The Texas town of Waco has, for many Americans, become synonymous with tragedy—ever since the 51-day Waco siege in 1993 between the federal government and an extremist religious sect called the Branch Davidians ended in a deadly fire.
The group, led by controversial self-proclaimed prophet David Koresh, was an offshoot of another group called Shepherd’s Rod, which was connected to the Seventh-day Adventists.
On February 28, 1993, in response to reports that the Davidians had been stockpiling illegal weapons at their compound, the Mount Carmel Center, in preparation for the end of the world, Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents raided the property. Their goal: to search the premises and arrest Koresh for unlawful weapons possession. But the plan went south fast, with four FBI agents and six Branch Davidians dying in a chaotic shootout. It’s still not clear who fired the first shot.
The FBI then became embroiled in a 51-day standoff with Koresh at the compound. During this time, negotiators arranged for the release of 35 Branch Davidians, including 21 children. But on April 19, 1993, in an attempt to lure Koresh and his followers out, agents took decisive action that critics later called extreme or unwarranted: They rammed the building with tanks and launched a tear-gas assault. The structure caught fire (the cause of the fire is still debated), and 76 Branch Davidians—which included 28 children—died in the flames.
Sometime during the fire, Koresh, then 33, died of a gunshot wound to the head. It remains unknown whether he killed himself or was shot by someone else. But that’s not the only unanswered question when it comes to the infamous siege. Here are some other debates around and other little-known facts about the Waco siege and Koresh:
1. Experts still debate whether the Branch Davidians were, in fact, a ‘cult.’
Though the dominant narrative at the time of the siege was that Koresh was a sketchy cult leader, there has never been consensus about whether the group was a legitimate cult. Because no one knew much about the Branch Davidians except group members themselves, the media didn’t get much information about who they were, what they believed and how they lived until it was too late. And negative conclusions were already commonplace by then.
“The term ‘cult’ is rather stagnant, and implies a binary category—’cult’ vs. ‘non-cult’—that actually does not exist, says Dr. Steve Eichel, a psychologist and cult specialist. “Instead, many cult experts prefer to talk about cultic relationships and cultic processes, [which] exist on a continuum and can vary from group to group.”
The Branch Davidians were certainly an extreme and problematic religion: Waco survivors reported various forms of insidious child abuse, with girls as young as 11 being forced to have sex with Koresh. But there’s no definitive answer when it comes to the cult question.
“What the word ‘cult’ really means is that your religion is smaller than mine,” says Dick J. Reavis, who reported on the Waco siege for The Dallas Observer and later wrote the book Ashes of Waco. “There was a man who had 12 disciples and performed miracles… If Koresh was a cult leader, maybe Jesus was; maybe the Pope is.”
Some experts have also argued that the government used the “cult” excuse to rationalize the arguably excessive force it used against the Davidians during the standoff.
2. David Koresh (that wasn’t his real name) was mocked during childhood.
David Koresh was born Vernon Wayne Howell in Houston, Texas in 1959. His mother was 15 when she gave birth to him, and Koresh’s grandparents ended up raising him. Other students teased him for being dyslexic and gave him the nickname “Mr. Retardo.” During the Waco siege, Koresh opened up to the FBI negotiators who, during a total of 754 phone calls, were trying to encourage him to turn himself in, and Koresh reportedly told them his childhood had been lonely.
VIDEO: What Happened at the Waco Siege: Discover how cult leader David Koresh lived as a polygamist among his Branch Davidian followers and how a 51-day government siege of the group’s Mount Carmel Center ended in a deadly FBI raid on April 19, 1993.
3. Not everyone thinks the government acted appropriately during the standoff.
“There are a whole bunch of unknowns [when it comes to Waco],” says Reavis. “Like who shot first, and who is responsible for the fire. I don’t know the answer to a lot of these questions, but I do know that the FBI and ATF were negligent.”
Reavis isn’t the only critic. Journalist Darcey Steinke, who covered the standoff for SPIN as it was happening, later told the magazine she felt the government was to blame for how things went down. “I think it was the government’s fault… Koresh jogged everyday at the same time on the same route [before the siege]. And so if they wanted to take him, they could have just pulled up in a police car and arrested him,” she said. “It was insane to come to the compound of an obviously unstable person—who you know has a ton of weapons—with heavily armed ATF agents.”
Reavis also believes the government wasn’t fully informed about Koresh and his followers before they decided to confront the group so aggressively. “The Davidians were exactly what you’d expect them to be if you knew their theology [and had done any research beforehand]. But if the FBI had known what they were all about before they started, they would have never done the raid,” he says. “It was a botched deal. The FBI has since reformed the way it deals with standoffs.”
4. David Koresh once went to trial for attempted murder.
Koresh joined the Branch Davidians when he was 22 years old and soon became enmeshed in an affair with the group’s president, Lois Roden, then in her 60s. (He reportedly told her he was destined to father a child with her.) He tried to seize control of the group after Lois passed away—literally fighting her son, George, for control. George Roden had been opposed to Koresh’s relationship with his mom and felt Koresh had brainwashed her.
During this fight, Roden was shot in the chest and hands; Koresh was tried for attempted murder, but was let go after a mistrial.
5. Koresh, a rock guitarist, was obsessed with music.
In addition to his passions for Amageddon and sex—according to The Los Angeles Times, he had multiple underage wives and was rumored to sexually abuse girls—Koresh was obsessed with rock ‘n’ roll. In fact, when he was in his early 20s, he moved to Hollywood with hopes of becoming a rock star. When it didn’t pan out, he moved to Waco, changed his name and reportedly began trying to attract “groupies” of a different kind.
He produced T-shirts that read “David Koresh: God Rocks,” and continued playing in Christian bands throughout his life. His music is still available online.
6. Branch Davidians still exist today.
The group didn’t completely die out after the Waco debacle. Nine Davidians escaped the fire, and the group still hasn’t completely dissolved. A new group formed called “Branch, The Lord Our Righteousness” with a new compound in the old Waco space. They have a new leader.
Some Davidians were still meeting regularly for Bible study in 2013, and some believed Koresh might return from the dead to lead them again. “David came to give us a message and a hope,” one survivor, Sheila Martin, told People magazine. “We hope to see him again. Our regret is only that we didn’t serve God better.”
Watch Days that Shaped America: Waco Siege now.