The Skeptical Cinephile: Waco and the Memory Hole

The Paramount Network series Waco (currently on Netflix) boasts solid acting and makes you feel like you’re actually inside the Branch Davidian compound during the infamous 1993 FBI standoff, bombarded with bright lights and dying-animal noises every night while your food supply dwindles and mysteriously hostile federal agents destroy your property just for funsies.

The series realistically documents the profoundly wrongheaded approaches taken by both the ATF and the FBI when it came to David Koresh. A search warrant could have been served at any time without any of the drama. None of it had to go down the way it did. No one had to die.

However, the series does a great disservice to viewers by whitewashing Koresh and the Branch Davidians to the point of turning them into a fairly standard commune. Sure, there was a little underage sex, but everyone was cool with it, right? These people could have been any Bible study group in Texas!

Nope. The Branch Davidians under Koresh were a troubled bunch. Abuse, sexual exploitation, food deprivation and coercive behaviour were rationalized by the circular logic that “God speaks to us though David, so everything David says comes from God, because David said he speaks for God.” If rules seemed weird or arbitrary, they were still obeyed because they were not man’s rules, but God’s. Koresh was merely the imperfect vessel.

While not as physically isolated as the people of Jonestown, Guyana, the Davidians who lived in the Mount Carmel compound were deeply in thrall to a man they saw as God’s only living prophet on Earth. If they walked away from him, they walked away from salvation.

Some of the most disturbing details of life at Mt. Carmel are no longer easy to find. Books long ago disappeared from library shelves. News article from the time are locked behind paywalls. As survivors die or stop talking about the events, many aspects of Branch Davidian life drop down the memory hole.

So it is time to go over some things that have been lost, neglected or forgotten in the story of David Koresh and his followers. The purpose of this is not to excuse anything that the ATF or FBI did, but to prevent people unfamiliar with the cult from believing (as Waco would have them believe) that the Branch Davidians were harmless, endearingly kooky, mostly kindhearted Bible thumpers.

Here are some things we need to keep in mind about Koresh and the Davidians:

Koresh took over an existing cult and claimed the Mt. Carmel compound by force

In his late teens, Koresh converted to his mother’s faith, Seventh Day Adventism. He quickly made a nuisance of himself by claiming to receive messages from God – including a directive to marry his pastor’s daughter, which the pastor emphatically rejected.

In 1981, he found a spiritual and literal home with an offshoot of Victor Houteff‘s Shepherd’s Rod church – the Branch Davidians. This splinter group of a splinter group was started by Benjamin Roden in the ’50s, and in the ’80s was headed by Roden’s widow, Lois. By this time there were tiny pockets of Branch Davidians in various parts of the world. Their international headquarters was the Texas commune that the Rodens had christened Mount Carmel.

Lois Roden

Howell established himself as Lois’s most passionate disciple, then began the process of usurping her. He first became her lover and convinced her that she would bear his miracle child, just as Sarah had done for Abraham (Lois Roden was in her late sixties). He then weaned the younger members of the commune away from Roden’s rather stale prophecy-based teaching and introduced them to his dynamic new interpretations of scripture, served with a side of God rock. He then secretly married his only legal wife, 14-year-old Rachel Jones. When Howell informed Rachel’s father, Perry Jones, that God had selected his underage daughter to be his wife, Jones believed him.

Jones was one of the most respected members of the Branch Davidian commune, so this marriage cemented Howell’s position in the community.

He was also establishing himself as a prophet. The Branch Davidians believed that seven successive prophets, corresponding to the seven angels of the Book of Revelation, would emerge in the run-up to the endtimes. They identified William Miller as the first prophet, conveying the messages of the first and second angels. Ellen G. White, the founder of the Seventh Day Adventist church, had declared herself the Third Angel. Victor Houteff was the Fourth Angel. Benjamin Roden was the fifth, and Lois was the sixth.

Vernon Howell decided that he was the Seventh Angel.

