This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue with the headline “The 25-Year Siege," and is the first in a recent series by Eric Benson. For part two, click here. For part three, click here.
At 12:32 p.m. on Monday, April 19, 1993, FBI agent Byron Sage placed his right hand on his PA system’s power switch and flicked it from on to off.
Sage knew the small gesture was momentous. For the previous seven weeks, he and 51 other negotiators from various agencies had tried to persuade the Branch Davidian leader David Koresh and his more than one hundred followers to leave their home, a rambling, multilevel structure on a 77-acre property ten miles east of Waco known as Mount Carmel. Now that building was engulfed in fire.
“It’s one of those points in your life that you’ll never, ever forget,” Sage says. “By turning that switch off, it was like I had fifty-one other guys that were looking over my shoulder, watching me say, ‘We failed.’ ”
Nearly two months earlier, Sage had been the first FBI negotiator to arrive on the scene after a disastrous Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms raid left four federal agents and six Branch Davidians dead. Ever since, he’d been the lead negotiator, speaking frequently with Koresh and his deputy, Steve Schneider, cajoling them to cooperate when he could, arguing with them when he felt that he had to, making demands when it seemed nothing else would work. On that final day, when the FBI’s on-scene commander, Jeff Jamar, picked a negotiator to tell the members of the sect that they had to surrender, Sage was the obvious choice.
Sage had begun the morning by instructing Koresh and his followers to exit their building, but no one inside had budged. Over the next few hours, he stood inside a small house that the FBI had dubbed Sierra One Alpha, just across the road from Mount Carmel, as tanklike combat engineering vehicles doused the Davidians with tear gas. Sage kept hoping to see the members of the group filing out toward the road. Instead, shortly after noon, flames began to shoot out of the building. “I went from orders to requests to, ultimately, as the fire spread, pleas,” he says.
After switching off the PA, Sage staggered across the road and walked toward the compound. He’d seen members of the FBI’s elite tactical unit, the Hostage Rescue Team, descend into an underground bunker where agents hoped some in the group might have taken their children. But when the HRT members emerged, they were alone. Though 9 Branch Davidians had left the building during the fire, Koresh and 75 of his followers had remained inside to the end. Many of them had perished from thermal burns and smoke inhalation. Some appeared to have died from blunt force trauma caused by the collapsing building. Autopsies would reveal that at least 20 of them, including Koresh, had either shot themselves or been shot by other members of the sect, likely as a way to avoid a fiery death. One three-year-old boy had been stabbed in the chest. Twenty-five of the dead were minors.
Sage didn’t yet know all these details, but he understood the enormity of what had just happened. “I was emotionally, physically, psychologically just devastated. I was beyond tears,” he says.
That night, Sage drove back to his motel in Waco, took a scalding-hot shower, and crashed into bed. A couple of hours later, he woke up to a knock at the door. He figured it was reporters asking for comment, and he walked across the room, shirtless and fuming. “I thought, ‘I’m going to kill these people.How can I resolve this without pushing them over the rail?’ ” Instead, he found his wife, Sheryl, standing in the entryway.
“By turning that switch off, it was like I had fifty-one other guys that were looking over my shoulder, watching me say, ‘We failed.’ ”
“I flopped back onto the bed and she crawled into the sack with me and just held me until I fell asleep,” Sage says. “I’m not a cuddler, but I needed it.” He didn’t speak a word the entire night.
Sheryl woke up at 5 a.m. to drive back home to their boys, in Round Rock, and Sage roused himself for the work that still needed to be done. “It gave me that extra surge to get back in my FBI mode and start taking care of business, because who else is going to do it?” he recalls.
For the next two and a half weeks, Sage stayed in Waco. Jamar had ordered him to help oversee the crime scene and to handle media inquiries, and he spent much of his time trying to explain to reporters how everything had gone so catastrophically wrong. In the decades that have followed, he has never really stopped.
