The British Waco Survivors – The Sunday Times

Fifteen years on, have they any regrets about joining the cult that declared war on America?

Livingstone Fagan, a squat 49-year-old with ash-tipped dreadlocks, answers the door. He is dressed in a grey sweatshirt, dark trousers, white socks and plastic sandals: penitentiary chic. In his spotless one-bedroom flat, high in a social-housing block on the outskirts of Nottingham, there are no pictures on the whitewashed walls and no visible signs of comfort – just stark dining chairs and a wooden table with a black leather-bound Bible on it.

“When is this article due to be published?” he asks. Fagan does not speak so much as orate. His accent, which rolls between Jamaica, America and the Midlands, makes the most banal sentences sound like the coming of the thunder.

“Soon,” I reply. “Four, five weeks?”

“Very good,” says Fagan. “Some of the events of which we are to speak may have had time to develop.”

And what are these “events”? Only the opening of the sixth seal, spoken of in the Book of Revelation; only the splitting open of the Mount of Olives, near Jerusalem, prophesied in Zechariah; only the coming of the thousand-year reign of the kingdom of God. Only the end of the world as we know it. We have no time, it seems, for small talk.

Fagan is one of a small number of British survivors of a dark episode in American history known around the world simply as Waco. In 1993, around 110 religious eccentrics gathered at a Texan church compound called Mount Carmel, eight miles from the town of Waco. Many of them were former Seventh-Day Adventists – Protestants who believed in the second coming of Christ – drawn to Texas by a magnetically attractive 33-year-old musician called Vernon Howell, or David Koresh as he preferred to be known. The group, known as the Branch Davidians, were scriptural dispensationalists who interpreted the Bible as fact, and their belief was that the end of the world was nigh. They contended that the truth about God had been lost when Christ was crucified 2,000 years ago, and that since then, the only way to access that truth was through the prophetic books of the Bible: Revelation, Isaiah, Daniel and so on.

At the heart of the Davidians’ theology was that the uncovering of the truth was symbolised by a book with seven seals – seals that could be broken by a new prophet. Koresh was, they believed, that prophet, sent from God in order that people might have a chance of redemption when the Judg-ment came. And it was coming soon. In 1992 they renamed their Mount Carmel base “Ranch Apocalypse”.

Their leader, however, did not only have God on his mind. In order to finance his movement, he had collected a vast arsenal of about 150 weapons and 8,000 rounds of ammunition at his ranch, which he sold at gun shows. This was not in itself illegal: in Texas, you can own as many guns as you like. Owning automatic weapons, however, is another matter, and in May 1992 the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) caught wind that Koresh might be hoarding illegally adapted automatics at the Mount Carmel compound. An investigation into his activities began.

In February 1993, the ATF believed it had enough evidence to mount a raid on Mount Carmel – an operation that, with characteristic bluster, it named “Showtime”. The Davidians, however, knew the ATF was coming. They had received a tip-off from a television cameraman who had become lost en route to Mount Carmel. The person he asked for directions was Koresh’s brother-in-law, David Jones, who duly reported back to the ranch.

The ATF also knew that the Davidians knew. On the morning of the raid, February 28, 1993, Koresh unmasked an undercover ATF agent, Robert Rodriguez, who had been living in the ranch intermittently for some weeks. Rodriguez reported back to his superiors that Koresh was prepared for an attack, but, for some unfathomable reason the ATF refused to rethink its strategy. That morning, it sent helicopters over the ranch as a diversionary tactic, and then dispatched cattle trucks full of armed agents to confront Koresh. Nobody has ever proved who fired the first shot, but a gunfight ensued, during which four ATF officers and six Davidians were killed.

After this botched incursion, a 51-day siege began, with the FBI wresting control of operations from the ATF. Some children and adults were allowed to leave the ranch. Most Davidians, however, stayed with Koresh. After a standoff – during which negotiations frequently stalled between Koresh and the 25 FBI negotiators, and the FBI fed the new attorney-general, Janet Reno, damning (and unfounded) information about child abuse inside the ranch – another raid was planned. It was another bloody failure.

On April 19, 1993, the US government sent Bradley tanks into the compound. They knocked down the fragile walls and filled the place with CS gas. A fire started, whose origins are still fiercely debated. Nobody disputes the resulting carnage. Seventy-six people, including Koresh, two pregnant women and more than 20 children died. Twenty-four of the victims were British. Of those who survived, some, including two Britons, were imprisoned for months without charge as “material witnesses”. Some of those deemed to have been responsible for the deaths of ATF agents in the February raid were later given sentences of 40 years – cut to 15 years in 2000 by a federal judge. All have now been released. Despite a federal inquiry, nobody from the FBI or the ATF has ever suffered serious redress for their role in these events.

