• Taylor Kitsch as David Koresh, the leader of the Branch Davidians cult (SBS)Source: SBS
How a charismatic cult leader preparing for the end of the world inspired this new drama series.
Nathan Jolly

15 Nov 2018 - 12:12 PM  UPDATED 15 Nov 2018 - 12:20 PM

It all began with a front-page report in the Waco Tribune-Herald. 

The result of an eight-month investigation, the news story, published on February 27, 1993, was slated as the first in a sprawling seven-part series which lifted the lid on the evil doings of so-called cult leader David Koresh. Koresh was the head of the Branch Davidians, a fringe religious group with roots planted as far back as 1929. The group lived just outside of Waco, Texas, on a 77-acre compound they named Mount Carmel.

The paper claimed Koresh was abusing children sexually, physically and psychologically; that he had 75 followers who awaited the end of the world, “fashioned a harem” of women who gave birth to his many children, and that he kept “an arsenal of military assault rifles.”

Despite all this, the paper claimed that authorities hadn’t acted on complaints. “The law watches but has done little” yells the headline of a sidebar article.

WATCH: The limited TV series Waco airs on SBS Thursday nights at 8:30pm, with the entire series streaming now at SBS On Demand.

Unbeknown to the paper, and to local readers (many of whom were friendly with members of the Davidians), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) had been planning a raid of the compound for close to a year.

The mainstream media and the government both sold a similar narrative: that this was an unavoidable raid; that Koresh was an unstable cult leader who needed to be stopped before his reign of terror and influence spread too far and wide. The fire was started by Koresh and his followers, and the FBI acted in a way intended to minimise the tragic loss of life that unfolded.   

The raid was set for March 1, 1993, based on suspicions that the Branch Davidians were stockpiling and illegally modifying weapons. They had been surveying the Davidians’ compound for months and had procured arrest warrants for Koresh and a number of his followers. Fearing the surprise element would be lost, they attempted to block the publication of the Waco Tribune-Herald report but failed. They quickly moved the raid forward, to February 28 – the day after the first story was published.

“Hours after Part 2 appeared in print, the ATF raided the group's compound”, the Waco Tribune-Herald crowed.

This was just the beginning of a media campaign that muddied the true story of what happened in Waco over the following 51 days – a tragedy that resulted in the deaths of four ATF agents, and 82 members of the Branch Davidians.

Although the bloodshed during the initial raid was reported as a tragic escalation, it is clear that authorities knew things would get violent beforehand. For one, they knew that Koresh and the Davidians were tipped off about the raid. Despite this, they decided to go ahead as planned. More horrifically, agents had their blood types stencilled on their neck and leg before the raid, in order to speed up necessary transfusions. This is not standard practice for an ATF raid. They were also given quick training to learn how to treat ‘sucking chest wounds'.

After things escalated, the FBI took over proceedings, and a 51-day standoff followed. Koresh’s contact with the media was cut, after a series of phone interviews with the nation and local media. Although the FBI was treating the situation as a hostage crisis, Koresh issued a video that showed that the people inside the compound, including many content-looking children, were there of their own free will. Negotiators feared this video, intended to be released to the media, would garner public sympathy for the Davidians.

During this time, both the media and the FBI cited the Jonestown Massacre and speculated that a mass suicide was the end game for the Davidians, despite Koresh’s repeated insistence this wasn’t the plan.

The FBI negotiators splintered into two factions: those who believed negotiation was the best tact, and those who favoured brute force. Religious experts who believed the suicide theory warned that storming the compound would further the group’s supposed ‘end of day’ beliefs, and lead to further deaths.


Gary Noesner, who was chief negotiator for the FBI during the first three weeks of the standoff was removed from the assignment during these disagreements, as he was considered – as he puts it – “an impediment to stronger action”.

By 1993, the American public was attuned to watching hours of live news, and with this came the construction of a cartoon-like narrative: the dangerous, crazy cult leader; the brainwashed followers; the compound filled with weapons; the doomsday prophesying. The heroic federal agents fighting for American freedoms. 

Due to the drawn-out nature of this standoff, there was plenty of time for the FBI to get their message across. They held press conferences that rammed home the inherent evil of Koresh and his dangerous sect of followers and warned of mass suicides and continued child abuse.

During the siege, Koresh continued to play the media to his own advantage. He claimed he would surrender if given time on a local radio station to deliver his message. The FBI acquiesced and Koresh was put to air. He failed to surrender, however, and the Bureau blocked all calls to the compound and asked the media not to assist in spreading Koresh’s message. One Dallas station ignored this and aired a message to Koresh: “If you hear us, if you want our help and want us to come down, hang out a sheet.”

Someone within the compound was clearly listening, as a white sheet dropped from a window minutes later, with “God Help us, we want the press” scrawled on it.

The FBI was not pleased, claiming the media interference was endangering negotiations with Koresh.

