News broke recently in The Hollywood Reporter that Taylor Kitsch and Michael Shannon are going to star in a Weinstein produced limited series regarding the 1993 Waco Siege, in which 89 people were ultimately killed. By showing both the side of the Branch Davidians and The ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) - who worked in conjunction with the FBI and the Texas Guard - it promises to be the most comprehensive overview of what led to one of the deadliest events in contemporary American and Texan history.
Kitsch will play the Davidian Leader David Koresh, whilst Michael Shannon - declared recently by Werner Herzog as the best actor of his generation - will play FBI Negotiator Gary Noesner. With multiple, and often contradictory, testimonies, documentaries, reports, opinions and conspiracies floating around regarding the events, the showrunners have an extremely tricky task of telling the story correctly. But just what did happen in Waco in April 1993? Why did it happen, and how did it get so out of hand? Firstly it is important to understand the religious sect that lived in the ten-mile strip of land in Waco, Texas: The Branch Davidians.
Who Were The Branch Davidians
The Branch Davidians are a religious sect that began in 1955 after disagreeing with the teachings of the Davidian Seventh-day Adventists, themselves a reformation group who splintered from The Seventh-day Adventists. They were founded upon apocalyptic beliefs that the end of times was nigh - more precisely that it would end in 1959. They moved to Mount Carmel - named after a famous mountain from the Old Testament - and set up a self-sustaining compound. When the apocalypse didn't arrive, their initial leader Victor Houteff was supplanted by Benjamin Roden, who was succeeded upon his death by his wife Lois Roden. She wanted to pick Vernon Howell - who was suspected of having an affair with her - over her son George, leading to fighting between the two. After much wrangling George was deemed unfit as he was in the mental asylum for killing a fellow Davidian with an axe. Therefore Vernon Howell became leader. He later changed his name by deed poll to David Koresh - David for King David, and Koresh as that was the Persian name of Cyrus the Great.
David Koresh - The Sinful Messiah
David Koresh, as the result of a trip to Israel, believed that he had unlocked the true meaning of the Book Of Revelations and for that reason he wanted special powers over people in the camp. As Ashley Fantz writes in CNN:
"The teachings set forth that "spiritual weddings" would take place between Koresh and any female follower he felt that God had ordered him to bed. That included underage girls and legally married women. The men should observe celibacy. Followers observed the order as a test of their faith. Some refused to participate and left."
It is estimated that he fathered over a dozen children in the compound, and there have also been multiple accusations of child abuse. Koresh also thought he was the come-again son of God, making the sexually obsessed, beer-drinking, rock guitar playing, long-haired cult leader the ultimate paradox - especially as he denied those pleasures to the other members of his flock. As The Spokesman Review called him, he was:
"A prophet with a pistol. A lamb with an attitude"
Koresh, in anticipation of end-times, wanted his people to be armed, and so they started stockpiling vast resources eventually including 305 firearms, 1.9 million rounds of ammunition, multiple kevlar vests and several gas masks. They were ready for war, and not afraid to fight to the death.
The Involvement of The ATF
Koresh was a boastful man, his declaration that he could have 140 wives and take brides as young as twelve and thirteen reaching the local paper. Additionally, the ATF were notified by the UPS that a package of the Davidians had broken, revealing various firearms inside. Subsequent investigations found eyewitness reports of unregistered guns and further horrifying sexual abuse, enough of which to warrant the arrest of Koresh.
However, under information that Koresh rarely left his base, and that the people he commanded had a slavish devotion to him, arrest would not prove easy. They would have to do it the hard way, a way that would go down, as Former US Attorney Ramsey Clark argues, as "the greatest domestic law enforcement tragedy in the history of the United States".
