gary Noesner spent 30 years in the Bureau, ending his career as the agency’s chief negotiator.

Gary Noesner became known to a wide audience this year after the release of the “Waco” mini-series which was dedicated to the bloodiest siege in the history of the United States. This is a story of the standoff between members of the religious cult “Branch Davidians” and federal forces, lasting from February 28 till April 19, 1993. During those dramatic events, 82 members of the sect, including 20 children, died, along with four ATF agents.

Following the “messiah”

The Branch Davidians formed out of former members of the Shepherd’s Rod sect of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Originally founded by Benjamin Roden in 1955, the group was taken over by his wife, Lois Roden, after his death in 1978.  In 1981, Vernon Howell, who would later go on to change his name to David Koresh, joined the sect and soon began an affair with Lois Roden, despite the fact he was in his late twenties and she was in her 60’s.  Howell hoped to have a child with the elder Roden, a child he believed would be “the chosen one.”

After Lois Roden’s death in 1986, Koresh wrested control of the Branch Davidians from Roden’s son, George Roden, and declared himself a “sinful messiah” – a prophet to whom, according to him, God spoke with directly. With the support of the membership of the Branch Davidians, Koresh took over the Mount Carmel ranch located not far from Waco, a central Texas town that sits on the banks of the Brazos River, where he and his followers led a communal lifestyle.

Absolute Authority

Koresh had absolute authority over his followers. Specifically, the sect’s “messiah” banned the members of the cult from physical closeness with women, including their own wives, declaring that all women now belonged to him. Presenting himself as a  “prophet,” only he was allowed himself intimate relations not just with other men’s wives, but with underage girls too, some of who were brought to Koresh by their parents against the children’s will. Koresh’s youngest “concubine” was reportedly 12 years old.

In early 1993, the membership of the sect surpassed 120. At the same time, Koresh was instilling in his followers a sense of impending Armageddon, from which only the “faithful” will be saved. Prior to the end of the world, according to Koresh’s doctrine, there would first come an epic battle with dark forces of “Babylon”, which were personified by the United States authorities. The cult’s Messiah was getting his followers ready for the future battle operating with quite earthly resources: sect members began actively accumulating weapons and ammunition.

On February 28th, 1993, the ATF attempted to search the ranch in response to reports it received members were illegally stashing weapons and were sexually abusing children. However, Davidians were prepared for the raid. A TV news reporter from KWTX, who had been tipped off about the impending raid, asked a local postal carrier for directions to the Mount Carmel compound.  The mailman, coincidentally, was David Koresh’s brother-in-law and warned the cult leader of the impending assault.   When agents showed up and tried to serve Koresh a search warrant, gunfire from the compound met them.  Four agents were killed and 16 were wounded.  Five Branch Davidians were also killed.  After shooting died down two hours later, federal agents took up positions surrounding the compound and awaited instructions.  The FBI took charge of the operation which combined the functions of negotiations and tactical forces.

Texas Armageddon

The agent in charge of the negotiations was Gary Noesner – one of the pioneers in developing the system of negotiation during a hostage-taking crisis, negotiation with terrorists and other cases where criminals refused to surrender peacefully to the authorities. In his book “Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator,” Gary thoroughly described the dramatic events of the siege, along with other cases from his practice. The aforementioned show series was based on this very book, while Gary himself, played by actor Michael Shannon, became one of its main characters.

Actor Michael Shannon
Actor Michael Shannon played Noesner in the Paramount TV mini-series Waco. He is currently filming a movie called “Knives Out” starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Toni Collette.

Thanks to the efforts of the negotiation team, Koresh agreed to release 35 people, most of whom were children. However, seeing that negotiations were not reaching the desired result, operation commanders, against the advice of the negotiators, moved onto stronger tactics, demonstrating the threat of the use of force more and more aggressively. On April 19th, the FBI decided to use tear gas, after which the ranch was set on fire, either deliberately by Davidians, as the government alleged after the incident, or accidentally by the assault, as members of the sect claim. Virtually all of its inhabitants were burned alive. Only nine people escaped from the fire.

