It’s the 26th anniversary of one of the world’s most tragic incidents in the history of religious cults; the 51-day siege, bloodbath and inferno at Waco, Texas that ended in the deaths of 78 people.
The Branch Davidian cult was led by David Koresh, who convinced his followers he was the “Lamb of God” and persuaded men to be celibate while he slept with many of his female followers, including pre-teen and teenage girls.
The siege between FBI agents and members of the Branch Davidian religious group began on February 28, 1993, when the FBI raided the compound of the cult, which was under suspicion of illegally converting semiautomatic guns into automatic weapons.
Koresh had complete, disturbing control over his followers, who were known as “Branch Davidians”. More than 130 people were living with Koresh in the cult’s compound in Waco; all of them gave up their lives to obey Koresh.
Most of them would die inside the compound, refusing to believe Koresh was anything but “the one” Lamb of God.
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Girls as young as 12 were recruited as “wives”, and Koresh fathered at least 12 children by them. Some believe he fathered 15 or 16 children. All male followers were to remain celibate, and they were told if Koresh had sex with a woman, she was officially in the “House of David”.
Koresh’s only legal marriage was to 14-year-old Rachel Jones (legal under Texas law as her parents gave permission). One of the reasons he asked male followers to “nullify” their own marriages was so he could have whatever woman he wanted, including Jones’ 12-year-old sister.
But word got out that Koresh and his followers had stockpiled a huge arsenal of automatic assault weapons for what police officers believed to be a planned battle. When officers raided the compound on the morning of February 28, it led to a 51-day stand-off that dominated news around the world and only ended when the compound was set on fire.
Only nine people walked out with their lives, and most survivors are still faithful to Koresh.
David Koresh: Lamb of God
According to FBI records, Koresh (whose real name was Vernon Howell) took control of the Branch Davidians in 1987, aged 27, following the death of the group’s predecessor.
To Branch Davidians, Koresh was the almighty Lamb of God, who was preparing his followers for the apocalypse. By the age of 12, Koresh had memorised a huge amount of the Bible and his followers were in awe of his interpretations of scripture.
Waco survivor Sheila Martin, whose children died in the compound, said in 2017 that she still had a strong faith in Koresh.
“We saw him as a prophet. We saw him even a little closer to God than even a prophet,” Martin told CNN.
Bible study sessions would last anywhere between 10 and 18 hours, and according to survivors, followers would listen intently. Koresh warned Davidians the horrors detailed in the Book of Revelation, such as killer locusts and earthquakes, were coming soon, and he promised to prepare them for the end of the world.
He also told them he was the “one” who could unlock the Seven Seals, and that’s how he had this knowledge. When he told his followers that a major confrontation with the US government was imminent, the February 28 raid was seen as a validation of his prophecies. If he was right about that, he must be right about everything.
Life in the compound
Koresh was in control of everyday life; from ensuring women were on restricted diets (he wanted the women to be slim, sometimes popcorn was all they were allowed for dinner) to banning dairy products (apparently he believed dairy was only OK for babies).
If anybody misbehaved, they were whacked with either a paddle (children) or adults would have to cope with being beaten by an oar.
Men and women were ordered to sleep in separate rooms. Men and boys were expected to get up at 5.30am for “training”, while women had a strict dress code; long blouses and zero make-up and jewellery.
As the Book of Revelations mentions 24 heavenly thrones, Koresh wanted 24 children to be born at the compound. That was his logic for ordering men to take a vow of celibacy while he was free to sleep with the women in a bid to impregnate them with his offspring. Survivors say his female followers didn’t have any objections.
On February 28, 1993, more than 76 agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) arrived at the compound in an attempt to execute a search warrant. They were investigating reports the cult was collecting a cache of illegal weapons.
A firefight broke out with the Branch Davidians, lasting two hours, resulting in the death of four ATF agents (16 others were injured) and five Branch Davidians (two by their own members).
After the failure of the ATF raid, the FBI started to negotiate during the stand-off that lasted 51 days. Experts claim one of the biggest problems was the FBI negotiators treated the siege as though the cult members were hostages when all adults had joined the group willingly and had always been free to leave if they wanted to.
Some biblical scholars urged the FBI to use some of Koresh’s religious beliefs to help bring an end to the siege, but Koresh told negotiators, “I’m dealing with God not with you.”
On the morning of April 19, US Attorney-General Janet Reno authorised the FBI to carry out an assault to end the siege. The plan was for the FBI Hostage Rescue Team to pump tear gas into the compound, but even though the gas was used for six hours, few people left the building.
FBI negotiator Byron Sage told the Texas Monthly: “We believed that when the tear gas was inserted, mothers would move heaven and earth to get their children to safety and bring them out. We grossly underestimated the control that David exerted over them.”
The siege became increasingly strange when the FBI ignored the advice of experienced negotiators and cut off electricity in the compound. The FBI went a step further and blasted “irritating” sounds into the compound, including Nancy Sinatra’s popular song, These Boots Are Made for Walkin’. It’s not known what other irritating sounds were used, but around midday, three fires broke out in various sections of the compound. With the fire fanned by strong winds, those who remained inside the compound didn’t stand a chance. The question of who started the fire is still a point of contention 26 years later.
The tragic aftermath
Only nine of the Branch Davidians walked out alive; 76 bodies were found in the aftermath, including Koresh and more than 20 children. Many had huddled under wet blankets as protection from the fire but were killed by falling debris — others died due to smoke inhalation.
However, others were found with gunshot wounds. Several children were shot and a three-year-old was found with stab wounds to the chest. The FBI maintains their officers did not fire any shots that day
Some of the nine survivors of the siege are still angry with the way they believe they were portrayed by the media: as victims instead of “true believers”.
Others see the Waco tragedy as an ill-fated combination of religion and guns — the complexity around the fear of government removing both those rights; the right to bear arms and the right to religious freedom.
The Davidians placed an enormous amount of their faith in Koresh, and some Waco survivors continue to do to this day.
Former Branch Davidian David Thibodeau wrote in his book, Waco: a Survivor’s Story: “So many of the Davidians have been demonised by the media … I felt it my duty to tell the true story of a group of people who were trying to live according to their religious beliefs and the teachings of a man they all considered divinely inspired.”
Whether Koresh was deluded or evil is also something that’s still in question.
— LJ Charleston writes historical features for news.com.au. Continue the conversation @LJCharleston