Waco: Who Were David Koresh and the Branch Davidians?

Netflix docuseries Waco: American Apocalypse unpacks a historic siege but not the cultish events leading up to it.

Waco: American Apocalypse. David Koresh in Waco: American Apocalypse.
Photo: Netflix

Timed to acknowledge the 30th anniversary of the fateful events, Netflix’s Waco: American Apocalypse is a three-episode docuseries exploring the so-called “Waco Siege” or “Waco Massacre” of 1993.

From Feb. 28 through April 19 of that year, agents of the state including the FBI, ATF, Texas law enforcement, and the U.S. military occupied the premises of a Waco, Texas-area property belonging to the Branch Davidians, a heavily-armed religious cult. The 51-day siege began with an exchange of gunfire that led to the death of four federal agents and six Davidians and ultimately it would end in violence as well – as a conflagration of unclear origin eventually engulfed the group’s Mount Carmel compound, killing 76 people including their leader David Koresh.

As one might expect from a story that combines the American pastimes of religious extremism, overzealous law enforcement, gunfights, and explosions, the Waco Siege looms large in the American consciousness. Over the years, dozens of well-crafted articles, books, films, and TV series have tried their hand at really depicting what happened that day. So where does Netflix’s Waco: American Apocalypse fall into that canon of Waco historical documents? Perhaps somewhere in the middle.

The strength of this three-episode docuseries is how singularly focused it is on the 51 days of the siege itself. Boasting never-before-seen testimony from actual Branch Davidians and law enforcement who endured the experience, Waco: American Apocalypse’s expertly guides viewers through the tense period of American history. Where the docuseries falls short, however, is with establishing the appropriate context for what led up to the siege and how its effects still ring through today

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Who, exactly, were the Branch Davidians? How did the intensely uncharismatic David Koresh come to lead them? The docuseries briefly touches on these pertinent questions in its second episode but still ultimately leaves a lot of important backstory unstated. With that in mind, here is everything you need to know about the Branch Davidians, David Koresh, and who really set that fire.

NOTE: We are drawing from many sources here, the most useful of which are PBS, Vox, and Texas Monthly. Information not included in these articles (or not readily available in the public record via Wikipedia) will be noted and credited in-text.

Who Were the Branch Davidians?

If we’re looking for a scapegoat to blame the events of the Waco Siege on, we might as well go all the way back to the early 16th century when Martin Luther nailed his “Ninety-Five Theses” to the front door of Wittenberg Castle church in Germany. Yes, really.

The Protestant Reformation loosened the Catholic Church’s hold on Christian dogma and ultimately led to the establishment of dozens of new denominations of Christianity. Several of these denominations have proven to be socially adaptable and fit finely in to Western culture. Some, however, held views too extreme to be mainstreamed. The Branch Davidians stem from several of these latter churches.

The earliest interpretation of Christianity that the Branch Davidians can trace themselves back to is the Millerite movement of the 1830s. Established by William Miller, the Millerites were convinced that the Second Advent of Jesus Christ (or more commonly known as The Second Coming) would arrive in 1843 or 1844. When it didn’t, Millerites experienced what is now called “The Great Disappointment” and Millerism itself fractured into several other churches and ideologies that fall under the umbrella of “Adventism.”

One of these new denominations was the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, which evolved from Millerism and was formerly established in 1863. Still in existence to this day (and regarded as the 12th largest religious body in the world), the Seventh-Day Adventist Church honors Saturday as the “seventh day” and therefore Sabbath and maintains a Millerite interest in the imminent arrival of Christ’s Second Coming. While the Seventh Day Adventist Church already observes its rites and traditions more steadfastly than most mainstream churches, its practices weren’t taken nearly seriously enough for one man. And that’s what finally brings us to the establishment of the Branch Davidians.

