Twenty-five years ago, David Koresh brought an end to more than seven weeks of standoff between his Christian extremist sect and federal agents surrounding the compound. He ordered his followers to pour fuel around buildings and set it ablaze.
Within an hour, all that remained of the Branch Davidians compound, its leader and most of its followers were a few inches of ash.
Koresh may have ordered the act that brought the Branch Davidians to a fiery end, but federal agents and local journalists have also been blamed over the years for their role in the 51-day stalemate and its outcome.
A new Smithsonian Channel documentary that airs 7 p.m. Monday revisits how it happened and includes interviews with survivors who once trusted Koresh with their lives — and their souls.
About David Koresh and the Branch Davidians
The Branch Davidians were a spinoff in the 1930s of the Seventh-day Adventists and that’s a faith that is particularly open to end-time prophets. David Koresh was originally known as Vernon Howell. [He] had joined this splinter group of the Branch Davidians that was in Central Texas. He recruited people from all of the over world to come to about 10 miles outside of Waco in Mount Carmel, a compound where he pretty much had iron control over his flock.
He took the name David from the Bible, and Koresh is a version of Sirius, the lamb from the Book of Revelation. He claimed that he was the only person who could open the Seven Seals that would lead his followers to salvation and also launch the apocalypse.
Koresh was charismatic. This was someone who only had a ninth grade education, but he had a knack for memorizing and repeating Bible sections. He went on this recruiting tour around the world and basically seduced people from everywhere from England and Canada to as far afield as Australia by sheer force of personality.
When we speak with the actual true believers, and there are still followers of David Koresh and believe they will seem him again, they have a hard time articulating exactly what drew them to him. There was just this force within him that drove people to pick up their lives and move to Central Texas.
Why the Branch Davidians drew the attention of federal agents
This happened along the fault line of several core American values. The first one, obviously, is freedom of religion. But at the same time, it’s also a core American value that government has a responsibility to protect the innocent. And over the years, in the late ‘80s in particular, there started to become rumors in the area that Koresh did have an appetite for young girls. Polygamy is obviously illegal and so is having relationships with underage girls.
Once those rumors got out, the Waco Tribune-Herald started a multi-month investigation, but also local authorities started to look into the group. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives became alarmed when they started to investigate the fact that this group was also compiling a massive stockpile of guns. They found over 200 guns in the compound, some of them acquired illegally. That becomes a serious matter that you’ve got to look into, despite the freedom of religion.
'Sinful Messiah:' Reporting from the Waco Tribune-Herald
The Waco Tribune-Herald had an eight-month investigation that ended in a seven-part series, “Sinful Messiah.”
The reporters, Mark England and Darlene McCormick, started that investigation because they were concerned that they had heard these rumors about the young girls and that authorities knew about it and weren’t doing anything about it. They started talking to former cult members.
In the end, they interviewed more than 20 former cult members and even got some interview with David Koresh, himself.
They were ready to go out with that series in February 1993 as the ATF was gearing up to take action. In fact, the ATF at one point went to newspaper and said: “You can’t start this series because we’re on the brink of taking some action.”
After everything went down with 51-day standoff and everybody died, one aspect of the story that has never been told before is that the Waco Tribune-Herald and the local television station were accused ... it was their fault, in essence, that everyone had died.
There was a lawsuit and everybody was under a gag order for a couple of years. In the end, it was settled by an insurance company. But the folks who were just doing their jobs, trying to tell this story, they really opposed this idea that they were responsible for what happened. They were doing what good journalists do, which was trying to understand what was going on in their community and report on it.
Interview responses have been lightly edited for clarity.