Fifteen years after Waco, there are some in Britain who still live in its shadow. Fagan is one. He left the compound during the siege at Koresh’s request to act as a “witness”, while his wife and mother remained behind and perished in the fire. He spent 14 years in prison in America for firearms offences, and was released last year. Another is Derek Lovelock, from Manchester, one of the few to escape the burning buildings on April 19, 1993. Sam Henry, also from Manchester, lost his wife and all five of his children in the April fire. And Natalie Nobrega, who had been released from Waco days after the first raid, watched TV as Mount Carmel went up in flames, knowing her mother was inside. She was 11 at the time.

Nobrega is now an amiable 26-year-old with grungy clothes and a sweet smile, living in Hertfordshire. She works as a PA, studies beauty at college part-time and goes out “every chance I can”. Her memory of Waco is, she admits, sketchy, but she remembers enough. The youngest of three, she had visited Waco on two occasions before 1993. She was taken by her Jamaican-born mother, Theresa, who had discovered Koresh through Bible-study sessions at her north London Adventist church. Her brothers never visited Waco, but her father, Vincent, a Guyanese Catholic plumber, did, if only to make sure his wife and daughter were “all right”.

“In the two years before [the raids], I went with Mum for a couple of weeks in the summer,” says Nobrega. “It was great for kids, like a holiday camp. I had loads of friends. I had a dirt bike and a go-kart and we’d just muck about. There were Bible-study classes and all that, but I just sat there, not really listening. One time, my Dad came out and said, ‘I’ll take you home if you aren’t happy,’ but I was, so he didn’t.”

She remembers little of the ATF raid except that it was “really scary”. When the first bullets began to fly she hid with her mother near the dormitories. One of her friends saw her own mother die from a gunshot wound. Two days later, Natalie was released under an arrangement with the FBI. She does not know why she was released and other children were not. “Perhaps it was because my dad wasn’t there. I do remember not wanting to leave my mother.”

As soon as Vincent heard the news about Waco, he flew out to pick up his daughter. He took her straight back to their home in Winchmore Hill, north London, where he checked for updates of the siege with increasing dread. Natalie, however, remembers nothing from the day she returned home to the final day, “when I looked at the telly and saw there was a fire. This may sound funny,” she says, “but I didn’t feel upset. Not at that moment. It was disbelief more than anything. I didn’t think it was real, because it was on TV. When you’re younger you don’t think what you see on TV is real.”

She was taken for one session of counselling, which she hated – she says she’s never liked talking to strangers about her “business”. And, when she started secondary school the following September, she chose not to tell her friends, or her mother, about what had happened to her. Indeed, her loss did not hit her fully until she was “15, 16”. Now, her long-term boyfriend knows about her history, but few others.

“I must have pushed it to the back of my mind as a way of dealing with it,” she says. “Also, I don’t like people feeling sorry for me. My dad feels it much worse than I do. He’s never got over it. He wants to blame the American government for what happened.”

He doesn’t blame David Koresh? “No way,” she says. “And neither do I. But I do think it’s quite sick what the Americans did. Not only coming in and attacking us, but what they did afterwards. We were just there. We weren’t hurting anyone. They came and shot at us, and we shot back. Then they imprisoned people for it. That’s over the top.”

Only one concrete thing set in Nobrega’s head after her experiences at Waco: she wanted nothing to do with religion. She says she does not blame her mother for going to Waco – “she had to do what she had to do… she was just searching for something” – but she also does not care to think about the events surrounding her death too deeply. Our interview is, she says, the last she will ever give about Waco. “It just happened. You got to deal with it.”

For Derek Lovelock, however, Waco is still raw. A quiet 54-year-old who lives on his own in a cheery council flat in Burnage in Manchester, he remembers everything. He remembers hiding in the cafeteria when the first attack came (he never liked guns and never handled one while at Waco). He remembers the “weird atmosphere” during the 51-day siege. And he remembers the final attack, during which he managed to escape as the flames licked about him. For seven months after the attack, Lovelock was held without charge in McLennan County jail as a “material witness”, often in solitary confinement. He was only released (after pressure from the British embassy) when his father in England died. He returned to Manchester to discover he had missed the funeral by two days.

