What Really Happened At Waco? A New TV Show Suggests David Koresh Is Not That Different from Donald Trump

John Erick Dowdle was 20 years old on April 19, 1993, when the Waco massacre occurred. Like pretty much everyone in America, he had been glued to the news, watching the FBI trying to remove religious leader David Koresh and his Branch Davidian sect from the Mount Carmel Center, their ranch in Axtell, Texas, which is 13 miles from Waco. After a 51-day standoff, the FBI launched a final raid. The compound burned to the ground and resulted in the deaths of 76 Davidians, including Koresh.

“I remember the event as tank versus building,” says Dowdle. It was an absurd amount of law enforcement firepower. The results would put U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno in political and moral crossfire, and forever change how the FBI deals with conflict.

The year 1993 was a watershed moment for the media, too. Along with the Tonya Harding scandal, the standoff with Koresh helped usher in the era of 24/7 media coverage—shoving nuance and subtlety in television news reporting out the door. At Waco, there were only good guys and bad guys and nothing in between. 

Years after the raid, Dowdle encountered Waco again in two books: Waco: A Survivor’s Story, by David Thibodeau, a former Branch Davidian, and Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator, by Gary Noesner, who was the chief negotiator at Waco. What they revealed was that “there was all sorts of conflict and dissent on both sides,” says Dowdle. “I got 10 pages into Thibodeau’s book and I turned to my brother Drew and said, ‘You gotta read this. It’s totally different from what I thought.' Once you have faces for the people on Mount Carmel, it changes the way you see them.”

The Dowdle Brothers, who are filmmakers, eventually adapted the books into Waco, a six-part series for the new Paramount Network that debuts Wednesday. It stars Taylor Kitsch as David Koresh, Rory Culkin as Thibodeau and Michael Shannon as Noesner. The real Thibodeau and Noesner were both consultants.

WACO_106_DAY_8_0021 Taylor Kitsch, as David Koresh, on set with creator John Dowdle, co-star Paul Sparks, and creator Drew Dowdle. Paramount Television

Koresh, as played by Kitsch, is someone you can understand people following—infuriating at times, but also magnetic. “He was one of those charismatic characters writers dream about,” says Drew. “Part of the fascination for us was, here was this severely abused kid, with a stutter and dyslexia, who grew up to be a religious leader. That is incredible.”

When you read Thibodeau’s book, John adds, Koresh “is not the evil maniac hell bent on murder that the media created. He had a sense of humor, his sermons were quirky, he played guitar and performed in local bars.”

Koresh assumed the role of spiritual leader of the Branch Davidians in the early 1980s. The sect, also called The Branch, began in 1955 out of a schism among the Davidian Seventh Day Adventists. As the head of the group, Koresh encouraged his followers to think of themselves as students of the Seven Seals, a phrase from the Book of Revelations. He also believed part of his mission was to have 24 children—the future rulers of the kingdom on earth—and decreed that only he, among Mount Carmel's men, could have sex with the women. Husbands and fathers (who were asked to remain celibate) gave away their wives and daughters, if that was what Koresh wanted. At the time of his death, he had fathered 12 children.

“There are elements of Koresh that are indefensible, like taking 12-year-old brides," says Drew. "We would ask Thibodeau to explain how the rest of the Branch Davidians were okay with that. And it was because everything had a basis in scripture. They were people who lived like they were in the Old Testament. It sounds crazy and, again, the rape was indefensible, but in talking to Thibodeau you could at least understand how his followers might be able to get on board.”

“Koresh was certainly guilty of something,” Thibodeau has said. “He was either a polygamist or guilty of statutory rape. Probably both, and both are ridiculous, but it was a community that lives by the Bible, and that’s a frightening book if you really break it apart.”

David_koresh David Koresh in 1987 McLennan County Sheriff's Office

Loving David Koresh required “a certain amount of blindness,” says Drew. “Looking too deep could mean you might not love David anymore. People who support our current president might have a similar perspective. To support him you can’t ask too many questions."

"And there’s another similarity,” he adds. “In David Koresh’s world, he was the source of truth. In order to know it, the Davidians had to get it from him. The president has successfully convinced a lot of Americans that you can’t believe anybody but him. That, in essence, is a huge source of power—and danger.”

THE BEGINNING OF THE END

According to Dowdle’s script, the problems for the Davidians really began at Ruby Ridge, the site of an 11-day standoff in Idaho in August 1992. It started when Randy Weaver failed to appear in court on firearms charges. When authorities came to arrest him, Weaver and members of his family resisted. Eventually, the standoff grew to include U.S. Marshals and agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and the FBI. One U.S. Marshal died, and Weaver’s 14-year-old son and wife were killed by an FBI sniper. It was a tragedy and a public relations disaster for American law enforcement.

