I was 17, hanging out in the Moorhead High School library. I VIVIDLY remember looking at the TVs and seeing the chaos evolving in Waco. Thinking back, I knew there was some sort of cult in that building and David Koresh was, like, this satan-type fella. I also remember hearing about Janet Reno and the government’s attempts to coax the Branch Davidians out of their compound in Waco, TX. Those people were EVIL. GTFO of that house, already, right?
Fast forward to a few weeks ago when Danny and I watched 3 episodes of “Waco” (in one night!). We had a moment when we looked at each other and wondered out loud if we were supposed to feel sorry for David Koresh? Was I feeling PITY for this guy? You know when you watch a horror movie and you scream, “Get out! GET OUT! Run! Save yourself!” and then they run and eventually trip and fall? I felt like I was watching a scary movie and I wanted to yell at David to get out of there, to SAVE HIMSELF. And then I felt bad for feeling bad for him.
As it turns out, I had no clue as to what was really going on at Waco at the tender and ignorant age of 17.
So what really happened in Waco?
For those not in the know, I’ll give you a little background. It’s sort of a long, sordid, crazy-making affair on how we went from Victor Houteff starting the “community” at Mount Carmel in 1934 to 1993’s Koresh-led Branch Davidians, but stick with me. Houteff modeled the community after the Seventh-day Adventists, who believed that preparing for the “end times” was of utmost importance. Life was hard at Mount Carmel and the community was designed to test members and their ability to handle hardships (I don’t think I would’ve done very well there, what with the shabby cottages and the washing of the clothes by hand). In the 1950’s, the group split into factions, with one eventually becoming the Branch Davidians. Twenty-three-year-old Vernon Howell (a.k.a. David Koresh) appeared on the Mount Carmel doorstep in 1982, ready to jam with some prophecies. After having an affair with the then-current leader, 65-year-old Lois Roden (in an attempt to conceive a child, yikes!), David got into it with Ms. Roden’s son, George. David was then forced into exile with the rest of his followers.
George became jealous of David and his followers. In order to show that he was the leader supreme, George challenged David to a rousing game of “Who can raise this corpse from the dead?” Seriously, George dug up a corpse and David said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Koresh went to the authorities, they asked for proof of said corpse and he went back in an attempt to get evidence. Gunfire broke out, George was shot, David was charged with attempted murder and was eventually freed after a mistrial was declared.
The man who became David Koresh was born to a 14-year-old mother and was teased as a child for being dyslexic. He eventually dropped out of school in 11th grade to avoid the constant humilation and floated around congregations, eventually getting kicked out of one or two of them. He started to play music as a way to express himself and, apparently, hung out a lot on Hollywood Boulevard in the ’80s (wha? really?). By the time he made his way to Mount Carmel, he had solidified his belief that he was the incarnation of the sacrified lamb from the book of Revelation. He believed that every book in the bible was a coded story describing humanity’s spiritual history and he had the key to unlocking the meaning.
David Thibodeau, author of Waco: A Survivor’s Story, says that David would preach for 20-30 hours at a time and described him as “modest” and appreciated his “soft-sell, laidback approach.” Thibodeau was a drummer when they met and religion was NOT his thing, which he stressed this over and over again in his book. Eventually, he said, “Though I was strongly drawn to David and fascinated by his ideas, I often had difficulty believing everything he said.”
It became clear through watching the documentary (Taylor Kitsch’s performance is OUTSTANDING) and by reading David Thibodeau’s book, that Koresh’s down-to-earth approach, his passionate convictions and his soothing Texas twang was appealing to many. People were searching for answers and his “revelations” made sense and provided much-needed comfort. Ultimately, Thibodeau said it best when he said, “If I hadn’t liked him so much as a person I most certainly wouldn’t have listened to him.”
Fast forward to the siege of 1993. The ATF approached the compound in Waco with an arrest warrant for David Koresh, as they claimed that he had a stockpile of semi-automatic weapons that they intended to turn into automatic weapons. And, actually, the weapons were not the problem. The problem was that David did not pay the tax in order to obtain the license to do so legally. THIS IS HOW THIS ALL STARTED.
So what’s the deal? What did I miss in the time between watching the that compound fire on TV and now? Apparently, a lot of things:
- Who started shooting first? The Branch Davidians? I mean, they had a HUGE stockpile of weapons, right? Well, yes, they had a huge pile of weapons, but it may have been the FBI that shot at them first. No one really knows.
- Prior to the assaults on Mount Carmel, David Koresh had heard through the outer community that the ATF was curious about their weapons. ATF agents were inside Mount Carmel several times and had numerous opportunities to arrest him then, but they never did.
- After ATF agents were killed, the FBI took over. They were successful in “saving” kids from the building, but whenever an adult came out, the FBI would punish David’s followers by cutting off electricity, using tanks to crush portions of their property or throw flash grenades to force people back INTO THE BUILDING.
- The FBI and David Koresh had reached a breakthrough when David said that he would surrender after Passover. He wanted to take time to write out his interpretation of the Seven Seals from the book Revelation. Despite this, the FBI told Janet Reno that negotiations had stalled, which sent their aggressive tactics into overdrive.
- The FBI had told Janet Reno that the kids inside were being abused, that babies were being beaten. This wasn’t true, but she thought it was. Her answer was to start tear gassing everyone.
- Side note: Even if the kids WERE being abused (young girls were being married off to David Koresh, so, yes, there DEFINITELY was abuse happening, in my opinion), this is not a matter for the ATF. The ATF was the bureau responsible for the start of this whole thing because they went to the compound to execute search and arrest warrants related to the weapons. In addition, Child and Family Services had previously investigated David Koresh for concerns of abuse and the case was closed as the suspicions were unfounded.
- The FBI has claimed that the Branch Davidians committed mass suicide by setting themselves on fire. In fact, it is known that the FBI used a pyrotechnic device to send the tear gas into the compound.
Oh my gosh, I could go on and on and on with a million more bullet points, but I’ll stop here. This New York Times article goes in-depth into the FBI’s use of tear-gas and you can also read the FBI transcripts here (it could take you years to get through these–have fun!).
Since I started writing this, we finished the Waco series on TV and I also read David Thibodeau’s book, Waco: A Survivor’s Story, which the series was based on. Because my obsession runs deep, I read through tons of articles online, which just got me even more fired up