David Koresh and the Waco Siege

Questions still swirl around the fatal government siege that killed more than 70 people. How much responsibility for the tragedy lies with former Branch Davidian leader David Koresh—and how much was FBI overreach?
David Koresh Photo

Branch Davidian founder David Koresh (L.) during his first visit to Australia to recruit members. He was accompanied by Clive Doyle (R.) on the trip.

On February 28, 1993, agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms conducted a raid on a compound outside of Waco, Texas. They suspected that a group of Branch Davidians there, led by David Koresh, were illegally converting semi-automatic guns into automatic weapons. 

The raid proceeded in spite of the fact that the religious sect knew about it in advance; four agents and six Branch Davidians died in the gun battle that followed. (It remains unclear which group fired first.) This led to a 51-day standoff that resulted in scores of deaths on April 19, 1993. 

The Waco siege has raised questions for 25 years: Was it an out-of-control cult or a case of government overreach? Here's a look at Koresh, his rules and doctrine, government mistakes and other factors that led to this fatal outcome.

Koresh and the Bible

Branch Davidians believe that Christ's return to create a divine Kingdom is imminent, and those at the Mount Carmel compound outside Waco were awed by David Koresh's interpretations of scripture. Koresh, who'd memorized much of the Bible as a young man, used his knowledge to find connections between different passages. His followers would listen intently during study sessions that could run for 12, 15, even 18 hours. Waco survivor Sheila Martin said in 2017, "We saw him as a prophet — we saw him even a little closer to God than even a prophet."

Koresh informed his followers that the travails — like earthquakes and killer locusts — detailed in the Book of Revelation were coming. (He said he was the "Lamb of God" who had the ability to unlock the Seven Seals and thus know what was going to happen.) Koresh also told his followers that a confrontation with the government would take place; the raid appeared to be a validation of his prophecies.

Koresh in Control

Before the raid, Koresh was fully in charge of life at the compound. At one point he ordered followers not to consume dairy. (Milk was for babies). Dinner was sometimes just popcorn, and women often had restricted diets to ensure they stayed thin. Misbehavior resulted in spankings; children were struck with paddles, while adults had to deal with an oar. Men and boys got up at 5:30 in the morning for training. Men and women were required to sleep separately. And women were directed to wear long blouses and to forego makeup and jewelry.

Koresh wanted to have 24 children to occupy the 24 heavenly thrones mentioned in the Book of Revelation. To accomplish this, he preached about a "New Light" doctrine. This meant other men had to be celibate while Koresh would be able to take as a wife, and sleep with, any woman he wanted. (He annulled prior marriages.) Many of the women at Mount Carmel welcomed the opportunity to have sex with Koresh, their messiah, and bear his children — but Koresh also decided to "marry" underage girls.

Prophet, Preacher, Predator

Koresh married Rachel Jones when she was 14 and he was 24. (This was legal under Texas law, as her parents gave their permission.) A few years later he reportedly raped his wife's 12-year-old sister. In his book Waco: A Survivor's Story, Branch Davidian David Thibodeau wrote that the girl "became David's lover," but she was too young to consent to any sexual relationship. And in 1995, a teenaged Kiri Jewell testified before Congress that Koresh had sexually assaulted her at a motel when she was 10.

Koresh, who sometimes described himself as a "sinful messiah," offered up Biblical arguments to justify taking young "brides." Yet his actions did raise questions among some of his followers. In a 2011 interview with CNN, Clive Doyle, a siege survivor whose daughter was 14 when she became one of Koresh's "wives," related how he'd felt at the time: "I wondered, I asked, 'Is this God or is this horny old David?'" before adding, "I couldn't argue because he'd show you where it was in the Bible."

The FBI and Koresh

After the disastrous ATF raid, it fell to the Federal Bureau of Investigation to negotiate during the standoff. However, FBI negotiators proceeded as though the Branch Davidians were hostages, though all the adults had willingly opted to join the group. And despite Biblical scholars urging the FBI to use Koresh's religious beliefs as a starting point, some agents grew tired of his "Bible babble." For his part, Koresh told the FBI at one point, "I am dealing with God, not you."

Trust was also undermined when Koresh broke a promise to leave the compound after a sermon of his was broadcast. (His explanation was that God had told him to wait.) The situation further deteriorated when tactical units, despite opposition from negotiators, decided to cut off electricity and blare music (such as Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made for Walkin") and irritating sounds.

The Final Day

In April, Koresh said he would write a manuscript decoding the Seven Seals, then come out — but his earlier behavior made it difficult for the FBI to believe him. Some agents also thought Koresh was enjoying his new celebrity and prolonging the siege. In the end, the decision was made to use tear gas to drive out the Branch Davidians. A plan was presented to Attorney General Janet Reno, who ultimately gave her approval.

In 2008, FBI negotiator Byron Sage outlined their reasoning to Texas Monthly: "We believed that when the tear gas was inserted, mothers would move heaven and earth to get their children to safety and bring them out. We grossly underestimated the control that David exerted over them." On April 19, 1993, most of the Branch Davidians stayed put after the tear gas was fired.

Fire and Aftermath

A few hours after the tear gas was launched, blazes started in the compound. And though the government fired three pyrotechnic tear gas rounds — something it did not acknowledge until 1999 — multiple investigations, and information from FBI listening devices, indicate that the fires were set by Branch Davidians. Nine adults escaped, but more than 70 people (including some two dozen children) died that day, many from smoke inhalation. Koresh died from a gunshot wound to the head.

For believers who considered Koresh to be a messiah, the actions unfolding around them during the siege likely seemed to be part of a Biblically foretold path — even when tear gas filled the air and flames spread, staying might have felt like what God expected of them. They placed their faith in Koresh, as some Waco survivors continue to do to this day.