On February 27, 1993, The Waco Tribune-Herald began publishing a series of articles, “The Sinful Messiah,” alleging that Koresh abused children and had committed statutory rape of underage brides. The articles mobilized the ATF, which had suspected the Davidians of stockpiling illegal weapons. Search warrant in hand, the agency sent an armada of trucks and soldiers toward Mount Carmel. 

“Internally, they called it Operation Showtime,” says John. “It was seen as a way for the ATF to get good publicity after Ruby Ridge. There was a cattle trailer filled with Happy Meals that they were going to distribute to the Davidian kids on camera!"

“To be honest,” he adds, “one of the challenges in writing this was, How do we make what happened seem more logical because so many mistakes were made. I know hindsight is 20/20, but how could you not have seen some of these problems coming?”

The whole operation was a complete head-scratcher, beginning with the fact that David Koresh jogged outside the compound every day. “The ATF could have arrested him on any of those days,” says Drew, “away from the women and children, without so many agents, without tear gas. None of it makes sense.”

WACO_101_102_UC_0031 John Dowdle with Michael Shannon, who plays FBI negotiator Gary Noesner on 'Waco.' Paramount Televison

It's unclear how shooting started during the ATF's first raid, which was simply to execute the search warrant, but the outcome was four dead federal agents and six dead Davidians. After that, the ATF was quickly pushed aside by the FBI. What they inherited was a bad situation, with unanswered questions from local cops, the government and Americans, who were suddenly introduced to a guy named David Koresh and his religious "cult."

On top of that, “There was a lot of internal fighting within the FBI regarding how to handle the situation,” says John. “The tactical team was all about forcing them out, because that’s all they thought the Davidians would understand. And Noesner and the negotiators were trying to connect with them as humans. There was a huge wedge between those two sides and the longer the thing dragged on, the deeper the wedge got, until it just couldn’t hold anymore.”

The elements of force ultimately prevailed. It’s hard to convey in a six-part series just how tense things got after seven weeks. The country was pressuring the government to end the stand-off, and Koresh only made things worse.

“Part of the prophecy that he’d been preaching for years was that the Davidians were at Mount Carmel to open the fifth seal, which would start with the armies of Babylon showing up at their doorstep,” says John. “I do think there was an element of him wanting to show he was right. And he kept changing the goal posts in negotiations. That made it hard for the FBI to believe in him.”

Indeed, there was a full surrender negotiated. Koresh agreed to bring everyone out if he could write down his interpretation of the Seven Seals, to be shared on TV. “But David took his sweet time working on it,” says Drew. “He was somewhere on the second seal when the FBI invaded. I don’t agree with the way they chose to end it, but I can understand running out of patience after seven weeks.”

In his book, Thibodeau’s biggest criticism of Koresh is that he didn’t let the children leave the compound.

Newly appointed U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno approved the FBI’s recommendation to invade. The standoff, at this point, was costing millions of dollars per week. And based on FBI information, she believed that sexual abuse of children was occurring and that mass suicide was imminent. “I have no idea where they got the suicide idea from,” says John.

On April 19, the FBI released CS gas into the buildings of the compound. Not long after, three fires broke out, spreading quickly. The FBI maintained the blazes were started by the Davidians, which Thibodeau says is not true. Only nine people survived. The rest—men, women and children—were either buried alive in rubble, suffocated by smoke or gas or shot.

Koresh was killed by his number two, Steve Schneider (played by Paul Sparks), who then shot himself. “There’s a moment, late in the series,” says John, “where Steve says, ‘I wish God had picked anyone in the world to speak through other than David.’ And I found that a fascinating aspect of the story—the human cost. The Davidians weren’t just followers. They had human feelings.

"As Gary Neosner said, If David Koresh had died and Steve Schneider were left, everyone would have come out of the building safely."

THE AFTERMATH OF DISASTER

The FBI changed dramatically as a result of the Waco siege. Negotiators are now embedded with tactical units, and neither outranks the other.

“They also learned not to do a nightly news conference,” says John. “They had started that in Waco and it forced them to fill those spots every night. The perception was that they weren’t doing anything if there was nothing to report. Now, if the same situation happened, the FBI would just wait for them to run out of food and water and come out of their own volition, as they did with the Bundy standoff in Oregon.”

Drew says he’s equally disappointed with Congress. “The hearings that followed were political football,” he says. “Bill Clinton was a new president and all the Democrats in Congress, including Chuck Schumer, widely believed everything the FBI said and demonized the Branch Davidians. The Republicans, on the other hand, were very interested in the mistakes that law enforcement made. You watch the national hearings and they didn’t care about exposing the truth. The Republicans wanted to make Clinton look bad, and the Democrats wanted to defend him.

“The Congress was supposed to investigate and hold people accountable," Drew adds. "We elected them to do that. What happened at Waco was just a proxy to quibble over politics.”

Waco premieres January 24th at 10 p.m. on the Paramount Network. 

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