A Place Called Waco: A Survivor’s Story
© 1999 David Thibodeau
On April 19th, 1993, the arrogance of power was made obvious when scores of people were killed in a outstandingly incompetent, if not deliberately malicious, attempt to serve an arrest warrant. “Killed” is rather a sterile word, of course, considering what it encompassed: the adults and children tortured and blinded by CS gas, crushed by tanks and debris, and finally consumed by fire. Although most of the survivors were put on trial and imprisoned, one — aspiring musician who found in David Koresh a friend, mentor, and inspiration — was able to evade their interest, recover from his burns, and begin to speak on behalf of those voices which were silenced.
I’ve read accounts of Waco before, but never from someone who lived in Mount Carmel during its final days. Although there are less impassioned accounts out there (Tabor’s & Reavis’), A Place Called Waco recommends itself, being one of the few survivor accounts out there. Thibodeau’s is a unique case given that he was nonreligious when he first encountered Koresh at a music shop in Los Angeles. His absorption into the Mt. Carmel community , an esoteric sect of Seventh Day Adventists, mystified his parents and himself. What drew him there was David Koresh, himself an aspiring musician — one who wanted to combine his religious message with the music. Koresh’s education was minimal, but his gift for creating a compelling narrative out of bits and pieces of the Bible and applying them to contemporary goings-on drew to him even religious scholars from Britain. Thibodeau had no interest in deities and negative interest in the Bible, but when Koresh spoke, it was spellbinding. Koresh had an innate verve that he brought to his music and his religious teachings, a unique gift for making them his own. Although he’d followed Koresh to Waco mostly for the music, Thibodeau found life in the Mt. Carmel community oddly bracing: its restrictions gave him structure in his life for the first time, and he was proud to have embraced its challenges and curved his own appetites.
There was the discord, though. By the time Thibodeau had figured out the relationships between Koresh and the various women and children in the compound (Koresh mandating celibacy among his students, save for those women, married or no, who God had told him to make babies with..including teenagers), he’d bonded to many members of the group, and his attachment to Koresh and one of his wives in particular dulled his criticism of Koresh’s teen brides. Beyond that, Thibodeau’s account throws new light onto the everyday lives of the community: I was surprised to learn that not only did Koresh and other frequently move between Los Angeles and Waco before the siege, but even during the siege people filtered in and out. The Carmel complex was under constant construction throughout Thibodeau’s time there, and working on it was how Thibodeau earned his keep. The community generated income through an autoshop and the gun trade, though it was the latter that drew the fire of the state upon them, as the ATF believed they were modifying semi-automatics into full automatics. This was perfectly legal — so long as the resulting firearms were registered. Thibodeau maintains that no one in the community had the technical expertise to make said modifications, that the ATF had no evidence whatsoever for believing the Carmel community would have sold unregistered automatics even if they could make them, and that the ATF & FBI’s actions were undertaken out of paranoia and religious persecution.
Thibodeau’s account of the siege and final day are rough. It used to be difficult for me to believe that the state could act with such brutality to its own citizens, but now I accept it as a matter of course. The same was true for Thibodeau, and he was further demoralized when he realized how hostile so much of the nation was to him and the other survivors. The Mt. Carmel community had pleaded for the press…but as Thibodeau reflects, the press had been their worse enemy, giving the federal forces a stage to perform for, and making the government’s suspicions into the mob concensus. The only communities who cared about what happened to the Mt. Carmel community were those Thibodeau didn’t particularly like — Patriot groups and militias. Although he didn’t like them, especially after the first anniversary commemoration of the Waco massacre was commercialized by groups selling anti-government lit, they would at least listen — and speaking about the disaster and trying to make sense of it gave Thibodeux a renewed sense of purpose, a way forward in his life.
Although one has to be careful with witness accounts, Thiboeau’s unique perspective and accessible style make this account worth evaluating. I saw no contradictions between it and more objective histories like those of Tabor and Reavis, though Thibadeau is understandably more defensive of the community than others. Originally published as A Place Called Waco, the book has been republished as Waco: A Survivor’s Story, complete with a cover drawn from a miniseries that Thibodeau contributed to. It is superb drama and awful for one’s blood pressure.