All Research

Waco: History vs. Hollywood

Taylor Kitsch
Born: April 8, 1981
Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada
David Koresh
Born: August 17, 1959
Birthplace: Houston, Texas, USA
Death: April 19, 1993, Mount Carmel Center, Waco, Texas, USA (gunshot wound to head)
Michael Shannon
Born: August 7, 1974
Lexington, Kentucky, USA
Gary Noesner
Born: October 28, 1950
Rory Culkin
Born: July 21, 1989
New York City, New York, USA
David Thibodeau
Born: February 13, 1969
Birthplace: Bangor, Maine, USA
Paul Sparks
Born: October 16, 1971
Lawton, Oklahoma, USA
Steve Schneider
Born: abt 1949
Death: April 19, 1993, Mount Carmel Center, Waco, Texas, USA (gunshot wound to head)
Andrea Riseborough
Born: November 20, 1981
Newcastle upon Tyne, Northumberland, England, UK
Judy Schneider
Born: September 20, 1951
Death: April 19, 1993, Mount Carmel Center, Waco, Texas, USA (suffocation due to structural collapse)
Melissa Benoist
Born: October 4, 1988
Littleton, Colorado, USA
Rachel Koresh
Born: May 9, 1969
Birthplace: McLennan County, Texas, USA
Death: April 19, 1993, Mount Carmel Center, Waco, Texas, USA (suffocation due to structural collapse)
Julia Garner
Born: February 1, 1994
Bronx, New York City, New York, USA
Michele Jones
Born: July 4, 1974
Birthplace: Texas, USA
Death: April 19, 1993, Mount Carmel Center, Waco, Texas, USA (smoke inhalation and focal charring)
Demore Barnes
Born: November 16, 1976
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Wayne Martin
Death: (smoke inhalation and global charring)
John Leguizamo
Born: July 22, 1964
Bogotá, Colombia
Robert Rodriguez

Renamed Jacob Vazquez in the Series

Questioning the Story:

Did David Koresh found the Branch Davidians religious group?

The miniseries doesn't provide much of a history when it comes to the Branch Davidians. The Waco true story reveals that the religious sect was founded in 1959 by Benjamin Roden as a spin-off of the Davidian Seventh-Day Adventist Church. The group was led by Roden until his death in 1978. His wife Lois took over until her own death in 1986. David Koresh joined in 1981 and began a sexual relationship with Lois. After her death, Koresh faced off against her son, George Roden, for control of the group. The two factions clashed in a gunfight and Roden was shot and injured. Koresh, whose real name is Vernon Howell, emerged as the leader in 1987. He led the group for roughly five years up until the siege. About 130 people were living at the Mount Carmel compound in Waco at the time.

The real David Koresh (left) became the leader of the Branch Davidians in 1987. Taylor Kitsch (right) portrays Koresh in the miniseries.

Did ATF agents shooting barking dogs spark the initial firefight?

This is the narrative the miniseries takes, but in reality, it is unknown who fired the first shot. The ATF and FBI claimed that the Branch Davidians shot first, while the surviving members claimed that it was the agents who fired the first shot. Some agents claimed that they heard gunshots coming from inside the compound. Another reasoned that a fellow agent's firearm accidentally went off. -Smithsonian Magazine

How long did the Waco standoff last?

The 1993 standoff in Waco, Texas between the Branch Davidians and the authorities lasted a total of 51 days, beginning on February 28, 1993 and ending on April 19, 1993. The ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) believed that Koresh and his followers were stockpiling nearly 250 weapons inside the compound, including shotguns, semi-automatic rifles, pistols, revolvers and hundreds of grenades. They had first been tipped off after a UPS package of grenade casings had accidentally tore open. The ATF came to execute a search warrant for weapons violations and allegations of sexual abuse. They intended to search the 77-acre Mount Carmel compound. -TIME

The Branch Davidian compound known as Mount Carmel Center near Waco, Texas.

Was FBI negotiator Gary Noesner also present at Ruby Ridge?

No. Six months prior to the Waco siege, there was a standoff in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, which kicks off the miniseries. In that altercation, former Green Beret Randy Weaver was to be arrested on an illegal firearms charge. Botched surveillance by several U.S. Marshalls led to Weaver's 14-year-old son Sammy and family friend Kevin Harris (24) confronting the marshalls and a shootout ensued. Sammy shot U.S. Marshall Bill Degan and a dying Degan returned fire, killing Sammy.

