Lariat Exclusive: FBI Chief Negotiator recounts Branch Davidian siege

Taylor Kitsch stars as David Koresh in Paramount Network’s series “Waco,” which premieres Jan. 24. (Courtesy photo)

By Hannah Neumann | Focus Magazine 2017 Editor-in-Chief

A six-part television series titled “Waco” is set to premiere on the Paramount Network on Jan. 24 and will star Academy Award nominee Michael Shannon and Taylor Kitsch in the leading roles.

Kitsch will portray David Koresh, the leader of the Branch Davidians religious cult, and Shannon will portray Gary Noesner, the FBI’s chief negotiator on site in February 1993, when a 51-day standoff began between the Davidians and the FBI. The dispute ended with a fire that killed 76 people and also ignited nationwide discussions on government overreach and religious extremism.

The series is based on two biographies, “A Place Called Waco” by Branch Davidian David Thibodeau, one of the nine survivors of the final fire on April 19, 1993, and “Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator,” by Noesner, now retired chief of the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit.

Gary Noesner was the FBI’s chief negotiator on site in the 1993 Branch Davidian raid that ended in a fire that killed 76 people.

The Baylor Lariat conducted an unpublished interview with Noesner in 2015 regarding the Waco siege and received an inside look at day-to-day interactions with Koresh and his followers, mistakes that were made on both sides of the standoff and factors that made the interactions both difficult and famous nationwide in the decades to follow.

Many individuals across the country who uphold some kind of unorthodox religious views have decided to establish groups and communities of their own, Noesner said, so the Branch Davidians were not a unique group in that sense. Why then, Noesner asks, were the Davidians brought to the attention of the government?

“The difference was the autocratic rule of David Koresh and his manipulation of his followers also led them into engaging in some illegal activities that brought them under the scrutiny of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms,” Noesner said. “That began the concern in the government, because weapons were being converted illegally to automatic and there were a number of other violations.”

While the FBI had been alerted by local authorities of child abuse allegations within the compound, what ultimately brought them to Waco in 1993 was the shootout that ensued between the U.S. Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and the Branch Davidians on Feb. 28.

Agents from ATF were attempting to execute an arrest warrant for Koresh and a search warrant for the property, Noesner said, but the mission was compromised when the Davidians heard that the raid was going to occur.

“There is contention as to who fired the first shot, but nonetheless a shootout ensued,” Noesner said. “Four ATF agents were killed, 17 wounded and a number of Davidians were killed as well … and many wounded, including Koresh. It was quite a protracted, running gun-battle very, very serious in nature, obviously.”

ATF agents withdrew after a nearly hour-long battle and a ceasefire was negotiated. According to, the operation, which involved more than 100 ATF agents, was the one of the largest ever mounted by the bureau and resulted in the highest casualties of any ATF operation.

It was during this cease-fire that the FBI and Noesner’s negotiation team were brought to Waco in hopes of bringing about a resolution without further loss of life.

“The crime of assaulting and killing the federal agents falls under the jurisdiction of the FBI, so even though it was ATF agents, who were then part of the Department of Treasury, the fact they were assaulted and killed in carrying out their duties brought in the FBI to manage the incident and try to resolve it,” Noesner said. “I flew out right away, coordinating all the negotiation activities to try to bring about a peaceful resolution.”

Noesner and his team of negotiators began to attempt to achieve a peaceful resolution. Difficulty arose in this case, Noesner said, because while a hostage situation will allow the negotiators to serve a purpose and work with the person making demands, the members at the compound that day were there of their own free will in what they considered their home, and the only thing they wanted was for the FBI to leave.

“The only demand that Koresh and his followers had on us was to go away and leave them alone, which in the aftermath of the loss of life and carnage, that was pretty much the one thing the government could not do,” Noesner said. “So it was a real predicament, because if people need you and they want something from you, like in the hostage scenario, then you’re able to exert some influence on their behavior and come up with a quid-pro-quo bargaining interaction. But, if the only thing they want you to do is go away and they don’t feel they need you for anything, it’s very hard to exert influence over their behavior.”

Aside from the Davidians wanting to be left alone, Noesner said there was also the added difficulty and frustration that came from dealing with a person like Koresh.

“Some people on the outside, from what they know about Koresh, might think he was almost a Charles Manson-like figure and out of touch with reality, and that certainly wasn’t our experience,” Noesner said. “He wasn’t a well-educated individual, but he was articulate, he was an all-powerful leader in his group, and I mean, despite his educational limitations and life experiences, he became quite adept at interpreting the Bible and passing a message to his followers that they embraced wholeheartedly, and so they looked at him as quite extraordinary and quite special.”

Koresh’s followers believed him to be so powerful, as Noesner said is often the case with unorthodox religious groups like this, that they allowed him to hold sway over them to the point that they surrendered their worldly possessions, husbands surrendered their wives to Koresh who then fathered children with them, and people generally were willing to believe anything and everything that he said.