Lovelock’s path to Waco was typical. His Jamaican father fought for the Royal Air Force in the second world war, and met his mother, a Jewish girl from Birmingham, while on leave. They were married in 1947 and raised Derek, one of nine children, in a mildly religious Church of England family in Manchester. When he was 15, his nine-year-old brother, Tony, died of a brain tumour. Lovelock was devastated. He left school the same year. “I thought, ‘Why did he have to die so young?’ ” he says. “It didn’t seem logical to me that we could all be alive, but the moment you’re born, you’re dying. That has always bugged me.”

Lovelock grew up wanting to be a professional footballer but was never good enough. He took a series of low-paid jobs – in supermarkets and, briefly, as an apprentice plumber – but what he really wanted were answers. Having joined the Adventist church in 1984, he married a woman he had met there in 1985. It was through a church newsletter that he heard of David Koresh in 1989. The piece had been written to warn believers that an American claiming to be a prophet of God was touting for a flock. But Lovelock was intrigued, and made his first trip to Waco with friends from the church in 1990. “I wanted to meet this guy, and to make a judgment,” he says. “After my first visit, I came back to Manchester and didn’t go back to Waco for two years. I was wrestling with all this truth in my mind. I was thinking, ‘If this is true, do you know what it means?’ ”

Lovelock returned to Waco in 1992, without his wife (they had separated for “personal reasons”). “At Waco we lived as God would have us live,” he remembers. “We were always courteous, always clean. People in the town liked us. People think we were all weirdos, obsessed with God, but we were just normal people who happened to believe in this thing.

“In our own time, we did whatever we wanted to do – some people played music, some played baseball, some guys souped up cars. People went away to work in the local town and came back at night. Sometimes we’d go into a bar called Chelsea’s for a drink. Waco was a lovely place. I never felt love like that, apart from my own family.”

There were, however, some oddities. Koresh believed he had a God-ordained role to bring 24 heavenly elders into the world – and to do so, he took a number of wives among the community, who were to bear his children. The other Davidians, meanwhile, were told to abstain from sex. This strikes me as a handy arrangement for Koresh, but Lovelock disagrees: “You might think it’s strange, but God tells prophets to do all sorts of things. He told Isaiah to marry a prostitute. You don’t know what God’s going to ask you to do.”

This peculiar idyll was shattered on the morning of February 28. After the raid, Lovelock helped “clear up and organise” the place. “The siege was scary,” he remembers. “It was weird; you couldn’t move from this place for 51 days. We were all on edge. We thought they might come back and kill us all to get revenge [for the death of the ATF agents].”

When the authorities did come back, Lovelock was hiding in the chapel. He remembers a Bradley tank ripping through its wooden walls and CS gas starting to come in. Then the fire started, and he ran through the hole the tank had made in the wall. Once outside, he was arrested immediately.

Now, Lovelock’s life is in tatters. He suffers frequent anxiety attacks, flashbacks to Waco, and depression. He lives on incapacity benefit. But his faith is unwavering. “Persecution makes you stronger,” he says. He still believes Koresh was a prophet. He still believes in the coming of the kingdom of God – “soon… I wouldn’t want to put a date on it, but soon”. Until then, he says, he is just marking time: “Paying rent, having something to eat and drink, getting a wash, waiting.”

Sam Henry stopped waiting some time ago. A sprightly 72-year-old who still works in the construction business, Henry came to Manchester from Jamaica on April 16, 1958. Exactly 35 years later, he lost his wife, Zilla, and his five children – Diana, Stephen, Pauline, Philip and Vanessa – in the fire at Waco. He now lives with his second wife, Eleanor, in a small terrace house in Didsbury.

Henry has been a Seventh-Day Adventist for 50 years. He met Zilla in his local church in Fallowfield, and married her in 1963. But when their first child, Diana, was born on New Year’s Day in 1965, Henry could not have known how much heartache she would cause him. His family, he says, were always “straight”, hard-working and intelligent (Philip, for example, was destined for medical school). They prayed every morning and night together. The children sang at the local church. They were well liked in the neighbourhood.

But in 1989, Diana’s boyfriend, John, met Koresh at the theological Newbold College in Berkshire, and invited her to listen. She was instantly smitten. Soon she had encouraged all the children, and even Zilla, to attend Bible-study meetings that discussed Koresh’s theology. The only member of the family who was not immediately interested was Sam.

