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51 Days: An Insider’s Look at the Waco Siege

Just last month, Netflix released Waco, a limited series originally aired by Paramount in 2018. The series is a dramatized account of the federal siege in Waco, which took place over 51 days in 1993. Since its debut on Netflix, the series has been wildly popular, remaining on Netflix's Top 10 list for several weeks.

For many, watching the series took them straight back to 1993. Glued to their television watching the Waco siege unfold in real-time. For others, this was their first deep look into what happened in Waco 27 years ago. For some, this was their first time even hearing about it. I was 5 years old on April 19, 1993. I have no firsthand experience of what transpired that day, just a few small glimpses in grade school history books. But Sean Coulthard? He was there,  only a baseball's throw away from the scene, and he was there for all 51 days. In the following interview, Sean sets the scene at Mount Carmel and answers some hard questions about the Waco Siege, Branch Davidians, and David Koresh.

About the Waco Siege

The Waco Siege took place over 51 days from February to April 1993 in Waco, Texas. The siege involved multiple government agencies and the Branch Davidians, a religious cult led by David Koresh.  A tip from a postal worker and the subsequent placement of an undercover agent led to suspicion that David Koresh and the Branch Davidians were stockpiling illegal weapons. A search warrant for the compound and several arrest warrants were obtained by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). When the ATF attempted to serve the warrants, a fervent gunfight broke out between the Branch Davidians and the ATF, resulting in the death of several federal agents and Branch Davidians.

After the gunfight, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) took over, initiating a siege that lasted 51 days. After many unsuccessful attempts to get David Koresh and other Branch Davidians inside the compound to surrender, the FBI attempted to end the siege by filling the compound with teargas. After launching the teargas attack, the compound caught on fire, killing over 70 Branch Davidians, including their leader, David Koresh.

Sean Coulthard

Sean Coulthard, Photo courtesy of Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro, Department of Defense

About Sean Coulthard

Sean Coulthard was born in New York, where he later attended Syracuse University. After graduation, he began his career in radio news at several small stations in the Northeast. At 22, Coulthard got his first big break at KTRH AM Radio 740 in Houston, a news powerhouse in the late '80s and early '90s. After covering the high-profile Wanda Holloway trial, he was hired at CBS Radio. There he went on to cover news that defined the '90s. This included the presidential campaign of Bill Clinton,  the Waco siege, three tours in Bosnia covering the Yugoslavian civil war, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the presidential campaigns of Bob Dole and Steve Forbes. 

Coulthard got another big break in 1997, leaving his career in journalism to work as a commentator for World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. (WWE). Today, Coulthard continues to work as a commentator for WWE and is widely known under his stage name, Michael Cole. 

Q&A With Sean Coulthard

Can you describe the first day that you arrived on the scene at Waco?

Sean Coulthard: This particular day, I'll never forget, I was living outside of Houston at the time and the phone rang and my wife actually answered it because it was probably 7:30 in the morning on a Sunday. And it was my boss, a news director KTRH whose name was Joe Izbrand. And Joe basically said, ‘Hey, listen, don't know if you know what's going on, but the cult that we had done a story on a couple of weeks prior, they got into a firefight with the ATF. We don't know much about it, but I need you to get a car and get to Waco as soon as possible.' So, I was literally in the car probably 20 minutes later, and as I'm driving I'm making phone calls, trying to get as much information as I can.

By the time we pulled into [Waco], everything was still this ongoing process of  ‘What is going on here?' Even the ATF, they had no idea what was going on. They were backing their people off the perimeter. You know that the state police and the local authorities were there, and they had no idea what was going on. So when this first started, we were able to literally drive up to the driveway of the Branch Davidian compound and start filing our reports from there. We were literally, you know, a baseball throw away from where the compound was and where this firefight just happened.

And, it was so surreal because you're jumping out of your truck, and as you're there, it seemed like everybody had been tipped off at the same time. So, all these news vans and news trucks are flying in at the same time and there's all these fire departments and ambulances and people are just flying down this road in the middle of this cornfield in nowhereville, Texas, and it was just like, wow, this is so bizarre.

Branch Davidian Waco siege

Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Photo courtesy of FBI

In the limited series, they portray David Koresh to be a nice, charming, sort of family-man, but there are some people that say that is not true. During your time in Waco, were you able to get a feel for what he was really like?

SC:  So, not while this was going on. But, I spent a lot of time over those 51 days in town in Waco interviewing people that lived there, that lived in surrounding communities, that lived on farms nearby, including people who left the compound during this, who were once in there. And all of these people, to a tee, will tell you that David, on the surface, was one of the nicest men that they'd ever met. That he was really good for the community. He was always hanging out, and he was always trying to help.

The problem was, David Koresh had had it in his mind that this was what he was going to do for a long, long time. In fact, when he came from California to Texas, he ended up having a relationship, and this is speculation, but a number of people have said that he ended up having a relationship with a 68-year-old woman who was the wife of the founder of the Branch Davidians. He was in his 20s at the time, and this was a power play by him to take over the group when she passed. So, he was a manipulative guy even since the beginning of all this, and one of the things about David is he was a sweet talker.