All of this enraged Lois Roden’s son, George, who considered himself the heir apparent to his mother’s religious mantle. He ejected the Howells from his compound and guarded it – as he always did – with armed patrols.

Howell took most of Lois’s followers with him when he went into exile in Palestine, Texas. It was there that he established total dominance over the Branch Davidians. He took a string of “wives” and concubines, mostly teenagers. They included Rachel’s 13-year-old sister, Michelle. Their mandate was to produce 24 children who would reign over the coming kingdom of God. Howell called his sacred harem The House of David.

Howell and two trusted aides, Marc Breault and Steve Schneider, rapidly bulked up the commune by recruiting new members from among Branch Davidian and Seventh Day Adventist communities in California, Michigan, Hawaii, England, Australia and other places.

In 1987, George Roden decided to challenge the new prophet by staging a resurrection competition. He exhumed the body of a Branch Davidian who had died twenty years earlier, Anna Hughes, and told Howell that the first person to raise her from the dead would be the leader.

Howell had absolutely no interest in this, but he could see that Roden was falling apart and that it was an opportune time to move in and seize Mt. Carmel from him. He already had a well-stocked arsenal in place just in case Roden decided to come after him. On November 3, 1987, Howell and seven Branch Davidians headed to Mt. Carmel dressed in camo gear and armed with military assault rifles and a camera (they wanted to snap a photo of Anna Hughes’s corpse for the police). George Roden caught them poking around the compound and opened fire on them with his ever-present Uzi. At the end of the gunfight, the eight Branch Davidians were charged with attempted murder. Seven were acquitted, and the jury was hung in Howell’s case (he was not retried). The Davidians’ firearms were returned to them.

Roden had fled the compound, and Howell became the unofficial heir to the property. He changed his named to David Koresh to reflect his affiliation with two great Bibical kings: David and Cyrus. From that point on, he was the unquestioned leader of Branch Davidians all around the world.

Gun parts did not trigger the federal investigation

Grenade casings did. Ten months prior to the 1993 ATF raid, a UPS driver reported to the McLennan County sheriff’s office that he had delivered a package containing hand grenade casings to Mt. Carmel. The sheriff passed this on to the ATF, and a nine-month investigation commenced. Based on orders of gun parts, the investigators concluded (correctly) that Koresh was converting semi-automatic rifles to fully automatic ones without a permit.

Selling guns and survivalist gear was the Davidians’ primary source of income, but what became of the grenade shells? And why did they have so many gas masks on hand at the time of the standoff, if they were a peaceful group that didn’t expect trouble?

We still don’t know who fired the first shots

In Waco, ATF agents pull up to the compound and pile out of their vehicles. Koresh opens the door to have peaceful words with them. They open fire.

We do not know if this is what happened. A key piece of evidence – the heavy front door of the compound – went missing after the fire. Not even a 2000 Branch Davidian lawsuit against the government cleared up this question, though survivor Clive Doyle hinted that the Davidians were so angered by ATF agents shooting at dogs outside the compound that they decided they were at war.

Mark Masferrer of the Waco Herald-Tribune, one of several reporters who was at the scene, believed the first shots came from the compound.

It is extremely unlikely that federal agents attempting to serve a search warrant would instead open fire on a residence without provocation, particularly when they knew it was probably well-stocked with automatic weapons. The ATF did not have any automatic weapons.

The filmmakers behind Waco made a judgment call in depicting the ATF firefight, and they may have made the wrong one.

Sexual abuse of minors was baked into the cult

The Branch Davidians were a group ripe for a sexual predator like Vernon Howell. As far back as the 1930s, Victor Houteff married a 17-year-old girl when he was in his fifties. In the ’70s, Australian-born Branch Davidian Clive Doyle was married off to a 16-year-old girl in order to secure a visa (immigration fraud was rampant in the group). She later fled the compound and attempted to extract her daughters, one of whom would become Koresh’s second “wife” at the age of 14.