Twenty-five years after that terrible morning, the Branch Davidian siege, known to the world simply as “Waco,” remains a historical event in rough-draft form. Over the past few months, the upcoming anniversary has spurred a reexamination of what happened, with ABC’s Truth and Lies and CBS’s 48 Hours devoting episodes to the siege and A&E airing a “two-night special documentary event” titled Waco: Madman or Messiah. In January, Paramount Network launched a much-hyped, tepidly reviewed six-part miniseries titled Waco, that starred Taylor Kitsch as Koresh and was, improbably, the first Hollywood dramatization of the entire event. The creators of Paramount’s Waco said they wanted to make a “no bad guys” version of the tragedy, which is notable, because few incidents in modern American history have attracted such passionate advocates accusing one side or the other of perpetrating a massacre.
The Branch Davidians, a Seventh-day Adventist splinter group that believed that Judgment Day was imminent, had lived at Mount Carmel since 1959, and for most of that time they’d been seen by locals as a curiosity rather than a threat. The members of the group had jobs in town, interacted frequently and freely with the outside world, and were multiethnic, multinational, and far better educated than stereotypes about a rural doomsday cult would suggest. (Though Koresh was a high school dropout, two of his most trusted followers, Schneider and Wayne Martin, had taught comparative religion at the University of Hawaiiand earned a Harvard law degree, respectively.)
But Koresh had been controversial from early on. When he arrived at Mount Carmel, in 1981, he was known by his birth name, Vernon Wayne Howell. He was a stuttering wannabe rock star in his early-twenties who quickly seduced the sect’s aging leader, Lois Roden. After Roden’s death, in 1986, Koresh left the property following an internal power struggle, but he returned for good in 1987 after leading an armed attack on his rival. In 1989, fully in charge, he fractured the group by preaching a new doctrine that obligated everyone to be celibate—except for Koresh and the married and unmarried women he chose to sleep with. His goal was to father 24 children, who he believed would sit on 24 heavenly thrones, as described in the Bible. The Davidians who remained with Koresh thought that he was the Lamb of God, the individual foretold in the Book of Revelation who will unlock the meaning of the Seven Seals and bring about the End Times. To the group members who left, he was a false prophet, and they began alleging to authorities that the Branch Davidians, under his control, were guilty of child abuse, tax evasion, and involuntary servitude and that Koresh himself was committing statutory rape (some of his “spiritual wives” were as young as twelve). These charges yielded few results, but in 1992, after a UPS driver discovered inert grenade casings inside a damaged package bound for the Branch Davidians, the ATF opened an investigation into possible federal weapons violations.
The church that was built on the grounds where the original Branch Davidian compound stood, photographed on February 28, 2018.
Photograph by Tamir Kalifa
An undated photograph of David Koresh.
On the morning of Sunday, February 28, 1993, the ATF launched Operation Trojan Horse. Dozens of agents in full tactical gear piled into two cattle trailers that were driven to the front door of the Branch Davidian compound. Their plan was to storm the building. This was all in the service of executing a search warrant for the compound and an arrest warrant for Koresh—a risky, over-the-top plan that the Treasury Department’s official review would later criticize as having been decided upon far too hastily, without “adequately pursu[ing]” other, less dramatic options.
Almost as soon as the ATF arrived, their plan fell apart. Koresh had been preaching about a biblical confrontation with unholy forces for years, and a news cameraman had accidentally tipped off the group to the fact that law enforcement was going to be paying them a visit.ATF commanders knew they had lost the element of surprise and continued with the raid anyway. Two minutes after the trailers arrived on the property, with guns drawn on both sides, a shootout erupted. A minute later, at 9:48 a.m., a panicked Martin called 911 and yelled frantically, “Tell ’em there are children and women in here and to call it off!”
It was the effective start of the tense 51-day negotiation that would end with Sage’s flick of a loudspeaker power switch.
In the immediate aftermath of the fire, few commentators imagined that Waco, despite its horrific ending, would provoke a lasting controversy. There seemed to be a clear
consensus about the tragedy: the Branch Davidians had intentionally started the fire to enact a Jonestown-like mass suicide. Koresh was “the Wacko from Waco,” a lecherous cult leader who, in the words of ATF spokesperson David Troy, was a “cheap thug who interpret[ed] the Bible through the barrel of a gun.” On April 20, 1993, the day after the fire, a CNN-Gallup poll found that 73 percent of Americans thought that the FBI had acted responsibly at the compound and 93 percent blamed Koresh for the deaths of his followers. In the months that followed, the story faded from the front pages.
