Back then he was just another drummer with huge hair who was heavily into metal. He dug Judas Priest, not Jesus Christ. Then one day in 1991 a guy in an L.A. guitar store handed him a business card--"Messiah Productions," it said--and before long David Thibodeau was jamming at a commune on the windswept Texas prairie with a band of true believers whose T-shirts proclaimed, "David Koresh: God Rocks."

Ranch Apocalypse, some called it. Thibodeau knew it as Mount Carmel and he was there when it all went to hell. At 24, he witnessed a holy war, complete with tanks and helicopters, shooting and killing, gassing and burning. He hung in for 51 days, the longest and deadliest siege in U.S. law enforcement history. He says he was ready to die for the biblical "truth" as taught by Vernon Howell--a k a David Koresh--the beer-swilling, Marlboro-smoking, Harley-riding, sex-craving redneck prophet of Waco.

"My friend and teacher," Thibodeau calls Koresh in his just-published memoir. Others may consider Koresh a depraved cult leader, but Thibodeau remembers him as a gentle and sincere man who preached "an incredible message that was 100 percent spiritual."

And, lest the world forget, Koresh also was an accomplished guitarist who could blaze the frets like Peter Frampton and loved to belt out Ted Nugent tunes in local bars. This messiah majorly rocked.

"A Place Called Waco: A Survivor's Story" is the first book on the standoff by an insider. Thibodeau is one of only nine Branch Davidians who staggered out of the inferno on April 19, 1993. His book arrives fortuitously, amid headlines suggesting an FBI or Justice Department coverup, as the government line about the Waco tragedy is being challenged again--this time not by militia paranoiacs but by a well-respected special counsel, former senator John Danforth.

Thibodeau, who was not indicted after the standoff and says he never fired a gun throughout, offers a captivating and often surprising portrait of Koresh, who he says was "either a genius or a loony . . . either inspired or nuts." He still isn't entirely sure which.

Either way, he adds angrily, "the government had no right to do what they did. It blows my mind that it could have happened in this country."

For Thibodeau and other survivors, Koresh was no false prophet--he was a 33-year-old carpenter who correctly predicted he would be crucified by a government "Beast." His role, he told followers, was to fulfill the doomsday prophecies of the Bible's mysterious Book of Revelation.

The Davidians' strain of apocalyptic Seventh-Day Adventism dates to the 1840s, but Koresh remains an exceptionally difficult figure to defend. He considered himself a sinful Messiah--anointed by God to deflower virgins, sire two dozen children, and amass an army of zealots to make a final stand against the forces of "Babylon" when Armageddon arrived.

"I have come in a way that is contrary to your preconceived ideas," he once wrote in a missive to fellow Adventists. "They will take My life, but I will arise and take theirs forevermore."

Among the surviving Davidians--there are seven who remain in prison on weapons and manslaughter charges and perhaps 20 more who left during the standoff and live mainly in Texas--are hard-core believers who say that Koresh will actually make a return engagement for the new millennium, floating back on a cloud of glory. Thibodeau doesn't entirely rule out that possibility. But he doesn't push it, either.

"It's not my job to convince people that Koresh was the final messenger or had this final message," he says, passing through Washington earlier this month to promote his book. "But I think God is giving us a second chance. . . .

"I'm still trying to put it all together: The deaths, the demonization we suffered, the pride and arrogance of the government, the fact that the truth is coming out six years later--that's all part of it." Like many Americans, he is still working out the meaning of Waco.

The Final Reel

The dark, shimmering cascade of hair is gone, but even in a shirt and tie, Thibodeau looks like a rocker. He has that groupie-magnet face--a handsome mix of French Canadian and Lebanese features--and sports a black stud earring. Arriving in the lobby of a Pentagon City motel, he worries that he's showing too much stubble--"forgot to pack my razor"--but it complements the casual-rascal look.

After the siege he worked at a bartending school, kicked around the militia speaking circuit, and got a new band together in Los Angeles, but it didn't break through. Now he's in copier sales, settled down in Austin with a wife and toddler. But he still drums, most recently for a funk-rock band called Groovius Maximus, which he describes as "Rage Against the Machine meets George Clinton."