When you talk to people about him, he's just like any other cult leader. Why do people follow Charles Manson? Why do people follow Jim Jones? Why did people follow David Koresh? Because these people had the ability to A– be charismatic, B– have people believe in what they were saying, and C– and most importantly, to prey on vulnerable people, people that needed something in their lives, whether that something was religion, whether it was being part of the community, whether it was feeling accepted, no matter what their faults were. These people needed something. And so they grasped on to what Koresh was preaching.

[In the movie] he was portrayed in a lot of the ways that people saw him, but the thing I didn't like about the movie is it sort of portrayed David as a victim, where I don't believe David was a victim. I believe the real victims in this were the people –the mothers and the fathers and the kids who were in this compound.

Branch Davidian Waco siege

Tunnel to shelter at Branch Davidian Compound, Photo Courtesy of Alex Rubystone (some rights reserved)

The series painted the picture that there were a lot of conflicting opinions amongst the FBI and the ATF about how the Waco Siege should have been handled. Did you see that disagreement? How do you feel about how it was handled?

SC: There was a lot of disagreement. The one person who really has a definitive voice in a lot of this is Robert Rodriguez, who was named Jacob Vazquez in the movie and played by John Leguizamo. Because he's the one who infiltrated and went in undercover with the Davidians. And, a lot of what was done was done for dramatic effect, but a lot of what was done with his character, that actually happened. And when he testified in front of Congress, he talked a lot about the missteps that the FBI and the ATF made and that the ATF should have called off this raid on the first day of February 28.

The big thing is, you can look at this in a few different sections, but the number one thing, the big thing on February 28 that many, many people are in agreement on and that I firmly believe after talking to everyone and reporting on this is that–this should never have happened. There should never have been a shootout in the middle of Mount Carmel, Texas, on a Sunday morning, February 28, 1993. It never should have happened.

So, you know, many people you talk to within the community of Waco said Koresh was on the streets every day.  He was always around. If they had charges that they wanted to bring against David Koresh, they could have picked him up on a street corner on a Thursday afternoon in Waco and brought him to jail, and that could have been the end of all this. But they didn't want that. They wanted to grandstand. They wanted to fly in, and they wanted to do this big arrest, and they wanted to march all these women and children out of this compound, and they wanted to get pictures of the big bad cult leader in handcuffs. That's what they wanted, and they didn't get that.

[For the Branch Davidians] it came down to a law in Texas which says, if people come onto your property, you are well within your rights to shoot them. And that's one of the things [Dick] DeGuerin was going to base this case on. This is one of the things that Koresh's people were arguing– that these government people came in and they started shooting at us and we had to fight back to defend ourselves.

I don't know what the right answer was, but the only wrong answer in all this is that nearly 80 people, including children, should never have lost their lives in a fire. That's the only thing I know that's a wrong answer.

You interviewed several survivors. How did they feel about the Waco siege? Did they see themselves as victims of Koresh or of the government?

SC: Some people were defiant. Some people were upset that their group, the Davidians, were being treated the way they were by the federal government. Some of them that left would say, ‘Hey, listen, David's not keeping us there. We're not prisoners in his home. We're not hostages. We were allowed to leave whenever we wanted to.' Others were just glad and relieved to be out of there, knowing that something bad was going to happen. But every single one to a tee, everyone you talk to, even if you read the books by some of the survivors today, most or probably all of them say that there was never a suicide pact in place, that it was never discussed among anybody in that community that they were going to commit suicide if this government thing went south.

Branch Davidian Waco siege

Mount Carmel ruins, Photo courtesy of Daniel Tobias (some rights reserved)

Do you think both sides were portrayed fairly in the series?

SC: One of the things I learned over the number of days being in Waco, was I really began to understand the arguments and the feelings for both sides. I believe in many ways, in this movie, the government was unfairly portrayed. A lot of that was done for dramatic effect, obviously, because a good movie needs a good guy and a bad guy, but I really do think that you had a lot of very caring people that really wanted to end this the right way. They didn't want it to end in flames and fire. I'm sure you had a lot of people that wanted to go in there from the beginning and then start a war and so on and so forth.

But I really believe, after being there for every hour of it for 51 days, a lot of us began to feel or sympathize a little bit with the government, because listen, how long do you let this go on if David Koresh is a criminal? And okay, we've already screwed up by not arresting him earlier, and then we got to do this big firefight where it blew up in our face, and now we're waiting this out for almost two months. You know, at some point, you've got to say this man is a criminal – that is what we believe. There's a lot of innocent people in there, but how long do you let this last? How long do you play this out? Are you gonna let it last for six months? Are you gonna let it last for a year? So, I think that the government had to make a hard decision.

Whether that decision on the morning of April 19, at 6:00 a. m. Texas time, to start sending tanks into walls and putting teargas in was the right decision – I don't get paid for that. But that decision was made, and what happened was one of the worst disasters in American history. So, you know, there's a way to look at both sides of the story, but at the end of the day, the fact that women and children that had nothing to do with what Koresh was about, people that followed him and believed in him falsely or not, end up perishing for this belief was wrong. And some people will say that this is what they wanted and they got what they deserved. Others will say, nobody deserves this, and I fall on that side of the fence.

