David Koresh led the radical religious sect known as the Branch Davidians throughout the late eighties and early nineties. He infamously forced the cult into a 51-day standoff with the US government which resulted in a shootout and blazing fires that took nearly 80 people’s lives. Koresh took the time during the shootout to preach his outlandish religious philosophies while his followers guarded the compound with a stockpile of weapons. The FBI sat outside the compound property at a cost of around a million dollars a week until they finally stormed in with tear gas. To this day, the 51-day siege is the longest shootout in American law enforcement history.
The cult leader was a self-proclaimed prophet who preached about the apocalyptic times ahead. He told his followers that he was literally the son of God and liked to instil fear to command power. Prior to the Mount Carmel cult compound being raided in 1993 by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, Koresh had been investigated for multiple claims of child abuse. He had almost 20 wives and dozens of children.
Koresh began leading the Branch Davidian cult in the late eighties until everything fell apart in 1993. How did this man go from a rockstar wannabe to the leader of one of the most radical religious cults in history? Here are 15 facts you need to know about the Branch Davidian cult leader, David Koresh.
David Koresh was born in Houston, Texas as Vernon Wayne Howell in 1959. His mother was only 14 at the time and he was raised by his grandparents, who attended the Church of Seventh Day Adventists. Apparently, he was nicknamed “Vernie” by his peers, which really got him upset. He changed his name in 1990 after joining the Branch Davidians and discovering his new identity.
He chose David after King David from the Bible. He chose Koresh after King Cyrus the Great, who liberated the Jewish people from Babylon. On the official court documents, Koresh stated that the name change was for “publicity and business purposes” and it was not long before he became the cult leader.
Shortly after moving to Waco, Texas in the early 1980s, Koresh joined the Branch Davidians on their compound in Mount Carmel. You could say that he slept his way to the top of the cult, because he began having an affair with the much older female cult leader, Lois Roden. Their romantic relationship continued for years, but that did not stop him from getting married to a teenager named Rachel Jones.
After Lois Roden passed away, Koresh fought with her son George over who would take over as the leader of the Branch Davidians. George led the cult for a while and David ran off with some of his followers to eastern Texas for a few years. In 1987, he returned to Mount Carmel with a heavily armed group of supporters to take Roden down. George survived the attack and Koresh and some of the men were tried for attempted murder, but they were all acquitted.
The Branch Davidians thought that the Bible was the literal word of God and that all of the prophecies in the book would be fulfilled. One former cult member spoke with a news outlet in the nineties and revealed some details about life on the Mount Carmel compound before the raid.
The group believed that the Bible’s Book of Revelations contained scriptures about the end of the world. The Davidians believed that when the apocalypse came, God would judge everyone. They thought that sinners would be punished and those who followed God would be rewarded in a special kingdom. One of their main beliefs was that the Devil was “in control of the nations of the world” and that they would eventually all merge toward “Babylon the Great.”
Despite the fact that he demanded his male followers take a vow of celibacy, David Koresh allowed himself to take multiple wives of his own. The cult leader even forced the men to offer up their wives to him in the process.
Koresh was also accused of abusing young girls, some of which would go on to become his wives. The cult leader had been investigated for crimes like child abuse in the past, leading up the police raid. He had 19 wives in total, all of which had several of his children. Some of the children were released from the compound before the standoff but unfortunately, more than twenty of them perished in the fires set by David and his followers.
Koresh believed that the second coming of Christ was imminent and that The Book of Revelations depicted the end of the world. According to former followers of the Branch Davidian cult, their leader would sometimes preach scriptures at them for 19 hours at a time.
David used his “visions” of the apocalypse to terrify his followers. He knew that the more he instilled fear, the easier it would be to get them to obey his commands. Koresh would tell his followers that when their final days arrived, the sinners would be severely punished by God while the blessed would be rewarded. His theories about the end of the world were not backed by anything but the scriptures in the Bible, which the Branch Davidians took extremely literally.
As a young boy, David loved going to church with his grandmother and listening to the church music. He played the guitar and had dreams of becoming a famous rock star. Koresh spent a few years in Los Angeles in his early twenties to pursue a career in music. His band’s albums were released after his death, including David Koresh Voice of Fire in 1994 and Waco: Playing With Fire (The Actual Voice of David Koresh) in 2000.
A lot of people compared Koresh to Charles Manson because they were both egotistical cult leaders who preached about the end of the world and had failed dreams of becoming famous musicians. During the police standoff, Koresh blasted songs like Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” at law enforcement officers who were standing by to seize his compound.
Some of the children that were released from the cult revealed some shocking secrets about the way people were treated in the compound. Mount Carmel was filled with electronic equipment, weapons, and ammunition, but it did not have running water or plumbing. The kids described having to empty pots of human waste every day.
In order to enforce discipline, Koresh deprived the children of food. He would force them to go days without food until they behaved the way he wanted or did what he demanded of them. Therapists that treated these children after they got out of the cult revealed that they had a “difficult time making the adjustment to a nonphysical form of discipline.” Child Protective Services noted that the children that were brought in “frequently talked about how odd it was to have warm food.”