At 30, he's gotten way past pure head-banging metal, which he loved so much in high school that he used a quote from the band Wasp as his senior yearbook entry: "I will live in fame and die in flames; I'm never getting old."

Brought up in Bangor, Maine, Thibodeau was a "fat boy"--5 feet 10, 250 pounds in high school--a latchkey kid raised by a single mother. For those reasons alone, he felt a kinship for Koresh, a special-ed student whom schoolmates teased as "Mr. Retardo."

He says so much disinformation has been published about Koresh, the Davidians and the standoff that he felt obliged to pursue a book, which he wrote with Los Angeles journalist Leon Whiteson. "I want to reach the Mr. Joneses and Mrs. Smiths who wouldn't give Waco a second thought." He also wanted to be honest about Koresh's all-too-human failings: "There were faults on both sides," he says.

Thibodeau was fresh out of the Musicians Institute of Technology in Hollywood--birthplace of many '80s big-hair bands--but going nowhere when he met Koresh, who had a pad in L.A., a bunch of fancy airbrushed guitars and his own tour bus. The drummer wasn't much for Scripture studies ("You guys are a Christian band," he told Koresh disdainfully when they first met), but ultimately figured that joining the preacher's outfit could lead to a record deal.

The music not only helped Koresh to recruit and evangelize; it also was part of a plan to bring in groupies, according to one ex-adherent. "Apart from his religion, Koresh lived for two things, and two things only: sex and rock and roll," writes former Davidian Marc Breault in his 1993 book, "Inside the Cult." Breault played keyboards in the band from 1986 to 1989 but split with Koresh over the prophet's sexual proclivities.

"You know, Marc, with our music we'll be rock stars, man," he quotes Koresh as assuring him. "I'll have women begging me to make love to 'em. Just imagine, virgins without number, man, this is how we're going to do it."

Soon after Thibodeau began his two-year gig at Mount Carmel Center, he realized he wouldn't be living the rock dream. With its poorly constructed chapel and dorm rooms, Mount Carmel looked to him like a hippie squatter's camp, home to about 125 faithful. Only a few of the structures had running water. There was a fair quotient of elderly Adventist "holy rollers." The young women were attractive, but not flirtatious in the least. They wore "very sober clothes, long skirts . . . and no makeup."

But, he writes, "I was struck by how people shared things with their neighbors and helped one another out." The place had a tolerant multicultural vibe; more than a third of the Davidians were black and many were Asian and Hispanic. The place teemed with little kids. In establishing his "House of David," Koresh had 17 children with a dozen "wives"--but Thibodeau says he didn't know all the details in the beginning.

There were other unsavory details he didn't know. Still calling himself Vernon Howell, Koresh rose to prominence in the sect after having sex with its 68-year-old leader, Lois Roden, who viewed him as a prophet. He'd also been involved in a shootout with Lois's son, George, who considered Vernon a "Satan-worshiper" who'd raped his mother. An indignant George Roden dug up the corpse of a follower who'd been dead for 20 years and attempted to prove he was the real prophet by resurrecting her with a prayer that ended, "In the name of George B. Roden, amen." Failing, George challenged Vernon to try. He declined. ("There was nothing really left to resurrect," he later told an interviewer. "She was just, like, bones.")

This feud was immortalized in a 1988 song Koresh recorded about George titled "Mad Man in Waco." But by the time Thibodeau arrived on the scene, the leader favored spiritually themed compositions such as "Seven Thunders." For the drummer, like everyone else at Mount Carmel, there was no avoiding Bible studies--Koresh, though barely literate, was a savant who could quote huge swaths of the Word verbatim, weaving panoramic scenes as if they were multimedia and hypertext: "David could harmonize the entire Scripture and answer all our questions," says Thibodeau. "He literally lived the Book, from Genesis to Revelation."

Just 21, Thibodeau met Koresh at a vulnerable time. In the Babylon of Hollywood, he'd seen grasping, greedy people and drug-addicted mothers who cared more about their next fix than their own children. "In Mount Carmel he saw something he thought was much healthier, even if we would consider it unhealthy," says Thibodeau's mother, Balenda Ganem.

