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The Waco Siege: How a Man from Nottingham Became Part of an American Tragedy

24 July 19 words: LP Mills
illustrations: Leosaysays

26 years ago, a religious centre in Texas was home to one of the most brutal massacres in US history. Among the survivors was Livingstone Fagan, a young man from Nottingham – but how did he get there, and what part did he have to play in the infamous and calamitous Waco siege?

It is April 19, 1993, and the skies above Waco, Texas, are filled with smoke. The Mount Carmel Centre, a religious compound currently occupied by members of the Branch Davidian sect of Christianity, is under fire from federal agents representing the United States government. This is the culmination of a two-month long siege on Mount Carmel, in which both the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) sought to round up and capture as many Branch Davidians as possible – including their charismatic and notorious leader David Koresh – and take them into custody.

Seventy-six people are killed during the raid.

This is the world in which Livingstone Fagan found himself in 1993. Fagan was one of the few Branch Davidians to escape the compound alive, sent out on Koresh’s request to act as a “witness.” His subsequent conviction – one count of voluntary manslaughter and another of possession and use of a firearm during a criminal activity – led to a lengthy prison sentence in the United States, followed by a swift deportation to his hometown of Nottingham.

The question remains: How does a theology student and former social worker from Nottingham come to be a key player in one of the greatest tragedies in American history? What sequence of events can take a man from a promising academic career and lead him to spend fourteen years behind bars?

Fagan’s story actually begins some five years earlier, at the Newbold College of Higher Education in Bracknell, one of many Seventh Day Adventist education centres across the UK. The Seventh Day Adventists, a branch of Protestantism of which both Fagan and Koresh are members, are, as a rule, preoccupied with the Second Coming of Christ, an event described in the Bible as narrowly preceding the end of days. It was here, in 1988, that Livingstone Fagan was studying to join the ministry. Described as “impulsive, bright, [and] articulate” by his former lecturer Albert Waite, Fagan was, by all accounts, an intelligent man, happily married and with an auspicious future in the church ahead of him.

It was at this time Fagan encountered a youthful, enchanting preacher by the name of Vernon Wayne Howell – the birth name of the man soon to become David Koresh. Koresh had come to the Newbold College as part of a speaking tour/recruitment drive, and it would become a consistent source of new followers for the fledgling Branch Davidians. Including Fagan, three Newbold alumni would go on to join the church, and from there many more would be converted from across London, Manchester and Nottingham.

Fagan was immediately taken by Koresh and his teachings. As with many who became indoctrinated into the Branch Davidian cult, Fagan was of the belief that Koresh was an incarnation of Christ, and that he was blessed with the divine gift of prophecy. Though unlike many of the public religious figures in the United Kingdom in the late eighties, Koresh was cool. He was handsome, engaging, a skilled guitar player with radical views and the kind of self-possession not often seen outside of a rock star.

“He was, in many ways, like Jesus,” Fagan says in a 2018 interview for the BBC podcast End of Days. The comparison was very much intentional on Koresh’s part – the name he adopted in 1990 combined elements of King David, the proto-Messiah discussed at length in the Old Testament, and a corrupted form of the Persian name Cyrus, a name shared by the historical emperor famed for freeing Jewish slaves from Babylonian captivity. This, combined with his electrifying public presence and previously-established cult of followers back in Texas, gave Koresh the kind of messianic aura seemingly hand-crafted to draw people like Fagan in.

How does a theology student and former social worker from Nottingham come to be a key player in one of the greatest tragedies in American history?

In an interview with journalist Ed Caesar, Fagan says that he had “only spoken for a few hours” with Koresh before realising that he was in the presence of someone special, and later that year Fagan and his wife Yvette decided to visit Koresh at the Mount Carmel compound in Texas for Christmas. On subsequent visits Fagan would bring along his family, including his two children and eventually even his mother, Doris. 

Both Yvette and Doris died in the ATF raid on the Mount Carmel compound in 1993.

While there are certain stereotypes immediate to the discussions surrounding cults, Fagan is quick to remind outsiders that those within the Branch Davidians “were not brainwashed”. To hear him speak, you’d most likely agree with him. Fagan is a confident, erudite speaker, explaining his more outwardly radical tendencies as part of his “committed” nature. Brainwashed or not, Fagan soon became instrumental to the Branch Davidian’s recruitment program, inviting people from across the country to his home in Nottingham in the hopes of introducing them to Koresh’s teachings. Indeed, the sister of Bernadette Monbelly, one of the twenty-four Brits to die in the Waco siege, partly cites Fagan as being responsible for her sister’s introduction to the cult.
Looking back, it now seems inevitable that disaster would strike eventually. The Davidians, believing as they did in the apocalypse described at length in the Biblical Book of Revelations, soon became convinced that war was on the horizon. Under the banner of their new messiah, the Davidians would go on to stockpile arms – ostensibly for the purpose of re-selling them on at gun shows. While legal, this activity soon drew the attention of the ATF, and when allegations of sexual misconduct involving underaged girls were thrown into the mix, Koresh soon became a person of interest in the eyes of the US judicial system.