But among a vocal minority, the siege still loomed large. Gun rights advocates, anti-government libertarians, and members of what would soon become the militia movement refused to let Waco go, seeing it as the sinister escalation of an increasingly aggressive war by the government against its own people. In self-produced documentaries like Day 51 and Waco: The Big Lie, right-wing Waco buffs made a series of startling assertions: The FBI tanks had used flamethrowers to deliberately burn down the Branch Davidians’ building. FBI snipers had fatally shot some thirty sect members as they tried to escape. Three of the four ATF agents who died in the initial raid had been killed not by Branch Davidians but by their fellow agents because, as Waco: The Big Lie implies, they had previously served on Bill Clinton’s security detail and knew too much.
The documentaries also captured the mood of the times. In Day 51, Dallas radio host Ron Engelman shouts, “Our government has run amok!” and rocker Ted Nugent calls for an investigation to “find out who the murderers are in our government.”
In the immediate aftermath of the fire, few commentators imagined that Waco, despite its horrific ending, would provoke a lasting controversy.
Most Americans didn’t hear these conspiracy theories, and even many Waco skeptics moved quickly to distance themselves from the most overheated allegations and rhetoric. But a Gulf War veteran named Timothy McVeigh and his friend Terry Nichols knew them well and believed the government had committed mass murder at Mount Carmel. On April 19, 1995, the second anniversary of the fire, McVeigh parked a Ryder truck filled with 4,800 pounds of explosives in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, in downtown Oklahoma City, and lit two fuses. The bomb killed 167 people, 19 of them children.
As the press tried to make sense of McVeigh’s motives, newspaper and TV news stories explored the radical right’s rage and paranoia about Waco. But the reexamination of the Branch Davidian siege also gave fresh exposure to more-sober critiques of the government’s actions. Why, many asked, had the ATF used such an overwhelming display of paramilitary force to serve search and arrest warrants? Why had the FBI’s final push involved a massive injection of tear gas when the bureau knew that there were children still in the compound? Was it possible that the fire hadn’t been started by the Branch Davidians but by FBI tanks that unintentionally knocked over oil-filled Coleman lanterns? These and other questions began to trouble the public.
A few weeks after the Oklahoma City attack, a survey showed that just 45 percent of Americans approved of the FBI’s actions at Waco. On June 1, Congress scheduled long-delayed hearings. Even before they began, Arizona senator John McCain called the siege “an ill-conceived exercise of federal authority that led to the unnecessary loss of life.”
Byron Sage’s office at his home in Round Rock is more or less a one-room museum dedicated to his military and law enforcement careers. On display are Navy medals; a leather sap with a lead-filled head that was once standard-issue for FBI agents; right-wing conspiracy tracts, like the 1978 novel The Turner Diaries, that he collects for research purposes; and a trucker cap, made in the middle of the siege, emblazoned with a cartoon of a pistol-wielding Koresh next to the words “We Ain’t Coming Out.”
Sage, who is now seventy, grew up in the Bay Area city of Vallejo, California, a self-described “punk kid” whose alcoholic father used to beat him up under the guise of boxing training. Sage was arrested for breaking and entering in his teens and might have stayed on that path if not for a local cop who pulled him aside one afternoon and warned him that he would spend the rest of his life in and out of jail if he didn’t “take the high road.” Sage ended up in Vietnam, spending two tours of duty aboard a submarine. When he returned home, he finished college on the GI Bill and entered the FBI in 1970, when J. Edgar Hoover still led the bureau.
Sage wanted to be an FBI agent to, in his words, “work the street, kick doors, develop sources—you know, have fun, get paid for it.” And during the first decade of his career, working out of the Portland, Oregon, and Sacramento divisions, he did just that. He carried “an old stubby shotgun that had a pistol grip and a flashlight on the forestock,” which he’d use as both a source of illumination and intimidation. Part of Sage’s job involved cultivating informants, and he used the experience of his rough childhood to bridge the divide between cop and con. In the seventies he helped flip the Nuestra Familia underboss “Death Row” Joe Gonzales, and in the eighties he managed a successful multinational sting operation against the Hell’s Angels. (Sage’s time out west also included locking eyes with Charles Manson in a California medical facility.)