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Seventh-Day Adventist Victor Houteff was excommunicated from the church in 1930 for his constant differing interpretations of certain Bible verses. Houteff then wrote a 172-page manuscript calling for reform (much like our old friend Luther himself) called The Shepherd’s Rod. A new church was subsequently established with Houteff’s manuscript as a founding document of sorts, leading to him and his followers being known as “The Shepherd’s Rod.” But they also called themselves the “Davidians” hoping to re-establish the House of Israeli King David in the New World. The name “Davidians” would be the one that stuck and the group brought property in Texas, 13 miles northeast of the city of Waco that they named “Mount Carmel” after a location in the Bible.

The thing about breaking away from one church denomination, however, is that what’s to stop another extremist with passionate opinions within your new group from starting yet another new group of their own? That’s why just 25 years after the establishment of Shepherd’s Rod, Houteff’s death opened up an opportunity for further division within the Adventist movement.

In 1959, Victor’s widow Florence Houteff announced that armageddon was once again around the corner. When the planned date of the apocalypse came and went without a Second Coming, Florence Houteff lost control of the Davidians and a man named Benjamin Roden siezed power of the group and changed its name to the “Branch Davidians.” The “branch” here doesn’t refer to the fact that it’s a “branch” of the original Davidian group but rather to two separate Bible passages in which Jesus addresses himself as a metaphorical (or literal, it’s never quite clear in the Bible) branch. The name “Branch Davidians” therefore just means “Jesus David” more or less.

When Benjamin Roden died, leadership of the church fell to his wife Lois Roden. Lois, however, was of advanced age already and did not care for her son, George Roden, meaning that she would have to look elsewhere for a suitable leader to guide the Branch Davidians through the years to come. Enter: one bug-eyed pedophile from Houston.

Who Was David Koresh?

Vernon Wayne Howell, the man who would one day be known as “David Koresh” was a poor, miserable creature. Born on Aug. 17, 1959 in Houston, Texas to a 14-year-old single mother, Howell would spend much of his youth being relentlessly bullied for…well, you know: just look at the guy. Afflicted by poor eyesight and learning disabilities, Howell had trouble fitting in anywhere and eventually looked to the world of religion to find community.

As the Netflix doc recounts, he finally found that community in 1979. After he started having mental breakdowns and experiencing visions, Howell fell in with the Branch Davidians at their Waco compound. Around 1983, when he was still in his early 20s, he began engaging in a sexual relationship with the nearly 70-year-old Lois Roden. Roden came to prefer Howell as an heir over her own son George. Ass such, after his mother died, George Roden forced Howell and his followers off of the Mount Carmel property at gunpoint. Interestingly, Roden blamed Howell for a fire that destroyed the Branch Davidians’ $500,000 administrative building though Howell chalked it up to God.

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After several years spent in a nearby Palestine, Texas encampment, Howell and his followers (which now outnumbered Roden’s followers) made a move to take back the Mount Carmel camp. And George did them a solid in this mission by being so, so, so weird. Of all the details that Netflix’s Waco: American Apocalypse leaves out, the following one is the most unfortunate because it’s just so satisfyingly creepy and strange.

Perhaps insecure about Howell’s growing influence, Roden decided to dig up the casket and corpse of Davidian church elder Anna Hughes and challenge Howell to a good old-fashioned resurrection contest. Whoever could bring Anna’s old bones back to life would surely be the one fit to lead the church going forward. Instead of indulging Roden’s insanity, Howell attempted to sneak back into Mount Carmel at night to get photographic evidence of Roden’s ghoulish crime to tattle to the police. Instead, he and his group were discovered and a brief gunfight ensued, inflicting superficial injuries on Roden.

Howell and seven of his supporters (called the “Rodenville Eight” by the media) were tried for attempted murder on April 12, 1988. All were acquired save for Howell, whose fate was spared by a hung jury. Not only did Howell skate on the murder charges but the court case eventually led to his crew retaking control of Mount Carmel. Roden, irrepressible asshole that he was, was jailed for contempt of court for his inability to stop staring throughout Howell’s trial. Shortly after his release, he killed a fellow Davidian with an axe and was subsequently found guilty under an insanity defense and locked away in a mental institution.