A UPS delivery driver was actually the one who tipped off the FBI agents, letting them know that the Branch Davidians had been stockpiling weapons and explosives. In June of 1992, the delivery man was dropping off a package to the Mount Carmel compound. The package was accidentally opened, revealing tons of automatic weapons, grenades, and a ton of explosive powder. After seeing what was inside the package, the driver realized that he had been delivering similar looking packages to the compound for months.
The UPS worker contacted the authorities to let them know what he had found. It was this information that kicked off the investigation into Koresh and the Branch Davidian cult. From then until February of the following year, the FBI worked to gather enough evidence for an arrest warrant for Koresh and a search warrant for the compound.
Koresh told his followers that he was the son of God and lured them into doing anything he desired. So when the FBI arrived to raid the compound, he ordered his followers to fight back. The 51-day standoff included days where David would make people get up at 5:30 in the morning for boot camp drills, during which he would not provide them with water.
The FBI stormed the cult compound with 12 tanks, four combat vehicles, and almost 2,000 officers in an attempt to get Koresh to surrender. When the FBI decided that they had waited long enough, they entered the property and spread tear gas throughout. Once David knew there was no way out, he ordered some men to start a few giant fires on the compound that would eventually wipe out almost 80 people.
The FBI had to get creative in order to get inside Koresh’s cult so that they could gather evidence to take them down. After David allowed a few children to be released from the compound, the FBI tried to strike a deal with him to let more go. They told him they would deliver free milk to the compound but Koresh refused the deal. The FBI sent the milk cartons over anyway and planted listening devices inside the Styrofoam packing containers.
Some of the milk cartons ended up making their way onto the compound, despite Koresh’s disapproval. Although the on-site commander for the FBI at Waco said that it was a “very chancy” move, they were able to capture some audio that provided them with insight.
The FBI had two teams working to take down David Koresh and the Branch Davidians. There were negotiators who tried to form a relationship with Koresh and the other cult members over time. There was also a Hostage Rescue Team, which focused on tactical maneuvers.
The two agency teams often clashed, arguing over how to go about handling certain matters pertaining to the case. The Hostage Rescue Team often took a more aggressive route, opting to destroy the cult member’s cars. They also believed that the negotiators should have been tougher on the Davidians by denying them food or water and cutting off their power. One FBI team member said that “there was a high level of frustration” between the teams.
David Koresh may have told his followers that he believed he was the Messiah but evidence showed that he may not actually have believed it himself. FBI agents told the media that some of the Branch Davidians had revealed that they were required to undergo an “exit interview” with David before leaving the compound. During this time, he would remind them that abandoning him was basically rejecting salvation.
One of the FBI negotiators who had contact with Koresh said that he “danced around” the question when he was asked if he thought he was “Christ,” answering that “no man can know me nor my father unless they open their book and give a fair chance in honesty and equity to see the seals.” The government agent concluded that he was a con man who “does not buy off on his own con.”
The FBI was convinced that David Koresh would eventually surrender after all the time they spent negotiating with him during the 51-day standoff. They even offered him the opportunity to broadcast his apocalyptic message across the radio and television. After waiting and waiting, the agents finally decided they had to make a move and went into the compound with tear gas. When they got inside, they realized the cult members had enough ammunition to last them a year.
The FBI agents later stated that if they had known Koresh was planning a mass suic*de, they “wouldn’t have done it.” After six hours of tear gassing, the Davidians set three huge fires across the compound. Most of the cult members died of smoke inhalation, including 25 children.
The Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives agents stormed Mount Carmel to arrest David Koresh and search the cult compound after gathering evidence that the Davidians were illegally stockpiling weapons. A shootout began between the cult members and law enforcement officers, which ended up lasting a record-breaking 51 days.
However, it is still unknown who shot first— the Davidians or the police? During the shootout, David Koresh actually called 911 to report the shooting, which obviously the police knew was happening. He could be heard on the recording saying “we’re all being shot up out here.” He also took the opportunity to preach his ideas in the middle of gunfire going off, saying “There are seven seals,” which referred to his bizarre apocalypse theories he preached to his followers.
During the winter of 2009, almost two decades after Koresh’s infamous standoff in Waco, his mother Bonnie Clark Haldeman was murdered by her own sister at the age of 64. The motivation behind the act is still unknown. Haldeman wrote an autobiography in 2007 called Memories of the Branch Davidians: The Autobiography of David Koresh’s Mother, which detailed her take on how her son Vernon Howell became the leader of the Branch Davidian cult.
Koresh’s mother had always made it known that she felt if a local sheriff would have come to the compound and served her son an arrest warrant, he would have surrendered peacefully. She does not believe that David or his followers committed mass suic*de. She described them as “harmless” people and that her son “didn’t have a mean bone in his body.”
Source: pbs.org, crimefeed.com, ranker.com