The initial raid on February 28th was flawed from the start. As well as there being suggestions that the Davidians knew one was imminent, the ATF's cover was blown by a tipped-off KWTX-TV reporter asking Koresh's brother-in-law for directions. The Davidians took their defensive positions and waited. With an undercover agent who had just left the compound saying that the Davidian's knew they were coming, the ATF still wanted to go ahead with the raid - counter to their original intentions. As ATF agents approached the compound, shots were fired - the origin of which is under contention. A gun battle lasted for two hours, killing four ATF agents and five Branch Davidians. An additional Davidian was shot and killed later outside the compound, the FBI saying he was trying to escape, and his wife stating that he was merely walking home from work.The raid has been widely considered a bad idea, a 1999 report saying that the Branch Davidians would not be violent unless acted upon:
"They apparently did not maximize the kill of ATF agents. This comports with all of the state-of-mind evidence and suggests that the Branch Davidians were not determined, cold-blooded killers; rather, they were desperate religious fanatics expecting an apocalyptic ending, in which they were destined to die defending their sacred ground and destined to achieve salvation."
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The FBI took over control of the operation and managed to establish a connection with Koresh. They seemed to be making certain headway, with it seeming that Koresh would leave the compound in return for a live message on national television, but he later reneged on this agreement, saying that God himself had told him to stay in the compound and wait. They did agree that nineteen children could be released, who upon being interviewed were seen to have been suffering from sexual abuse. An additional eleven members were ordered to leave by Koresh himself.
As negotiations were not coming to any real conclusion, the FBI tried more aggressive tactics such as playing loud recordings to keep them awake and cutting off their water and electricity supplies. Experts told the FBI that treating the Branch Davidians in such a way would only make them more convinced that they were taking part in an end-of-times event. However, the FBI were growing more and more convinced that Koresh was preparing for mass suicide - like what had happened in Jonestown with over 900 People's Temple Members dying - and with 23 children still remaining in the compound, they decided that after 51 days, there was no more time to lose. This was despite the fact that there appeared to be no evidence to support such a theory. The assault was then authorised by U.S Attorney Janet Reno, who had also asked for express permission by none other than Bill Clinton himself.
The Deadly Assault
Having had permission granted to attack the compound, the FBI blew holes in the walls and employed tear gas with the intention of getting the Davidians to come out. The Davidians opened fire, but the FBI did not return it. The Davidians were mostly wearing gas masks or hiding in a cinder block room, rendering the tear gas largely useless. After six hours, a fire broke out, killing 79 people, including tens of children. As for Koresh, the FBI claim he was killed by his right-hand man Steve Schneider after he "probably realized he was dealing with a fraud".
The origins of the fire are under debate from both sides, with the FBI claiming it was started by the Davidians themselves, citing fuel cans found on the premises as evidence, and the Davidians saying that it was caused by the FBI's use of pyrotechnical weapons. Whilst the FBI had accidentally used such weapons that they had procured from local Texans, a report by the U.S. Department of Justice claimed that:
"the fire was not caused by nor was it intensified by any chemicals present in the tear-gassing operations"
Instead, an independent report found that:
"[the] evidence overwhelmingly proves that David Koresh and the Branch Davidians set the fire and killed themselves in the conflagration at Waco, which fulfilled their apocalyptic prophecy"
It is worth keeping in mind that many conspiracy theorists deny these version of events, instead remaining adamant that the FBI in fact caused the fire in order to show that independent militias have no place in modern American culture. However, regardless of whether or not the fire itself was caused by the FBI, it is safe to say that the joint handling of the operation by them and the ATF showed a gross mishandling of the situation.
Why It Works Better As A Limited Series?
What I have written here only really scrapes the barrel with what happened up to and during the Waco siege and the types of characters and relationships involved. A limited series would work well for two reasons - a) they are proving mightily successful at the moment with true-crime series such as Making of A Murderer and American Crime Story and b) the longer format would allow for all sides of the story to be told in great detail. Television, with its novelistic grasp of narrative and plot, is far more successful at showing how tragedies can occur on a large systematic level than film, making Waco a possible perfect match of story and form. Now lets just hope Taylor Kitsch can improve upon his critically-mixed performance in True Detective series 2!