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The Real Story Behind the Waco Siege: Who Were David Koresh and the Branch Davidians?

5 minute read

The standoff between federal agents and the Branch Davidians outside Waco, Texas, dominated headlines for months. The siege left 75 people – including children – dead and changed the way some Americans felt about the federal government.

On Feb. 28, 1993, federal law enforcement agents came face-to-face with the Branch Davidians, a controversial group whose followers described themselves as “students of the Bible,” outside the Mount Carmel compound, where about 130 of them lived.

The agents were attempting to arrest leader David Koresh and raid the group’s 77-acre complex when they began to exchange heavy gunfire at the site. By the end of the shootout, four agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and six Branch Davidians were dead.

The failed operation then turned into a 51-day standoff. During that time, Koresh and most of his followers had refused to leave the compound, which was surrounded by tanks, armored vehicles and more than 600 federal agents. The standoff ended when a fire engulfed the complex on April 19, 1993. Only nine people inside survived. Critics called what happened a Waco a massacre.

The series of events, which gripped the nation two decades ago, is now the focus of Paramount Network’s WACO, a six-part television miniseries that premieres Wednesday.

Here’s what to know about the Waco siege.

Who was David Koresh?

David Koresh with his wife
Vernon Wayne Howell, known as David Koresh, his wife Rachel, and their son Cyrus in front of their houseElizabeth Baranyai/Sygma via Getty Images

David Koresh, born Vernon Howell, was the charismatic leader of the Branch Davidians, taking over control in 1987 after the death of the group’s predecessor, according to FBI records. Koresh had extensive knowledge of the Bible, believed he could speak to God and prophesized about the Second Coming of Christ as well as the imminent end of the world. Authorities said he successfully converted more than 100 people and convinced them to live in his secluded compound near Waco after preaching his teachings throughout the U.S., Israel, Australia and Great Britain. Koresh was considered a highly controversial figure – not least because he used his position in the group to have sex with multiple wives, including, according to the FBI, girls as young as 10.

What started the Waco standoff?

Federal authorities had evidence to suggest Koresh was collecting a cache of weapons inside the Mount Carmel complex. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms believed the community had nearly 250 weapons, including semi-automatic rifles, assault rifles, shotguns, revolvers, pistols and hundreds of grenades, records show.

The ATF wanted to arrest Koresh for unlawful possession of a destructive device and search the 77-acre compound. Officials said the Branch Davidians opened fire on the ATF agents first — a claim which surviving members of the religious community deny to this day. When the gunfight ended, there were 10 total casualties in total. The remaining 62 adults and 21 children, who refused to leave the Mount Carmel compound, then began their standoff with the government.

How did the Waco standoff end?

During the 51-day standoff, the FBI was able to secure the release of 44 people, according to the agency’s records. Koresh had 117 conversations with FBI negotiators that lasted about 60 hours, authorities said. But negotiations stalled when Koresh delayed his surrender, and tensions heightened on April 19, 1993 when the FBI began moving their tanks closer to the complex and throwing tear gas inside. Amid the chaos, a fire erupted and engulfed the building.

Koresh was among the 75 people found dead in the aftermath of the blaze. Many of the deceased had fatal gunshot wounds to the head, chest and face, authorities said. Koresh had a gunshot wound in the middle of his forehead. Among those killed were a 3-year-old boy who was fatally stabbed in the chest and two other minors who suffered fatal blows to the head, according to the FBI.

David Thibodeau, one of only nine Branch Davidian members to survive the fire, told TIME in a recent interview that he believes the dead Branch Davidians were shot by the FBI. (The FBI claims no law enforcement officer had fired a single bullet since the initial shootout.) Thibodeau said it’s also likely some of the Branch Davidians may have shot each other to prevent a slower, more painful death in the fire.

Who started the fire?

David Koresh [Misc.]
Overhead of smoking fire consuming David Koresh-led Branch Davidian cult compoundTime Life Pictures—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

The fire erupted from three separate locations inside the compound, according to the FBI. Who caused the fire has remained a point of contention, although an independent arson investigation concluded the fire was started from within the building. The FBI claims the people inside the complex deliberately started the flames, while the Branch Davidians argue the FBI was behind the blaze. Thibodeau said he firmly believes nobody inside the complex would have started the flames.

In a lengthy report relaying the Waco events, the Justice Department said the 51-day standoff at the Branch Davidian compound was “unprecedented in the annals of American law enforcement.” “Never before have so many heavily armed and totally committed individuals barricaded themselves in a fortified compound in a direct challenge to lawful federal warrants,” the report said.

The high-profile event captivated Americans and national media outlets as it unfolded during the seven weeks and in the years following.

“The sun didn’t blacken, nor the moon turn red, but the world did come to an end, just as their prophet had promised,” TIME’s Nancy Gibbs wrote at the time.

WACO premieres Wednesday, Jan. 24 at 10 p.m. ET on Paramount Network, formerly Spike TV.

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