The ATF’s siege began on February 28, 1993, and during the initial gun battle four ATF agents and six Branch Davidians were killed. Fagan, who had briefly been a member of the Territorial Army and had some degree of training in firearms, was one of the Branch Davidians to take up arms against the US government during the siege. In his interview with Ed Caesar, Fagan claims that Koresh had foreknowledge of the ATF’s plans on account of his divine gifts, though he and many of the other surviving Branch Davidians remain insistent that Koresh’s increasing stockpile of weapons was exclusively for commercial and defensive purposes.

Regardless of the intent expressed by Koresh and his followers, the siege was set to be an important moment for the US government. Less than twelve months prior to the siege, the ATF had received extensive criticism following the deaths of Vicki and Samuel Weaver, the wife and infant son of suspected terrorist Randy Weaver, at their home in Ruby Ridge, Idaho. Eager to gain some favour in the public eye and hoping to prevent a repeat of the 1978 Jonestown Massacre, the ATF set about their preparations for the ostentatiously-named “Project Showtime”. An undercover agent, Robert Rodriguez, was sent to investigate the cult and, although his identity was quickly uncovered by Koresh, Rodriguez was able to remain within the Mount Carmel centre long enough to report back to the ATF.

If the Branch Davidians, with their apocalyptic teachings, were preparing for the end of days, so too were the ATF. In a move jarring in both its fatalistic and eerily practical nature, ATF agents were advised to enter the compound with their name and blood type written on their neck in permanent marker, should they need a sudden transfusion as a result of unexpected gunfire. Going off of Rodriguez’s findings and what intelligence they had already gathered regarding the Branch Davidian’s firearm stockpile, the ATF knew to expect resistance, though looking back it is difficult to ascertain just how quickly they anticipated the conflict to escalate.

“We were not about killing people,” Fagan tells Caesar in the 2008 interview. “We were about a message.” When the ATF arrived, Koresh sent Branch Davidians out to speak with ATF agents and members of the press, seeking a peaceful resolution to the siege and assuring onlookers that the Branch Davidians had not engaged in any criminal activity. Despite this, Fagan does note that it would have been easy for the Branch Davidians to take out the oncoming ATF trucks during the initial raid, asserting that much as the Pharisees and Roman Senate has ordered the death of Christ, the US government were intent on destroying Koresh and his followers.

It wasn’t until he was specifically asked by Koresh to leave the compound twenty-one days into the siege that Livingstone Fagan put down his weapons and walked into police custody. He was swiftly arrested and held at a nearby jail, where he watched the final days of the siege unfold on television. Three fires broke out across the compound and Koresh, along with Fagan’s family and seventy-six other Branch Davidians, died.

Once sentenced, Fagan was sent to the McLennan County jail, but over the course of his fourteen years in prison he would be moved nine times. Fagan’s time behind bars was an unpleasant, degrading experience, in which he was kept in solitary confinement for upwards of seven years and subjected to near-daily beatings from prison guards. In one particularly harrowing story Fagan talks about how staff at a Virginia holding centre would forcibly remove his blood to store it on a database, and in another he speaks about how guards at the state penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, would blast him with a firehose before sitting him in front of an electric fan.

As with many who became indoctrinated into the Branch Davidian cult, Fagan was of the belief that Koresh was an incarnation of Christ

Livingstone Fagan was released from prison and deported back to the UK in 2007. He returned to Nottingham where he lives to this day, spending much of his time studying the word of God. Unlike his children, both of whom left Waco some time towards the beginning of the siege to live with Fagan’s siblings, Fagan still firmly follows the teachings of Koresh and still anticipates the rapidly-approaching Day of Judgement.

There is plenty to be learned from the events at Waco. For many, it is a case study into how delusional behaviour is contagious, spreading from one mind to the next and taking root wherever it is allowed to settle. To others, it is proof of how the manipulative and insidious abilities of one person can lead to the deaths of countless innocents. To those like Fagan and the remaining Branch Davidians, it is evidence that a nation’s government does not always act in the best interests of its people, and that the path to a better world is one slick with bloodshed.