In a new A&E documentary, nine survivors of the fiery tragedy that killed 76 Branch Davidians at their compound outside Waco, Texas, still cling to their beliefs

By Jeff Truesdell
January 24, 2018 10:35 AM

Twenty five years after the little-known Branch Davidian cult leapt into the headlines after a deadly siege on its compound outside of Waco, Texas, sect survivors leave little doubt in a new documentary that they were willing to die for their leader, David Koresh.

“I think the FBI never tried to understand our beliefs,” surviving Branch Davidian Kat Schroeder, who was one of Koresh’s numerous wives and the only female member to be charged and imprisoned after the siege, says in an exclusive clip from the A&E documentary special Waco: Madman or Messiah.

The run-up to the siege and its deadly outcome are examined in the two-part, four-hour special that premieres Sunday and Monday, Jan. 28 and 29 (9 to 11 p.m. ET) on A&E.

“I think the FBI tried to figure out what tactic they could use against a group of people that they thought were crazy,” Schroeder says. “They didn’t have any idea that everyone in that building had complete and utter devotion to doing God’s will over man’s will. And that meant we were not coming out.”

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Koresh, born Vernon Wayne Howell, had gathered his followers at the compound they called Mount Carmel, which then attracted the attention of federal authorities who suspected the group’s members of weapons violations.

In February of 1993, those authorities attempted to raid the compound, with a clash of gunfire that left four government agents and six Branch Davidians dead.

David Koresh

The incident drew instant attention to what would be labeled and dissected as a debacle of federal law enforcement actions. The resulting 51-day standoff between cult members led by Koresh, 33, and the FBI and ATF ended on April 19, 1993, when the FBI launched an assault and initiated a tear gas attack on the compound.

The resulting fire that destroyed the compound led to the deaths of another 76 Branch Davidians, including Koresh himself. Among the victims were 23 children.

One of nine surviving Branch Davidians interviewed in the documentary, Livingstone Fagan, lost both his wife and his mother in the fire.

“Here you are in a situation where, under the Constitution of the United States, you’re free to practice your religion, and the very people that are supposed to defend you are the ones that are attacking you,” he says in the documentary. “Who defends you?”

Survivor Kat Schoeder says: “Watching everybody you know die when you know that dying is the right thing to do is actually a good thing. I should have died, too.”

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The documentary pulls from 247 tapes of FBI negotiations to offer a close look at Koresh, who joined the splinter group of the Seventh Day Adventists and proclaimed himself a prophet and the group’s leader. His control over cult members included both physical and sexual abuse, and he shared with his followers an apocalyptic vision: He told them the end of the world was imminent — and he prophesied the attack by the government as it ultimately unfolded.

Federal agents interviewed along with nine Branch Davidian survivors in the documentary also recall events from their perspective. High-profile federal inquiries and inconsistent disclosures in the aftermath would come to feed a distrust of government among far-right movements.

Local media had been tipped off to the raid on the morning it was scheduled, McLenna County Sheriff Parnell McNamara says in the documentary.

Heather Burson, another Branch Davidian, says of that morning: “A news person got lost and had asked my dad if they knew where Mount Carmel was and told him what they were doing, and that was when my dad went straight to Mount Carmel and told David and warned everybody about it.”

A member of the ATF raid team, Keith Constantino, recalls: “The Branch Davidians knew we were coming, but we were told ‘hurry up, we’re going.’ If the element of surprise was the paramount factor, the mission should have been aborted.”

Waco: Madman or Messiah premieres Sunday and Monday, Jan. 28 and 29 (9 to 11 p.m. ET) on A&E.