Note: The “Waco” miniseries is streaming now on Netflix.
It was 25 years ago that the eyes of the world turned to a compound outside of Waco. It was home to a group of Branch Davidians led by David Koresh. A federal investigation into sexual abuse and illegal weapons at the compound led to a 51 day standoff between law enforcement and members of the religious group. The deadly raid was horrific and strange – so many of us couldn’t look away from it.
Because we humans like anniversaries that end in fives and zeros, this upcoming 25-year mark has brought a rush of re-tellings of the siege. CBS and ABC aired their retrospectives earlier this month. Next week, a six-part series called “Waco,” starring Michael Shannon and Taylor Kitsch, comes to the Paramount TV network and tells the story again.
It’s a story very familiar to David Thibodeau, because it’s his story. He’s a survivor of the raid on the Branch Davidians compound and the author of the book that inspired the TV miniseries.
For him, joining the Davidians had been a gradual process.
“You get to know the people,” Thibodeau says. “It took me, I don’t know, probably three or four months of going back and forth with them before I was in the group. I had met some of the people. I certainly didn’t realize what was truly going on until I was there for one of the two-week studies.”
He says that’s when he realized there were a lot of women and children in the community, but the children didn’t seem to have fathers.
“You started to figure out that David was responsible for fathering a lot of these kids,” he says.
Thibodeau says he wrote the book to humanize the Davidians so the public can understand that they were real people.
“They weren’t as crazy as people want to believe, because it’s very easy to believe a bunch of crazy religious fanatics just killed themselves,” he says. “And that’s not what happened.”
He says the raid was terrifying from the start – and that it was unnecessary.
“I certainly understand David was no choir boy, but whatever you feel about David, he was the only one on the search and arrest warrant, and they could have gotten him jogging in front of the ATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms] house, the surveillance house across the street. They could have got him when he went to town. They could have got him anytime,” Thibodeau says. “For them to come in with a militaristic style raid, shooting into the building, to me it’s unconstitutional, it’s un-American, it borderlines insanity.”
The new series will tell the story of what really happened, he says.
“People think you could’ve just walked out of that building, but they had lied about us so much in all of the press conferences. They were calling us a cult. They were demonizing us fairly recently,” he says. “Within the first couple days, they cut the power, the tanks were destroying little sheds at the outskirts of the property. They were stepping up force, which was causing a great amount of distrust, and the last thing most of the people inside wanted to do was to go out into that force. That was way more terrifying than staying in the place that you call home.”
For Thibodeau, watching the filming of the series was a powerful experience that brought back a flood of memories. He says it’s a realistic recreation of the disaster.
“People were really trying to tell the story without it being sensationalized,” he says. “Whether you sit in judgment or not, that’s fine. Hate David Koresh, but realize that there was a bunch of individuals there that never did any harm to you whatsoever.”
Looking back 25 years later, he says he wouldn’t change his decision to join the group, even though it meant surviving a seige in which more than 80 people died.
“I wouldn’t wish my experience on my worst enemy,” he says. “But at the same time, I wouldn’t give up my experience for all the money in the world. That experience was meant for me to go through. I can’t even describe on a spiritual level how I know that, but I do. And no matter what you think of the Davidians or the people in that building or David Koresh, the people that were with David Koresh did die for what they believed in, and to me that should be honored and memorialized instead of demonized.”
Written by Jen Rice.