The FBI's Hostage Rescue Team then came in to help. The following day, FBI HRT sniper Lon Horiuchi shot at Randy Weaver after Weaver went to view his son Sammy's body, which had been moved to a shed. Horiuchi intended to fatally hit weaver in the spine but missed and hit him in the right shoulder. As Weaver, his 16-year-old daughter Sara, and Kevin Harris ran back into the house, Horiuchi fired again. The bullet struck Weaver's wife Vicki in the head as she stood at the door holding their 10-month-old daughter Elishiba. She fell to the floor and died instantly. The same bullet struck Harris in the chest, injuring him. The most fictional element in the miniseries' depiction of Ruby Ridge is that FBI negotiator Gary Noesner (Michael Shannon) is depicted as being present at the scene and figures out a way to convince Randy Weaver to surrender. A Waco fact check reveals that Noesner was not at Ruby Ridge.

The real FBI hostage negotiator Gary Noesner (left) and actor Michael Shannon (right).

Did David Thibodeau meet David Koresh at a local bar soundcheck?

No. The real David Thibodeau actually met Koresh at a Guitar Center store. Koresh handed him a business card that had some scripture on it and he told Koresh, "I'm not looking to be in a Christian band." The Branch Davidians described their views as being deeper than Christianity. Thibodeau spent a week thinking it over and decided to call them. "It just kept pressing on me for some reason," he said. -Smithsonian Magazine

The real David Thibodeau (left) and actor Rory Culkin (right) as Thibodeau in the Waco miniseries.

How many people died in the initial confrontation between the ATF and the Branch Davidians?

Believing that there were illegal weapons inside, it's true that the ATF agents were heavily armed and attempted to serve a warrant in full tactical gear. The confrontation led to the deaths of six of the Branch Davidians and four ATF agents. Koresh was indeed wounded in the skirmish. This began the 51-day standoff. Watch Footage of a Wounded David Koresh Speaking.

Is the Waco miniseries based on survivor David Thibodeau's book?

Yes. The miniseries, which originally aired on the Paramount Network in 2018, is based on two books, Waco: A Survivor's Story by David Thibodeau and Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator by Gary Noesner. Thibodeau is portrayed by Rory Culkin and Noesner is played by Michael Shannon in the series.

The Waco miniseries is based on David Thibodeau's book Waco: A Survivor's Story.

Did David Koresh really tell his male followers that they had to be celibate and only he could have sex with their wives?

Yes. In answering the question, "How accurate is the Waco miniseries?" we discovered that it's true that Koresh took numerous wives from his followers. At one point, he was "spiritually married" to 20 wives (Cosmopolitan). Like in the miniseries, the Waco true story also confirms that it was a rule that his male followers had to become celibate, even the ones who were there with their spouses. While it's only lightly touched on in the series, the real David Koresh reportedly took wives as young as 12 years old. Koresh and several of his wives are shown in this video, recorded during the siege.

Did David Koresh abuse children?

In the Waco miniseries, agents seem to be making largely baseless claims that David Koresh (Taylor Kitsch) is abusing children. Their claims are juxtaposed with images of children playing happily. The Waco miniseries true story is darker than what is depicted in the series, which paints a much more flattering depiction of Koresh. As stated earlier, it's true that he took multiple wives from within the group. Some of the girls were as young as 12 years old (according to the FBI, Koresh had sex with girls as young as 10). Almost all of the 21 children who survived the siege reported that sexual abuse and physical abuse by Koresh was extensive in the compound.

For example, the series shows Koresh with a wooden stick ready to punish a boy who snuck into a freezer to take ice cream. However, instead of punishing the boy, Koresh tells him that since he's a member of the group, everyone is guilty along with him. In an act of fairness, he then gives everyone a spoonful of ice cream. In real life, the children who survived told a team of therapists that they were struck with a wooden paddle that Koresh called "the helper" for something as small as spilling a glass of milk. To prepare for a potential siege, they said he made them fight each other and paddled those who didn't fight with enough force.

David Koresh (left) and actor Taylor Kitsch (right) in the Waco series.

