David Koresh was one of the most infamous cult leaders of the 20th century. Over the decade-long period he served as leader of an apocalyptic religious sect called the Branch Davidians, Koresh amassed hundreds of followers, some of whom are still awaiting his “resurrection”.
But why did Koresh believe he was Jesus, to begin with? And what has become of his followers since he was killed at age 33 in the 51-day standoff between law enforcement and cult members in Waco, Texas?
ABC’s newest documentary, Truth & Lies: Waco, will examine the 1993 Waco siege that resulted in the deaths of 76 people. The film includes interviews with FBI and ATF agents involved in the raid, as well as interviews with some of Koresh’s former worshippers.
Read on to learn more about David Koresh.
1. His Mother Gave Birth to Him at Age 14
David Koresh was born into a troubled family in Houston, Texas, in 1959. His mother, Bonnie Haldeman, was a single mother and just 14 when she gave birth to him.
In a 2008 interview with Texas Monthly, Haldeman opened up about her son’s personality growing up. “… he had a hard time in school,” she admitted. “The first few grades, they said he had a learning disability. He was in special classes when we lived in Richardson. But he was always wanting to learn and explore. He asked a lot of questions. He used to say he stuttered, but I never heard him stutter…When he was twelve or thirteen, he started reading the Bible and listening to radio preachers.”
Although he ultimately decided to drop out his freshman year, Koresh’s fascination with the Bible lingered. By age 18, he’d reportedly memorized both the New and Old Testaments.
According to PBS, Koresh joined the Church of Seventh Day Adventists when he was 20, but was expelled because he was a “bad influence on young people”. In 1981, after a failed attempt at becoming a rock star in Hollywood, he relocated to Waco and joined the Branch Davidians.
The roots of the Branch Davidians trace back to 1935, when a man named Victor Houteff, who believed he was a messenger of God, took 12 of his followers to Mount Carmel, Texas, and set up what was meant to be a “temporary gathering place”, according to CNN.
Houteff’s group was initially an offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventists. In 1942, however, he renamed the group the Davidian Seventh-Day Adventists. For 20 years, Houteff and the Branch Davidians occupied Mt. Carmel. During that time, their following increased to approximately 10,000. In 1955, when Houteff passed, leadership was passed on to his wife, Florence.
2. He Was Involved in Many Sexual Relationships with Young Girls
Over the years, Koresh had many children by many different women within the Branch Davidians. One of his first sexual relationships was with Lois Roden, the prophetess and leader of the religious sect. Roden was 65 at the time; Koresh was in his early 20s.
In 1984, Koresh claimed that God instructed him to marry Rachel Jones, who was 14. Rachel was the daughter of two of Koresh’s devoted followers, Perry and Mary Belle Jones. Together, Jones and Koresh had one son and one daughter.
After being monogamous for two years, Koresh says God told him to create a new House of David and have many wives. One of those wives became Rachel’s little sister, Michelle Jones, who was just 12.
Having a sexual relationship with a 12-year-old put Koresh in violation of state law. In 1992, Texas Child Protection Services examined the case for six months, but were unable to find convincing evidence of a sexual relationship. It is believed that part of the reason no evidence was found was because the Branch Davidians did a good job of hiding evidence of the marriage; they also gave Michelle a surrogate husband, David Thibodeau.
Kiri Jewell, a former follower of Koresh, says she was just ten when he forced her to perform sexual acts on him. Jewell spoke at a congressional hearing on the Waco tragedy, where she revealed what she and other children were subject to while living on the compound. During the hearing, Kiri said that she was molested by Koresh and afterward “stayed in the shower for maybe an hour,” according to the Chicago Tribune.
In her testimony, Jewell described Koresh as “a man of absolute unparalleled evil intent”. She said that children on at Mount Carmel were “taught to kill themselves by putting a gun in their mouth and pulling the trigger,” according to The Chicago Tribune. After the 1993 Waco seize, Kiri’s father, David Jewell, removed her from the Branch Davidians, and eventually won custody of Kiri.
3. He Told His Followers He Was the Messiah
Koresh told his followers he was God’s prophet. Speaking to ABC, Mary Garafolo, a journalist who covered the siege at Waco, said, “He claimed that when he was a child, God had spoken to him and said, ‘You’re the chosen one. You are my messiah.’”
Whether or not Koresh believed he really was the messiah is up for debate. In conversations with an FBI negotiator, PBS reports Koresh as being asked about his identity. At one point, the investigator asks, “And so you are now claiming clearly and simply that you are the Christ.” Koresh answers, “I am saying that no man can know me nor my father unless they open their book and give a fair chance in honesty and equity to see the seals.”
In 1990, Koresh legally changed his name from Vernon Wayne Howell (his birth name) to David Koresh “for publicity and business purposes,” according to court documents obtained by PBS. The outlet reports him as telling the FBI that the new name meant death, and then that it was a surname from God.
4. Taylor Kitsch Will Play Him in a Miniseries Coming out Later This Month
Friday Night Lights star Taylor Kitsch will play Koresh in a six-part miniseries based on the Waco siege. The show is set to be released on the Paramount Network on January 24, 2018.
Waco will star Kitsch alongside Michael Shannon as Gary Noesner, Melissa Benoist as Rachel Koresh, Julia Garner as Michelle Jones, and John Leguizamo as Robert Rodriguez.
Waco was initially executively produced by Weinstein Television. In November, however, Deadline reported that the Weinstein name had been removed from the credits of the second trailer. According to the outlet, Paramount Network removed Harvey Weinstein’s name as executive producer on all of their projects.
5. His Mother Was Stabbed to Death in 2009 and Her Sister Was Charged with the Murder
In January 2009, David Koresh’s mother, Bonnie Clark Haldeman, was found stabbed to death in a rural area of Houston. Her sister, Beverly Clark, was charged with her murder.
In July, Clark’s niece, Hollie Helrigel, told the Athens Review that Beverly had a long history of mental illness. Helrigel said she remembered Haldeman coming to Clark’s aid on a number of occasions.
Haldeman, 64 at the time of her death, was the author of a 2007 autobiography titled “Memories of the Branch Davidians: The Autobiography of David Koresh’s Mother.” In her 2009 interview with Texas Monthly, Haldeman revealed that she visited Koresh a number of times on the compound. She said she fell in love with the people who lived at Mount Carmel. She also reflected on a time when one of the negotiators asked her whether or not she believed she could talk her son into coming out of the building during the 51-day siege in Waco. “I had been in many situations when David said God told him to wait and—even if we were supposed to go somewhere—we waited. Because, you know, if God told David to wait, we’re not going anywhere. So if God tells David to come out, he’ll come out, but he’s not going to come out just because Momma says to come out.”