After the siege, there was a lot of social unrest focusing on guns, the government, and the Second Amendment. There are similar political currents running today as the U.S. suffers through the COVID-19 pandemic.  Do you think we are at risk of something like Waco happening again?

SC: I don't think there's any doubt. History always repeats itself. Listen, if you look at what happened two years after Waco in 1995 in Oklahoma City on the same exact day, April 19th, and I was at that event, as well, as soon as it had happened, the people that set off that bomb had said that that was a direct result of a lot of what happened in Waco and a lot of the anti-government sentiment that was still boiling over from Waco. – And then you saw Waco. A lot of the way that played out had to do with what happened with Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge.

We're all naive to sit here and say that a Waco could never happen again. It could, and at some point, it probably will. And, I just hope that if it does happen again, that the government on one end, and whoever is on the other side, have enough sense to at least look back at history and reread it so it doesn't repeat itself in the same way that it did here. Because I'll tell you one thing, sitting on top of an RV, looking across a barren cornfield and watching a building burn to the ground – that wasn't a movie.

Branch Davidian Waco siege

Abandoned pool at Branch Davidian compound in Mount Carmel, Photo courtesy of Hans Watson (some rights reserved)

Did what happened at the Waco Siege affect your personal beliefs regarding gun rights?

SC: No. I was brought up in a family where my father was a state trooper. He'd always taught my brother and I gun safety, and I was brought up hunting, as an outdoors guy, so I always felt like I understood how the weapons worked. And I live in Texas, now. My wife and I both have our license to carry, and I carry all the time. I understand how to use a weapon, and I'm not going to use it foolishly. If people get the proper education in this country, there is a proper place for that. I also think that a lot of our gun laws are very lax, though. So, it just depends on each individual person. You're always going to have your gun rights people, and you're always going to have your anti-gun people, and that's going to be a debate that's going to happen for the rest of our lives in this country.

But it didn't change me at all when it came to anything to do with firearms and weapons. What did change me was the understanding of when something like that goes wrong, and you have such a volatile, combustible situation, that there needs to be a way to be able to diffuse that, and I just don't know if it was done properly by either side [at Waco].

You live in Texas, now. Do you ever go back to Waco?

SC:  I went back there about two years later, but haven't been back since then. It's weird, though, because I drive a lot now between San Antonio and Dallas, and every time I drive up 35 through Waco, and I see the exits that I used to take to go off to Mount Carmel, I think about it every single time. I've thought about Waco a lot, you know, over the past twenty-something years. It's one of those stories that will forever be in my mind. You know, it's just odd. It's one of those things that I don't think you'll ever forget about.

Is there one specific moment from the 51 days you spent at the Waco Siege that still haunts you today?

SC: So, I have a funny moment that I'll always remember, which I'll give you, and I'll give you the one moment that always sticks with me.

When we were there on Easter Sunday. We were all sitting outside, satellite city they called it, all the news media people, and there's probably 40 different people, probably more than that. Anyway, we had a little swimming pool, one of those kiddie pools, so we had it filled with ice and beer. And I remember calling my dad to wish him Happy Easter. I remember that he was like, ‘How's it going out there?' And I said, ‘Life can't be any better than this. I've got a cold beer, I'm sitting in the Texas sunshine, and I've got a man who claims to be Jesus Christ two miles away from me.'

The most harrowing moment of the whole thing… I'll never forget that. I can picture it right now –  being on top of our RV in a lawn chair with all my recording equipment in front of me, doing what would have been the 1:00 pm Eastern news, but the 12:00 noon news at the top of the hour for CBS with Frank Settipani, who at the time was the anchor. I had him coming to me for the update on what was going on with the teargas. And I'll never forget him saying to me, interrupting me when I was in the middle of my report, saying to me, ‘Do you see the flames?' And I paused, because I had no idea what he was talking about because of our vantage point. We were looking at the front of the compound. TV stations and stuff had a lot of cameras set up in trees and stuff on the backside of the compound, so apparently, you could see the fire from the backside. And he was doing his report, he had TV monitors on in New York where he was doing his report from, and he said, ‘Okay, we are seeing a fire breaking out at the compound. Do you see the smoke?' And I said, ‘No, I don't see it. I don't know what you're talking about.' And then literally within 15 seconds, I saw it.  The place was an inferno. It was incredible, and it was bone-chilling to see that, and how quickly it went up. And then to hear the fire engines and the sirens come up our road, to hear them come flying up that road and see them come flying up the road, and watching the flames, and feeling the flames, and smelling the smoke, and then realizing, ‘holy shit, there are dozens and dozens of people inside this place.' That's the moment, though. When Frank said to me, ‘Do you see the flames?' That is when the world stopped. At that moment.

Branch Davidian Waco siege

Branch Davidian compound in flames on April 19, 1993, Photo courtesy of FBI

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