Conclusions of the official investigation that followed unequivocally stated that the fire was started on David Koresh’s direct orders. At the same time, some of the surviving Davidians claim that the fire began accidentally and was caused by the actions of the FBI, not set deliberately. Regardless, in sieges and crisis situations since then, authorities demonstrated much more patience and such outcome was never repeated again. This change in the tactics by authorities came in large part thanks to Gary Noesner’s efforts.

At the time of his retirement in 2003, Noesner managed the crisis negotiation department, the first agent to head that team. By that time, he’d worked at the bureau for 31 years. In this exclusive interview, the legendary negotiator shed light on the most successful cases of his career, mistakes that were made, and also gave some advice to those who were unfortunate enough to become hostages themselves.

Balance between force and persuasion

The question about the balance between the use of force and negotiations is one of the most crucial in Noesner’s book. On the one hand, to convince a person in a state of emotional breakdown or, even worse, a terrorist bent on inflicting as much damage as possible, to release hostages without a threat of force is virtually unrealistic. On the other hand, premature use of force can definitely lead to escalation and death of hostages.

“In law enforcement, the use of physical force is viewed as a last resort, when all other tactics failed. And the single factor which can trigger the use of force is the behavior of the perpetrators themselves or more specific indicators that their further actions will lead to deaths of innocent people. That could be actual violence, psychological instability, physical attacks on hostages,increased hostility and aggression towards them, and continuing threats of killing hostages. In that case, it’s important to pick the right moment to intervene with tactical forces with the goal of saving lives,” explains the former FBI agent.

According to Gary Noesner, the official policy of the FBI considers negotiations as a priority method of response to a crisis situation.

“However, I notice the desire on part of the law enforcement officials to use force for crisis resolution possibly sooner than it becomes absolutely necessary. Right after the tragedy at Waco, FBI gave far greater weight to negotiation programs, but now it appears that the situation is changing again. I can’t know for sure what the balance is currently since I retired 15 years ago, but I have a feeling that the pendulum has swung again towards the use of force,” supposes the veteran.

 

Gary Noesner notes that in 90% of cases hostages are taken not by terrorists but ordinary people in a state of extreme emotional instability. They do this impulsively and often don’t have any specific goal in mind, which makes it almost impossible to predict and prevent such crises.

“It’s very hard to predict specifically which stressful situations are able to push certain people to violence, and what would provoke their emotional instability. In 90% of cases, perpetrators don’t have a specific goal and are led by frustration, anger, rage or pain of loss. In that case, the first task of negotiators is to help perpetrators decide what their goals are,” notes Noesner.

Successes and Mistakes

Gary Noesner considers the most successful case of his career to be the siege of the far-right group Freemen in Montana in 1996, lasting for 81 days. Members of this movement were not as innocent as the majority of Davidians. Freemen proclaimed their own sovereignty and rejected federal government authority and laws of the United States. They issued numerous counterfeit documents claiming that according to their own laws these documents were legal; they engaged in fraud, did not abide by court decisions, threatened officials and judges, and even committed an armed robbery. When the standoff with the government got heated, the radicals went into a siege mode on several desert ranches.

The Freemen in Montana, 1996
The Freemen group in Montana surrendered peacefully to FBI agents after an 81 day standoff in 1996. The FBI, still remembering Waco, exercised extreme caution with the Freeman, taking great care to keep the standoff from becoming violent.

Being afraid to repeat mistakes made at Waco, the FBI approached this negotiation very carefully. Leaders of the extremists were arrested earlier, while discussions with other members of the group were quite benign. Law enforcement was trying to avoid provocations, did not intimidate with the demonstration of force and actively involved in the negotiation relatives of criminals and local politicians whose authority they recognized. As a result of a long effort, FBI convinced radicals to surrender peacefully.

“We patiently abided by a very positive strategy which resulted in the peaceful outcome,”remembers the former negotiator.