A leftist activist, Ganem had raised her son to question authority and embrace no organized faith: "He was open to everything; that's the path we took," she recalls in a phone interview.

Koresh often told Thibodeau that he was glad the drummer came to him unchurched. It made him more willing to accept Koresh's spin on the Book. As Thibodeau recounts in the online magazine Salon this month: "For the first time in my life, I began to read the Bible and to see that its message might be meaningful."

But Koresh served up something even more exciting than the usual message of salvation through Jesus. In Koresh's cinematic view of the Bible, the Davidians were part of the last reel: He convinced them the End Time was at hand, and he was offering followers a piece of the action, a chance to be players in nothing less than the final battle between good and evil.

His sermons focused on Revelation, a bleak and confounding work that many Christians avoid. Inside Mount Carmel, the Bible students grew convinced that Koresh had unlocked the "Seven Seals"--the ultimate prophecy of humanity's fate--and was, in fact, the sacrificed Lamb of God who would lead them through the horrifying tribulations to come.

Said the prophet, "It's a hard fate, but inevitable, and somehow magnificent."

Koresh inculcated the group through marathon Bible studies, often late into the night. Afterward, Thibodeau writes, they would unwind by jamming, "David easy on the strings, me barely tapping the skins, moving together in a shared zone that was like a trance."

Thibodeau now realizes that he succumbed to groupthink at Mount Carmel, and created a father figure in Koresh. Could the prophet have been brainwashing him?

"I'm not the sharpest tool in the shed," he admits, but also points out that people much smarter than he--longtime divinity students, even a Harvard law graduate--felt Koresh was a genuine prophet.

"They weren't there because David Koresh was solely a mind-control freak," says Thibodeau. "I see how some people could say he was guilty of mind control, but I feel he gave me the option to make my own choices, whether to leave or to stay."

The toughest choice was to renounce sex--something Koresh demanded of all men in the group, even the married ones. The leader said he would assume the "burden" of sexuality for the flock, preaching that sex was a "huge stumbling block, a major source of pain and lies between men and women."

"You have to toughen up, Thibodeau," he quotes Koresh as telling him. "Cut yourself off from women and everything they mean to you."

Thibodeau agreed to become abstinent so he could remain with the group. "I didn't think I could do it," he recalls. "But I found out how you can push the limits of the flesh."

Other religions enforce vows of chastity and obedience, but the Texas messiah had another requirement: that the men turn their daughters and wives over to him, so he could produce 24 special offspring to ascend to Heaven when the final battle came.

Sometimes Koresh taunted the men, "I got all the women, aren't you jealous?"

Other followers had broken with the teacher on just this point, but Thibodeau believed Koresh when he invoked Scripture to justify his polygamous lifestyle. The musician also figured that a new messiah might well have a very weird message--Christ's was revolutionary, after all--and that his followers would be despised.

"It was meant to be something that the world wouldn't understand," he says of Koresh's sex life. "I understand it's not an easy truth to stand up for, but I haven't seen any truth more complete. In totality it made sense."

If Koresh was a cult leader, Thibodeau declares, then so was Jesus. "Guys dropped their families and followed Him. . . . When I read of Christ and the Apostles, I see mind control at work to an extent."

But disaffected followers say the focus on the Seven Seals was essential to Koresh's brainwashing. "Vernon used Bible knowledge to convince us he was a prophet. Once he managed that, we did what we did out of fear," says Elizabeth Baranyai, an apostate quoted in Marc Breault's book. "None of us wanted to go to Hell."

Suffer the Children

Thibodeau objects to being introduced to strangers as a Branch Davidian, preferring the phrase "student of Koresh."

"I didn't know what a Branch Davidian was until February 28, 1993," he likes to say.

Branch Davidian was the media shorthand applied the day the ragtag band of Bible believers burst into the news, after an ill-conceived raid on their compound by some 80 agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms attempting to nab Koresh for alleged weapons violations.

The sect members were legally selling exotic semiautomatic rifles and "David Koresh Survival Wear" at local gun shows, but agents suspected they were also illegally trafficking in fully automatic weapons and hand grenades. Four agents and six Davidians died in the ensuing shootout, which triggered the 51-day siege.

