What's Real & What's Not About the History of Waco
Everyone’s talking about this miniseries inspired by real events.
The new Waco miniseries, part of the Paramount Network debut (a rebrand of Spike TV), follows the 1993 ATF and FBI raid of the Branch Davidians. The religious sect, led by David Koresh in Waco, Texas, resisted a warrant and would not surrender, which resulted in the death of four ATF agents and 82 men, women and children in the compound. It boasts a cast of heavy hitters and plenty of veteran character actors, also known as “Oh, that guy!” including Taylor Kitsch, Michael Shannon, John Leguizamo, Melissa Benoist, Julia Garner and more.
But TV miniseries and movies based on true events can be tricky, especially when celebrity names are attached. That’s when Hollywood can start to play fast and loose with the truth.
So, how much of Waco is actually true? What is fact and what is fiction when it comes to telling a story about one of the most infamous cults in modern American history? Below are some of the plot points in the show, so keep reading to see just how Waco measures up to real events.
David Koresh considered himself a rock star
True. Koresh did like to think of himself as an accomplished musician. He even had a stage built in the Mount Carmel Center (the Branch Davidian compound) with Marshall amps where he could serenade his flock, Bon Jovi-style. He had the congregation whip up concert T-shirts with his image on them, which a lot of them wore. Did he go out to bars and play covers of "My Sharona"? The jury is still out on that. But he did play music for the FBI and the ATF. According to a 1993 People article on the standoff, the FBI used sonic warfare tactics to try to get the Branch Davidians to surrender. One way was to play Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'." Koresh countered by turning his speakers up to 11 and wailing on his guitar, singing to the men in blue across the field.
The press was invited to film the raid
Partially true. Originally, there was an ATF PR person handling media coverage of the raid. As such, it was their main goal to capture footage of the raid, the idea being that if they handled it well and took down an armed cult, they could show it to Congress and get an increased budget. The main reporter on the scene was forced to stop filming once there were casualties and the ATF had to retreat.
After word got out, reporters gathered on the road leading up to the compound waiting to cover the story. In fact, it was a news reporter who tipped the Branch Davidians off that the ATF was coming to raid in the first place. A reporter asked a mailman for directions to the compound — a mailman who happened to be a Branch Davidian.
The press was kept away from the scene by the FBI once the raid turned ugly, but the Branch Davidians kept sending messages that they wanted the press to tell their story, so the government wouldn’t make it look like they were the aggressors. They even pushed a flag out a compound window that read, “God Help Us We Want the Press.” Frustrated reporters gathered in front of cameras yelling, “God help us, we are the press!”
But what the movie did not portray was the additional media circus and surrounding public melee. There were vendors selling food and T-shirts and people marching and protesting with picket signs. Some radicals who claimed solidarity with the Branch Davidians showed up, like the KKK, and several right-wing militia groups, including one guy selling bumper stickers — who's name was Timothy McVeigh, who would later become infamous for the Oklahoma City bombing.
The ATF sent in an undercover agent who Koresh converted
False. In the series, John Leguizamo plays Jacob Vasquez, an ATF agent who is sent to get surveillance on and infiltrate the Branch Davidian compound. After he attends a few Bible readings, barbecues and a wedding, Jacob seems to become fond of Koresh and may even begin to believe the teachings of Koresh, who has convinced the congregation he’s the lamb of God, the opener of the seven seals and modern-day messiah.
The real ATF agent’s name was Robert Rodriguez. He was able to convince Koresh he liked him and that he was a believer long enough to discover the Branch Davidians were stockpiling illegal weapons (in the show Jacob couldn’t find the evidence). It was Rodriguez's intel that gave the FBI information on Koresh’s illegal gun trade and the conversion of weapons and perhaps more disturbing, his “New Light doctrine” which annulled all marriages in the compound and allowed Koresh to take anyone he wanted, at any age, as his wife.
The Branch Davidians were attacked without any provocation
False. While the Waco series does cast the Davidians in a very sympathetic light, there were serious issues with the Branch Davidians. In reality, there are two sides to consider here. Some think the government was using the Branch Davidians as an example and a photo op so they could show Congress, Attorney General Janet Reno and the president how useful and important they were and why they deserved a budget increase.
However, the Branch Davidians were not innocent bystanders. Koresh had been selling guns illegally and he had his disciples converting the weapons to fully automatic, which can get you prison time. Something else that made the government uneasy was the military-style training camp Koresh held on the compound. All the members — men, women and even children — participated in these drills. Children under the age of 10 were taught to shoot a gun proficiently. One young girl was told by Koresh to shoot her baby doll at target practice, which is troubling to say the least.
The last thing that sealed the deal for a raid was Koresh’s New Light doctrine. Koresh believed that he was the messiah, Lamb of God and second coming of Christ. He believed that there was an apocalypse coming and a chosen few would survive. He was the leader of those chosen few and 24 elders would lead with him. He thought he had to create those 24 elders from virgin births, so he decided he needed to impregnate the girls in the compound. The parents at the compound willingly gave their young girls to Koresh to wed and impregnate. The men also gave up their wives to Koresh and became celibate in the process. Finally, in retrospect, the countless alleged acts of polygamy, child abuse, sexual molestation and rape were more than enough to warrant a raid.
The ATF shot first
Most likely true. This is hotly disputed but it's fairly easy to discern the most likely answer. The raid was very chaotic and several ATF agents say they heard shots coming from within the compound. But from many accounts, the fight began when several agents approached the property and dogs charged at them. The agents shot the dogs. When the gunshots were heard, everyone started shooting. Of course, both sides had reasons for shooting at one another. The ATF had gotten information from local sheriffs that the Davidians were hoarding guns and had gotten UPS packages of grenades delivered. The Davidians had witnessed a few men watching them from the property across from them and then suddenly truckloads of men in combat gear landed on their doorstep. Both sides exchanged gunfire for about 45 minutes. A cease-fire was negotiated, and the ATF retreated. Sources say the ATF was running out of ammunition, but the Branch Davidians had plenty left. When the government runs out of bullets but the church has plenty, you know you’re in Texas. In the end, the FBI borrowed military personnel from Fort Hood and got over 700 men as backup for a congregation of fewer than of 100 people and one machine gun preacher.
The FBI spent 52 days in a standoff with Koresh, and FBI negotiator Byron Sage attempted to negotiate a peaceful outcome. However, the FBI tactical team was convinced the weapons cache and child abuse were enough to force a surrender and fired tear gas into the compound. A few hours later, Mount Carmel became engulfed in flames and 76 branch Davidians died, including Koresh and all the children.