With Roden out of the way, Howell and his supporters paid the back taxes on the Mount Carmel property and took control of it. From 1989 onward, Howell was the undisputed leader of the Branch Davidian movement. Around this time he legally changed his name to David Koresh, with “David” referring to the aforementioned biblical king and “Koresh” being the Hebrew translation for biblical figure Cyrus the Great. As the Netflix doc notes, this is also when Koresh began to accelerate the cultish nature of the Branch Davidians, frequently referring to himself as a Messiah and releasing the declaration of a “New Light” which justified David taking whichever woman he wanted as a wife, regardless of age.

This policy of institutionalized forced marriages (often with underage girls) along with the group’s aggressive stockpiling of weaponry put the Branch Davidians on a collision course with the federal government.

Is There Anything Else You Should Know About the Waco Siege?

Honestly, not really. We want to just use this brief section to give Waco: American Apocalypse a “thumbs up” on its documenting of the 51-day siege that ensued. There really aren’t any lingering questions to address from this portion of the Waco Siege story … save for one.

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Who Set the Fire at the Mount Carmel Compound?

The biggest lingering mystery of the Waco Siege is the question: who set the fire on April 19 that ultimately killed 76 people? One theory posits that the pyrotechnic tear gas rounds the government fired into the main Mount Carmel building ignited and ultimately created an uncontrollable inferno. Another theory puts forward that the Branch Davidians set the fire (or fires) themselves in an attempt to go out in a blaze of glory. The Netflix documentary favors the latter theory and truth be told, we do top.

The actions of the American federal government often deserve to be looked at with a skeptical eye – particularly when it comes to the grievous mishandling of the events of April 19, 1993. When it comes to the Waco fire, however, there is just quite simply more evidence supporting its deliberate creation from inside the building rather than accidental tear gas round ignition.

Waco: American Apocalypse includes audio recordings from within the Waco compound (retrieved from surveillance devices earlier placed within the walls of the building by an FBI mole) that suggests the Branch Davidians used accelerant to start a fire. In reality, there is even more damning audio including commentary like “Don’t pour it all out, we might need some later” and “The fuel has to go all around to get started.”

In 1999, attorney general Janet Reno appointed former Senator John C. Danforth as Special Counsel to fully investigate the cause of the fire and his report ultimately determined that the tear gas rounds could not have started it. While the government finding itself “not guilty” of a particular crime isn’t always the evidentiary slam dunk you might be looking for, in this case the logic and available evidence checks out. The tear gas rounds were fired roughly four hours before the fires even began and arson investigators uncovered physical evidence of accelerant in at least three areas of the compound. Some of the surviving Davidians’ clothing showed evidence of lighter fluid as well.

Additionally, the fact that only nine of more than 80 Branch Davidians left the compound during the fire suggests that the group viewed the situation as a moment of revolutionary suicide. As does the fact that Koresh’s body was discovered with a bullet wound to the head. Adventist cult leaders rely on the specter of outside persecution and the promise of an incoming apocalypse to maintain authority. With the events of April 19, David Koresh was gifted both and likely added just a touch of accelerant to fully realize his ideal armageddon.

What Was the Ultimate Legacy of the Waco Siege?

In its final episode, Waco: American Apocalypse does well to acknowledge the Waco siege’s connection to the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995. As the doc helpfully notes, the date of April 19 was no coincidence as domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh chose it to coincide with the second anniversary of the fire that concluded the Waco siege in 1993. What the documentary doesn’t fully communicate, however, is how important the events at Waco came to be in the American militia movement at large.

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Though far right movements have existed on the fringe of American politics basically since the country’s founding, the development of armed and organized far right militias began to accelerate after the Waco siege and the FBI’s 1992 shootout at Ruby Ridge. The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that, as of 2022, there are nearly 200 militia organizations in the U.S. down from a peak of 334 in 2011.

In 2016, an Idaho branch of anti-government militia Three Percenters joined extremist Ammon Bundy in occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon and specifically mentioned they must secure the refuge’s perimeter to avoid “a Waco-style situation.”

All three episodes of Waco: American Apocalypse are available to stream on Netflix now.