It’s been nearly 30 years since the Waco massacre, and America is still trying to unpack what happened. On April 19th, 1993, the U.S. Federal Government conducted a siege on a compound that was occupied by David Koresh, and his religious cult, the Branch Davidians. After a 51-day standoff, dozens of Davidians were killed during the botched final operation, along with multiple members of U.S. law enforcement. The tragedy was broadcast live and shook the nation. Since then, there have been many retellings.
Just look at the last half-decade. In 2018 Paramount released a miniseries called Waco, which later moved to Netflix. The show starred Taylor Kitsch as the cult leader and is based on the memoirs of a survivor, David Thibodeau (Rory Culkin), and FBI negotiator Gary Noesner (Michael Shannon.) Now, this year, two more series about Waco will premiere. On April 16th, Waco: The Aftermath will air on Showtime. The project is a sequel to the Paramount miniseries, and it follows Branch Davidians who survived the siege. Netflix is also releasing the documentary Waco: American Apocalypse on March 22nd, which relays exclusive footage from the tragedy.
With these two projects in the works, a new generation will soon be introduced to Koresh and his doomed followers. Before that happens, here’s what you should know about the true story of what happened at the Branch Davidians’ compound, and of those who survived it.
The Branch Davidians had a violent history even before the siege.
David Koresh was the last leader of the Branch Davidians, but he didn’t form the group. Instead, the sect was created by Benjamin Roden in the late 1950s, as an offshoot of an offshoot of the Seventh-Day Adventist church. The group was led first by Roden and then his wife Lois until her death in 1986.
The 1993 siege was not the first act of violence to occur at the Mount Carmel Center, the group’s Waco, Texas compound. David Koresh, born Vernon Wayne Howell in 1959, joined the sect in 1981 and became a leader within the community. He embarked upon a sexual relationship with Lois and challenged her son, George Roden, for leadership of the group after her death.
David and Rachel Koresh with their son, Cyrus.
Roden, who said that Koresh had raped and brainwashed his mother, demanded that Koresh perform a miracle in order to win control of the group and challenged him to the task of raising the dead. Koresh and seven of his followers, exiled from the compound during the dispute, snuck back onto the property. They later told police they were there to photograph a decades-old corpse that Roden had exhumed for resurrection, in order to offer authorities proof that he had desecrated a body. There was a shootout between the two camps. Roden was wounded in the gunfire, and Koresh won control of Mount Carmel.
Koresh and his supporters were armed with, according to the New York Times, “five .223-caliber semi-automatic assault rifles, two .22-caliber rifles and two 12-gauge shotguns with almost 400 rounds of ammunition.” The weapons were confiscated by authorities after the gunfight, but later returned. Koresh was later acquitted on charges that he attempted to murder Roden. (His lawyers brought the exhumed coffin to court, hoping to introduce it as evidence. According to the Times, Koresh “tied a pink bow around the skeleton's neck, to dress it up.”) In 1989, Roden murdered his roommate, and told authorities that he believed he was a hitman hired by Koresh. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and confined to a mental institution until his death.
Koresh led the group for five years before the siege.
Koresh was a high school dropout and drifter before he joined the Branch Davidians, but once in the group, he declared himself a prophet. The Davidians believed that the apocalypse was imminent, and that Koresh was the Lamb of God foretold in the Book of Revelations whose arrival would lead to the second coming of Christ.
Mount Carmel during the standoff.
He prophesied that he would have 24 children who would play an integral role in the end times. In order to produce those children, he mandated that his male followers become celibate, even those who were married, and took multiple “wives” from the ranks of his followers. Some were girls as young as 12 years old. Surviving children reported that physical abuse and sexual abuse by Koresh was widespread within the compound.
On February 27, 1993, the Waco Tribune Herald published the first in a series of articles reporting that the Branch Davidians, who ran a business selling weapons at gun shows, were stockpiling guns and abusing children on their compound. The following day, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms tried to execute a search warrant at Mount Carmel. Though Koresh went on regular jogs and often left the property, authorities decided to attempt to arrest him while he was in the well-armed compound. However, the group had been tipped off about the coming raid, and were prepared for a gunfight by the time ATF agents arrived. Koresh was wounded and six of his followers were shot to death, while 4 ATF agents were killed.
A 51-day siege followed this initial skirmish. FBI negotiators secured the release of some Davidians, though many more remained inside the compound. Meanwhile, authorities gathered what is thought to be the most powerful military force assembled against American civilians. According to the New Yorker, law enforcement brought in “ten Bradley tanks, two Abrams tanks, four combat-engineering vehicles, six hundred and sixty-eight agents in addition to six U.S. Customs officers, fifteen U.S. Army personnel, thirteen members of the Texas National Guard, thirty-one Texas Rangers, a hundred and thirty-one officers from the Texas Department of Public Safety, seventeen from the McLennan County sheriff’s office, and eighteen Waco police, for a total of eight hundred and ninety-nine people.”
Aside from the show of force, officials attempted to harass the Davidians out of the compound by blaring music and recordings of the screams of rabbits being slaughtered into Mount Carmel throughout the night. Experts later suggested that federal agents didn’t comprehend the extent of the sect’s religious zeal, or the fact that violence from authorities only confirmed their belief in an impending apocalypse.
The remains of the Branch Davidians’ compound.