Sage had been a negotiator since 1976, and in 1990 he underwent advanced training to join a new elite unit called the Critical Incident Negotiation Team. Being part of CINT wasn’t a full-time job; by that point, Sage was the lead agent in the FBI’s Austin office, where he’d worked since 1985. But he was told that as a CINT team member, he’d occasionally be deployed overseas.
“I’m thinking, yeah, Paris, Rome,” Sage says. “No—Villavicencio, Colombia. I’ve worked all over the world, in some interesting zip codes. Spent a lot of time in the Andes, camped out, working off radios, trying to get people out of the grasp of all those left-wing guerrilla movements.”
Sage is a good talker, and that skill defined not only his law enforcement career but the task to which he’s committed himself in retirement. If you’ve ever seen a TV documentary about the Waco tragedy, you’ve almost certainly seen the white-haired, relentlessly intense Sage. Of the hundreds of federal, state, and local law enforcement officials who took part in the siege, he has been by far the most visible, rarely declining an interview request. Sage has not taken on this role simply because he enjoys retelling old war stories—although he most certainly does—but out of a sense of duty, he says, to correct a “very skillful manipulation of the facts” that has sown doubts about what happened at Mount Carmel.
The 1995 congressional hearings, at which Sage testified, were intensely political, with Republicans crying foul on Waco to undermine the Clinton administration and Democrats defending the government’s actions out of partisan loyalty. Afterward, the already polarized public debate only became more intense. The 1997 documentary Waco: The Rules of Engagement gave the Branch Davidian siege the kind of exhaustive, conspiracy-minded investigation that John F. Kennedy assassination obsessives have long been familiar with. The film’s primary researcher, Michael McNulty, had taken footage recorded by a forward-looking infrared radar (FLIR) device that was present the final day of the siege and shown it to a former Army night-vision lab supervisor named Edward Allard. Allard concluded that sporadic flashes seen on the FLIR tape were gunfire, giving credence to the speculation—long held on the far right and vigorously denied by the government—that FBI snipers had fired into the building. In addition, McNulty’s conversations with several forensic scientists about the autopsy reports suggested to him that the tear gas itself might have been lethal.
If you’ve ever seen a TV documentary about the Waco tragedy, you’ve almost certainly seen the white-haired, relentlessly intense Sage.
These claims were extrapolations from ambiguous pieces of evidence, but they gained mainstream acceptance in a way that theories advanced in earlier Waco films never had. Rules of Engagement won a News and Documentary Emmy Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism and was nominated for the Academy Award for Documentary Feature.
McNulty, though, made his biggest discovery while doing research for what turned into a follow-up film, 1999’s Waco: A New Revelation. Inside a locker full of government evidence in Austin, he discovered a shell casing for a pyrotechnic tear gas round. This was a problem: the FBI had long denied that it had used pyrotechnic rounds during the siege, and both Attorney General Janet Reno and former FBI director William Sessions had repeated this assertion in front of Congress. McNulty began sounding the alarm: If the government had lied about such a crucial detail, did that mean that agents had started the fire and then covered it up?
In August 1999, as such questions became impossible to ignore, the FBI admitted that, in fact, a member of the HRT had fired pyrotechnic tear gas projectiles—though the government maintained that the rounds did not play a role in igniting the compound because they’d been shot at a construction pit, not at the Branch Davidians’ building itself, and had been discharged hours before the first flames. But after so many years of doubts, the government’s admission that it hadn’t told the whole truth was enough for many Americans to see a full-blown conspiracy. That same month, a Time magazine poll found that 61 percent of respondents believed that federal law enforcement had started the fire. A few weeks later, Reno appointed former Missouri senator John Danforth as special counsel to lead an inquiry into many of McNulty’s allegations.
