Reporter, witness to raid, recalls Branch Davidian Compound siege 25 years later

Posted at 9:04 PM, Feb 27, 2018
and last updated 2018-02-28 12:24:23-05

Wednesday marks 25 years since the failed weapons raid by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms on the Branch Davidian Compound in rural McLennan County that left 4 federal agents and 6 members of the religious cult dead.

A 51-day siege followed that raid, and then on April 19, the compound burst into flames killing 76 Davidians including their leader David Koresh.

Tommy Witherspoon, a reporter for the Waco Tribune-Herald, remembers the raid well. He and five other members of the newspaper's staff were just across the street from the compound when the bullets started flying on Feb. 28, 1993.

"All of a sudden I start hearing bullets whizzing past our heads," Witherspoon said.

He and his coworkers first took shelter behind their car and then in a ditch where they spent the next two and a half hours before negotiators were able to arrange a ceasefire between the cult and federal agents.

Witherspoon then joined a line of agents as they walked away from the compound down Double E Ranch Road. Some of the agents held their injured and dying comrades in their arms. At one point he pulled out his reporter notepad and tried to talk to an agent but was quickly rebuked.

"This older agent came up and said, 'Hey man! Can't you see we've been through it!. Cut it out!' So after that I just put my pad up and just walked out," Witherspoon said.

His involvement in the story didn't stop there. Witherspoon relied on sources the Tribune-Herald generated while putting together a series of stories on cult leader Koresh called "The Sinful Messiah" to challenge the government's statements in daily news conferences.

"It was pretty clear from the outset that they were going to lie," Witherspoon said. "And when the FBI came in, they told even bigger lies."

Witherspoon says he was back to doing his regular job of courthouse reporting when the compound caught fire. He and others watched in sadness on TV as the flames took dozens of lives. Witherspoon says he wasn't surprised, however, that the siege ended in tragedy. And he does believe at least one thing that the government says about the fire.

"There is no question in my mind that they spread fuel to enhance the fire," Witherspoon said. "I think the ones that hadn't come out in 51 days... I think they knew they weren't going to come out."

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