In Waco, the series on Netflix that previously ran on Paramount television, Steve and Judy Schneider are central characters at the side of Branch Davidian leader David Koresh. (Be forewarned that this article will contact some spoilers for the series inasmuch as it resembles real life.)
Their complicated marital relationship underscores the unusual behavior within the compound; in the series, Steve is depicted as Koresh’s right-hand man, and he also is shown murdering the religious sect leader by shooting him in the head as the government barrels into the compound with tanks. Steve is then shown committing suicide. The series describes how Steve Schneider willingly allowed Koresh to bed his wife because Koresh banned men from having sex with women, with the exception of himself. Judy Schneider becomes pregnant, and the series implies her daughter is Koresh’s child. Steve Schneider is initially upset about the pregnancy news, but he rebounds and goes to his death at Koresh’s side.
How much is it true, though? Steve Schneider and his wife, Judy, really existed, and their life story does closely track with the Netflix series. Dozens of men, women, and children perished when the federal government stormed the Branch Davidian compound and fires broke out; the Schneiders and Judy’s young daughter were among them.
Here’s what you need to know:
The Couple Was From Wisconsin & Steve Really Did Allow Koresh to Have Sexual Relations With His Wife
In a book, Waco survivor David Thibodeau (who was also a real person; read his true story here) described how Steven Schneider came from a close-knit family in Madison, Wisconsin. He would use “folksy Midwestern sayings,” and his mother was a Seventh-day Adventist. He attended an Adventist College in England but was expelled for drunkenness and then went to Hawaii. By 1981, he had married Judy Peterson, described as an “attractive blonde he’d met at a Madison dance hall” and then enrolled in the University of Hawaii and got his Ph.D in comparative religion.
According to Thibodeau’s book, Schneider learned about Koresh’s teachings from a friend in Honolulu, and he “revered Koresh.” Steve said he doubted Koresh and argued with him at first but came to believe in the man enough to hand his wife over to him.
According to the Waco Tribune, the real Steve was Koresh’s “chief lieutenant, who often negotiated with authorities during the standoff,” and his wife, Judy, was, in fact, legally married to Schneider but was one of Koresh’s “wives.”
A 1993 article by Cox News Service described the couple’s saga, saying that, when they married, they were “the all-American dream couple.” Steve said Judy’s daughter Mayanah was his, but Koresh told people the baby was his. It was also true that the men of the compound had to remain celibate – except for Koresh.
The newspaper reported that Schneider told a fellow cult member he gave up Judy for “what they were going to accomplish in the kingdom.” Both were from Wisconsin. He graduated from the University of Hawaii with a degree in religion.
According to the Waco Tribune, Steve Schneider’s body was discovered in the communications room in the same room as Koresh’s body. He died possibly from a bullet wound to the head, at age 48. Koresh also died from a bullet wound to the head. Steve Schneider’s body was too charred to make gunshot wound a sure thing; according to The New York Times, Steve “died of smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning with possible traumatic head injury from either a blast or gunshot.” The New York Times reported that it wasn’t clear whether Koresh committed suicide or was killed.
James Coffin knew Steve Schneider and wrote about his friend in Spectrum Magazine. “Steve, raised in an Adventist home, had slipped from the Adventist track but was trying to get back on course. He was searching,” he wrote. Coffin believes that Schneider would have seen any “qualms” he had about handing his wife sexually over to Koresh as spiritual weakness on his own part.
People Magazine reported that Steve Schneider also “acted as Koresh’s music manager” and handled a lot of the negotiations with the FBI during the standoff. “He was not a stupid man,” former FBI negotiator Byron Sage told People about Steve Schneider. “He was educated. He was articulate, but he didn’t have an independence of thought or the ability to do anything without the blessing of David.”
Branch Davidian survivor Clive Doyle tried to explain to Texas Monthly why Koresh had sex with other men’s wives, but they had to remain celibate: “If you go back to the Old Testament all these individuals God selects to be his messengers or representatives were asked to do weird stuff. But it was done for a reason . . . God doesn’t send a prophet unless his people have already back-slid, and it’s because God is not happy with what they’re doing.”
Schneider was an instrumental figure during the standoff in real life. The New York Times described how Schneider picked up the phone to hear the federal officials warn that tear gas would be pumped inside the building without immediate surrender. He “slammed down the receiver, pulled the telephone to a doorway and hurled it out into the front yard,” the Times reported.
Steve and Judy Schneider and daughter are buried in Portage, Wisconsin.
READ NEXT: David Koresh’s Wife Rachel.