“As most often is the case with these unorthodox religious groups, they revolve around a very strong self-serving leader and David Koresh was certainly that and more, but dealing with him on a day-to-day basis was really a mix,” Noesner said. “There were days where he was very comfortable and casual and even occasionally a bit of humor, and other times where his anger was strongly manifested into anger at the ATF and anger at the government … He would show many demonstrations of his personality and as negotiators we had to adapt to that. We had some successes with him and we clearly had some failures.”

Despite Koresh’s controlling and manipulative nature and the strong loyalty of his followers, Noesner said he found success at the beginning in getting Davidians, mostly women and children, safely out of the compound through a trust-based relationship approach.

“While I was there for 26 days we were able to get 35 people out, and we did that through this patience and rapport building approach,” he said. “The problem we ran into was that there were others in the government, the FBI, that were very frustrated with this slow pace of these accomplishments and they wanted things to move in a more rapid way, so there were some actions that were taken to use tactical pressure to compel the Davidians to cooperate and this of course ran in direct contradiction to the approach we were taking as a negotiation team.”

Noesner said this internal conflict in the FBI began to dissolve the work he had done to build trust and continue to save lives. He said while everyone had the same end-goal –– to see everyone come out alive –– they had very different ideas on how to accomplish it and an appropriate timeline for achieving it.

“Law enforcement agencies are used to taking control and when they tell people to do things and comply, they expect to get that compliance,” Noesner said. “So it’s quite frustrating when people do not comply as instructed and offer resistance and often don’t follow through on their promises.”

Koresh could be a very challenging guy to deal with, Noesner said, and he would often change his mind or take opposite actions in regard to promises he made, and that began to feed the frustrations of the FBI decision makers.

“Oddly enough, as negotiators we are a bit more able to deal with these kind of manipulative efforts, because that’s what we train for as negotiators. We know that people will have ups and downs and periods of cooperation followed by periods of resistance and they will not always do what they say,” Noesner said. “We try to use that knowledge to prevent us from becoming frustrated and overreacting, and I think one of the shortcomings in Waco was that some of our decision makers out there, who were above me of course, didn’t have that same perspective, or that same knowledge and training experience that would enable them to stick it through that difficult interaction we had with Koresh.”

From the day ATF agents arrived at the Branch Davidian compound, to the time 51 days later when the compound went up in flames, Noesner said mistakes were made on both sides.

“Technically there were violations of the law. Now as a practical matter, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms at the time is a fairly small federal law enforcement agency and they were under serious threat of being disbanded,” Noesner said. “One political party didn’t want them functioning and fulfilling their role in investigating matters related to firearms, and was politically trying to, in essence, do away with that agency.”

When the information came to the ATF that the Branch Davidians were converting weapons illegally, Noesner said the bureau saw an opportunity to make headlines in terms of their utility as an organization.

“That, I think, compelled them to move forward with what turned out to be a pretty risky operation, and even when it became known right before the raid that it had been compromised, rather than call off the raid they went ahead with it anyway and of course the consequences were pretty tragic,” Nosener said. “So I think you know some years later the FBI dealt with a group in Montana and we decided to arrest the leader when he was away from the others, and I think that would have been a better approach. I know one of the things we would have looked at then, that we do now, is ‘are there other ways to accomplish the goal other than a direct assault on the building? Which even under the best of circumstances comes with great complications and challenges.”

With Noesner’s success in releasing members from the building, he still today has frustrations when he imagines a different ending that may have very well been possible.

“I think what could have been done differently was, at the expense of sounding self-serving here, was to do what we were doing as negotiators. I’m quite confident that had our actions not been unwittingly compromised by some of the more aggressive tactical moves, we may have had a very different ending and probably would have succeeded in securing the safe release of a great many more individuals,” Noesner said. “If you’re inside the compound and you hear the nice negotiator talking about cooperation and respect and dignity, and then you see a guy in a tank crush your car, are you going to believe what you hear or what you see? I think some of the leadership in the FBI at the time didn’t fully appreciate or absorb the problems that these mixed signals caused us and that certainly didn’t help our cause in trying to create a relationship of trust with the Davidians that would have led to everyone coming out alive.”

Following the interactions between the Branch Davidians and the government that year, questions began to arise nationwide as to who the “bad guy” really was. There were people who used the incidents as a symbol of government overreach and to validate their concerns that the government was looking to take their guns and power, while the opposite side argued the Davidians and those like them were dangerous and the government was doing the job they were meant to do.

“There’s a good debate that should take place about ‘What’s the line between individual freedoms and organizational freedoms and complying with government laws?'” Noesner said. “These are serious matters to discuss, but I think people want to simply state that one side or the other was all good or bad.”

For Noesner, he realizes that the world isn’t so simple. While he said he believed David Koresh alone held the keys to resolving the situation peacefully the entire time, and blames him ultimately for the end result, he also said that notion does not then translate into the acknowledgement that the government responded the best way they could have.

“FBI agents tend to think Koresh was all bad, therefore we did nothing wrong. Some people say Koresh was good and the government was wrong. But, It’s far more complex and nuanced than that,” Noesner said. “Some people like to look at the world in black and white … Koresh was all good and the FBI was all bad or vice versa. But, the fact is, there were a lot of mistakes made on both sides. It isn’t simple … The world is a complicated place and It was a tragedy for everybody involved.”