According to the children, Koresh instructed them to call their parents "dogs" and told them they were only allowed to call him their "father". He gave girls as young as 11 a plastic Star of David to indicate they had "the light" and could now have sex with their leader. Now adults, the children still describe the abuse they faced from Koresh.

"You just did not know what [he] had up his sleeve at any time of the day," said survivor Joann Vaega, who was six at the time of the siege. She was one of 21 children released prior to the fire, however, both of her parents perished in the inferno. "It was kind of scary, going from being spanked for everything you do to making mistakes as a kid and waiting for the ax to drop." -Today

Many of the surviving adult Davidians and their lawyers insisted that the abuse never happened. -The New York Times

How big was the force of federal agents that surrounded the compound?

A Waco fact check shows that approximately 668 federal agents surrounded the Mount Carmel compound near Waco, Texas. In addition to the agents, 15 U.S. Army personnel, 6 U.S. Customs officers, 31 Texas Rangers, 13 members of the Texas National Guard, 131 Texas Department of Public Safety officers, 18 Waco police, and 17 personnel from the McLennan County sheriff's office were also present, for a total of 899 people. In addition, two Abrams tanks, ten Bradley tanks, and four combat-engineering vehicles were brought in. -The New Yorker

Did the FBI really play loud music to try and force the Branch Davidians out?

Yes. Waco survivor Clive Doyle recounted this in his autobiography, stating that the FBI used loud noises constantly. They blared the sounds of "rabbits being killed, warped-up music, Nancy Sinatra singing 'These Boots Are Made For Walking', Tibetan monks chanting, Christmas carols, telephones ringing, reveille." It's true that David Koresh sent his own loud music back at the authorities. However, according to a 1993 Entertainment Weekly article, this happened prior to the compound's power being cut. Unlike the series, he didn't do it with the generator's last bit of remaining fuel. Listen to the David Koresh Song 'Mad Man in Waco'.

David Koresh (left) did have a band like in the miniseries (right).

Did the FBI smuggle listening devices into the compound?

Yes. An agent testified that the FBI had placed 11 listening devices inside the compound over the course of the 51-day standoff. The miniseries only shows one such device, which is smuggled in with a crate of milk. -The New York Times

Did FBI Hostage Negotiator Gary Noesner butt heads with the on-scene FBI commanders?

Yes, and a Waco miniseries fact check confirms that Gary Noesner left Waco three weeks before the fire. It's also true that he managed to free 35 people, many of whom were children. In speaking of David Koresh reneging on some of his promises to the FBI, Noesner said, "At Waco, our on-scene commander and the tactical commander took those behaviors in a very negative way. Then they would take actions that would only ratchet up things with David. So it was a very complex tragedy." Noesner shares his viewpoint and his side of the story in his book Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator. -Smithsonian Magazine

Gary Noesner's book Stalling for Time also inspired the Waco miniseries.

Were children really gassed to death in the Waco standoff?

The Waco miniseries true story confirms that a total of 25 children died after being trapped inside the compound. "They gassed the kids to death," says David Thibodeau. "American law enforcement officers gassed American children to death. They went to the structure where the kids were and put so much tear gas in there that they anesthetized all the mothers and children in that little concrete structure. Most young men with good physiques could not have gotten out of that situation." While autopsy reports confirm that some of the children died from the gas, others were buried alive by rubble or executed in mercy killings. -Brown Political Review

How many people died in the tear-gassing and fire?

While the miniseries keeps its main focus on a select number of characters, a total of 76 people died on April 19, 1993 after fires broke out roughly one hour after agents finished inserting tear gas into the compound to try and flush people out. They also rammed the buildings to try and get them to come out, using Koresh's physical and sexual child abuse as a justification for their assault. Before long, the compound known as Mount Carmel went up in flames. Of the 76 who perished, 25 were children, many of whom had gone into the concrete vault room with their mothers for safety.

Smoke and flames rise from the burning Branch Davidian compound during the climax of the Waco siege on April 19, 1993.

Did the tear gas really start the fires?

