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There are big name cults defined more by a place than the actual group itself. Here’s the story of David Koresh and the tragedy of Waco.

David Koresh: The creepy true-crime tale of cult abuse and violence

When we go through the list of the big name cults over the years, there are ones defined more by a place than the actual group itself. Mainly because what happens at those places leaves an indelible mark in our minds. Places like Jonestown and Waco. That’s what we’re here to discuss today: Waco and David Koresh.

While many of us even vaguely interested in true crime know about the siege and standoff at Waco, at least in vague terms, let’s examine what, exactly, was going on at the compound. It is disturbing to say the least. Here’s the story of David Koresh and the tragedy of Waco.

Rachel Koresh holds daughter Star and her husband David holds son Cyrus. | Location: Honolulu International Airport, HNL, Hawaii, USA. (Photo by Elizabeth Baranyai/Sygma via Getty Images)

Who is David Koresh?

David Koresh was born Vernon Wayne Howell to a 14-year-old single mother. Koresh spent the first years of his life living with his mother’s violent alcoholic boyfriend and then with his maternal grandmother. When his mother married a more stable man, Koresh went to live with them. Due to a learning disability and placement in special education classes, he would describe his childhood as “lonely”. 

Koresh would join his mother’s congregation at the Seventh-day Adventists Church. It was around this time he exhibited troubling behavior. At 19, he got a 15-year-old girl pregnant. He then tried to take the pastor’s daughter at his mother’s congregation for his wife, claiming that God told him to do so. Koresh was kicked out of the congregation when he persisted in these claims.

Eventually, in 1981, Koresh moved to Waco, Texas, in order to join the Branch Davidians, an offshoot of the Davidian Seventh-day Adventists Church, which is itself an offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventists Church. The Davidian Seventh-day Adventists teachings came from a Bulgarian immigrant named Victor Houteff in 1930, who believed that Jesus was not the Messiah and had yet to come.

Houteff believed that he and his supporters were meant to bring a “Davidic Kingdom”, which would mirror the empire of the Bible’s King David, when the apocalypse inevitably happened. Houteff originally purchased the compound at Waco and named it Mt. Carmel which was to be the center of the new divine kingdom.

Battle for Control of the Branch Davidians

Benjamin Roden, who created the Branch Davidians, took over following Houteff’s death in 1955. Or, well, he tried to. Things got divided between Roden and Houteff’s widow, Florence, both of whom claimed to be prophets and vied for control of the compound. Following a failed apocalypse prediction by Florence in 1959, she left the compound and Roden gained control, establishing the Branch Davidians. 

When Koresh arrived in 1981 at the compound, Roden had been dead for a couple years by this point. His wife Lois was the de facto leader of the group. According to a memoir A Place Called Waco by David Thibodeau, there was a possible affair between Lois Roden and Koresh. In 1983, Koresh claimed to have the gift of prophecy and that he and Lois, now in her sixties, were meant to birth a child that would be the Chosen One.

During this time, Lois Roden allowed Koresh to preach his own message known as “The Serpent’s Root” within the compound. This was a bit of a shocking move as Roden’s son George was supposed to be the next leader. Many saw Koresh as an interloper. 

Koresh then said that God wanted him to marry Rachel Jones, which he did. After this, George Roden and his followers chased Koresh and his followers away from the compound at gunpoint. The group then went to Palestine, Texas, where they would live under rough conditions. Koresh travelled during this time to recruit new followers. 

Eventually, George Roden challenged Koresh to raise the dead and even dug up a corpse in the battle for control of the Branch Davidians. Koresh, looking to get Roden in trouble with the police, stormed the compound to get proof of the crime. Koresh and his followers were arrested with attempted murder when a gunfight broke out. But they were acquitted of all charges and Koresh had a mistrial. 

Roden would kill a man named Wayman Dale Adair, who claimed to be the true messiah. He was sent to a psychiatric hospital. Koresh and his followers were able to get funds to buy Mt. Carmel and return. 

Koresh’s reign of abuse and violence

Under Koresh’s leadership, there were allegations of child abuse and child sexual abuse. Now the incidents haven’t been proven, but there was evidence. Koresh did have multiple “marriages” to both single and married women within the Branch Davidians. One of his wives was an underaged girl, Michelle Jones who was sister to his wife Rachel. 

In 1992, Texas’ Child Protective Services did have an investigation into these charges. It lasted about six months. While nothing concrete was uncovered, it’s believed that the Branch Davidians covered up the “marriage” by assigning Michelle Jones a surrogate husband, David Thibodeau. 

As for the child abuse, the evidence came from claims of ex-members, who said Koresh spanked their child severely on several occasions. One man, involved in a custody battle for his child, claimed to have seen a young boy being beaten with a stick. 

Siege of Waco

In the years following the events at Waco, things have gotten a little clearer. Those who survived and grew up in that sect confirmed sexual abuse. Many say that Koresh molested them. 

Now what led to the siege of Waco was the claims of a stockpile of illegal firearms by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). When the ATF went to raid the compound, there was a gunfight—both sides claimed that the other shot first—that left five ATF agents and five Branch Davidian members dead.

What happened next is, well, the famous siege of Waco. It was a 51-day standoff between the federal government and those inside of the compound. Now that in and of itself is its own article because it was kind of a catastrophe on all ends. It certainly stirred up resentment by a lot of people toward the federal government. 

Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, said that his actions were revenge for what happened at Waco. McVeigh’s actions killed 168 people, leftover 600 wounded, and is considered to be the largest act of domestic terrorism in the US. 

The siege ended on April 19, 1993, when the compound was stormed by the FBI, using military grade weapons. It ended with over 70 members of the Branch Davidians, including Koresh, dead. Many of the deaths took place due to a fire that broke out, circumstances of which are still disputed. Others were shot to death by members of the Branch Davidians, according to the ME no federal agents fired their weapon that day.

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