Koresh: The True Story of David Koresh and the Tragedy at Waco
By Stephan Talty
Mariner Books; hardcover, 464 pages; $30.00
Stephan Talty is the New York Times bestselling author of The Black Hand, The Good Assassin, Agent Garbo, and A Captain's Duty. His books have been made into two films, the Oscar-winning Captain Phillips, which starred Tom Hanks, and Only the Brave.
In Talty's new book Koresh: The True Story of David Koresh and the Tragedy at Waco, he examines an event still shrouded in mystery, the 51-day siege of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, in the late winter and spring of 1993.
One aspect that still provokes a lot of fascination is what motivated its enigmatic leader, David Koresh. This book pulls back the curtain on the man behind the myths, rumors, and conjecture that have shaped our understanding of the Branch Davidians.
This moment is remembered as the inspiration of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995; the 80 people who died, including 24 children; and for the wave of anti-government militarism that followed.
Talty secured exclusive access to numerous victims of the siege, including Koresh's mother and sister. The details they offer build a more detailed and nuanced story than previous books and documentaries on Waco, as this is a psychological portrait of this infamous icon of the 1990s.
Koresh was born Vernon Howell into the hyper-masculine world of central Texas in the 1960s, and he experienced a childhood riven with abuse and isolation. He found a new version of himself in the halls of his local church, and love in the fundamentalist sect of the Branch Davidians in 1981.
At the compound known as Mount Carmel, Koresh became the locer of the sect's much older leader at the time, Lois Roden. Through the power of his preaching and religious zeal, he was seen as a rising leader. There were several years of a power struggle between Koresh and Lois's son, George Roden, and Koresh and his followers were forced out and for a few years settled in a new compound in Palestine, Texas. The clash between them culminated in an armed confrontation at Mount Carmel that resulted in Koresh and some of his supporters being charged with attempted murder, but they were later acquitted.
Later on, with his new name and professed prophetic powers, Koresh ushered in a new era for the Davidians, essentially turning it into a cult, that prized his sexual conquest as much as his followers' faith. He claimed the right of sexual access to all the Branch Davidian women, whether single or married. He married a teenager and had two children with her, and fathered children with several other girls and women. By this time, Koresh and the Davidians had come under scrutiny by local, state, and federal law enforcement, who were hearing allegations of firearms being stockpiled, rape, and abuse of children, with many of the claims coming from disenchanted former cult members.
Koresh had a fixation on holy war, which would deliver the Davidians to their reward and confirm himself as Christ. One survivor said, "What better way for a worthless child to feel worth than to become God?"
Eventually, this collided with his paranoid obsession with firearms to destructive effect, and led to the 51-day standoff with the FBI and ATF. This embodied a frontier ethic that continues to resonate.
The siege: With his acclaimed storytelling, Talty chronicles the entire course of the 51-day siege at Waco, which was preceded by an extended period of surveillance by the ATF Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) and negotiation with Koresh and his lieutenants. Talty explains how bungled intelligence, miscommunication, and numerous missteps lead to a disastrous armed raid on the Mount Carmel compound by the ATF on February 28, 1993. Four federal agents and six Davidians were killed, and many others on both sides were wounded, including David Koresh. Control of the Waco operation was passed the next day to the FBI and was soon under the purview of newly confirmed U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno.
Moreover, Talty tells how long and often personal conversations between FBI negotiators and Koresh and his subordinates seemed to be leading to a promising resolution. The FBI negotiators managed to secure the release of some thirty-five Branch Davidians, including twenty-one children. But the unwavering belief of Koresh and his followers that they had to die in a holy war against satanic government forces in order to bring about a messianic age, with Koresh as the Messiah, put an almost insurmountable burden on the negotiations from the start. As Talty shows, conflicts and crossed wires between the FBI's negotiation and tactical teams also contributed significantly to the disaster that took place on April 19, 1993.
Refuting myths and rumors: Today, Talty contends, there is a distorted public view of what occurred at Waco, which has contributed to a general climate of distrust of the government, not to mention full-fledged rightwing conspiracies and the growth of the militia movement. For example, although many believe that the FBI caused the fire in the compound with its tanks and tear gas, according to Talty there is overwhelming evidence that the Davidians themselves set it. Furthermore, it is widely believed that FBI agents shot and killed Davidians during the assault on April 19. Again, however, the evidence from eyewitness testimony and autopsy results overwhelmingly indicates that the Davidians themselves shot twenty of their own members, including at least five children. Nor did Koresh escape the conflagration, as some maintain. Among those whose bodies were found with bullet wounds to the head was David Koresh himself.
"For the far right," Talty writes, "Waco made a secret world visible; it exposed the government's tyranny to anyone with a cable connection...The far right not only gained a set of martyrs, the legitimacy of its enemies - the ATF, the FBI - was publicly weakened...As with David, the conspiratorial right sought a battle in which their world and the sordid world of satanic power and decadence would collide, and a winner would be declared at last. David's came at Waco, the movement's came at the Capitol on January 6, 2021. The two events sprang from the same American soil, which has for centuries been crisscrossed by men and women who believe that violence cleanses the land for something infinitely more wonderful."