While the drama, starring Taylor Kitsch, Michael Shannon, and John Leguizamo, might seem like creative fiction, it’s a true and terrible saga. It’s a story about disagreements over religious freedom, the boundaries of the federal government, and what it means to be a legitimate religion that came to a head in 1993 on a ranch in Waco, TX.
The Branch Davidians, an offshoot of Seventh Day Adventists, were born of a movement started by a man named Victor Houteff. He believed that the Christian messiah wasn’t Jesus and that a messiah was yet to come, according to Vox. He taught that the apocalypse was imminent and was the creator of the compound in Waco.
After his death, the movement had several leaders, until 1981, when David Koresh — who was known as Vernon Howell at the time, but changed his name to commemorate biblical kings David and Cyrus — joined the community. He assumed leadership in 1990, when the prior leader, George Roden, went to prison for murder.
Koresh taught his followers that he was a messiah and that children born from his polygamous marriages would be sacred. He “married” multiple women in the community, including underage girls, and fathered at least 13 children. In the years since the massacre, many children who grew up in the cult have reported that Koresh molested them, including Kiri Jewell, who testified at a Senate hearing she was raped by him when she was 10 years old.
However, the government’s main interest in the compound was not stopping sexual abuse, but the alleged possession of a large amount of illegal arms by the group, according to Smithsonian magazine.
Unlike previous leaders of the Brand Davidians, Koresh was not a pacifist and began stockpiling arms. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) first approached the compound in 1993, after being tipped off about a package of grenade casings en route to the facility had accidentally broken open.
On February 28, 1993, the ATF approached the compound with 78 agents and 80 vehicles. But the Branch Davidians were expecting a raid and were prepared. For over two hours the agents and the Davidians exchanged gunfire. In the end, four ATF agents were dead and 17 wounded, and at least two Davidians were killed. It was the longest gun battle in U.S. law enforcement history and only ended because federal agents started running out of ammunition.
Koresh was wounded, and told followers it was the final confrontation he had foretold: they would kill and die for God and return with him, the Lamb of God, to judge the world, according to the Dallas Morning News.
The botched raid led to a 51-day standoff managed by the FBI that cost a million dollars a week, and escalated to combat vehicles attacking the compound on April 19, 1993, and punching holes in the buildings to deploy tear gas and force the Branch Davidians out. Around noon three fires broke out at different spots around the compound. It is still unclear who started the fires, but the result was the death of Koresh and more than 70 followers. They died from smoke inhalation, were buried under rubble, or were shot.
The raid, stand-off, and final assault by law enforcement prompted lawsuits, congressional hearings, an independent counsel's investigation, and still prevalent conspiracy theories about the government and guns.