“You know, the children were all so close to each other, and they all looked up to Diana,” he says. “If she said this guy’s all right, then this guy was all right.”

Diana left England for Waco in 1989. Sam decided to visit Texas himself to see what all the fuss was about. He met Koresh, and took an immediate dislike to him. “He struck me as false,” he says. “It was the first time I’d visited the US and I loved what I saw – it was beautiful. I told Koresh about this, and remarked upon the difficulties of becoming an American citizen, and he said, ‘You could lose yourself here and the authorities would never find you.’ A man of God would never encourage others to break the law.”

Henry returned, angry. He was convinced Koresh was wicked, that he practised brainwashing and “demonism”. But his eldest daughter was defiant and stayed at Waco. Then, one Sunday evening in 1990, when Henry was counting money for the church, the family called him upstairs to a meeting. They broke the news to him that they were all, even Zilla, going to Waco. Their flight left the following morning.

“I said, ‘You’re joking!’ ” says Henry. “But they weren’t. It nearly killed me. I knew then that I’d lost them. The next day, I was driving my van to work, and I cried like a baby all the way. It was the most painful thing I have ever experienced.”

Between 1990 and 1993, Henry’s family returned for months at a time, but they had, in his eyes, changed irrevocably. They no longer prayed together. His wife refused to sleep with him. The peaceful, hard-working family life he’d once known was over. And then, in 1993, the ATF raided the Waco compound, and Henry’s life changed again. On April 19 he was sitting in the Granada studios in Manchester waiting to be interviewed when the fire started.

“I saw it happen. I thought, ‘How can the American government allow this to happen?’ It was madness.”

Henry’s faith, he says, has taken the sting out of the pain, but he still experiences “waves of sadness”. “Sometimes I see on the news how a bomb has shattered a family, and it just hits me. I’ve been there. I know what it feels like.”

There is no doubt, however, where he places the blame for his family’s death. “My family were murdered,” he says. “At first, I didn’t have any problem with the FBI or the Americans – it was Koresh I didn’t like. He was the man who took away my family. But now I know more about what happened at Waco, I believe they were murdered. The Americans talked about what Saddam Hussein was doing to his people – how they liberated people from suffering under him. Well, how then could they do this to their own people?”

Back in his monastic Nottingham flat, Fagan tells me how he came to be at Waco. Born in Jamaica in 1959, he came to England in 1964, settling in Nottingham with his mother and father, a steelworker. Fagan was bright. He studied for a BSc at Manchester University in environmental science. Here he met his wife, Yvette, and was employed as a social worker. However, he harboured ambitions to enter the ministry and, having attended an Adventist church as a youngster, he moved to Newbold College, where, like Diana Henry, he met Koresh in 1989.

“I only spoke to him for a few hours,” remembers Fagan. “But he opened doors for me. When he invited me to come to the United States, I decided to go.” He visited Koresh in Waco for the first time that Christmas, with his wife. It was the first of several visits he made to Texas. On subsequent visits he brought his daughter, Renae, his son, Neharah, and his mother, Doris. Each time, Fagan’s faith in Koresh’s interpretation of the Bible became stronger.

“There is an assumption that those who were at Waco were brainwashed,” says Fagan. “But all these people made rational, informed decisions about matters the general public might not have been interested in. The explanation that we were crazy is an easy one to make, one that the media assisted in promoting, in the way they vilified us.”

Fagan insists the Davidians foresaw the raid on Mount Carmel through prophecy, but denies the allegation that Koresh was determined to bring about his group’s destruction. He maintains the Davidians were within their rights to have guns, and, as well as the commercial aspect to their ownership, the guns allowed the group “to form a defence”.

“Our objective was simply to stop the attack we knew would come against us. We did not want to destroy anything, just to inform those who came against us of the bigger picture. But they did not want to know. It’s the same as 2,000 years ago. Christ came to deliver a great truth, but his attackers didn’t want to understand it. They destroyed him.”

Fagan picked up a weapon on February 28, 1993. He knew how to fire it after a brief stint in the Territorial Army in Britain. He had also been “allowed to handle the merchandise” at Mount Carmel. He insists the Davidians not only fought “with great reluctance” but showed clemency towards the ATF. “We had to stand our ground. We couldn’t allow these people to get inside, because we were sure they would have killed us all indiscriminately. David, at first, went out to try and stop the attack, but he was shot doing so.

