Trigger warning: This article mentions child abuse. He was an infamous cult leader that was said to annul the marriages of couples who joined him, only to take “all of the women for himself”; the youngest of David Koresh’s wives was just 10 years old.
As the leader of the Branch Davidians, Koresh was groomed to be the successor of the group by the Branch Davidian Seventh-day Adventist Association’s founder’s wife, Lois Roden. He released the “New Light” audiotape, where he told the group that God told him to procreate with the women (some of whom were underage) in the group and claimed that God had told him to start building an Army.
“As far as the Branch Davidian sect, the only thing I really knew about them was that they were a self-isolated group that lived in a large communal setting and that David was very controlling of those individuals who were there to listen to his ministry,” FBI negotiator Byron Sage told VICE News in a video interview published on April 1, 2021. “David was 100 percent in charge of those people.” Here’s how many so-called “wives” Koresh took during his time as a cult leader.
How many wives did David Koresh have? According to Kiri Jewell, whose mother Sherri was one of Koresh’s wives before she herself became a “bride” at just 10 years old, Koresh had as many as 20 wives by the time he died on April 19, 1993, per ABC News, though he was only legally married to one woman.
Former Davidian David Bunds recalled to ABC News in the same article that Koresh dissolved any marriages within the group and women would be his “wives” if he wanted them. Koresh was legally married to one woman, Rachel Jones, who died in the 1993 inferno. “David Koresh’s justification for taking all of the women for himself was theological … he’s the one that had the power, he’s the one that had the authority to ‘give the seed,’” Bunds said, adding that if he had sex with a woman, Koresh would say she was in the ‘House of David’. “So yeah, being a member of the ‘House of David’ was a privilege,” he said. “Basically David would be having the children with some of the wives,” added former follower David Thibodeau.
Defector Jeannine Bunds testified to ATF Special Agent Aguilera at the time that “Howell had fathered at least 15 children with various women and young girls at the compound. Some of the girls who had babies fathered by Howell were as young as 12 years old,” per the Department of Justice. “She had personally delivered seven of these children. According to Ms. Bunds, Howell annuls all marriages of couples who join his cult. He then has exclusive sexual access to the women. He also, according to Ms. Bunds, has regular sexual relations with young girls there. The girls’ ages are from 11 years old to adulthood.” Shaun Bunds is one of Koresh’s four surviving children and he’s somewhat active on social media under the handle @koreshowell, as a nod to his father.
In negotiations leading up to the fire, FBI agents managed to persuade Koresh to release 21 children from the compound in engage for milk. None of them were his own, however. Defector Dana Kiyabu (nee Dana Okimoto) had also two sons by Koresh. She told the Waco Tribune in September 1993 that “I didn’t think he would ever let any of his children go. I just couldn’t see him giving them up to the world. He knew they would probably be placed in foster care. The chances of them being given back to their mothers were small. He was afraid they would be polluted by the world’s ideas.”
Inquiries into the Branch Davidians’ activities began on February 27, 1993, after the Waco Tribune-Herald began publishing The Sinful Messiah, a series of articles written by Mark England and Darlene McCormick, that reported Koresh was physically and sexually abusing children from within the Mount Carmel compound. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) was then notified that a UPS driver had a package broken open on delivery to the Branch Davidians revealing around six grenades within. The ATF obtained a warrant and executed their search on February 28, 1993, but the raid would result in a 51-day standoff between the group and federal agents.
As talks stalled—at one point Koresh said that he would surrender if one of his sermons was broadcast on national radio, but then failed to do so when it aired—agents tried various strategies, including turning off the compound’s power supply and shining spotlights on the complex to “disrupt sleep.” Convinced that Koresh would not surrender, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno gave permission for the FBI to raid the compound.
Early in the morning of April 19, 1993, the FBI began spraying tear gas into the compound and soon thereafter, some members of the Branch Davidians began firing weapons. The Branch Davidians set several fires and around noon that day, gunfire was heard from inside the compound. Due to safety concerns, firefighters were not allowed into the area for another 15 minutes, by which time the compound was engulfed in flames. Nine people managed to escape, though the rest perished. Investigators ultimately found 75 bodies, 25 of which were children. A number of the deceased had been fatally shot, including Koresh. Some of the wounds appeared to be self-inflicted, but others did not. Four ATF agents also died during the violence.
The government’s handling of the Waco situation was widely criticized. Reno, who came into office while negotiations with the Branch Davidians were ongoing, told NPR that she regretted how the situation was handled: “We’ll never know whether it was a mistake or not, in one sense. But knowing what I do, I would not do it again. I would try to figure another way.” The government long maintained that it was not involved in starting or spreading fires, a report completed in 1999 revealed that some of the tear gas used by the FBI was flammable.
Waco: American Apocalypse is now available to stream on Netflix.
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