As Waco once again became a prime-time news story, Sage, now retired, went to work as a vigorous defender of the FBI. There was Sage on 60 Minutes II, telling Dan Rather that the FBI’s denials about the pyrotechnic rounds were a bureaucratic “screw-up,” not an intentional “cover-up.” There he was on Good Morning America, telling viewers, “The military rounds that are in question were not directed toward the wooden structure—that’s a central issue that needs to be remembered.” There he was on CNN insisting that “there is no sinister plot.” In October 1999, the month after Danforth’s appointment, Sage wrote an op-ed for the Austin American-Statesman to debunk the most serious claims. “Does it make any sense whatsoever, that the FBI would have set out to murder innocent men, women and children and actually videotaped such an outrageous act?” he asked.
Sage believed that, in the years after the fire, the government had been too slow to discredit conspiracy theories and respond to allegations that its agents had acted improperly. Now he saw it as his role to help lead a counterattack.
“I told the bureau a while back that, in Texas, if your eye starts stinging and your nose hurts, and you reach up and you’ve got blood on your face, you’re in a fight, and you damn well better realize that you are in a fight,” Sage told Rather. “The bureau—the credibility, the public perception of the bureau’s integrity—is in danger here.”
ATF investigators searching the rubble of the Branch Davidian compound on April 28, 1993.
Protestors gathered outside FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., on April 19, 1994, the first anniversary of the Waco fire.
When Danforth released his final report, the day after the 2000 general elections, his findings vindicated Sage’s view. While Danforth took to task several Justice Department officials for covering up what they knew about the pyrotechnic rounds, his report broadly exonerated the government. Danforth’s investigators conducted a field test of FLIR technology at Fort Hood and concluded that the flashes on the FLIR tapes “resulted from a reflection off debris on or around the complex,” not from gunfire. His team of forensic pathologists did not find “any indication that the tear gas killed any Davidian.” And he cited copious evidence suggesting that the Branch Davidians had started the fire, pointing to not only the opinions of arson experts but recordings from FBI bugging devices that captured Koresh’s followers saying things like “Do you think I could light this soon?” The testimony of surviving Branch Davidian Graeme Craddock, who said he’d observed people inside the compound pouring fuel, was particularly damning. The pyrotechnic rounds, Danforth found, had been shot, as the government had claimed, into a construction pit earlier in the day.
Danforth wrote that he hoped the report would “resolve the dark questions of Waco.” And while some, like Houston attorney Dick DeGuerin, who had represented Koresh during the siege, saw it as a “basic whitewash,” Danforth’s efforts resolved many of the mainstream media’s doubts. The crop of Waco documentaries that have aired this year don’t acknowledge McNulty’s theories about sniper fire and the lethality of tear gas, nor do they mention the controversy over the pyrotechnic rounds. They focus instead on the history and beliefs of the Branch Davidians and the mutual distrust and lack of understanding between the feds and the sect.
“If it were up to me, we’d be throwing these guys in jail left and right,” Sage growled.
Still, when you talk to Sage, he sounds as if he’s losing his battle with history. After he wrote the op-ed for the Statesman defending the FBI, his inbox was inundated with responses, many of them, he says, “pretty damn nasty, vicious, accusatory.” When Sage encountered a negative email that was “halfway reasonable and articulate,” he would reply, he says, with additional facts that supported his position. “It used to drive my wife crazy. She said, ‘Why are you even paying these people attention?’ But if any of them were willing to listen, then, by golly, I’d give it a shot. It didn’t do that much good.”
Sage knows by now that nothing he says will make the allegations go away. In 2009, after reading the script for a planned Hollywood version of the Waco story that McNulty was involved with, Sage loudly and publicly decried the project for inaccuracies, a stance that pushed the Texas Film Commission to deny the filmmakers tax incentives. (It was never produced.) A Statesman article on the controversy noted that, while Sage had prevailed in his fight against this particular film, he was still “facing an uphill battle in popular culture” nine years after the Danforth report supposedly resolved all of the tragedy’s dark questions. In 2018 Waco remains an event—like the Kennedy assassination in many quarters, 9/11 in others, and the moon landing in a few more-rarefied precincts—about which some people squint their eyes, curl their mouths into a smirk, and say, “Do you really think the government wouldn’t do that?” Even Paramount’s “no bad guys” Waco miniseries suggests that the government accidentally started the fire and shows Koresh trying to rescue women and children.
