The Branch Davidians

Branch Davidians

The Branch Davidians

In 1993, the town of Waco, Texas would forever be branded as the site of a horrible standoff between authorities and one of the USA’s most notorious cults. The Branch Davidians were a small sect that originated from the Davidian Seventh Day Adventists in 1955. The group fully believed that Revelations would soon be upon them. The group seemed to function peacefully at their compound near Waco, Texas for decades until leadership passed to a young man named Vernon Howell in 1984. This man would later change his name to David Koresh.

Vernon Wayne Howell was born on August 17, 1959. His mother, Bobbie Sue Clark, was only 14 years old; his father, Bobby Wayne Howell, abandoned them both before Vernon was born. According to accounts, he was a lonely child that was bounced back and forth between his mother’s care and various relatives. He had dyslexia and studying didn’t suit him, so he was placed in special education classes. When he was 19, he impregnated a 15-year-old girl and abandoned her shortly thereafter.

David Koresh as a young man.

Around this time, he claimed to become a born-again Christian and joined his mother’s Seventh-day Adventist congregation. According to Koresh, he’d developed an interest in the pastor’s daughter, and while praying for guidance on the matter, his Bible fell open to Isaiah 34:16: 

“Search from the book of the Lord, and read: 

Not one of these shall fail; 

Not one shall lack her mate.

For My mouth has commanded it, and His Spirit has gathered them.”

This was the beginning of Vernon’s image of himself as a prophet. He took the sight of the Bible as a sign and approached the paster claiming that God wanted him to marry his daughter. Unperturbed by Vernon’s apparent communication with the divine, the pastor threw him out and banned him from the congregation when he refused to stop pursuing his daughter.

In 1981, Vernon moved to Waco, Texas and joined the Branch Davidians. At the time, the group was still mourning the death of their original leader, Benjamin Roden, who had died in 1978. His son, George, fully intended to be the next prophet, but Benjamin’s widow Lois became infatuated with Vernon, who by that time was going by David Koresh. Koresh was claiming that he had the gift of prophecy and that God wanted him to father a child with Lois to be the Chosen One.

David Koresh at the Waco compound.

He began engaging in a struggle for control of the Branch Davidians with George Roden, which culminated in a challenge to see which of them could raise the dead. Roden exhumed a corpse for the contest, but by doing so, he played right into David Koresh’s hands. Koresh had him arrested for an illegal exhumation, but his quest to find proof for the charges resulted in a gunfight. Koresh and some of his followers were charged with attempted murder, but he escaped punishment due to a mistrial. 

Koresh didn’t really need to set George Roden up to get rid of him; Roden did that himself. In 1989, he murdered a man named Wayman Dale Adair with an axe after Adair tried to say that he was the Messiah. George Roden was deemed unfit to stand trial and was confined to a psychiatric hospital. Since he hadn’t been paying taxes on the compound where the Branch Davidians were living, David Koresh and his followers raised the money and bought it. Finally, David Koresh had taken control of the Davidians for good.

Koresh was incredibly charming, but also entirely deranged. He wanted to create a “new lineage of world leaders” and thus began sexually abusing many young girls within the cult. He selected women and underage girls within the cult to “marry” him and ended up fathering 24 children amongst them all. He would also “annul” the marriages of any couples that entered the cult, and demanded that he be the only one who could have sex with any of the women or girls at the Waco compound. The FBI’s investigation into allegations against Koresh also found that he would regularly beat the children.

He also began running the compound more like a military operation, stockpiling illegal weapons and ammunition. He proclaimed that he was Jesus Christ and that he would have to pave the way for the Second Coming.

Just a small portion of the weapons that Koresh was stockpiling at the Waco compound.

On February 23, 1993, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) attempted to serve a search warrant on the Branch Davidian’s compound for illegal firearms charges and sexual abuse allegations. Members of the cult exchanged gunfire with ATF agents; this initial gunfight left six Davidians and four ATF members dead and many wounded, including David Koresh himself. The FBI took over and began a 51-day siege of the Waco compound.

An aerial view of the Waco compound before the siege began.

Authorities established contact with Koresh inside the compound, and negotiations ensued. Mostly, he negotiated for delays that prolonged the siege, possibly so that he could write religious manifestos. They convinced him to release 19 children without their parents; these children told them they’d been physically and sexually abused by Koresh.

The siege continued until April 19, 1993, when the FBI moved in with large-calibre weapons and tear gas to attempt to flush the cult out of their compound. At noon that day, three separate fires broke out in the compound simultaneously, forcing the FBI agents to retreat. It’s uncertain whether these fires were started deliberately by the Davidians or the FBI or whether they were accidental. In the end, 76 of the 85 Branch Davidians inside the compound died, including children.

David Koresh was found dead of a gunshot wound inside the compound. It’s unknown whether he committed suicide or whether someone killed him in the commotion. The FBI believes that Steve Schneider, Koresh’s closest associate, realized that his messiah was really a fraud and murdered Koresh before committing suicide.

Some incarnations of the Branch Davidians still exist today, though they are mostly back to the way they were before David Koresh entered the picture. The Waco siege imprinted itself on the American psyche, and its ripples are still felt today. The Oklahoma City Bombers, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, said that the siege was their motive for the bombing on April 19, 1995, which was timed to coincide with the incident’s second anniversary. David Koresh’s 1968 Chevy Camaro that had been damaged during the raid sold for $37 000 at auction, and is now in the possession of Zak Bagans, the host of Ghost Adventures. David Koresh remains the archetype of a quintessential cult leader; he inspired the character of Joseph Seed in Far Cry 5.

A memorial to David Koresh that appeared after the siege ended.

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