• Planet Koresh: Inside the Mount Carmel Compound in Waco, Texas

    Kevin Cook on the Rise of David Koresh and the Branch Davidian Cult

    The Branch Davidians’ flat, windy property measured seventy-seven acres, but they spent almost all their time in a two-acre compound some of them called the Anthill. They built it in two years after reclaiming Mount Carmel from George Roden in 1988. With Koresh overseeing the work, they turned what a neighbor remembered as “truckloads of lumber and sheet rock, hundreds of pounds of nails, miles of electrical wire, and enough sand and gravel to fill an Olympic-size pool” into a short-term home for him and 120 followers. Their plywood walls wouldn’t need to last long because Jesus was coming back soon. Koresh laid out the floor plans and oversaw construction of what he dubbed “Ranch Apocalypse.”

    David Thibodeau, the resident smart-ass, had his own name for Mount Carmel. He called it “Planet Koresh.”

    The self-appointed prophet led a diverse group of more than a hundred. Many of his followers were Black, including a contingent of “Afro-Brits” who had picked up stakes in England and moved to Waco. There were Australians, Caribbean islanders, several Hawaiians, and others of Asian, Mexican, and Native American descent, plus Pablo Cohen, an Argentina-born Israeli the others called their “Taco Jew.” To any Caucasians who didn’t cotton to foreigners or Blacks, Koresh said, “Don’t be flaunting yourself or what country you are from. Don’t be flaunting your education or the color of your skin. God’s not into that, and we won’t tolerate it here.”

    A dented mailbox out front read BRANCH DAVIDIAN CHURCH, but there wasn’t much mail for believers who saw themselves as a breed apart from millions of “mainstreamers” who went to church on Sundays. Koresh considered mainstream Christianity little more than a modern convenience. “You go to a religious social club once a week and act like a yo-yo. Stand up, sit down, stand up. Christianity two thousand years ago wasn’t like that.”

    In the soon-to-come Last Days, he preached, a man would rise to shepherd a chosen few to the Kingdom of Heaven.

    His preaching mixed biblical versification with homespun wisdom. “I reckon we’re up against Babylon,” he said, “and the odds ain’t on our side!” For true believers, his Bible studies were better than any movie. Livingstone Fagan, one of the Afro-Brits, had been studying for his master’s in theology at England’s Newbold College when Koresh gave a talk there. “In three hours I perceived more Biblical truths than I had done in the eight years I’d been involved with organized religion,” said Fagan, who moved to Texas to join Koresh’s flock. According to another Davidian, Rita Riddle, “I learned more with him in one night than in a lifetime of going to church.” Koresh made recruiting trips to Australia and Hawaii, often captivating his listeners with a dramatic new vision of Seventh-day Adventism.

    His writings were strewn with errors—“maby” for “maybe,” “manny” or “menny” for many, references to man’s “mortle sole.” But when his followers gathered on the tiers of Mount Carmel’s chapel, each following along in his or her Bible as he preached, they were transfixed. As Branch Davidian Kathy Schroeder put it, “We believed prophecy was being fulfilled. To see the fulfillment of God’s words, spoken thousands of years ago, was very exciting.”

    Sheila Martin: “He wove it all together, explaining it all. Was he a showman? Very much so. He told us and showed us that God was real, we could trust Him and we didn’t have to be afraid, whatever was getting ready to happen.”

    Clive Doyle: “As David himself said, with his limited education he could never have had the knowledge he had. Not without help. I believe God was speaking through him.”

    David Thibodeau: “People talk about his charisma. Charisma my ass—he was a plain old country boy. People think we were a bunch of fanatics following this ‘charismatic’ leader, this radical who hypnotized us. It wasn’t like that. He was just a dude, but he had a sort of genius for getting under your skin. Why did we follow him? Mainly because he had a deeper understanding of scripture than anyone I ever met.”

    Doyle: “People ask why we followed David Koresh. I say, What if you lived two thousand years ago? You’re a fisherman. Jesus walks up and says, ‘Follow me.’ That’s who we were.”

    Thibodeau: “Were we a cult? I don’t like the c-word, but I can tell you that we were inspired. Can you imagine what that feels like? How good it feels to have a purpose in life?”