Debbie Bunds, who had been raised in the commune, claims that her father (Bob Kendrick) raped her older sister and that this was common knowledge among the Branch Davidians. When she approached Perry Jones for help, fearing the same fate, he allegedly told her there would be no problem if she simply stopped being seductive towards her father. Debbie was about 13 years old at the time, and was already being groomed – along with Rachel Jones – as a possible first wife for Vernon Howell, who was in his mid-twenties.

Bunds also claims that Rachel Jones had been molested by her brothers. Perry Jones knew of the situation and did nothing.

Howell himself was born to a 14-year-old mother.

With a history of incest, teen marriage and secrecy, Mt. Carmel was a utopia for sex offenders.

Koresh was a rapist, and not just in a statutory sense

In Waco, we learn that Michelle Jones “married” Koresh at 13 because her older sister Rachel had a prophetic dream. This may be true, but the harsher reality is that Koresh raped Michelle when she was 12 years old. According to another of Koresh’s teen “wives”, Robyn Bunds, he conned his way into the girl’s bed by saying he wanted to warm up, then forced himself on her as she struggled. This has no bearing on the ATF/FBI raid. It just needs to be remembered.

The local sheriff was not an ally of David Koresh

In Waco, Sheriff Jack Harwell is portrayed as having a mutually respectful relationship with Koresh. He intercedes when the ATF and FBI reach an impasse in negotiations, clearly taking the side of the Davidians.

This  was not really the case. Harwell cooperated fully with the ATF and FBI investigations and raids. In fact, he reported the Davidians for having grenade casings in the first place. He told Frontline in 1995 that for two years prior to the ATF raid, members of his department were wary of Koresh because he had warned that he would never be taken into custody again. When they went to Mt. Carmel for any reason, they “had several units back over the hill somewhere close by in the event that there was any problems.”

He took a “live and let live” approach to the cult in the same way that most locals did – having lived near them for decades – but he did not approve of Koresh’s actions and was not his buddy.

Koresh threatened both men and women with Hell in order to control them sexually

Waco gives the impression that prophecy and piety were enough to persuade the male Branch Davidians to become celibate and the girls and women to become Koresh’s concubines.

This is false. In order to ensure compliance with his sexual demands, Koresh told the girls and women that they could refuse to join his House of David – but that would be against the will of God, and would consign them to Hell.  He told the men that if they refused to surrender their wives and daughters to him, they would also go to Hell, where they would be perpetually raped by homosexuals.

Koresh wanted to create a Biblical family dynasty based on incest

This almost-forgotten incident speaks not only to Koresh’s normalization of sexual deviance, but to his complete failure as a prophet. When Koresh took 14-year-old Karen Doyle as his second “wife”, he proclaimed that she would give birth to a daughter they would name Shoshonna. Someday, he said, Shoshonna would marry his son by Rachel (Cyrus) and they would jointly rule over the whole Earth and the twelve Earth-like planets.

Fortunately for everyone, Karen was incapable of having children. Koresh did not know this when he selected her to be the mother of his children. Clearly, his prophetic visions were either delusions or fabrications.

Not all Davidians were comfortable with this incestuous royal bloodline prophecy. Wayne Martin, a Harvard-educated lawyer, wasn’t even comfortable with the House of David. He felt such crushing guilt over Koresh’s “marriage” to Karen that he contemplated suicide.

Koresh had serious food issues, and they affected everyone in the compound

The touching ice cream scene in Waco really happened, but it was an anomaly. From his earliest days as a Seventh Day Adventist, Koresh displayed a profoundly disordered relationship with food. This went far beyond just observing the usual dietary restrictions of the SDA Church. He would binge on “sinful” foods, then starve himself out of regret and guilt. He railed against junk food. During the Roden years, he would go into his father-in-law’s home and throw things out of the fridge if he deemed them unsuitable for a Davidian family. When a fire destroyed Mt. Carmel’s administration building in 1983, he declared it God’s punishment for violating dietary laws.