With President Bill Clinton’s approval, Attorney General Janet Reno gave authorities approval to launch an assault on the compound, citing the reports of child abuse and fear of a Jonestown-style mass suicide. The FBI stormed the compound with tear gas, and after this assault, a fire broke out. While survivors claim that the group didn’t set the blaze, authorities released transcripts of recordings from within Mount Carmel in which Davidians discussed starting the fire. Around 80 Branch Davidians died, including at least 20 children.
The siege left dozens of survivors.
Before the fatal fire, 14 adults and 21 children left the compound, while nine more escaped after the fire began. After the siege ended, eight members of the sect were convicted on charges of voluntary manslaughter and using firearms in the commision of a crime. By 2007, all had been released from prison.
Some survivors of the group stayed in the Waco area and remained devout, like Clive Doyle and Sheila Martin. Doyle lost his daughter in the blaze, while Martin lost her husband Wayne, a Harvard-educated lawyer played on the series by Demore Barnes, and her four eldest children. They believe that at the end of days, Koresh and their loved ones will all be resurrected as martyrs.
“Somebody asked me one time, they said, ‘Do you blame David Koresh for all that happened to you?’” Doyle told Texas Monthly in 2018. “And I said, ‘No, I blame God. God is supposed to be in control. God permitted it to happen for a reason.’”
Joann Vaega is another survivor. She was six years old during the siege, and was one of the 21 children released before the fire broke out. Her parents both died in the fire, and she was sent to live with her elder half-sister in her native Hawaii. She’s described a life of fear within the compound. “You just did not know what (Koresh) had up his sleeve at any time of the day,” she told Today in 2018.
“It was kind of scary, going from being spanked for everything you do to making mistakes as a kid and waiting for the ax to drop,” she said of her adjustment to life among the Branch Davidians. “Flushing toilets was a big deal, baths were a big deal, even running water in general. I had no idea what anything was. It was like starting completely over.” Now, she’s a training and development director for a restaurant, as well as a married mother of two.
Waco is partially based on the memoirs of survivor David Thibodeau, who managed to escape the burning compound and today lives in his hometown in Bangor, Maine, where he plays the drums in a local band. He does not belong to a church.
Thibodeau with Rory Culkin at the Waco premier.
Thibodeau remains somewhat sympathetic to Koresh. “To all the people that he hurt, I'm not—I can't be an apologist for David Koresh,” he told the Dallas Observer, “but I feel for people that have had negative experiences at the hands of David. Let me put it that way. I think about those people, whether I agree with them on every point or not. Everyone has a right to their experience.”
A new group of Davidians have built a chapel on the site of the former compound. This sect, which calls itself Branch, the Lord Our Righteousness, is helmed by a former follower of Lois Roden, who initially parted ways with the group after Koresh came to power.
Gabrielle Bruney is a writer and editor for Esquire, where she focuses on politics and culture. She's based (and born and raised) in Brooklyn, New York.
Associate Staff Writer
Bria McNeal is a Manhattan based journalist who is patiently awaiting B5's revival. When she's not writing about all things entertainment, she can be found watching TV or trying to DIY something (likely, at the same time). Her work has appeared in NYLON, Refinery29, InStyle, and her personal newsletter, StirCrazy.
As an enthusiast with in-depth knowledge of the Waco siege and its aftermath, I can attest to the intricate details and historical context surrounding the tragic events of April 19th, 1993. My expertise stems from a comprehensive understanding of the Waco incident, its key players, and the various perspectives that have emerged over the years.
Let's delve into the concepts mentioned in the article:
Branch Davidians and David Koresh:
- The Branch Davidians originated as an offshoot of the Seventh-Day Adventist church, established by Benjamin Roden in the late 1950s.
- David Koresh, born Vernon Wayne Howell, became the leader of the Branch Davidians after a power struggle with George Roden, who accused Koresh of raping and brainwashing his mother.
- Koresh prophesied apocalyptic events, declaring himself the Lamb of God mentioned in the Book of Revelations.
Violence and Leadership Struggles:
- The Mount Carmel Center, the group's Waco compound, witnessed a history of violence even before the 1993 siege.
- A shootout between Koresh and George Roden resulted in Koresh gaining control of the compound.
- Koresh's leadership was marked by his declaration as a prophet, imposition of celibacy on male followers, and reports of widespread physical and sexual abuse.
Initial ATF Raid and 51-Day Siege:
- The ATF attempted to execute a search warrant at Mount Carmel after reports of weapons stockpiling and child abuse.
- A gunfight ensued, leading to casualties on both sides.
- The subsequent 51-day siege involved FBI negotiators and a substantial show of force against the Branch Davidians.
Final Assault and Fire:
- Attorney General Janet Reno approved an assault on the compound, citing reports of child abuse and fears of a mass suicide.
- Tear gas was used, and a fire broke out, resulting in the death of around 80 Branch Davidians, including children.
- Some survivors were convicted on charges of voluntary manslaughter and firearm use.
Survivors and Their Lives After the Siege:
- Several survivors, such as Clive Doyle, Sheila Martin, and Joann Vaega, faced personal losses but remained devout.
- The article highlights the post-siege lives of survivors, including Joann Vaega, who transitioned to a life outside the compound.
Retellings and Media Coverage:
- The article mentions various retellings of the Waco siege, including the Paramount miniseries "Waco" and the upcoming projects on Showtime and Netflix.
- Survivor David Thibodeau's memoirs serve as the basis for some of these portrayals.
This overview provides a nuanced understanding of the Waco siege, incorporating historical events, leadership dynamics, and the lasting impact on survivors. The tragedy continues to be a subject of interest, prompting ongoing discussions and media explorations into its complex narrative.