    Koresh’s teachings revolved around Revelation, the Bible’s hair-raising climax, with its Marvel Comics images of God looking down from an emerald throne while Four Horsemen named Death, Famine, War, and Conquest gallop under stars falling from the sky. In the soon-to-come Last Days, he preached, a man would rise to shepherd a chosen few to the Kingdom of Heaven. That leader need not be a paragon of virtue, as Fagan and other religiously trained Davidians knew from their readings of scripture.

    The messiah could be a sinner or even a dyslexic former “retard,” provided he could “open” the Seven Seals of Revelation, which meant interpreting God’s plan for the end of time. Like King Arthur’s pulling a sword from a stone, this was a task only one human could perform. “I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a book… sealed with  seven seals,” wrote John the Divine, the first-century evangelist credited with writing Revelation, “and I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the book, and to loose the seals thereof?’”

    Koresh never claimed to be a saint. He said he wasn’t the original Jesus but a twentieth-century Christ, a “sinful messiah” for a sinful era. “If the Bible is true, then I’m Christ,” he told a reporter who came digging around his Anthill. “But what’s so great about being Christ? A man of sorrow acquainted with grief.” Asked if he was brainwashing the other Davidians, he asked, “Doesn’t Christ brainwash us? He gets rid of the filth and puts in the good.”

    He liked testing his followers’ faith. One day he drove some of the women to a laundromat and dropped them off with a warning: “Do the laundry—don’t you go shopping at Walmart.” They got the laundry done with time to spare. “And yes, we visited Walmart,” Sheila Martin remembers. “But we got back in time for afternoon worship. And he had the gate closed. He comes out and asks, ‘Did you listen to me? Or did you have a nice vacation from God?’ In a way it wasn’t fair, but David had his rules.” Life at Mount Carmel was “fun,” she says, “as long as we were obedient.”

    Doyle recalls a Bible class in which Koresh told the youngest girls to give him their favorite dolls. All but one girl complied. “I wanna keep my baby!” she said. He collected the other dolls, then poured out a bag full of brand-new ones, the toys every girl wanted that year. “They all got a brand-new doll, all but the girl who held on to hers. David said, ‘You didn’t trust me. You made a choice against me.’”

    Waco firearms dealer Henry McMahon admired Koresh’s work ethic. “At first he knew nothing about guns. At the end he knew more than I did,” McMahon said. According to Thibodeau, “He loved taking weapons apart, cleaning and greasing them, reassembling them. It was a sensual pleasure, a feeling for the way things work.” Koresh could strip a gun and reassemble it in seconds. He knew enough about night-vision scopes to prefer cheap but effective $750 infrared models to Starlight scopes that cost up to ten times as much.

    The scruffy prophet was the same way with car engines, often working under the hood of his gleaming black turbocharged 1968 Camaro, holding forth on Psalms or Revelation while country music played on the tape deck. His band played nothing but rock, but he liked to sing along with Merle Haggard or Randy Travis while he worked.

    Thibodeau smiles at the thought of one of their moneymaking schemes from those days: “We discovered gun shows!”

    Guns were part of life in Texas. With a population of 17 million and more than 65 million registered firearms, the Lone Star State had more guns than any other. In the early 1990s, with Congress debating new limits on gun sales, the Branch Davidians began attending gun shows all over the state. As arms dealer McMahon later told ATF agents, Koresh “bought guns as an investment. He believed that if federal gun-control proposals became law, prices for semiautomatic firearms purchased before the ban would double overnight.” Koresh haggled over purchases, often insisting on mint-condition weapons still in boxes from their manufacturers. “He was buying guns to resell, not to use,” McMahon said.

    Marketing their wares at gun shows, the Davidians sold secondhand Russian AK-47s, Israeli Uzis, gas masks, and ammo vests labeled “David Koresh Survival Wear.” Hunting jackets made by Mount Carmel seamstresses came complete with dummy grenades sewn into the fabric to make them look extra-deadly. And when the price of AK-47s topped Koresh’s most optimistic prophecy, shooting from $500 to $2,000, he and his flock cleaned up. Gun-show profits paid for a swimming pool at Mount Carmel as well as dirt bikes, go-carts, and a 52-inch wide-screen TV for the chapel.

