I don’t remember the name of the highway, much less the state. It was one of those bleary-eyed road trips that college students take, the kind that blur in your mind after the fact. Somewhere between three and four in the morning, I pulled into a rundown gas station to grab some caffeine and stretch my legs. That’s when I met David Koresh. He was already dead, but he had a story he wanted to tell me, just the same.
Before I get too deep into the particulars of this unusual road trip, I should probably bring everyone under the age of 35 up to speed. David Koresh was the pastor of a small Christian church on the outskirts of Waco, Texas. On February 28, 1993, over one hundred ATF agents stormed his church in full body armor, guns drawn. Military helicopters circled overhead as both sides traded gunfire. When the smoke cleared, four government agents and six church members were dead. A 51-day standoff between the government and the church ensued.
After several failed attempts to negotiate a peaceful solution, the FBI made the decision to deploy military tanks against the church. It was the first and only time in United States history that the government had used tanks against civilians. The tanks fired tear gas into the church for hours, despite the FBI’s knowledge that the children trapped inside didn’t have gas masks. Eventually, the church caught fire and burned to the ground with most of the congregation inside. According to the FBI, the Branch Davidians committed suicide by starting the fire themselves.
If you had asked me to describe David Koresh before meeting him that night at the gas station, I would have said cult leader, not church pastor. My views had been hardened by the relentless news coverage of the standoff in Waco. For 51 straight days, the FBI held press conferences that pushed a simple narrative. The Branch Davidians were a heavily-armed, doomsday cult. Their “compound” (never referred to as a church) housed an apocalyptic stockpile of weaponry and was a haven for drugs and child abuse.
There was no counterpoint to this one-sided portrayal, no voice that spoke for the members of the church. The FBI cordoned off the area around the standoff, moving the press a mile and a half away from anyone that might challenge the official story. But the government couldn’t control the information forever, which leads me back to that late night gas station and my introduction to the real David Koresh.
I was listening to a public radio interview when I pulled over for caffeine. A forensic anthropologist, Dr. Emily Craig, was talking about David Koresh and Waco. She had helped reconstruct bodies in the aftermath of the standoff. Just as I was about to turn off the car and grab a soda, she said something that so conflicted with the story I knew, it stopped me in my tracks. David Koresh didn’t die in the fire. Someone shot him in the head, execution-style. And he wasn’t alone. A third of the congregation had been executed at point-blank range, prior to the fire.
Mount Carmel Church was a mass murder site.
This horrifying revelation is where my road trip with David Koresh began. I was so haunted by the thought of those unsolved murders that I wrote them into a short story, published by Apex Magazine. “City of Refuge” followed one of the child survivors, a true believer hardened by these murders. The story was set in a post-apocalyptic future where the child, now a man, had to confront his lack of faith.
I ended it on a cliffhanger, certain readers would want to know what happened next. And I got plenty of questions about the ending, but I also got questions about the Branch Davidians and David Koresh and this thing my story called “the breaking of the world.” A local writer, Sara Larson, bugged me about it for the better part of a year. To her credit, the constant nagging worked.
My subconscious started playing with the gap between the standoff and my post-apocalyptic story. Before long, I had an idea for a novella that would bridge the gap between the real and fictional events. I’d need to do some light research to get Koresh right, but not too much. I’d use the standoff to anchor the opening of the book and then move to the distant future. A short road trip with David Koresh, I told myself. Little did I know, he had other plans for me.
My research started with interviews. Australian TV did a feature story on David and his church before the standoff. It gave me a chance to get his voice down and study his mannerisms. I didn’t plan on doing more than that. Then I stumbled onto some video of him, taped during the actual standoff. In both cases, David was strikingly different than the boogeyman the news media and FBI sold me. He could be focused and even passionate when talking about the gospels, but his default manner seemed awkward, soft-spoken, even self-effacing. This wasn’t the charismatic leader of a doomsday cult.
I decided to dig a little deeper and fell down the rabbit hole. I poured over interviews with people that knew David before the raid, devoured documentaries on the standoff, and read the first person accounts of adult survivors that escaped the fire. I watched days of congressional testimony on the tragedy, dissected government reports, and even dug up obscure interviews with law enforcement and church members conducted years after the raid.
At every turn, the research generated serious questions about the events in Waco. I had started out wanting to understand David and his church, but the more research I did, the more I came to question the government’s role in the tragedy. Just to be clear, I don’t share the Branch Davidian’s beliefs or have any desire to aggrandize them. I also don’t believe that they were without fault in this tragedy. But their actions were consistent with their beliefs, and that was something I couldn’t say of the government.
The ATF justified the military-style raid on the church by telling the news media that David Koresh never left his compound and had to be forcibly removed. They failed to mention the fact that David had called their offices days earlier and invited agents to come out and inspect his guns and permits. Or the fact that their own undercover officers, stationed in a neighboring farmhouse, had kept meticulous logs of David’s regular trips to and from town, by himself.
The government also claimed the Branch Davidians shot first, ambushing their agents at the front doors of the church. ATF cameras captured this moment, but the tapes mysteriously disappeared. A handwritten logbook, drafted from a remote observation point, detailed every facet of the raid, but someone tore out the pages that dealt with this specific moment. The steel front doors of the church, that survived the fire and could have been analyzed to provide conclusive ballistic evidence, somehow vanished. Years later, a retired agent admitted the ATF fired first and then recanted his story when the news media picked it up.
Finally, there was the government’s plan of attack, which required four teams of agents to storm different areas of the large church simultaneously. Congressional investigators noticed that there was no way for agents on the backside of the church to see or hear the search warrant being served at the front door. When asked how these groups coordinated with each other, the ATF told investigators that they didn't use any communication system during the raid. It simply wasn’t part of the plan. They conceded that if Koresh and his congregation had surrendered at any point, there was no way to tell the other teams to stop shooting and stand down.
These facts were just the tip of the iceberg, the first missteps in an avalanche of questionable decisions. I had grown up seeing the standoff from the outside, from the perspective of the FBI. Now I was ready to let go of that short novella outline and write a novel from inside the church. A novel that questioned not just the Branch Davidian’s actions, but also the government’s. I wanted to examine the news media’s reporting of the event, the wisdom of militarizing law enforcement, and the blurry line between religion and cult. The short road trip I had planned to take with David was turning into a cross-country odyssey.
But there was one major problem with my new plan, point of view. I’d done enough research to understand the Branch Davidian’s interpretation of the Old and New Testament, and I could easily imagine their fear, anguish, and terror during the 51-day standoff, but I couldn’t bring myself to write from their religious fundamentalist point of view. Nor could I imagine my friends wanting to read such a book. I needed a main character that would never be a true believer, someone that would question, as I do, both sides of this standoff.
Luckily, I didn’t have to look that hard. The nurses and lawyers and police officers (yes, police officers) that lived and studied at the Mount Carmel Church brought something with them that was genetically designed to question everything.
I would tell the story from the perspective of three outcast teens, a trinity of nonbelievers dragged to the church by their born-again parents. These rebellious atheists could question everything and serve as a vehicle to independently explore what went wrong from the inside of the standoff.
Even better, I knew what would terrify the teenagers more than anything. The breaking of the world. I know I’ve danced around that last bit, the speculative element of this story. The standoff roots the first half of the novel in history. The second half? Well that’s the road trip I’m hoping you’ll take with me. I’ll leave you with this little teaser for my debut novel, Breaking the World: In 1993, David Koresh predicted the end of the world. What if he was right?