“Some tragedies, some huge media events, have a long, strange afterlife.”
It’s what Washington Post reporter Sue Anne Pressley observed in August 1993, just four months after a fire killed more than 70 men, women and children at the Mount Carmel compound near Waco, Tex.
Law enforcement officials believed that the Branch Davidian cult, led by self-proclaimed second Messiah David Koresh, had been stockpiling weapons for malicious reasons, and a February raid left six of his followers and four ATF agents dead. The ensuing 51-day standoff had a fiery end after the FBI pumped military-grade tear gas into the building.
Pressley’s words ring true. Twenty-five years after the calamity, brothers John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle are determined to show the public that the Branch Davidians were simply “misunderstood.” Their six-part miniseries, “Waco,” premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. on the Paramount Network and toggles between the compound and law enforcement in an attempt, they insist, to tell the story fairly.
“Who were these people?” Drew said of the Branch Davidians. “We all had the impression that they were brainwashed and blindly following this maniacal cult leader with no independent thought of their own. In our experience meeting Thibodeau and Martin, it couldn’t be farther from the truth.”
David Thibodeau and Sheila Martin were two of the nine Branch Davidians who survived the fire. Thibodeau, played in the series by Rory Culkin, wrote one of two biographies on which the series is based. (The other was written by Gary Noesner, an FBI negotiator portrayed by Michael Shannon.) Koresh, played by “Friday Night Lights” alum Taylor Kitsch, spends much of the first episode persuading Thibodeau, who met Koresh in Los Angeles, to join the community. Branch Davidians saw Koresh as a “very intellectual, biblical savant,” if manipulative, Drew said.
“David Koresh was definitely an imperfect person — there [were] really many dark sides to him,” John added. “But what makes him tick? He was an abused child — his mom was 14 when she had him — yet he created this bizarre world around himself so he could never be abandoned again. Layers and layers of people, all attached to him.”
Koresh, a polygamist who insisted on the celibacy of his male followers, positioned himself as the protector of the community. He steps outside the compound early in the first episode, hands up and yelling to armed federal agents stationed outside: “Please stop! There are women and children in here!”
Many of those children were Koresh’s, carried by his “wives” at Mount Carmel. The vulnerability he projects in the scene parallels that of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which, Drew said, was also acting out of fear. Law enforcement had a “specific fear in the early ’90s of domestic terrorism,” he said, and “Waco” also touches on the 1992 standoff between federal agents and armed white separatist Randy Weaver. The 11-day debacle at a cabin atop Ruby Ridge, in northern Idaho, resulted in the deaths of Weaver’s wife and son, and an agent.
Weapons were a main source of income for the Branch Davidians, Drew continued, but the number of guns per person at Mount Carmel was less than the per capita average of the state of Texas.
“Yes, they had weapons — they’d call it inventory,” he said. “But the idea that they were preparing some sort of attack was fabricated out of thin air.”
There are two versions of how the fire started on April 19, 1993. Branch Davidians held that an FBI tank had tipped over a lantern, which set the gas-filled compound ablaze. Arson investigators concluded that members of the cult intentionally set fire to the compound; the investigation found it was ignited in at least two locations.
Law enforcement theorized that the allegedly abusive Koresh led a doomsday cult and had been stockpiling weapons to prepare for the end of the world, but the TV series doesn’t depict the Branch Davidians that way. Autopsy reports presented in court in 2000 found that several children whose bodies were found in the compound had been shot, but coroners and FBI sources told “Frontline” that the deaths may have been mercy killings instead of a mass suicide.
Noesner, the FBI negotiator, found himself in an especially tricky position at Mount Carmel, caught between the impatient FBI tactical division’s demands and the Branch Davidians’ overall distrust of the government. In casting the role, the Dowdles looked for “someone who you could watch play chess and you can see every thought going through their mind.” Shannon fit the bill.
John said that the handling of Waco and Ruby Ridge “really changed the government and citizens’ relationship in a way that . . . we’re still facing the reverberations of.”
“There are still people scared that the government is trying to take their guns away,” he continued. “It was like this government-versus-citizens arms race. The government amped up in case there was domestic terrorism, and suddenly they were using tanks and Apache helicopters on citizens. The citizens get scared, and they’re amping up.”
Timothy McVeigh, the domestic terrorist convicted of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, notably sought revenge against the government for the ways in which it dealt with the two incidents. Some people thought McVeigh was a Branch Davidian because his attack took place on the two-year anniversary of the Waco fire, Drew said, but he met Branch Davidians who “were mortified” by the association.
“That couldn’t be further from the truth,” Drew said. “These were not violent people. Even given their loved ones [dying], none of them would remotely support what Timothy McVeigh did.”
The planning process for “Waco” began four years ago, but, according to John, the decision to tell the story “through the lens of compassion and understanding versus force” seems even more relevant now.
“People are canceling Thanksgiving with their families because they can’t sit at the same table with each other,” John said. “The idea of sitting and listening is a powerful tool that has gotten lost. For us, that’s the lesson of ‘Waco.’ ”