    [Koresh] said he wasn’t the original Jesus but a twentieth-century Christ, a “sinful messiah” for a sinful era.

    After that, Koresh hosted movie nights, screening Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and other Vietnam War films for his followers, young and old, “to get y’all ready for the battles ahead.” According to a former Davidian, he called war movies “training films.” Another favorite was The Lawnmower Man—“a cult classic,” he called it, about a “retarded” hero with superhuman powers. He also loved MTV, “especially if Madonna was on,” Thibodeau recalled. Koresh believed that after his preaching made him famous, his favorite pop star would join his harem at Mount Carmel. He claimed God had spoken to him in a dream, saying, “I will give thee Madonna.”

    “Every time David went somewhere, at least five or six people followed him,” his mother said. “Especially girls.” He might take a few young women for a ride or drive some of the men to the Chelsea Street Pub in West Waco “to kick back and swallow some suds.” A pitcher of Miller High Life later, he might let the men order another, instructing one of them to phone Mount Carmel and tell the women they were free to enjoy a wine cooler or two. He banned smoking entirely except when he lit up, justifying his Marlboro Lights with a description of God in Psalm 18: “There went up a smoke out of His nostrils.” Koresh alone decided who could break the rules and when.

    On Friday nights the women welcomed the Sabbath by “dressing up a little,” one follower said. “They wore their best sweaters, maybe a bow in their hair, even earrings.” In Koresh’s view, every Branch Davidian female belonged to him. When church elder Doyle’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Shari, became one of the prophet’s “wives,” he wondered, “Is this God’s will, or just horny old David?” Still he agreed to the match. As Doyle put it, “God asks his messengers to do some weird stuff.”

    Horny old David sometimes brought sex talk into the chapel. Gladys Ottman, a Canadian follower, recalled sitting in a circle during Bible studies when Koresh asked which of them masturbated or had tried oral or anal sex. He could preach against such “deviance” with a gleam in his eye.

    He spoke of “reaping the virginity” of young girls to create generations of descendants whose numbers he pictured growing from twelve to twenty-four to forty-eight and then into the thousands. He also reserved the right to sleep with their mothers. Forty-eight-year-old Jeannine Bunds, whose nineteen-year-old daughter, Robyn, would bear him a son, was proud to join Robyn in the harem they called the “House of David.” “He wouldn’t do it unless you wanted it,” she said. “He was a very appealing, sexual person.”

    A registered nurse, she slept with Koresh and also delivered several of his children including Michele Jones’s twins, Chica and Little One, who like all the rest were named by their biological father. Robyn Bunds believed that Koresh “carried God’s seed.” She agreed with Alisa Shaw, another of his bedmates, who said, “Not every woman is worthy of Koresh’s loins.”

    For all Mount Carmel’s racial diversity, there were taboos Koresh did not violate. One qualification for membership in the House of David appeared to be skin color: he chose no Black women as “wives.” Not even pretty Novelette Sinclair, a Jamaica-born Canadian who admitted being sexually drawn to him, was invited into the House of David.

    Still he claimed to be color-blind. He liked to point to the Afro-Brits and say, “The Blacks let me down. I hate Blacks.” Then he’d point to the Hawaiians and Filipinos. “I hate the yellows. I hate the whites, too, all superior-like. I hate me. Don’t you?”

    Instead of hate, they regarded him with awe. Koresh considered that appropriate. As their prophet and messiah, he said, quoting the Song of Solomon, he was entitled to “threescore queens, and fourscore concubines, and virgins without number.” He scolded the men: “You married guys have to stop fucking and put your mind one hundred percent on the message.” Thibodeau told of how he “liked to fling taunts at us. ‘I got all the women, aren’t you jealous?’ We’d chuckle awkwardly, ha ha. Then David would say, ‘We’re all God’s guinea pigs. My lot’s to procreate, yours is to tolerate.’”

    “He said God had mates for us in the Kingdom,” says Sheila Martin, who stopped sleeping with her husband once Koresh announced that Davidian men—all except him—must be celibate. “There were perfect mates for us in heaven, so we should not want the mates we were with. The Catholics had nuns and priests who saved themselves for God. That was what we should do.” At one point Koresh blamed his followers for his stomach ulcers. “He said he was being punished because of us. We were failing him and failing God.”

