Who Was David Koresh? Taylor Kitsch Portrays the Real-Life Cult Leader in ‘Waco,’ Now Streaming on Netflix

The 2018 miniseries Waco is now streaming on Netflix, which means millions of people may be discovering the story of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians for the first time.

The 1993 standoff between Koresh’s religious group and agents from the FBI and ATF ended in a  fire that killed 76 people, including 25 children. The TV series, which originally aired on the Paramount Network and stars Friday Night Lights alum Taylor Kitsch as Koresh, offers a unique take on the well-known story. In addition to showing how FBI hostage negotiators tried (and failed) to bring the standoff to a non-violent end, it also takes viewers inside the Branch Davidian compound during the 51-day siege. We see how Koresh and his followers responded to the situation. But who was David Koresh?

Who was David Koresh?

David Koresh with his wife and son
Vernon Wayne Howell, known as David Koresh, his wife Rachel, and their son Cyrus | Elizabeth Baranyai/Sygma via Getty Images

Koresh was born Vernon Howell in 1959 in Houston to a 15-year-old single mother. He never knew his father and was raised by his grandparents. Howell struggled in school but enjoyed music, at one point moving to Los Angeles to try to make it as a rock star. He also memorized large parts of the Bible when he was still a child. 

Kitsch speculated about how Howell’s difficult childhood might have shaped his later life. “He was abused growing up,” the actor told the Hollywood Reporter. “Obviously, that lends a hand to a lot of other things in shaping his own mindset and how much he wants control over his own environment … That’s really what I focused on, him blatantly overcompensating for things that maybe he felt he never had as a child by creating that environment.”

As a young man, Howell became involved with the Seventh-Day Adventist church, but was kicked out. In the early 1980s, he moved to Waco, Texas, where he joined the Branch Davidians. The Davidians were a religious sect descended from a group of Seventh-Day Adventists who broke away from the church in the 1930s. 

Vernon Howell becomes David Koresh

Howell eventually became embroiled in a power struggle for control of the Branch-Davidians. After leaving Waco with his followers, he returned to the group’s home base, known as Mount Carmel. 

A firefight broke out between Howell and his supporters and the other Branch Davidians. Rival leader George Roden was shot during the incident. Howell and seven of his followers were tried for attempted murder. His followers were aquitted, while the jury could not reach a verdict in Howell’s case, leading to a mistrial. 

By 1990, Koresh had gained control of the Branch Davidians and legally changed his name to David Koresh. 

The Branch Davidians had an apocalyptic outlook and believed the end of the world was coming. Koresh saw himself as his group’s final prophet, and his followers believed he spoke for God. As their leader, he also claimed the privilege of taking multiple wives, including underage girls.

But it wasn’t alleged sexual abuse by Koresh that drew the government’s attention to Mount Carmel. The ATF had learned that the group had a cache of possibly illegal weapons as part of their preparation for the end times. On February 28, 1993, they attempted to search the compound. That triggered a gun battle where multiple ATF agents and Branch-Davidians were killed. 

A bitter standoff

The fire at the Branch Davidian compound
Fire consumes the Branch Davidian compound | Time Life Pictures/FBI/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

After the failed raid, a bitter standoff began between the Branch Davidians and the FBI, which had taken over from the ATF. The government used a number of tactics to try to force the Branch Davidians out, but they refused to budge. Koresh indicated he would give himself up after finishing a manuscript where he decoded the seven seals from the Book of Revelation. 

But as the weeks passed, the FBI grew impatient — and increasingly concerned about the alleged child abuse happening at the compound. They decided to use tear gas and tanks to end the siege. That strategy backfired when the compound went up in flames, killing dozens. Koresh’s body was discovered after the raid. He had died of a gunshot wound to the head. The government says the Branch Davidians set the fire themselves; survivors say it was caused by the tear gas.   

In the aftermath of the fire, some argued that if the FBI had taken Koresh and the Branch Davidians’ religious beliefs more seriously, the loss of life could have been avoided. Others felt Koresh was simply stalling and never intended to peacefully surrender.

While Koresh has been dead for nearly 30 years, there are still those who believe in his teachings. 

“We survivors of 1993 are looking for David and all those that died either in the shootout or in the fire,” Davidian Clive Doyle told NPR in 2018. “We believe that God will resurrect this special group.”