By then, Thibodeau believed that Koresh's prophecies were at hand--and figured he would die defending Mount Carmel. "Despite my terrors, I wanted to share the community's fate," he writes. "The fear of being left out was now greater than any fear of death."

In shooting the agents, the religionists claimed they acted in self-defense against a massive show of force (a jury later rejected all murder charges in the incident, but found some guilty of aiding and abetting voluntary manslaughter).

Thibodeau is certain the feds could have followed a safer course in trying to arrest Koresh--especially knowing, as they did from an undercover ATF agent who'd joined the Bible studies at Mount Carmel, that many women and children would be put at risk.

In 1995, testifying at the House hearings on Waco, Thibodeau made a key point: Koresh easily could have been nabbed outside the compound in the days before the raid, an assertion supported by the congressional investigation. Thibodeau testified that he and other young men used to jog with Koresh right to the surveillance house set up by the ATF agents who were investigating the Davidians.

"They could have gotten the majority of the inner circle," he says. The rest of the old men and women no doubt would have quietly given up.

Figuring they would need heavy armor to take on the well-armed Koresh, the ATF's leaders turned to the military for close-quarter combat training, helicopters and other hardware. To get the assistance, the congressional panel concluded, the agents concocted a claim that Mount Carmel was the site of a methamphetamine lab run by speed freaks.

"David Koresh was absolutely against drugs," Thibodeau testified. "There were absolutely no drugs at Mount Carmel, period."

But Thibodeau's testimony that day was dramatically upstaged by the graphic tale of sexual abuse told by Kiri Jewell, who talked about Koresh's predilection for underage wives. She was 10, she said, when Koresh molested her in apparent preparation for her later induction into his harem.

"I was shocked by Kiri's tale," Thibodeau writes. At the witness table, he poured her a glass of water to comfort her. He would later come to doubt portions of her testimony, but now is convinced that Koresh was committing felony rape by having sex with girls as young as 12: "David was guilty on multiple charges that could have sent him to prison for a very long time, perhaps for life."

Still, there's a part of him that thinks a higher law may have sanctioned Koresh's behavior, that it was what prophecy required. "I do have problems with the young girls," he says. But in the next breath, he speculates that this taboo behavior might have been part of God's difficult message, "a stumbling block" to test their faith in Koresh.

The messiah's trouble with the law set up the fiery denouement. "For David, a surrender to temporal authority would be a betrayal of his prophetic role," Thibodeau writes. "You could say we had created a self-fulfilling prophecy. . . . He provoked his own persecution--and ours."

Day 51

Soon after the standoff began, Thibodeau's mother, Balenda Ganem, moved from Maine to Waco, took a job at a local motel, and became a spokeswoman for families of those inside. She feared that her Davey was under the thrall of Koresh.

"David Koresh was destructive to himself, and as a result of his power and passion, that destruction was going to reverberate to everyone in his path," Ganem says. She consulted a book called "Combating Cult Mind Control," written by a former Unification Church member--but her main concern at the time was Thibodeau's physical safety.

"I don't want a dead son," she announced, and tried without success to pressure the FBI to allow families to directly contact the holed-up Davidians. "The families were held in the lowest possible esteem," Ganem says.

An FBI negotiator encouraged Thibodeau to send out a short video to his mom, but she never got to see the tape, she says. Two other home movies that the Davidians made to present their side of the story to the world were suppressed, according to a Justice Department report, because officials believed their release to the media would create public sympathy for the sect.

When, early in the siege, two elderly women voluntarily left the compound, they were put in irons and charged with murder of federal agents. That harsh treatment convinced the Davidians they would find no leniency with surrender. "I no longer trusted anything the government was saying," Thibodeau writes.