There are two versions of how the fires started. The government came out with a report in 2000 that concluded that it was the Branch Davidians who started the fires. As implied on the show, the report indeed found that incendiary tear gas canisters were used by the FBI, but arson investigators determined that the fires were started simultaneously by the Davidians in no less than three different locations in the compound. Transcripts from listening devices the FBI placed within the compound support this assertion. On the day of the siege, members can be heard talking about setting the fires (The New York Times). The survivors, including David Thibodeau, say that this is entirely untrue. Thibodeau has maintained over the years that the fires started as a result of the actions of the FBI. This is the version that we see in the Waco miniseries.

Could the Branch Davidians have committed mass suicide?

While the miniseries takes the stance that there was no mass suicide, evidence, including transcripts from listening devices mentioned in the previous question, suggests otherwise, indicating that it was the Davidians who set the fires. However, it's hard to say definitively (The New York Times). We do know for certain that there were a number of suicides inside the compound, either self-inflicted or by proxy. Koresh himself had a gunshot wound in the middle of his forehead. The series implies that it was Steve Schneider who pulled the trigger prior to taking his own life. In real life, it is less clear whether Koresh's head wound was self-inflicted or not, however, the FBI agrees with the show's version.

The series leaves out the even darker side of the Waco true story, failing to show the many others who had fatal gunshot wounds to either the face, head or chest, including five children. It also omits the 3-year-old boy who had been fatally stabbed in the chest, and the other two minors who died from blows to the head. Instead of including these mercy killings/murders, Koresh's death is depicted as a sort of martyrdom.

The real David Thibodeau told TIME that he believes that it's likely some of the Branch Davidians opted to take their own lives instead of dying more painful deaths in the fire. "They died for what they believed in, whether you believe that or not," Thibodeau said during an interview with Smithsonian Magazine. "To me, they're martyrs, and they shouldn't just be demonized and hated."

The true story confirms that Steve Schneider likely shot David Koresh (left) in an act of consensual execution. Actor Taylor Kitsch (right) as Koresh in the Waco series.

How many of the Branch Davidians survived?

In researching the Waco fact vs. fiction, we learned that prior to the fire that destroyed the compound, 35 people had left, including 21 children. Nine more fled the compound after the fire began. In total, 44 members survived the 51-day siege. -The New York Times

How many firearms were found in the Branch Davidian compound?

The real David Thibodeau (portrayed by Rory Culkin in the miniseries) has stated that there were a total of 76 firearms in the compound at the time, which is not as many as the miniseries implies. "It was made to sound as though there were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds. There weren't, because we were selling a lot of the guns at a gun show" (Brown Political Review). Thibodeau shares his side of the story in his book Waco: A Survivor's Story.

However, Thibodeau's claims contradict the actual number of weapons that were reportedly found in the compound after it burned to the ground. A Waco miniseries fact check reveals that the authorities recovered approximately 300 assault rifles and pistols from the charred remains of the compound, including 60 AK47 assault rifles, 60 M-16 machine guns, and roughly 30 AR-15 assault rifles. Many of the guns were found in the concrete vault, and 22 weapons were removed from underneath bodies in the vault, including an unexploded grenade. -Los Angeles Times

The burning remains of the Waco compound in the aftermath of the siege.

Were any of the surviving Branch Davidians sent to prison?

Yes. Our investigation into the Waco fact vs. fiction reveals that eight surviving Branch Davidian members were convicted on charges of voluntary manslaughter and using firearms while carrying out a crime. By 2007, all had been released from prison. David Thibodeau (played by Rory Culkin in the series), along with several other surviving adults, was not sentenced to prison time. -Fox News

Did any of the survivors have cameos in the Waco miniseries?

Yes. The real David Thibodeau had a cameo in the Waco series finale. At the end of the episode, Thibodeau can be seen sitting on a bench next to his onscreen counterpart (played by Rory Culkin) outside a hearing room in Washington, D.C.

David Thibodeau's cameo at the end of Waco.

Do the Branch Davidians still exist?

Yes. The new sect of Davidians actually built a chapel on the site where the Mount Carmel compound stood. About twelve followers live in a scattering of trailer homes. They call themselves "Branch, The Lord Our Righteousness" and are led by a former follower of Lois Roden, Koresh's predecessor. They are still waiting for the end of times. -NPR

David Koresh Interviews & Footage From Inside Waco

Watch footage of David Koresh speaking from inside Waco and listen to his song 'Mad Man in Waco'.