“He loves attention,” Bob Ricks, an FBI Special Agent, said at the time. “He wants to put out his message, and the longer he feels he is able to capture the attention nationwide and is successful in getting his message out, the longer we believe he will continue to hold out.”

Koresh held out until the messy end – the details of which are still disputed.

What is known is that Combat Engineering Vehicles fired explosives into the walls of the compound. Through these holes, tear gas was pumped in, in a supposed attempt to flush the Davidians out.

During the tear gas attack, three fires broke out simultaneously and engulfed the compound. High winds spread the flames, and the compound was quickly turned to rubble. Surviving Davidians claim the FBI’s tear gas attack started the fire; they suggest the Davidians themselves were responsible. 76 people, including David Koresh were killed during the blaze.

As the fire burned, original chief negotiator Gary Noesner watched in horror on a television at FBI headquarters. He later called the attack ‘‘one of the biggest black marks’’ on the FBI, explaining that because an earlier similar raid at Talladega prison was a success, saving “countless lives”, the tactical commanders who were responsible for the Waco raid had "a false sense of infallibility".

In 1999, the FBI admitted to the use of pyrotechnic tear-gas canisters on April 19, 1993, charges they had vehemently denied numerous times over the prior six years. A poll taken that same year cited 61% of Americans as believing the government started the deadly fire.

An independent inquiry into the siege was commissioned.

Former Sen. John C. Danforth led a ten-month inquiry into the siege and, after 16 lawyers and 38 investigators reviewed 2.3 million pages of documents, and interviewed a thousand witnesses, they found that governmental officials did nothing wrong, although the report concedes that lower-level FBI employees misled the public about the use of tear-gas.

"Although the government did nothing evil on April 19, 1993, the failure of some of its employees to fully and openly disclose to the American people the use of pyrotechnic devices undermined public confidence in government and caused real damage to our country," the report read.

"They didn't tell. They knew things and they didn't disclose those things. And the result of that is that people who want to believe the worst about government say, 'Aha! This is something that's really bad.’”

Dick DeGuerin acted as Koresh’s lawyer during the standoff. He entered the compound and met with Koresh on five separate occasions, and believed he was on the cusp of surrendering when the tanks were sent in. He questioned the initial need for 80 armed agents in order to arrest one man on weapons charges.

"There were 80 other people in there and they are all dead. You can't justify sending in tanks and tear gas into their home when there was no arrest warrant for them. You can't blame all those people for the sins of David Koresh."

Attorney Ramsey Clark, who filed a civil suit on behalf of the surviving Davidians a week prior to the report being handed down, was even blunter than DeGuerin.

"History will clearly record, I believe, that these assaults on the Mt. Carmel church center remain the greatest domestic law enforcement tragedy in the history of the United States.”

The term “cult” was used throughout the standoff and continues to be used. The Seventh Day Adventist church, from which the Davidians spawned, have not surprisingly distanced themselves from the events.

Indeed, it has been posited that this tragedy may have been directly responsible for mobilising the far right in America: religious sects, second amendment zealots, and those who feel governmental interference is detrimental to freedom.

Waco has been criticised for giving voice to such concerns, concerns which have long faded from popular view and into the minds of those charged with being either anti-government or conspiracy theorists.

Never mind that, prior to the much-maligned report, 61% of American believed that the government started the fire. Never mind that the FBI openly admitted to lying about their use of tear-gas canisters on the day in which 76 people were killed.

The New Republic derisively call Waco “the perfect show for the Trump era—in a bad way”, stating the series “seems tailor-made for audiences that sympathise with the anti-government fringe.”

More insidiously, they claim: “The people who will enjoy this show the most are those who, like Koresh and the Ruby Ridge white supremacists, believe that the government has no place in the lives of everyday Americans.”

The Ringer also highlighted the “surprising depiction of Koresh, played as a charismatic and complex figure by [Taylor] Kitsch” juxtaposing with what they call “the deluded, manipulative serial sexual predator portrayed in [the Waco Tribune-Herald]." 

In that same Ringer piece Drew Dowdle, the co-creator of Waco, explains the raid was born of a tragic misunderstanding of Koresh’s motives, a misunderstanding that persists to this day.

“The fear of the day was white separatists, domestic terrorists,” he explains. “That was federal law enforcement’s biggest concern in the early ’90s and painting the Branch Davidians with that same brush was a pretty serious mischaracterisation of who they were."

By humanising Koresh and his followers, without letting them off the hook, this miniseries will hopefully realign the perception of what happened at Waco against the facts.

Waco airs on SBS Thursday nights from 8:30pm, with the entire series streaming now at SBS On Demand:

Waco gives a human face to a slaughter that didn’t need to happen
With Michael Shannon and Taylor Kitsch on rival sides of the law, Waco is gripping viewing no matter how well you know the Branch Davidian siege