“It’s almost a depressing reality that you did everything that you possibly could to resolve this peacefully, and then you’re called a murderer,” Sage says. “You know, a cold-blooded murderer.”
Sage tells a story about his last job at the FBI before his 1998 retirement, when he moved from the Austin office to the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. When Sage’s new boss greeted him, he told Sage how happy he was to have him as part of the team. Then the higher-up leaned in and said, “Waco is over.”
“I looked him dead in the eyes,” Sage remembers, “and I said, ‘With all due respect, Waco is not over until the truth is out there.’ I’m not going to let these people rewrite history.”
In early January, Sage traveled from Round Rock to a law enforcement training center outside San Marcos, where Texas State University criminal justice professor Wayman Mullins was hosting his twenty-eighth annual Crisis Negotiation Competition. Sage was serving as a judge, and he spent one of his days there observing and coaching four young cops from the Richardson Police Department.
The mock hostage scenario confronting Sage and the officers was straight out of a blockbuster: six Sinaloa Cartel–affiliated gunmen had stormed a shelter for migrant women and children in Hidalgo County and taken 29 hostages; they were now demanding everything from the release of police-confiscated drugs to the delivery of a school bus, in which they hoped to return to Mexico. The leader of the group, who gave his name only as “Carlos,” seemed likely to snap into violence at any moment.
As the four cops scrambled to respond, Sage was clearly enjoying himself, a gruff, streetwise old-timer in his element. “If it were up to me, we’d be throwing these guys in jail left and right,” he growled to one of the cops, who seemed to be growing impatient with the stalled negotiation. “But there are other lives in the balance.”
The statement just about summed up Sage, a hard-ass by nature who has come to a more broad-minded view of the world. And when he offered some tips on the mindful use of language in the negotiation craft, he sounded more like a couples therapist than a career lawman. Don’t talk to hostage-takers about “problems,” he told the cops, talk to them about “issues.” Don’t mention anyone’s “demands,” talk instead about their “requests.” When it comes time, don’t mention a “surrender plan,” call it an “exit plan.”
When one of the cops gave Carlos an ultimatum, Sage prodded him. “Soften that a little bit. Don’t say, ‘It’s not going to happen.’ The hard line that it’s not happening shouldn’t come from you guys. Be careful about closing any doors.”
After another cop finished a frustrating conversation with Carlos, Sage asked him, “What kind of personality do you think you’re dealing with?”
“Sociopath,” the young officer said.
“Exactly,” Sage replied, pointing a you-got-it-kid finger at him. “They become opportunistic. They try to garner the best deal for themselves—unless their name is David Koresh.”
Sage’s reference to Koresh drew little more than a nod of recognition, but Sage’s mind is never very far from Waco. “When I came into the bureau a hundred years ago, the old-time agents used to use the word ‘melancholy.’ Do they even use that anymore?” Sage asks. “That’s what this was and is to this day. It doesn’t eat at me, but it’s there.”
Sage’s wife, Sheryl, says that he used to wake up shaking from memories of the siege, and in some of his on-camera interviews, he seems to be on the verge of choking up. In one, a 2003 ABC Primetime episode called “Children of Waco,” Sage spoke with seven surviving Branch Davidian children, including a son of Koresh, a task even he found daunting. When host Charlie Gibson screened footage of the final minutes of the siege for them, Sage avoided looking at the screen. “I can’t tell you the range of emotion,” he told Gibson afterward, a little teary.
Once the FBI had inundated the Branch Davidians’ building with awful, burning, choking tear gas—a tactic that all of the negotiators, including Noesner, had signed off on—why didn’t anyone come out?
But such moments of vulnerability aren’t a sign that Sage is backing down. He maintains that the outcome at Waco was unavoidable. In his mind, Koresh was a charismatic con man who effectively ordered the murder of four ATF agents, lied repeatedly to the FBI, then chose to set fire to his building and kill everyone inside rather than face prison.