“The way they came at us, on cattle trucks – if we’d been on the offensive, we could have killed them all. Instead we went out to talk to them. We were not about killing people, we were about a message. All we wanted was for them to leave, but we learnt they were not going to do that.”

Twenty-one days into the siege, Koresh asked 30 or so people, including Fagan, to leave so they might provide a witness to the events of February 28. Reluctantly, Fagan did as he was asked, leaving his wife and mother behind. He was strip-searched and then placed in McLennan County jail, where he watched the final attack on TV. This, I suggest, must have been heart-wrenching.

“No, I couldn’t allow the emotion of the circumstances to take possession of me,” he says. “I suspended that part of my being.” What? He knew his mother and his wife were dead, possibly killed because of the negligence of the FBI, and he “suspended” his emotions? “We had a sense of a greater reality at work, of the world that is to come,” he says. “Those emotions [of grief, anger] were within me, but the greater realities we were dealing with were much more important.”

Fagan would need his eerie ability to suspend emotion over the next 15 years, which he spent in prison. Seven were spent in solitary confinement. He was often refused exercise, because he refused to undertake a “degrading” strip-search. He was often beaten by guards, and was a victim of what his fellow inmates termed “diesel therapy”: constant movement between jails. Indeed, in his 15 years, Fagan was incarcerated in McLennan; El Reno, Oklahoma; Oklahoma City; Oxford, Wisconsin; Pennsylvania; Leavenworth, Kansas; Marion, Illinois; and two holding centres in Virginia. “In Virginia they would forcibly take your blood for a DNA database,” he recalls, tears rising. “They would enter, clad in padding, and extract it forcibly. But Leavenworth was the worst. I was beaten badly by the officers there. They once came into my cell with a fire hose and drenched the entire cell, including me. They then put an industrial fan outside my cell and turned it on.” There are some things Fagan can’t find the words to tell me. One story from prison tails off after a particularly savage beating: “Then they took me back to the cell, and they…” Whatever those guards did to him, it made him relish “the vengeance that is to come”.

When he finished his jail sentence in July 2007 he was sent to Heathrow with two deportation officers, and dumped at the gate. He has lived in Nottingham ever since, spending his time reading scripture and charting the “economic, political and social tensions” that will ultimately lead to the world’s destruction, and the coming of the Kingdom.

Unlike Fagan, his children Renae and Neharah do not believe in Davidian theology. Now 19 and 22, they both left Waco early on in the siege, and returned to live with Fagan’s brothers and sisters. Their lives have since moved on: Renae has just finished university; Neharah is on a gap year after school. Both declined to be interviewed for this article.

What was it like to see his children again? Fagan looks down. “Sometimes words fail me,” he says. “They have changed so dramatically. And, of course, they were a little bit ambivalent about me, because of my involvement with Waco.” Do they blame you for their mother’s death? “I suppose they would. But I’m patient towards their perspective.”

Fagan has also had trouble finding work. His CV, he admits, doesn’t look good. But these are “temporary challenges”, he says, in light of the great events to come. “If I were to deal with these things from an emotional point of view, I would ask you, ‘Do you have a gun? Let’s end this mess right here!’ But there is something bigger happening.”

Every survivor of Waco has to contend with one thing – how to make sense of an horrific event in 1993, in which dozens of innocent people were killed by a government that was meant to protect them. For some, including Fagan and Lovelock, Waco was the act in which God showed his hand. Fagan even argues that how one reacts to Waco – whether one sides with the Davidians or with the FBI – will determine who is to be saved when the Judgment comes.

But those who are doubtful a final reckoning will ever come can still make smaller judgments. Peter J Boyer, who covered Waco for The New Yorker, gives this précis: “What it comes down to, for me, is you have a building with babies inside it. What is the hurry to go in with tanks? Why not wait? I don’t think anybody deserves such a death, and those babies certainly didn’t… It was a tragedy.” A tragedy, but one in which the victims receive little sympathy. Why? Because of their religious beliefs? The worst you can say about the majority of those who followed David Koresh was that they were grossly misguided. They were not, as a group, dangerous. Fagan might talk like an Old Testament prophet, but beneath his armour he is a gentle character. Before I leave, he makes one last bid at converting me.

“Imagine in a few months, voilà! The Mount of Olives opens,” he says, throwing up his hands like a conjuror. “You see on the news that something is happening over there. And then you think, ‘That’s what Livingstone was talking about!’ Are you going to ignore that?”

So I make this promise to him: should the Mount of Olives split open, he will be the first person I call.