As leader of the Davidians, he told his followers that Twinkies and potato chips were the Mark of the Beast. He would receive messages from God that dictated which foods could be consumed during certain times. For instance, only certain combinations of fruit would be permitted, then a different combination would suddenly be announced. Koresh himself was often exempt from such food rules. Some followers – mostly women – were ordered to eat only popcorn or bread for long periods. Koresh ejected lifelong Davidian Debbie Bunds and her husband from the compound for food violations. Even in one of the videos he made during the standoff, Koresh went out of his way to mention that the kids did not consume junk food like other children.

The Lawnmower Man was not the only movie that fascinated Koresh

Koresh’s fixation on one of the worst films of the ’90s made for some comic relief in Waco. Roughly three years before the standoff, however, he was obsessed with Platoon and compelled his followers to watch it over and over again. He warned them that they would have to protect their children with arms at some point.

There is evidence that the Davidians started the fire.

In Waco, the fires break out when the CS tear gas pumped into the compound on FBI orders ignites kerosene lanterns the Davidians were using. This could easily have happened.

However, audio recordings made inside the compound by the FBI indicate that at least some of the Branch Davidians were planning to ignite fires of their own. They discussed pouring fuel along a hallway and lighting hay on fire if “they” (presumably federal agents) entered the compound. At 11:40 on April 19, people are heard saying, “I want a fire around the back” and “Let’s keep that fire going.” The fires broke out a short time later.

Then there are the 21 kids who were removed from the compound by permission of their parents early in the standoff, to be housed temporarily in the Methodist Children’s Home in Waco. They were visited there by Dr. Bruce Perry, a psychiatrist specializing in child trauma. In his 2007 book The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, Perry describes kids who were “marinated in fear.” They self-segregated by gender, staying away from their own siblings. They hewed to the weird dietary restrictions of Koresh, such as refusing to consume vegetables and fruits at the same meal. They wrote “David is God” on sticky notes that they posted on the walls of their living quarters. They spoke of their parents as though they were already dead.

And repeatedly, they drew pictures of their home being consumed by fire or explosions. This was so common among the children that Perry, alarmed by a possible escalation at Mt. Carmel, repeatedly reached out to the FBI to warn them that the Davidians could be planning to commit mass suicide.

It is stressed in Waco that the group was not planning to commit suicide. We see Steve using a secret phone to call his sister and tell her that no matter what happens, they will not kill themselves. But what did Steve and Koresh do? Murder-suicide. Also, one of the last things Steve told his sister in real life was “It’s a lot more complicated than you think. Read the Book of Nahum”, which describes a showdown between soldiers and Ninevah in one of Koresh’s favourite passages (2).

There were murders and suicides inside the compound on April 19, 1993. Rather than surrender or attempt escape, some Davidians shot each other or themselves. A three-year-old boy was stabbed to death.

Koresh had spoken often of his own death at the hands of invisible enemies (“Babylonians”), and suggested that it was necessary. Beginning in the late ’80s, he explained to the Davidians that Christ’s death on the cross only atoned for the sins of people who had lived up to that time. He, Koresh, would have to die for everyone who had lived since then.

It is true that incendiary gas should not be used in standoffs, but let’s not let the Davidians off the hook just because the FBI erred. We have to acknowledge that they may have engineered their own destruction to fulfill prophecies that they believed to be ancient and immutable.

We can hold the ATF and FBI accountable for the tragedy at Waco without normalizing anything that went on inside the Mt. Carmel compound.


Other Sources: 

  • Prophets of the Apocalypse: David Koresh and Other American Messiahs by by Kenneth R. Samples, Erwin M. de Castro, Richard Abanes, Robert J. Lyle (Baker Books, 1994)
  • The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation by Dick J. Reavis (Simon and Schuster, 1995).
  • The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog and Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook: What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love, and Healing by Bruce D. Perry and Maia Szalavitz (Basic Books, 2007)
  • Waco: Rules of Engagement (documentary) directed by William Gazecki (1997)


One thought on “The Skeptical Cinephile: Waco and the Memory Hole

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  1. That was a good read. They were the sleeziest of the most recent cult groups to become engrained in our memeories and he was like a polygamist colony with guns, only more perverted.

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