“You can put me on a polygraph, you can ask me whatever you want to,” Sage says. “Whose fault is it? It’s David Koresh’s, no question. Whose decision was it? It was David’s. Did we ever have control over what was going to happen? No. Did we ever have control over any aspect of it? Yes—when it was going to happen. I guess our actions, the tear gas, triggered David’s apocalyptic plan, the fulfillment of his prophetic message, his self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Sage thinks that if the FBI hadn’t gone in on April 19, Koresh “would have initiated some [other] action” that would have led to a similarly tragic result. The tear gas plan, Sage says, was “an effort to preempt him from doing something that would further heighten the risk to people inside.”
This absolutist position is widely shared among the FBI’s Waco veterans, but not all of them. Gary Noesner, the FBI agent who oversaw the negotiation effort for the first half of the siege, believes that the bureau’s tactical approach might have doomed the outcome. Starting in early March, the HRT cut off power to the compound; threw flashbang grenades at Branch Davidians who stepped outside the building; mooned and flipped off members of the sect; and engaged in psychological warfare by blasting loud noises during the night, among them the sound of rabbits being slaughtered, the chanting of Tibetan monks (until the Dalai Lama himself heard about it and registered a complaint), and Nancy Sinatra singing “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.”
Even working at cross-purposes with their fellow agents, the negotiators managed to secure the release of 35 individuals, including 21 children. But the situation wasn’t sustainable. One day in late March, the FBI managed to get 7 Branch Davidians to leave the compound—and then a few hours later the HRT used tanks to bulldoze the group’s vehicles. That night, Koresh declared to Schneider, “No one is coming out. Nobody.”
“You know Pavlov? You can’t train your dog to bring in the newspaper and then kick the dog and expect him to bring you the paper again,” Noesner says.
If the FBI had settled on a more unified strategy, Noesner thinks, the situation might have turned out very differently. “I’m quite certain that we would have gotten a lot more people out,” he says. “I believe an argument could be made that we might have gotten everybody out.”
Noesner and Sage remain close friends, and Noesner says he understands why Sage feels so certain about the inevitability of the tragedy. “Byron is a loyal American, a courageous guy, true-blue—it’s hard for him to accept the fact that maybe a shortcoming of our organization that we love so much could have contributed to this,” Noesner says. “It’s more comfortable and it fits the narrative better to say, ‘Well, Koresh was a bad guy. No one else was coming out. It had to end the way it did.’ ”
Sage acknowledges that the FBI made mistakes but insists the end result would have been the same no matter what. “Who knows?” says Sage. “The thing that needs to be focused on, I think, is they had fifty-one days to make that decision to come out.”
One issue in particular, though, continues to haunt him: On that fifty-first day, once the FBI had inundated the Branch Davidians’ building with awful, burning, choking tear gas—a tactic that all of the negotiators, including Noesner, had signed off on—why didn’t anyone come out, especially the people with children?
“I was convinced that when they got to a position where their loved ones were truly put in jeopardy, then all bets were off and the parental instinct would bring those people out,” Sage says. “If you started lobbing tear gas in here, I’d go right through a wall, without hesitation, to get my grandson to safety. What happened with these parents?”
Sage remembers the details of that final day, he says, “as if it were yesterday.” Exhausted after seven weeks of combative negotiations, he and fellow FBI negotiator Dick Wrenn drove out well before dawn to Sierra One Alpha, the one-story farmhouse from which they would instruct the Branch Davidians to surrender as the HRT methodically introduced tear gas into the compound. Next to Sage was a television that would broadcast live news coverage of the events as they unfolded.
Sage had worked out in advance a rough version of what he was going to say to the members of the sect. At 5:59 a.m. he placed a call to the compound and spoke to Schneider, telling him that the FBI was about to insert the gas. Schneider abruptly hung up and instructed his fellow Branch Davidians to get their gas masks. “It was not lost on Steve that he’d met a hard stopping point,” Sage says.
At 6:01 a.m., Sage took to the loudspeaker, his voice booming across the area. “This is not an assault,” he said. “We are not entering the building. This is not an assault.” An armored combat engineering vehicle fitted with a spray nozzle approached the compound to inject the first round of tear gas.
