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It’s been more than 25 years since dozens of members of the Branch Davidian sect died after a botched 51-day siege by federal law enforcement, but their story continues to attract attention. With Paramount’s Waco miniseries now landed on Netflix, a whole new generation is learning of David Koresh and his doomed followers. The series stars 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.) Here’s what you should know about the true story of what happened at the Branch Davidians’ compound, and of those who survived it.
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.
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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 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.
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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.
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.
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.
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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.
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“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.
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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.
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