Many have tried, and many have failed. The story of one of America’s most infamous cult leaders, David Koresh, has inspired many storytellers, during his time alive as the leader of the Branch Davidians, and also since his death 28 years ago.
Koresh had the classic characteristics of a successful cult leader—he was honey-tongued and knew how to charm people into doing unimaginable things. He preached to his followers that the end of the world is nigh, and convinced them to horde food supplies and illegal weapons to be ready for it.
It was the illegal weapons that attracted the attention of law enforcement agencies and resulted in the bloody, 51-day siege in 1993 at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.
In the years following this siege, which led to the deaths of 76 Branch Davidians, including 25 children, two pregnant women, and David Koresh himself, many versions of the story have been told.
The latest of these is Waco, a miniseries airing on Netflix, which tries to paint the cult members and its leader in a more human light. But how much of it is actually true?
1. Who Was David Koresh?
Born Vernon Wayne Howell, Koresh rose to fame after he declared himself the final prophet of the religious cult Branch Davidians.
The cult was started in the 1930s and was a branch of the Davidian Seventh-day Adventist Church. The group believed from the start that Jesus would return and the world as we know it would come to an end.
It was after the cult’s then-leader was convicted of a murder that Koresh replaced him and became their new son of God.
He established the House of David, which allowed him to marry multiple women and spread the “holy seed” to ensure the cult’s continued existence after doomsday.
His brides allegedly included both single and married women and even an 11-year-old child, a fact that is cited to date as justification for the violence all those years ago. Koresh is said to have fathered children borne by several of his cult members’ wives.
According to most people, the mastermind Koresh hypnotized his followers into believing that the doomsday was here, and that they should accept their fates.
According to others, the police’s high-handedness was what led to the compound being under lockdown for weeks before getting torn apart by law enforcement with tear gas shells, some of which were inflammable and caused a fatal fire.
2. The Waco Siege: What Went Down
As part of his message about the imminent doomsday, Koresh instructed his followers to horde food, supplies, and weapons to prepare for the end of the world. The illegal weapons stockpile and allegations of child sexual abuse attracted the attention of the authorities, and they finally obtained a warrant to search the compound.
The 51-day standoff began on February 28, 1993, when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms got a warrant to search the Branch Davidians compound in Waco. The ATF also had arrest warrants for Koresh.
While attempting to raid the ranch, a gunfight between the ATF and the cult members ensued, claiming a total of 10 lives from both sides.
From that day, over 900 members of the American security authorities assembled outside the Mount Carmel Center to battle the cult. A total of 86 people were killed, of which only four were government officials.
Roughly a third of those deaths were caused by tear-gas attacks orchestrated by the FBI, which led to a fire in the compound. That fire was what killed 76 cult members, including 25 children, two pregnant women, and David Koresh himself.
3. The Miniseries and What It Changed
The miniseries titled Waco covered almost all the above facts in its retelling of the fateful and bloody 1993 siege. There were a few changes, likely made in the name of creative liberty, as listed below.
I. The Branch Davidian Community Did Not Get Wiped out by the Siege—it Still Exists
In the Netflix series, we are told that the Branch Davidians ceased to exist following the end of the standoff.
However, according to the History channel, a second group of Davidians has since settled in Mount Carmel. They call themselves Branch, The Lord Our Righteousness.
The group is led by Charles Pace, who became a Davidian in 1973 but left the compound after Koresh’s rise and before the 1993 siege.
II. Koresh Did Not Start the Cult
Even though the series clearly suggests that the Branch Davidians were led from the start by Koresh, the truth is that the cult first broke away from the mainstream Seventh-day Adventist Church back in the 1930s. The split was led by one Victor Houteff.
Houteff’s group eventually moved to a farm some 10 miles east of Waco, Texas. In 1959, Ben Roden gathered a group that called themselves Branch Davidians. By 1962, he and his followers had taken possession of the Waco compound, then known as Mount Carmel.
There, the Branch Davidians lived a simple life, preparing for the imminent return of Jesus. However, in the mid-1980s, the group found itself embroiled in a power struggle. Ben Roden’s son George intended to become the next leader of the Branch Davidians, and considered David Koresh to be an interloper.
By the end of the decade, David Koresh had become the head of the cult.
III. Noesner Was on the Site for 25 Days Only
The show is inspired by two books: Waco: A Survivor’s Story by Branch Davidian survivor David Thibodeau (played by Rory Culkin in the show), and Stalling for Time: My Life As An FBI Hostage Negotiator by FBI negotiator Gary Noesner (portrayed by Michael Shannon).
The actors in the series seem to have gone to great lengths to portray their characters as truthfully as possible. However, the structural details of the story have been tweaked for effect.
According to the series, FBI negotiator Noesner was present for the entire 51-day siege. However, he pointed out to Time that he was only there for the first 25 days.
However, these details don’t change the overall story much, and the series has managed to remain impressively faithful to the real version of events.
4. About Waco
Waco is a television miniseries that premiered on Paramount Network in January 2018. It was developed by John Eric Dowdle and Drew Dowdle.
The six-episode series is a dramatization of the 51-day standoff that took place in 1993 between the David Koresh-led Branch Davidians, and the combined forces of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in Waco, Texas.