At 6:05 a.m., an FBI sniper saw gunfire coming from the compound and called out, “Compromise!” signaling a shift in tactics. The FBI had intended to gradually insert gas over a 48-hour period. But that strategy came with an escalation clause. If the Branch Davidians fired at the armored vehicles, the operations plan stated, “the FBI rules of engagement will apply and appropriate deadly force will be used. Additionally, tear gas will immediately be inserted into all windows of the compound utilizing the four [Bradley Fighting Vehicles] as well as the CEVs.”
FBI agents did not fire back with deadly force, but at 6:07 a.m., the Bradley tanks approached the compound and began shooting tear gas–filled Ferret rounds through the windows of the compound. At the same time, two CEVs moved into position, smashing their nozzles through other windows and pumping tear gas into rooms and hallways. A gradual, section-by-section gassing plan had now become an aggressive effort to inundate every room in the building as quickly as possible.
Almost as soon as the first Ferret rounds came crashing through the windows, FBI bugging devices, which were analyzed after the siege, picked up Branch Davidians making apparent references to pouring fuel. (“Did he pour it yet?” one unidentified male said, at 6:09 a.m. “In the hallway . . . yes,” another confirmed. “David said pour it, right?”)
At 6:27, the head of the HRT reported that all of the windows in the building had been gassed. At 6:45, Sage announced over the loudspeaker that if the Branch Davidians did not leave the building in two minutes, the FBI would initiate a new tear gas offensive. None of Koresh’s followers exited, and the Bradleys and CEVs resumed their activities.
A desperate Sage ad-libbed over the loudspeaker, “Lead your people out, David. Be a messiah, not a destroyer.”
Over the next five and a half hours, Sage kept repeating instructions to the Branch Davidians over the loudspeaker. (The phone calls with Schneider and Koresh were no longer an option; sometime shortly after Sage’s 5:59 a.m. call, a CEV accidentally severed the phone line.) As the morning progressed, the CEVs began punching through the exterior walls of the compound, creating holes that the FBI hoped would serve as exit paths for the members of the group. At 11:27 a.m., the demolition of the compound had escalated enough that the roof of the Branch Davidians’ gymnasium partially collapsed. At 11:45, a wall on the right-rear side of the building caved in.
At this point, agents could see into the building through the gaping holes. It seemed as if the siege was coming to an end. At noon Craddock heard a Davidian shout, “Start the fire!” A minute later, Sage, unaware of what was transpiring inside, announced over the PA, “David, we are facilitating you leaving the compound by enlarging the door. David, you have had your fifteen minutes of fame. Vernon is no longer the Messiah. Leave the building now.”
Sage was standing alone at the console of the PA when, at around 12:07 p.m., Wrenn came running into the room. “He advised that they’d just seen somebody light a fire in the southwest corner of the compound,” Sage remembers. “By that point, I’d already talked to the tech guy about moving the TV away because I found it distracting. Now they moved it back behind me. When I turned around and saw how rapidly the fire was moving and I didn’t see anybody coming out, I had to turn my back to it.”
Several minutes later, a desperate Sage ad-libbed over the loudspeaker, “Lead your people out, David. Be a messiah, not a destroyer. Bring your people out in an orderly fashion, David. Don’t lead them to destruction.”
But it was too late. Koresh may very well have already been dead by then, and the fire was raging. According to the accounts of survivors, by that point no one inside the building trusted their safety to the FBI. Branch DavidianClive Doyle has recounted that just before he exited, he asked another survivor, David Thibodeau, “Do you think if we jump out they’ll shoot us?” Both men took that risk. Only seven others joined them.
At 12:25, the fire had nearly swallowed the compound. “I was looking around, glimpsing at the TV to watch the progression,” Sage says. “How much time did they have to get the hell out of the inferno?” Then the building’s four-story tower collapsed into the blaze. A minute later, Sage glanced at the monitor as a large explosion in the center of the compound sent a small mushroom cloud into the sky.
There was nothing left to do, but Sage continued to make desperate pleas. “Those of you remaining inside the compound, attempt to exit by any means possible,” he called out. “Exit the compound to a position of safety. Come out.”
At 12:32 p.m., Sage placed his right hand on his PA system’s power switch and flicked it from on to off.