David Koresh and the Branch Davidians: Leader of a Deadly Cult

An image of David Koresh's mugshot next to an image of the explosion during the Waco raid.

L: McLennan County Sheriff's Office / Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. R: Shelly Katz / Hulton Archives / Getty Images

David Koresh (August 17, 1959–April 19, 1993) was the charismatic leader of a religious sect known as the Branch Davidians. During a deadly standoff in Waco, Texas with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), Koresh and more than 80 of his followers were killed.

Early Years

David Koresh (born Vernon Wayne Howell) was born in Texas to a fourteen-year-old mother. He never knew his father, who broke up with his mother before she gave birth. The young Koresh Howell's mother later moved in with a violent and abusive man. When Koresh was four years old, he was sent to be raised by his maternal grandmother, but when he was seven, his mother got married and he went back to live with her and her new husband. However, he still attended religious services regularly with his grandmother, who took him to her Seventh Day Adventist church.

As a teenager, Koresh struggled with dyslexia and was placed in special education classes. He was considered awkward and unpopular. He dropped out of school before his senior year of high school, and in his early twenties, he committed statutory rape, resulting in a 15-year-old girl's pregnancy. He was later thrown out of his mother’s evangelical church after pursuing the pastor’s teenage daughter and saying that God had ordered him to marry her.

By the early eighties, he moved to Waco, where he joined the Branch Davidians at their Mount Carmel Center. Within a year or so, Koresh was claiming to have the gift of prophecy.

David Koresh, his wife Rachel Jones, and son Cyrus
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The Branch Davidians

When Koresh joined the Branch Davidians, it is believed he was involved in a sexual relationship Lois Roden, the wife of Branch Davidian founder Benjamin Roden. Koresh said that God wanted him to father a child with Lois, who was 65 years old at the time, and that this child would be the “chosen one.” His interest in Lois soon waned, however, and in 1984 he claimed that God wanted him to marry a 14 year old named Rachel Jones. In 1984, Jones' parents gave her permission to marry Koresh, who had at this point adopted the "Koresh" name (though he would not change it legally until 1990).

After escalated infighting between Koresh and the Roden family, particularly Lois’ son George, Koresh and Jones left in 1995, along with 25 other members of the group. They moved to Palestine, Texas, 90 miles away from Waco, and lived in buses and tents for several years. Koresh used this period to recruit new members, not only from Texas but from California, Israel, and the United Kingdom.

Following Lois Roden’s death., Koresh and George Roden found themselves battling for control of the Waco compound. George challenged Koresh to a spiritual duel of sorts, involving the resurrection of a corpse. Koresh took advantage of the opportunity to go to law enforcement and get George out of the way once and for all. He was told he’d need to provide evidence that George had illegally exhumed a dead body, and when he and seven supporters arrived at the compound, a gunfight erupted. George Roden was injured, and Koresh and his men were arrested. When they explained that they were on the property to gather evidence of abuse of a corpse, they were acquitted of the charges of attempted murder. 

In 1989, George Roden was himself charged with murder after killing one of his own supporters with an axe (the man had claimed to be the true Messiah). Once Roden was sent to a psychiatric prison, Koresh and his followers were able to raise the money to purchase the Waco property themselves.

Accusations of Abuse

There were repeated accusations against Koresh of statutory rape and “spiritual marriages" with underage women. Koresh claimed to have fathered children with several women and girls in the group; he said he had received a revelation from God, telling him to father two dozen children to serve as leaders once the Rapture came.

There were also claims that Koresh and other members of the group were physically abusing children. One incident involved the beating of Koresh’s three-year-old son Cyrus.

A lengthy investigation by Child Protective Services was launched. Michelle Jones, one of the alleged victims, was assigned a surrogate husband to throw investigators off the trail. The investigators ultimately failed to turn up any concrete evidence.

Meanwhile, Koresh and his followers had begun stockpiling weapons, forming an “Army of God,” to prepare for the apocalypse. Koresh claimed to have cracked the code of the Book of Revelations and warned that the End Times were near.

Waco Standoff Ends in Explosion
Shelly Katz / Getty Images

The Waco Standoff

In February 1993, federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) went to the Waco compound to serve a warrant for illegal firearms and take Koresh into custody. The raid turned into a four-hour gunfight. At its conclusion, four ATF agents and six of Koresh’s followers were dead. This led to a standoff, which lasted 51 days. 

Did You Know?

In the years since Waco, law enforcement officials have spent time studying the failed raid and the standoff itself in an effort to determine what went wrong. As a result, several changes have been made to federal law enforcement protocols in cases of hostage situations. 

Negotiators from the ATF and the FBI worked endlessly to end the standoff, and a few of the Branch Davidian members were able to exit the compound safely. However, more than 80 men, women, and children, remained inside. The ATF and the FBI used tear gas in an effort to end the siege. In response, the Branch Davidians continued the gunfire. As a result, the compound caught on fire.

A few people managed to escape the fire, but 76 were killed. Most died when the compound collapsed during the blaze, while others were killed by gunshot wounds, including Koresh, who was found shot in the head. It has never been determined whether Koresh killed himself, or whether he was shot by another member of the group. Nearly two dozen of the dead were under the age of 17.