What Happened in Waco, Texas?

Polygamy, illegal weapons, a cult with an apocalyptic vision, and a fire that—to this day—no one knows for certain who started.

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If you're a true crime addict, you're probably anxiously awaiting Paramount's new miniseries Waco, starring Taylor Kitsch and Michael Shannon. And you're probably wondering what actually happened in Waco? And who are the Branch Davidians? Brush up on the details here before you watch.

In February 1993, the Branch Davidians, an apocalyptic cult under the leadership of David Koresh, got on the radar of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms for amassing illegal weapons. Federal agents descended on their compound, Mount Carmel—which was located outside of Waco, Texas—and a shootout ensued. At the end of the gun battle, four agents and six Davidians were dead, though each side denied firing the first shot.

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The F.B.I. then took over, holding a 51-day siege in which they tried to force the Branch Davidians to surrender, subjecting them to grueling sleep deprivation tactics such as floodlighting the compound throughout the night and blaring the sounds of rabbits being killed. On April 19, the F.B.I. began to pump military-grade tear gas into the compound. A fire erupted and soon the entire compound was engulfed in flames. Over 75 people died, including Koresh, who was shot by a fellow Davidian. Few survived.

You got all that? Good, because there’s way more to the story.

Who Were the Branch Davidians?

The religious sect was founded in the 1930s by a Bulgarian immigrant named Victor Houteff. He split from his Seventh Day Adventist community to start the Davidian movement, which was based on the belief that Christ would return to the earth and establish a divine kingdom. Houteff and his followers settled near Waco to prepare for what they believed would be Jesus' imminent return, and eventually they became a self-sustaining community, avoiding most forms of commercial entertainment.

Houteff died in 1955, and his wife Florence took over, continuing to push her late husband's message that a new messianic age would soon begin. When Florence's prediction that the world would end on April 22, 1959, proved false, the group splintered into several factions—one of them being the Branch Davidians, led by Benjamin Roden and his wife Lois.

It’s a little unclear exactly how the power dynamics shifted after Roden’s death in 1978, but things definitely soured. Lois took up with a young man named Vernon Wayne Howell, also known as David Koresh. Meanwhile, some members of the group reportedly felt that the Roden's son George was the heir-apparent and pledged allegiance to him. When Lois died in 1986, Koresh challenged George for control. He brought seven heavily-armed disciples to the compound for a confrontation that culminated with bullets in George’s hands and chest.

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The group was charged with attempted murder, but the seven men were acquitted, and Koresh’s case was declared a mistrial. With George out of the way, Koresh was able to assume full leadership of the Branch Davidians. It was at this point that he formally changed his name to David Koresh for “for publicity and business purposes.”

David Koresh with his wife Rachel and their children, Star and Cyrus, in 1990.
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Who Was David Koresh?

Koresh joined the Branch Davidians in 1981 when he was just 22 years old, having previously been expelled from his mother's church of Seventh Day Adventists for misbehavior. After eliminating George and assuming authority, Koresh began taking "spiritual wives" so together they could breed the future rulers of the world. Allegedly, his wives ranged in age from adulthood to girls as young as 12.

Koresh apparently thought he was the "perfect mate" for all the women in the group. At the time of his death, some accounts say Koresh had as many as 20 wives.

Koresh thought he was the "perfect mate" for all the women in the group.

Koresh told his followers he was the "Lamb of God" based on his interpretation of Revelation 5 in the Bible. Like Houteff before him, Koresh also believed the world's end was imminent and warned his group that the government would one day attack them—which is why he began stockpiling weapons.

Who Started the Fire?

To this day, the Waco events are still thought to be a black mark on the government's record. Regardless of who started the fire, critics believe that the federal agents mishandled the situation and should have known better than to treat an apocalyptic sect as they would typical criminals.

An aerial view of the Mount Carmel compound on April 19, 1993.
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In 1999, Senator John Danforth of Missouri set out to determine what actually happened during the government siege. Fourteen months and $17 million later, Danforth concluded that the government "did not cause the fire" and "did not direct gunfire" at the complex. (You can read his full report here.)

A popular theory is that the Branch Davidians started the fire and then shot each other as part of a mass suicide. The nine members who survived the siege—all of whom were convicted for various offenses pertaining to the ATF's initial raid—are still waiting for Koresh's resurrection.

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