Days after a deadly confrontation between a religious sect and federal agents in Waco, Texas, attorney Dick DeGuerin received a call that 30 years ago put the “biggest case” of his career so far in his hands, and shocked America.

It was the mother of Branch Davidians sect leader David Koresh, asking him to defend her son.

After negotiations, on March 31, this lawyer was the first to break through the police cordon and enter the Davidians’ compound, Mount Carmel, to talk to the barricaded people.

DeGuerin found Koresh wounded in the wrist and torso and treated with holistic medicine by his supporters. He was confident he would strike a deal for his surrender.

Three decades later, from his Houston offices where he keeps the case files, the 82-year-old lawyer remains convinced that what ended tragically on April 19, 1993–after a 51-day siege–could have ended peacefully and without more than 70 people dying.

His story strikes a chord in the United States, a polarized country where some see Waco as a symbol of government overreach.

Today, a memorial where the events occurred, run by New Davidians, attracts hundreds of visitors a month.

DeGuerin says that when he took the case he “didn’t know the magnitude,” but it was clear to him that “the world was watching.”

“I had handled some major cases, but nothing like this one,” he adds.

-His encounter with Koresh.

The Branch Davidians were founded in 1959 as a splinter of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. They believed in the imminent return of Jesus and Koresh emerged as their charismatic leader in the 1980s.

In 1993, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) charged the group with stockpiling weapons and obtained an arrest warrant for Koresh and a search warrant for the compound, where there were allegations of child abuse.

On February 28, during the raid, a shootout broke out in which four federal agents and at least six Davidians were killed.

The FBI then laid siege to the site, initiating the “Waco Siege,” which has inspired series and documentaries.

In late March, when DeGuerin went in to see Koresh, the FBI drove him near the compound in the back of an armored vehicle. “They said, ‘Would you like a bulletproof vest?’ I said, ‘No, I’m not afraid of the Davidians. But I don’t want FBI snipers shooting at me.'”

He confesses that he didn’t know what to expect, but found Koresh, 33, intelligent, articulate, but “very angry” about the FBI and ATF siege.

DeGuerin understood that his mission was to get Koresh out of the precinct and into court “without anyone else dying.”

“I told him the law is the law and he had to obey the law even though it might conflict with his religious beliefs. He understood,” he recalls.

In parallel, the lawyer was negotiating a deal with the Texas Rangers, in charge of security at the compound, for Koresh’s surrender.

– “We don’t need you anymore”-

As negotiations progressed, DeGuerin returned to the compound with attorney Jack Zimmerman, who was representing another cult member.

Patience was wearing thin among federal agents. “There were the negotiators who wanted it to end peacefully. And then there were the tactical people who just wanted to rush in, kill anybody and arrest them,” DeGuerin reckons. “The tactical people won.”

Just when he thought he had a deal, he watched on television as the feds initiated action on the compound. He tried to go back. “We don’t need you anymore,” an FBI agent told him over the phone.

That day, April 19, FBI agents in armored vehicles stormed the compound and fired tear gas. The causes of the subsequent fire are still being debated, but the compound burned to the ground and claimed more than 70 lives, including Koresh and some 20 children.

Investigations cleared law enforcement of wrongdoing, but Waco became a rallying cry for Americans accusing their government of abuse of authority, and spurred the growth of militias in the country.

In 1995, on the second anniversary, Timothy McVeigh, who had driven to Waco to witness the siege, carried out a bombing in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people.

For DeGuerin, 30 years later, the lessons of Waco are clear. Federal agents had become convinced that Koresh was “playing them again” and would not surrender. “They didn’t wait. I think if they had waited, it would have ended peacefully. But it didn’t.”

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