1993 Siege Survivors Grapple With Parents’ Deaths
ABCNews, Apr. 17, 2003
The children in David Koresh’s Branch Davidian cult grew up believing they would die young — and on April 19, 1993, 25 of them did, perishing with their parents when the cult’s complex outside Waco, Texas went up in flames.
“He never was very specific, but at some point we were going to have to die for him,” said Kiri Jewell, whose mother Sherri was one of Koresh’s 20 “wives.”
“I knew we weren’t going to be around for very long. I didn’t expect to live past 12.”
Jewell was lucky: she escaped from the cult the year before the siege, when her father, who was divorced from her mother, refused to let her go back to Waco after a visit. Her mother stayed with the Davidians and died in the fire.
To mark the 10th anniversary of the fire, which broke out after federal agents stormed the compound following a 51-day siege, Primetime’s Charles Gibson spoke to seven of the children who lived with the Davidians, including 14-year-old Sky Okimoto, Koresh’s own son. All of them lost one or both parents in the fire.
Harsh Discipline and Child Brides
The children remember a close-knit community in which they were not allowed to have contact with anyone outside the cult. They were taught that there were only two types of people: “good” people who were inside the cult, and “bad” people who were everyone else.
During Koresh’s Bible study sessions — which could be as long as 12 hours — he preached a vision of violent confrontation with the government. He taught his followers that his mission was to lead them into the final battle that would end the world and take them onto eternal glory. The members understood that meant they would die.
The children were taught the morbid message too. They used to chant: “We are soldiers in the army. We’ve got to fight. Some day we have to die. We have to hold up the blood-stained banner. We have to hold it up until we die.”
They were kept in line by a wooden paddle known as “the helper,” and faced severe beatings for minor infractions like spilling a glass of milk. Dana Okimoto, Sky’s mother, remembers being so under Koresh’s control that she beat Sky until he bled.
Koresh ordered the men in the cult to be celibate and took some of their wives and daughters to be his own wives. Jewell became Koresh’s youngest “bride” when she was just 10, and would later testify in Congress that Koresh molested her at a motel. She told Primetime she was not upset at the time. “I had been trained from a very early age that this was a good thing,” she said.
The Initial Assault
The siege began on Feb. 28, 1993, when 70 agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms arrived to search the compound for illegal weapons.
A shootout broke out, and Jaunessa Wendel, then 8, remembers the window above her 5-month-old brother’s crib suddenly shattering. The next thing she knew, her mother, a former police officer, herded her and her three siblings into the hallway then rushed back to the bedroom window to return the ATF’s fire.
Wendel, now 18, says she understands her mother’s urge to defend her children. “What is her reaction going to be other than to protect us in the best way she knows how?” she asked Primetime.
Two hours later, when Koresh gave agents permission to enter the compound and evacuate their casualties, four ATF agents and six Davidians were dead, including Jaydean Wendel. The adults covered her body with a blanket, but Jaunessa knew it was her mom.
An Open Phone Line
Next there began a standoff as FBI negotiators manned an open phone line to Koresh, trying to find a peaceful outcome, especially for the 46 children trapped inside. “The kids were our primary focus,” Byron Sage, the chief FBI negotiator, told Primetime.
Sage’s team agreed to allow Koresh to broadcast a two-minute mini-sermon on the radio each time he released two children.
Inside the compound, it was Koresh who chose which kids should go. Jaunessa Wendel remembers not wanting to be picked. “As far as I knew the bad guys were still out there, the ones who had shot and killed my mother,” she said.
But she and her siblings — 5-year-old Tamarae, 4-year-old Landon, and Patron, the baby — were among the first chosen. She remembers her father Mark saying good-bye and telling her he would see her soon. The Davidian children understood that meant they’d be seeing their parents in heaven.
Opening Up to Strangers
A total of 21 children were released in the first five days. They were all taken to Methodist Children’s Home in Waco.
Psychiatrist Bruce Perry, who volunteered to help counsel the children, said that all of them had seen blood, and more than half had seen a dead body. “Their whole world was completely shattered. They were in the care of people who they didn’t trust. And they had no idea what was going to happen,” he said.
According to Perry, Koresh had threatened the children that if they cooperated with the “Babylonians” he would find them and kill them.
The children spoke about their parents as if they were already dead. On a videotape Perry made, Jaunessa’s little brother Landon, then 4, explained how their parents would die in the first battle, but then come back as angels and defeat their enemies: “The bad guys win. Then the good guys win after them because they get up to the angels and burn the bad guys.”
The children were reluctant to open up to the strangers at first, but soon began to confide in them, saying the Davidians were planning to die in the compound.
Perry didn’t believe them at first, until Jaunessa drew a picture that brought it home: the picture showed the compound engulfed in flames, with steps leading up to heaven. When he asked her what the picture meant, she told him, “You’ll find out.”
It took three weeks to get the children’s heart rate down to normal, Perry said. They stayed at the children’s home for two months.
Watching the End of Their World
Back at the compound, after 51 days of waiting, the federal agents finally made a move, breaking in with tanks and tear gas.
They were hoping the parents would feel forced to leave the compound out of concern for their children’s welfare. “That’s what we banked on, and we were wrong,” said Sage.
A fire broke out and swept through the compound, killing all but nine of the Davidians inside. Fifty adults and 25 children died.
Many of the children who had gotten out saw the whole thing on television.
“I was horrified that a building could catch fire that quickly,” says Sky Okimoto, who was just 3. His mother remembers him watching the television and asking, “Is my daddy dead?”
Brad Borst, who spent his teenage years with the Davidians but left when he turned 18 a few months before the siege, was watching too, knowing his mother Mary Jean was inside. “I watched my mother die, on television…. It was very difficult,” he said.
“I didn’t react like a normal child would…. I was very calm,” remembers Joann Vaega, who lost both of her parents, Neal and Margarida, in the fire.
After losing their mother in the initial shootout, the Wendel children lost their father, Mark, in the fire. “It’s hard having that as your most distinct memory: of your parent being killed, being attacked. That that’s your best memory of your parents,” said Jaunessa.
“There is still that emptiness of not having, or knowing, your real parents,” added her brother Landon.
Anger at the Government
FBI wiretaps inside the compound suggested that the Davidians set the fire intentionally. But the children remain angry at the federal agents, who they believe share part of the blame.
All of the children Primetime spoke to said they want to hear an official acknowledgement of their loss from the government.
“If they could make an apology to families involved and the lives that were lost, I could forgive them. And I think others could too,” said Borst.
Sage agreed to meet with the children — the first time anyone involved in the siege had done so. He was blunt, telling them he did not admire their parents because they were involved with a group that violently resisted the ATF’s lawful attempt to carry out a search.
Sage said he supported the decisions that were made, and that he believes the federal agents did all they could to avoid loss of life. “I honestly feel this would have ended tragically no matter what,” he told the children.
But, he said, the government made a mistake in underestimating Koresh and the control he had over his followers, and in the end, he admitted, the operation was a failure. “For that I think everybody that was involved will forever regret it,” he said.
The children do not blame their parents. Borst, now married with two children of his own, still misses “the great mother that she was.”
And although it was her mother who drove her to the motel where Koresh molested her, Kiri Jewell says she still adores her. “I love her and she messed up. What more is there for me to say? I forgive her,” she told Primetime.