Concerning personal mistakes, Noesner once again returns to Waco tragedy. “When it became obvious that commanders intended to use tear gas, we as negotiators stood up against it. At the time I prepared a memorandum where I noted that this option can be considered only under certain conditions. There was enormous pressure on me to do this, but now, looking back, I regret that I allowed the very possibility of using tear gas, even just potentially,” admits Noesner.

In the wake of Waco

The FBI veteran doesn’t hide it: the Waco tragedy became his personal tragedy. At the same time, many experts, considering the situation, expressed doubts that the negotiators would’ve been able to convince Koresh to surrender. “Final battle of Armageddon” was part of his religious doctrine, and conflict with authorities fit into it so ideally that some of the participants in the events of ’93 formed an impression: the distraught “messiah” would do anything to escalate the resistance, regardless of the government’s actions. However, Noesner does not entirely agree with this assertion.

“It’s hard to give a precise answer, but I think that there was a chance that we could have convinced him, if from the very beginning of the situation some of the things were done differently. In other words, constant conflict between efforts of negotiating team and demonstration of force from the tactical team had led to the fact that we sent Davidians wrong signals and destroyed the very rapport that we were trying to build with them. I think that if we received more support from FBI’s leadership from the very start, we could’ve avoided such outcome,” says Noesner.

The former negotiator also doubts the initial readiness of Koresh to die in the battle with the “unfaithful”.

“It’s easy to say: I’m ready to die for my religion, but it’s much harder to actually do it. I got the impression that David Koresh retained some kind of ambivalence: part of his soul wanted martyr’s death for his convictions, but part wanted to live, and in his mind he had a great conflict between these desires. The fact that he kept postponing the final decision for so long, in my view, was giving us a chance to change the outcome of the events,” he supposes.

As far as reasons for fatal fire, Gary Noesner stresses: for him the answer to this question is beyond doubt; however, he’s not imposing it on others.

“If you don’t trust the government, you think that the government did it. If you think that Davidians were crazy, you believe that they did it. For me, the fact that Davidians themselves set the fire is unquestionable. First of all, technical evidence speaks in favor of this. The fire started in three places, and the FBI has audio recordings made by microphones brought into the building on which you can hear orders to start the fire. One of the fire survivors claims that he personally saw his fellow faithful setting the ranch on fire. Independent investigation of this arson also pointed out that the fire was the sectarians’ fault and wasn’t set by the FBI. I.e. every existing evidence leads to the conclusion that Davidians set the building on fire because FBI used tear gas, but gas itself did not cause the fire,” concludes Noesner.

Advice to hostages

To those who have never been hostages, Gary Noesner offers a few basic tips for survival. First of all, it doesn’t pay to be overly conflicting – just as it doesn’t pay to be overly obedient. “Any extreme behavioral reactions could attract undesirable attention by the perpetrators to the hostage. Therefore, it doesn’t pay to show aggression or aggravation, and pays to try to use every opportunity to personify yourself to the hostage taker: show that you’re a person, you have a family, hopes, dreams, expectations. That’s the general approach that we recommend,” clarifies the negotiator.

Also, Gary Noesner points out the importance of working with relatives of perpetrators during crisis resolution – like it was done in the case of the Freemen group.

“Relatives and especially family members can be extremely helpful in understanding the behavior of their loved ones. We could, for example, ask them to make an audio recording or attempt to influence their loved ones and convince them to give up peacefully. Sometimes it’s hard to convince family members to collaborate with us, other times it’s very easy. It all depends on the situation. As a rule, people still love their relatives and eagerly agree to work with us to convince them to come out alive and well,” tells Noesner.

He admits: The FBI doesn’t hide from perpetrators’ family members that after peaceful surrender their loved ones will most likely end up in prison for crimes they had already committed. “A good negotiator will never tell people that after surrender their relatives will come home and everything will be alright. But we try to underscore that we aren’t prosecutors or judges, and that our main task is to help people survive this situation and remain unhurt, and we’ll deal with other problems later,” concludes the FBI veteran.

 

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