The real story behind crime drama Waco on Netflix – the cult and Branch Davidian Survivors

The true story behind the miniseries starring Michael Shannon and Taylor Kitsch

Waco

Although crime drama Waco was first broadcast back in 2018, it’s been enjoying something of a second life since it made its way onto Netflix – with a new batch of viewers captivated by the unbelievable story.

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The show, which boasts an impressive cast including Michael Shannon, Taylor Kitsch and Andrea Riseborough, chronicles the real life standoff between the FBI, the ATF and the religious group the Branch Davidians, which took place in Waco, Texas in 1993.

But how true to life is the series? We’ve outlined the true story below.

Who were the Branch Davidians and David Koresh?

The Brand Davidians were, essentially, a religious cult based in Waco, Texas. Their name is now virtually synonymous with the Waco incident, but the group was actually first formed some years earlier, in 1959 as a branch of the Davidian Seventh-Day Adventist Church.

For much of its early history, the Branch Davidians were not much more notable than many of the other unusual religious sects in the US. It was formed by Ben Roden, after an imminent apocalypse that had been predicted by Florence Houteff, the then-leader of the Davidian Seventh-Day Adventists, did not come to pass.

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Things began to take an altogether more extraordinary turn following the death of Roden in 1978, which led to an almighty power struggle for control of the group. Originally, Ben’s wife Lois took control, but when she died soon after there was a clash for supremacy between the Roden’s son George and Victor Howell who had recently grown to prominence within the organisation.

Howell and Roden Jr. were then engaged in a power struggle, with Roden challenging Howell to raise the dead to prove his spiritual credentials, and an eventual court case after a raid by Howell on the Mount Carmel Centre – which served as the Branch Davidians’ headquarters.

Eventually Howell became the recognised spiritual leader of the group – changing his name with David Koresh, an attempt to tie himself to King David and Cyrus the Great. During his time in charge, Koresh took as many as twenty “spiritual wives”, some of whom were aged as young as 12, while he also claimed he was aiming to establish a new line of potential world leaders.

What was the cause of the Waco standoff?

While Koresh had been establishing himself as a sort of modern day Messiah and taking several wives, he had also been stockpiling weapons – and it was this activity which first alerted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) to the dangers posed by the Branch Davidians (sexual abuse charges had also been alleged).

In February 1993, the ATF turned up at the compound with a search warrant, and when Koresh and his followers refused to allow them access, a deadly shootout ensued, leading to the deaths of four ATF agents and six Branch Davidians.

What happened during the Waco standoff?

After the shootout, the FBI involved themselves with proceedings and initiated a siege of the compound. They attempted to begin negotiations with the sect – leading to the release of 19 children from the compound, who when questioned testified to having been physically and sexually abused over several years.

The siege lasted for a total of 51 days, during which a number of methods were attempted by the FBI, including sleep deprivation tactics which consisted of the all-night broadcast of loud noises such as jet planes and even rabbits being slaughtered. It culminated on 19th April 1993, when  the FBI sprung a final assault on the compound using large weapons, in a bid to counteract the heavily armed Branch Davidians.

The FBI reportedly only used tear gas – even when Koresh’s followers began to open fire. However at some point during the raid three separate fires broke out ultimately leading to the deaths of 76 Branch Davidians (out of 85 who were still in the compound) including Koresh himself.

To this day, there are disputes as to the cause of the fires; the government claims that they were started by the Branch Davidians themselves as part of a mass suicide attempt (which also included sect members shooting each other), while surviving members of the sect claim that they were in fact started as I direct cause of the FBI assault, either deliberately or accidentally.

What happened to the Branch Davidian survivors?

As mentioned above, only nine Branch Davidians survived the siege – while a handful of others had escaped the compound before the final FBI assault. In total, 12 members of the sect were charged with aiding and abetting in murder of federal officers, and unlawful possession and use of various firearms – with eight of them convicted and four acquitted. All of those who served time in jail have since been released.

The Mount Carmel compound has since been reoccupied by Branch Davidians, who for obvious reasons are much smaller in number than they once were. Many of those surviving members are reportedly still waiting for those that perished during the siege, including Koresh, to be resurrected with Clive Doyle, who briefly led the survivors, having stated – “We believe that God will resurrect this special group.”

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Waco is currently streaming on Netflix – check out our guide to the best TV shows on Netflix