By Day 51, when the tanks moved in, those inside were convinced they faced annihilation, says Thibodeau. And in his view, there was a certain sexual jealousy at work:

"David said on a few occasions that this was a man-to-man challenge. He said, 'You have to understand the basic concept of them coming after me. Do you think they like the idea that this guy is in here with all these wives?' "

On any given day, more than 700 law enforcement personnel were marshaled against the Mount Carmelites. The FBI's elite counter-terrorism squad--known as the Hostage Rescue Team--was itching for resolution. The FBI told Attorney General Janet Reno that babies were being beaten inside the compound and Koresh was continuing to have sex with minors while recovering from gunshot wounds he received in the ATF raid. (The Justice Department later admitted there was no direct evidence to support the allegations.) Concerned about the children's welfare, Reno approved a plan to use non-incendiary CS tear gas to end the standoff.

Thibodeau's account of Day 51 confirms the chaos, panic and ironies that other survivors have conveyed. Even as the tanks smashed through Mount Carmel's flimsy walls, spewing gas, a negotiator intoned, "This is not an assault."

As the FBI's snipers reported gunfire coming from Mount Carmel, the operation escalated. The only phone line failed. Some women attempted to flee to an underground storm shelter, via a trapdoor, but found it was blocked by debris from the tanks. Faced with flying gas rounds and clanking armor, the mothers and children--quite logically, in Thibodeau's view--bunkered down in a concrete above-ground storage room, rather than embrace the invading enemy forces of Babylon.

The drummer stayed in the chapel, wearing a gas mask, trying to hide amid stacks of the band's amplifiers: "Walls collapsed, the building shook, gas billowed in and the air was full of terrible sounds," he recounts in his Salon article. "There were screams of children and the gasps and sobs of those who could not protect themselves from the noxious CS. This continued for hours."

When the inferno erupted around noon, he says he tried to reach the children, but nearly caught fire. He dropped to his knees and the wall beside him burst into flame. "God, if I'm going to die, just make it quick," he prayed.

As he smelled his long hair starting to burn, he leapt through a hole at the end of the stage where he'd so often jammed with Koresh. He believed he'd be mowed down by FBI agents' bullets, but suffered only a scorched nose and cheek, which hurt "no worse than a bad sunburn," he recalls.

It turned out that several women and all 21 children huddled under wet blankets in the concrete room, trying to ward off heat, smoke and gas. Thirty-six corpses were found there, including two nearly full-term fetuses delivered into the 2,000-degree furnace. Autopsies later showed that many of the victims were suffocated or buried alive.

'The Witness'

The FBI announced even before the ashes had cooled that the Branch Davidians had torched the compound in a suicidal frenzy, deliberately taking the lives of some 75 members. The bureau said agents never fired devices capable of starting a fire. Last month, evidence surfaced that forced the FBI to admit, after years of staunch denials, that it used potentially incendiary devices on that final day.

Now special counsel Danforth is investigating whether government agents suppressed or destroyed evidence, started or contributed to the blaze, or shot at the Davidians.

"The mass suicide line was a crock," says Thibodeau. In the Salon piece he points out, "If we had really wanted to kill ourselves, we would not have waited 51 cold, hungry, scary days to do it. Truth is, we were desperate to live, to figure out a way to end the standoff."

He does admit that some people shot each other--Koresh's head wound was consistent with a suicide pact--and doesn't rule out that "thoughts of setting off a biblical apocalypse might have seized some minds." But he blames the government for creating the conditions for a catastrophe and likes to quote a line by his fellow survivor Clive Doyle: "If they thought we were a bunch of crazies, why did they drive us to the limit?"

Despite the carnage he saw at Mount Carmel, Thibodeau says he would gladly relive it. He treasures Waco as "an incredible experience that was not only historical but eternal."

Is he glad he escaped with his life?

There is an unnerving silence for a moment. His voice trembles with ambivalence.

"I have life. That is my role. So, yeah."

He was not meant to be among the martyrs, he says. He was destined to survive. Koresh told him as much. Before the February raid, the prophet "stared at me for a solid minute, and it scared me because I knew what it meant. I knew that it meant I was going to be a witness."

At the time, Thibodeau says, he considered it more a curse than a blessing. But now witnessing has become his life's mission: to talk about Waco, raise questions, maybe provide some answers, including for himself.

"I've just seen far too much," the Drummer of the Apocalypse says. "I know why I believe what he taught. . . . And I know why all those people died for what they believed. He's either true or he is the greatest actor and con man that ever lived. And I don't think that he was."