    Sheila’s husband, attorney Wayne Martin, already blamed himself for the meningitis that had crippled and blinded their son Jamie. Wayne tended to put on weight and felt guilty about that as well. Redoubling his efforts to live a spotless life, he slept apart from his wife, in a different room on another floor, as Koresh commanded.

    “It was not easy on David to have a bunch of wives,” Koresh’s mother, Bonnie, insisted. “It hurt Rachel in the beginning, but then God told her David was to take another wife. Rachel was cheated out of a lot of things. David used to tell me, ‘Mama, she never had a wedding or honeymoon. Someday I’ll give her a real wedding and a real honeymoon.’” In Bonnie’s view, her son was saving Michele, Robyn, and other female followers from a life of promiscuity. “David took some wives,” she said, “but they weren’t out in the world sleeping around like they would have been.”

    Rachel, Koresh’s lone legal wife, gave his other lovers advice on how to “bathe and perfume themselves” before joining him in bed.

    One qualification for membership in the House of David appeared to be skin color: he chose no Black women as “wives.”

    Each new member of the so-called House of David received a gold-plated Star of David to wear on a chain around her neck. Some girls were groomed for future membership from the age of three or four. As one Davidian remembered, “When I asked my mother why she let that happen to me, she replied, ‘When my sisters and I were at Mount Carmel, we had to submit to the church elders. If we resisted, they held our hands over the fire until we submitted. That’s just what it means to be born a girl.’”

    Steve Schneider, who served as Koresh’s chief deputy, suffered a crisis of faith when his wife, Judy, joined the House of David. An affable, ginger-haired forty-one-year-old with a PhD in comparative religion from the University of Hawaii, Schneider always said he believed in David above all. Then his wife of ten years got pregnant by Koresh and changed her name to Judy Schneider-Koresh. “We were lovers for close on twenty years and never made a baby,” the anguished Schneider said. “Now, suddenly, she’s having his child.”

    “David saw the position he was putting Steve in,” said Thibodeau. “It’s almost like he liked it. Steve told me, ‘For a moment I really wanted to kill him.’ But when it got down to it, what did he do? Steve stayed loyal.”

    Another insider chose a different path. Marc Breault, pronounced bro, a tall, bushy-haired Australian who was legally blind, squinted at his Bible while claiming he could parse its meanings better than Koresh. “Marc thought David was wrong,” Sheila Martin says of Breault, who had a master’s degree in religion from Loma Linda University. “We thought David might kick him out.”

    Instead, Koresh urged them to hear Breault out. “If Marc’s a prophet,” he said, “God will show him the way.”

    Breault was beginning to look for a way out. It turned his stomach to sit at his computer, typing up one of Koresh’s sermons in forty-point type the nearly blind man could read, while an underage girl walked by on her way to the stairs that led to Koresh’s room. He thought, “That little thirteen-year-old is going up there to make love to David.

    The longer Breault stayed at Mount Carmel, the worse he felt about his life there. Breault’s wife, Elizabeth Baranyai, had annoyed Koresh by resisting his advances. She and Marc weren’t about to break their marriage vows for any man. “I’m seriously starting to doubt whether God has ever talked to this guy,” Breault told some of the others. After Koresh nullified all marriages between other Branch Davidians, Marc and Elizabeth left Mount Carmel for their native Australia. From there they launched a campaign to expose Koresh as a cult leader.

    Their defection lit the fuse for all that came later. As Thibodeau put it, “In Marc Breault, David had his Judas.”


    Excerpted from Waco Rising: David Koresh, the FBI, and the Birth of America’s Modern Militias by Kevin Cook. Copyright © 2023. Available from Henry Holt and Co., an imprint of Macmillan, Inc. All rights reserved.

    Kevin Cook
    Kevin Cook
    Kevin Cook is the author of over ten books, including The Burning Blue, Ten Innings at Wrigley, and Kitty Genovese. He has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, GQ, Smithsonian, and many other publications and has often appeared on CNN, NPR, and Fox News. An Indiana native, he lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.

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