This year marks the 25th anniversary of the almost two-month-long siege at Waco, yet another crime story that dominated the news for what felt like a significant portion of my childhood. It was one of those stories that as a kid you only received strange fragments of, on the covers of magazines, in dramatic clips on the news, in the low-spoken conversations of parents and their friends.
This month, the story of the Branch Davidians and the stand-off at Waco is becoming the most recent historical phenomenon pulled from the early 1990s, when sensational true crime stories flooded every media outlet. A new miniseries out on Spike this month, as well as a docuseries from ABC’s Truth and Lies, both attempt to tell the extreme story of David Koresh and his band of followers, as well as their violent downfall by federal agents with methods still questioned to this day. Who were these 75 men, women, and children, who died in the famous fire, believing it to be a fulfillment of the prophecy of their leader?
The Branch Davidians and the rise of David Koresh
What ended up as a definitive cult started as a riff between members of the Davidian Seventh-day Adventist movement that came from another riff with the Seventh-day Adventists. A compound for the group was settled outside Waco, a place called the Mount Carmel Center. There were a series of leaders to the movement, husbands would die and then wives would take over, all sharing a general apocalyptic vision. At the time of David Koresh’s arrival, a woman in her late 60s named Lois Roden was leading the compound.
David Koresh was born Vernon Wayne Howell to a teenage mother in 1959. Koresh lived with his grandparents in Houston where he eventually dropped out of high school and joined the Church of Seventh Day Adventists, but was kicked out soon after for bad behavior. Even before Koresh turned 18, he claimed to have the entire Bible memorized, and claimed that God had told him he was the messiah. In a 180 degree turn, Koresh headed out to California to follow a dream. He wanted to be a rock guitarist.
A few years later at age 22, Koresh ended up at the Mount Carmel Center, a compound with no heat, electricity, or running water, with a strict Bible study schedule three times daily. There he met leader and widow Lois Roden, who would allegedly go on to become his much older lover. He apparently wanted to get her pregnant, believing that the child she would bear would become the Chosen One. That was 1981. Less than ten years later, Koresh would assume control of the Branch Davidians.
As his influence started to grow in the movement, Koresh played music for the members under the name King David, and then soon began to claim the ability to see prophecies, just like their current leader. By 1983, Roden was allowing Koresh to preach his own message, “The Serpent’s Root,” a controversy within the group, especially with Roden’s son George, heir to the group’s leadership, who was beginning to feel this future power being maneuvered away.
In 1990, Koresh announced that he was changing his name (from the original Vernon Howell) to David Koresh, to align himself with both King David, to show his divine linage, as well as the Persian king Cyrus, who’s name is Koresh in Hebrew. It was at this point that Koresh went from leader of the religious movement to the common picture we know of a full-blown, delusional cult leader.
Koresh referred to himself as the “Lamb of God,” and began to encourage the mass collection of guns and ammo, and foretold of a coming apocalypse. He especially liked to speak about an impending attack by the US government. Koresh married teenaged member Rachel Jones and had three children with her.
When Lois Roden died, her son was able to take control of the compound, upsetting much of the group, whose loyalty had shifted toward Koresh. Their battle for power included a test created by Roden, in which a corpse was exhumed and Koresh was asked to resurrect the dead person. Koresh and a group of his most devoted followers left the center and lived cloistered lives in Eastern Texas until, in 1987, they returned and shot George Roden, who survived. Koresh and his followers were acquitted of attempted murder, and hesoon became the leader of the Branch Davidians after Roden was committed to an institution.
Koresh began to exert his brand of control. Women weren’t allowed to wear make-up or jewelry, and had to wear particularly modest clothing. All members could not eat certain foods, including processed flour, sugar, and dairy. Beatings were a common punishment (even for children), as well as public shaming. In 1989, he began taking on “spiritual wives,” in the form of women and girls as young as 12. He believed his children would create a lineage of new rulers. Koresh had 12 children with Branch Davidians other than Rachel Jones. Sexual and physical abuse of minors became commonplace.
The US government had been paying attention to the large stockpile of weapons that was amassing at Mount Carmel, as well as the whispers of child sexual abuse. They went through the channel of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, which arrived with a warrant at Mount Carmel on February 28, 1993 at 9:45am. For two hours, the ATF attempted to raid the compound with weaponry, and was met with force from the Branch Davidians, though to this day it is unclear just who opened fire first. Four agents were killed in the initial battle, and 16 more were injured. Five Branch Davidians were also killed. The FBI took over from there, and successfully directed the release of 19 of the children remaining in Mount Carmel. It was then that the FBI was able to confirm the rumored abuse.
Koresh tried to make a deal with agents: he would give himself up if one of his sermons was played on a national radio station, however, the FBI did not pursue this option. They employed different tactics to break the members, including sleep deprivation by floodlights and the loudly projected sounds of rabbits being killed.
The stand-off lasted until April 19th, almost two months after the first siege. The FBI used tear gas to attempt to smoke out the members, who were still heavily armed. The FBI was armed with .50 caliber rifles and combat vehicles, but was instructed not to shoot first. Soon, the infamous and enormous fire broke out at Mount Carmel, that would go on to kill more than 75 people, including 22 children. Koresh either committed suicide or was shot by a member that day.
The FBI has long been criticized for their brash handling of the stand-off. To this day, it is unclear how the fire started. A federal evaluation concluded that it was the Branch Davidians that started the fire, not poor planning by the FBI, though critics have their doubts. Twelve of the surviving Branch Davidians were convicted of aiding and abetting the murder of federal agents. For those that served time, all were out of prison by 2007.
The retired head of the FBI's negotiating team in Waco, Byron Sage, had this to say about the handling of the stand-off: "[Koresh] had an apocalyptic end in mind, apparently, and he used us to fulfill his own prophecy."
The Current Branch Davidians
Unsurprisingly, the Branch Davidians decided to rebrand after Waco, and are now known as Branch, The Lord Our Righteousness. Some of the nine who lived through Waco still believe in the divinity of Koresh, and that he is going to be resurrected.
"We survivors of 1993 are looking for David and all those that died either in the shootout or in the fire," survivor Clive Doyle says. "We believe that God will resurrect this special group."
“We believed that David was given a great truth, a great understanding,” Waco survivor Sheila Martin told NPR. “We saw him as a prophet — we saw him even a little closer to God than even a prophet.”
The new leader of Branch takes a slightly less intense stance on his religious authority: "I came back here after the slaughter and I feel that the Lord has anointed me and appointed me to be the leader," says Charles Pace. "I don't claim to be a prophet. I'm a teacher of righteousness, that's the only thing I claim." However, the community is apparently still focused on the end-times.