‘Waco’ on Netflix: Was David Thibodeau’s Wife Michelle a Real Person?

Waco, the 2018 miniseries that’s now streaming on Netflix, offers a fictionalized take on the real-life story of the 1993 FBI siege in Waco, Texas. In that notorious incident, a deadly gun battle between members of a religious group known as the Branch Davidians and the ATF led to a 51-day standoff between the Davidians and the FBI. It ended in a fire that killed dozens of people, including 25 children. 

The series, which stars Taylor Kitsch, Rory Culkin, and Michael Shannon, is based on the memoirs of two people involved in the Waco siege: Branch Davidian David Thibodeau (Culkin) and FBI hostage negotiator Gary Noesner (Shannon). Many other characters seen in the six-episode show are also based on real people, including Thibodeau’s wife Michelle Jones. 

Julia Garner plays Michelle Jones 

Julia Garner and Rory Culkin
Julia Garner and Rory Culkin | Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

In Waco, Thibodeau joins the Branch Davidians after meeting leader David Koresh (Kitsch) in a bar, where the self-proclaimed messiah’s band is playing a gig. (In real life, the two met at a music store in Los Angeles.) Once he becomes enmeshed in the isolated community at Mount Carmel, outside of Waco, he learns more about the Branch Davidian’s practices and beliefs. 

Those beliefs include Koresh’s assertion that he is entitled to take multiple wives, including underage girls and already-married women. He also orders men in the community to remain celibate. But Koresh knew his practice of taking minors as spiritual wives was likely to attract unwelcome attention from the authorities. So he asked Thibodeau for a favor. 

David Thibodeau ‘married’ Michelle Jones 

In the series, Koresh asks Thibodeau to participate in a sham marriage to 14-year-old Michelle Jones (Julia Garner), who already has a child with Koresh. (Her older sister is also Koresh’s first — and legal — wife.) Presumably, the marriage will draw attention away from Koresh’s illegal sexual activities. 

That storyline mirrors what happened in real life. The real Michelle Jones was the younger sister of Koresh’s wife Rachel. Both were from a family of loyal Branch Davidians who were members of the group before Koresh arrived on the scene in the early 1980s. Michelle married Koresh when she was just 12 years old, according to Thibodeau’s memoir. The fake marriage to Thibodeau came later. Although that union was not meant to be real, Thibodeau has said that having a wife drew him even closer to the community.

“Whatever David’s reasons were in marrying me to Michelle, it was a shrewd move,” he told the Austin Chronicle in 1999. “Somehow, being a husband, even in name only, settled me.”

Michelle Jones died in the Waco siege 

Michelle and her two children with Koresh were among the 76 people who died when the FBI fired tear gas into the Mount Carmel compound and then attacked it with tanks. The goal was to force the Branch Davidians to surrender. Instead, a fire broke out that resulted in the deaths of most people inside, including Koresh. (There is still disagreement about the source of the blaze. Survivors say it was caused by the tear gas; the government claims it was set deliberately by the Branch Davidians.) 

In Waco, Thibodeau grows to see himself as Michelle’s protector. However, he ultimately fails to save her from the disaster that destroys the Branch Davidian compound. 

What David Thibodeau says about the Waco incident today

David Thibodeau
David Thibodeau | Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for Viacom

These days, Thibodeau says that many of the ideas people have about what happened at Waco aren’t accurate. He has said Koresh was a man with many flaws. But he believes it is also important to remember the people who died in the siege. 

“I really just want the people to be humanized in a way. They’ve honestly just been demonized through the press. There are real children, real mothers, real dynamics going on,” he told NPR in 2018. “You know, no matter what you think of David Koresh or the people that died there, they died for what they believed in. And that’s more than I can say for a lot of people.”

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