For 51 days in the early spring of 1993, America was enraptured by a deadly standoff taking place in Texas. Suddenly, "Waco," "Branch Davidians," and "David Koresh" all became household names as people tuned in nightly to catch the latest updates about this unorthodox religious sect holed up in their compound, squaring off against the might of the U.S. government.
It was a bizarre story that ended in fire and far too much death, and now the Waco tragedy is the subject of a six-part miniseries by the just-launched Paramount network starring Taylor Kitsch as Koresh. But how much do we truly remember about it?
Most people know that David Koresh was the charismatic leader of a cult-like sect, living in a private compound with his followers, the Branch Davidians, in Waco, Texas. They probably recall some of the strange sex rumors that came out of the compound, because that's just the way people are. But there's so much more to the story than that.
Following are 14 of the most bizarre and tragically true things about the Waco siege.
Many people might think that the Branch Davidians were named after their leader, David Koresh, but the exact opposite was true. Koresh was born Vernon Howell, and the Branch Davidians were born in 1955 as a splinter group from the Seventh-day Adventist Church of the Shepherd's Rod. After gaining control of the church, Howell petitioned to have his name legally changed to David Koresh "for publicity and business purposes."
The church split when its leader Lois Roden chose Koresh over her own son George as the heir apparent. George split off his own group and after Lois' death, he challenged Koresh over leadership by digging up a body and suggesting they have a corpse resurrection contest. George retained control of the Mount Carmel Center where the original church was held.
Koresh attempted to get a picture of the unearthed body as evidence against Roden, leading to a gunfire dispute and the injury of Roden. Koresh and seven associates were dubbed "The Rodenville Eight" by the local media and tried for attempted murder in 1988. Seven were acquitted, with Koresh receiving a hung jury verdict.
Roden killed a Davidian who had come to him with a vision that he had been proclaimed God's messiah with an axe. He was declared guilty by reason of insanity, leaving Mount Carmel available for Koresh to obtain after he paid the back taxes on it.
House of David
In August of 1989, Koresh released the "New Light" audio tape where he said God had told him to have sex with all the women in the group, while their husbands needed to be celibate. Koresh's children would help create a "House of David."
The government got involved after a package delivered by a UPS driver broke open, revealing firearms, grenade casings, and black powder. The driver reported this to the company, which contacted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) in May 1992. This initiated an investigation into the compound and the church.
The Branch Davidians never fell for the ATF's attempts at surveillance, which included renting out a house across from the compound under the guise of being local college students. Unfortunately, the undercover agents were in their 30s, were not registered at any colleges and didn't even try to have a college schedule.
The Sinful Messiah
The ATF was forced to act when the Waco Tribune-Herald launched a series of articles on Feb. 27, 1993, alleging that Koresh had taken multiple underage brides and was committing acts of child abuse and sexual abuse within the compound. The government had asked the newspaper to delay publication until they could be ready, but after multiple delays and with no strike launch in sight, the paper published.
The ATF raid was intended to be a secret, but Koresh found out about it because an agent who had infiltrated the Branch Davidians was almost immediately identified. Despite the compound knowing the raid was coming, ATF moved forward with it, allowing them time to arm up and prepare for the raid.
Who Shot First?
To this day, no one knows definitively who shot first. Davidians claimed it was the government, with one of them even calling 911 a minute after the raid began saying, "Here they come again! That's them shooting! That's not us!" In that initial raid, four ATF agents were killed, and five Davidians were left dead. Another Davidian was killed hours later, with reports from ATF that he was trying to sneak out, while his wife said he was returning from work.
After the failed siege, the FBI attempted sleep deprivation methods during the siege to try and wear down the Davidians get them to come out. They blasted sounds throughout the night, including pop music, jet engines and the sound of rabbits being slaughtered.
Three fires erupted in the compound on Apr. 19 as the FBI was trying to use tear gas to end the siege. The combination of destruction in the compound and the gas in the air resulted in very few Davidians making it out of the compound. Over 70 people people died, including women, children and Koresh, who was found with a bullet in his forehead. The Justice Department in 2000 declared the Davidians started the fire, but other reports suggest they could have erupted accidentally in response to the FBI's gas assault.
Right Front Door
The right front door of Mount Carmel Center was never recovered after the fire, though the steel door should have sustained no more damage than the left door. During the siege, Davidians spoke to the media and said that the right door proved that the government had shot first, as the bullet holes in it were all incoming. A reporter who visited the compound before the fires corroborated this story. The left door had gunfire holes going in both directions.
After the disastrous outcome of the Waco raid and subsequent siege, ATF established new rules about how to handle these types of situations, and set the use of force as a last resort. A full write-up on the Waco incident became required reading for new recruits. Eight of the Waco survivors were sent to prison on firearms charges, but several appealed their cases all the way to the Supreme Court. The harshness of their 40-year sentences were reduced. As of 2007, all survivors were out of prison.
Paramount Network's six-part "Waco" is based on two nonfiction books about the siege, one from a Davidian survivor and the other from the FBI's Head of Crisis Negotiation. Michael Shannon, Taylor Kitsch, Andrea Riseborough, John Leguizamo, Melissa Benoist, Paul Sparks, Shea Whigham, Rory Culkin, Julia Garner and Camryn Manheim star in the six-part series.