David Thibodeau and Leon Whiteson
A Place Called Waco: A Survivor's Story
PublicAffairs, 1999
365 pages, $25.00 hb.
ISBN 1-891620-42-8
Reviewed by Gary McGath
This review Copyright 1999 by Gary McGath

A Place Called Waco provides something which no previous book on the Waco atrocity has given: an inside perspective. David Thibodeau is clearly not the most typical of the Branch Davidians. He is a New Englander. His background wasn't steeped in religion. He is uncomfortable with guns. He is alive and not in jail. But his book provides a view from the inside, a sense of what it was like to live with David Koresh and to endure the siege and the fire.

His account of the events from February 28 to April 19, 1993, is mostly consistent with other published sources; I'll go into some details on this further on. But these make up only about half of the book; what I found most interesting was the sections on life before and after that nightmare.

Before the Attack

Koresh was, by Thibodeau's account, easy to like and to follow. He did not have the Dracula-like powers of mind control which many people attribute to him, but he had a sense of confidence in his mission which appealed to the people in his circle. "He first touched me as a fellow musician and a warm friend, and I was taken by his deep sincerity and natural authority."

Unfortunately, the author is vague about how he came to adopt Koresh's belief system. The late chapters of the book indicate why he covers this subject lightly; he learned that every time he talked about theology after coming home, people wanted him to stop. Also, he wanted to avoid giving any impression of himself as a "religious nut." But something is clearly missing in the account. As it reads, he seems to have drifted almost by chance into the community; but if that were all that were involved, he wouldn't have stuck out the entire siege. Many of his statements indicate that he did adopt strong religious beliefs, which he still holds in a modified form. If he had written more about his changing thoughts, the story would have been more complete.

Still, the sense of being part of a family-like community must have been a major part of the Davidians' motivation, and Thibodeau shows that part clearly. The people at Mt. Carmel lived under spartan conditions, which they saw as a form of spiritual purification. In his own case, he was evidently seeking a sense of personal achievement.

It's difficult to understand the Davidians' acceptance of the "New Light," the doctrine of celibacy for everyone except Koresh, who was to take multiple wives. "Only David was given the right to procreate with any of the women, married or single, to generate the inner circle of children who would rule the coming kingdom to be established in Israel." Thibodeau is emphatic that this was not a matter of Koresh's trying to monopolize sex, but of following God's command. Most of Koresh's followers apparently didn't dispute the existence of a divine commandment. Some did and left, notably Marc Breault, who became an enemy of Koresh.

The "New Light" resulted in Koresh's being spiritually and physically -- but not legally -- married to underage girls, thus committing statutory rape. Thibodeau stresses this repeatedly, and sees it as the fatal weakness which prevented Koresh from being fully open with the authorities before the BATF raid and from countering the snooping and harassment with appropriate legal responses. On other counts, he maintains, the Davidians were guilty of no more than minor offenses, principally the failure to pay registration fees on some of their otherwise legal weapons.

Siege and Fire

The account of the BATF raid and subsequent events is generally consistent with accounts in Reavis's The Ashes of Waco and Kopel and Blackman's No More Wacos. The criminally distorted search warrant, the BATF's "serving" the warrant in stormtrooper style (whether or not they fired first), the conflicts between the negotiators and the enforcers, the use of lights and noise to keep the people awake day and night, Janet Reno's authorization of tanks against children in order to "rescue" them from groundless charges of abuse, and the final fire are familiar material to those who have followed the history. (For those who haven't, I urge you to read the reviews I have written of related books.) Having covered all this before, I prefer to focus on some of the details, not to discredit the author, but to shed light on issues which have continued to be in dispute.

Several of these issues concern the BATF's initial entry. Thibodeau's account indicates he was not present when the door was opened, but was nearby. He writes:

At 9:45 A.M. a burst of gunfire came from the direction of the front door. There was a fusillade, and I heard Perry [Jones] screaming. He was shot in the stomach, poor old guy, and his agony was audible above the rattle of the weapons.

A little further on he writes:

When I got there, Clive Doyle was trying to help Perry, whom he'd found crawling away from the entry, still screaming in pain from his bleeding wounds ... Perry groaned in agony for more than an hour before he died, disturbing everybody with his cries.

He recounts a second-hand report that Jones was finally shot as an act of mercy by a fellow Davidian, and acknowledges that the autopsy indicates he was killed by a single bullet wound at pointblank range in his mouth. Reavis's The Ashes of Waco insists that the report of Jones's stomach wounds, which was made by several of the Davidian survivors, could not be accurate unless the medical examiner deliberately failed to notice them. Carol Moore, in The Davidian Massacre, claims that the autopsy also reported inexplicable signs of smoke inhalation, supporting the theory that it was "botched." The truth will probably never be known; Jones's body decomposed after the autopsy to the point that no re-examination was possible later.

Koresh initially reported that a small child had been fatally shot at the door. This story has been discredited; Thibodeau himself calls it "David's feeble attempt to counterspin the media against the flood of lies put out by the feds." Later on he suggests that "[m]aybe he [Koresh] believed the story at the time, or he was light-headed" due to wounds.

The author states that Winston Blake was killed by fire from a helicopter; the government claims that no shots were fired from helicopters, and that Blake was shot at close range, perhaps by one of the residents. (He was wearing black clothing which might have made him look like a BATF agent in the confusion.)

Both Thibodeau and Reavis note that the first and second autopsies on Blake reached different conclusions. The first report cites powder burns, indicating a shot at close range. Reavis reports that the second examination, in Manchester, England, found no powder burns, and found that the injury had come from a "destabilized" bullet, as if it had previously passed through a lightweight screen or wall. Thibodeau says that the Manchester examination "found that Winston's body could have been covered up by a subsequent point-blank shot to make it seem as if we killed him." He makes no reference to the destabilized-bullet theory. Reavis insists that "if agents of the ATF or FBI tampered with the cadaver, they had to do it by stealth," as they never had possession of the body.

The picture of the subsequent siege is vivid, though little new information is provided. The author makes it clear that no one was physically prevented from leaving. The claim that Koresh and his "Mighty Men" were holding all the others hostage has been debunked many times over; unfortunately, it still seems to be what most people believe, in their self-contradictory vision of the Davidians as helpless prisoners and suicidal religious fanatics.

He confirms that Koresh went back on his word at a critical point. A few days after the siege, Koresh agreed with negotiators that he and the others would come out if an audio tape which he had prepared was broadcast. The broadcast was made, but Koresh then reversed himself. There might be an argument that the tape was not broadcast in the way which had originally been agreed, but this apparently was not the reason:

But later that afternoon Steve [Schneider] came downstairs and made a stunning announcement: "We're not going. The time's not right. God has told David to wait."

We stared at him in bewildered silence. There was some murmuring, but that last sentence killed all argument.

It subtracts nothing from the federal government's culpability, but clearly the Davidians' implicit belief in their leader's "visions" kept them marching down the path to destruction. On April 14, Koresh agreed he would come out after finishing his written document on the Seven Seals, which he had finally been given divine permission to produce. He was in fact working on this, as is confirmed by a surviving disk of the first chapter; but it's not surprising that the feds didn't believe him.

Thibodeau places his account of the fire at the beginning of the book, for dramatic effect. Unfortunately, he can't offer any eyewitness information on its origin. He claims no awareness of any mass suicide pact, and the fact that he fled the building suggests that he wasn't part of any. He cites Koresh's opposition to suicide. However, he doesn't discuss the recordings which indicate that someone was spreading fuel within the buildings. It remains possible that Koresh had a "vision" directing him to start a fire from which the faithful would be miraculously protected, and that a few close associates cooperated with him in this. It's also possible, as Reavis has suggested, that they improvised Molotov cocktails as anti-tank weapons and started the fire that way. Koresh was apparently fascinated by the Book of Nahum, which is filled with images of fire and of the chariots (which Koresh interpreted as tanks) of God's enemies being burned. It's also possible that the tank assault started the fire, pre-empting Koresh's plans for an incendiary counterattack.

It is certain, though, that the FBI attacked a building without water on a dry windy day; that they had checked with local hospitals about their capacity to handle a large number of casualties; that they attacked the building with a flammable material that would have accelerated the spread of any fire that started; that they delayed the arrival of the fire trucks; and that the smashing of buildings by the tanks blocked escape routes. It is almost certain that the deaths of several Davidians were directly caused by concrete chunks knocked loose by a tank.


Thibodeau was not charged with any crimes, since he didn't have a weapon in his hands at either of the key junctures. But in speaking with people about the matter, he found a different kind of trial: the hostility of people for whom the Davidians were evil heretics who deserved what they dot. I've experienced a little of this in arguing against the viciousness of the government's actions, but I can barely imagine what it's like to be at the center of such widespread hostility.

This hostility, to me, is as much a puzzle as the questions of the first shot and the origin of the fire. Otherwise reasonable people snarl at any suggestion that the government acted improperly, or that such "brainwashed religious nuts" deserved any consideration. It appears that the truly brainwashed people are the American public, who will applaud anything done by Law Enforcement as long as the targets are sufficiently unorthodox.

Congress has been of little help; as Thibodeau notes about the 1995 hearings, "the Republicans were out to tarnish the Clinton administration, while the Democrats were determined to defend it." Representative (now Senator) Charles Schumer actively undermined the hearings, and Bill Zeliff was of no more help in his futile attempts to pin everything on Clinton, whose role was contemptible but passive. The Davidians' pursuit of their wrongful-death suit has been more successful; recent findings, not included in the book, have provided new evidence of FBI deceptions.

There is little hope now for true justice in the matter, but there is hope in the fact that since 1993, America's law enforcement agencies haven't attempted anything close to the actions in Waco. The book states, "I came to see that even though bureaucracies protect their own they inevitably feel social pressure and slowly shift the basis of their methods." So perhaps every person who has spoken rationally against the government's actions has contributed to preventing their recurrence.

With a book of this type, it's necessary to ask how honest the author is. Having no inside information, I can only judge his statements against other published information. The acknowledgements suggest that Thibodeau recounted his experiences to professional writer Leon Whiteson, who gave the book its written form; this isn't unusual when inexperienced writers want to put their story into a book. There are some true-confession passages which suggest overblown frankness, but otherwise the book strikes me as sincere. He acknowledges that Koresh went wrong in serious ways, and he rejects the wilder claims such as flame-throwing tanks. His statements are consistent with earlier ones attributed to him in The Davidian Massacre.

Reasonable skepticism is always necessary, but A Place Called Waco is a valuable addition to the literature on the events of 1993, and is playing an important role in keeping them from being forgotten.

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