Who was David Koresh? I think that’s probably the most important mystery that any media covering the tragic events that took place at Mount Carmel—10 miles outside of Waco, Texas—is attempting to solve. All we have left are the accounts of survivors and witnesses, translated most recently into Waco, a six-part miniseries from the Paramount Network.
Episode 2, “The Strangers Across the Street,” aired last night and most certainly made up for all that Episode 1 lacked. While, again, not strictly adherent to the source material, the spirit of conflict and complication was present, brilliantly portrayed by John Leguizamo as undercover Federal ATF agent Robert Rodriguez.
Rodriguez—as seen in both the TV show and in David Thibadeau’s memoir, Waco: A Survivor’s Story—is the one undercover agent that seemed more curious than threatened by the tenants of Mount Carmel. He and his fellow officers moved into a house across the road from the compound, and he was designated to be friendly with the residents in order to gain entry to the compound and locate the illegal weapons cache the ATF was looking for. They needed this cache of weapons to make their case against David Koresh and his followers and to legitimize their impending raid.
Rodriguez does not find any weapons. What he does find, however, is a man he can empathize with. Rodriguez, like the majority of Koresh’s followers, is clearly an outsider. Koresh suspects he’s an undercover officer, but he chooses to welcome him into the fold and even invites him to move into the compound.
In Thibodeau’s memoir, one could interpret Koresh’s actions as truly selfless. Rodriguez is a man who is lost in a spiritual sense, and Koresh welcomes him with open arms despite Rodriguez’s intentions to spy on the compound. Thibodeau's observations imply that Koresh and Rodriguez had even become friends:
Of course, Robert refused David’s offer to come live with us. But in knowing the power of David’s sincerity and the force of his mind, I could not dismiss the possibility that the agent might indeed be turned. David treated him like a friend, speaking to the human being under the law enforcement official, and Robert was very human. It was obvious he was seeking his own kind of truth in the stresses of his life and duty.
The show is a faithful portrayal of the events related to Rodriguez as recounted by Thibodeau, and I think it nicely portrays the crux of the issue for Rodriguez—and for many of us—harking back to my initial question: Who was David Koresh?
Vernon Wayne Howell was born in 1959 in Houston, Texas. His mother was only 14 years old, and his father abandoned him at birth. Vernon’s youth was volatile, to say the least. His young mother had a violent boyfriend, and he spent time living with both his birth mother and his grandmother. He was also dyslexic and bullied after his school elected to move him into a classroom with other special-needs students. Kids called him “Mr. Retardo.”
And as the podcast Cults posits, Vernon had been seeing images he attributed to God and angels since he was a very small boy, earning him more status as an outsider from the get-go. The hosts of the podcast also theorize that it’s this combination of mental disorder resulting in visions as well as his lonely upbringing that led to Koresh’s fanatical religious ways and need to be seen as someone special—someone above the average human. He even had a dream in which he visited heaven with God and learned that he was, in fact, the prophesized Lamb mentioned in Revelations meant to open the seven seals and usher in the Apocalypse. (For more on the possible psychology behind cults and their leaders, including David Koresh, I highly recommend you give this show a listen.)
Vernon Wayne Howell joined the already existing religious group, the Branch Davidians, in 1982 and quickly moved up the ranks of leadership there. In 1990, after a trip to Israel with other Branch Davidians, he legally changed his name to David Koresh—modeled after King David and King Cyrus, the king who allowed the Jews to return to their homeland.
Koresh is convincing because he is so thoroughly convinced. Taylor Kitsch’s version of Koresh shows a sincere and forceful man. He knows he has all of the answers because he’s absolutely certain God revealed all to him as the Chosen One. Both Thibodeau’s memoir and the new TV show give an account of Koresh as a human being and not some evil cult leader—one who had been demonized in the press and by the ATF as they attempted to cover up their botched raids on Mount Carmel.
In his book, Thibodeau is easy to forgive Koresh’s polygamy and penchant for young girls despite his disagreement with the practices, and his point of view elicits a certain amount of sympathy for the infamous leader. Kitsch, on the other hand, portrays the more calculating side of Koresh in the show. He handily shows the charismatic side of Koresh as well as the colder, often creepier side—the person capable of manipulating hundreds of people into helping him commit crimes of hebephilia and polygamy while giving up their own wives, children, and sexuality for the cause.
Leguizamo's Rodriguez ends up doing the heavy lifting of showing skepticism and revealing the more human side of Koresh as he attempts to bring him into the fold. However, Koresh’s motivations for this are unclear. Is this a genuine urge to be inclusive and welcoming, or is he attempting to manipulate this law enforcement agent into protecting them? It’s hard to tell given how much Koresh has been anticipating—and even happy about—the impending raid. This is the apocalypse he’s been waiting for.
The moments between Koresh and Rodriguez are pivotal not only in attempting to understand the human being underneath the cult-leader veneer but also in how everything went down at Mount Carmel over the next 51 days. Rodriguez testified before two House subcommittees in 1995 that his cover had been blown. Koresh knew the raid was coming, and he had tried to warn his superiors at the ATF but had been ignored. These are the fatal moments that led to the deaths of roughly 80 people, all told.
Next week, we’ll see how the raid began at Mount Carmel on that fateful day in 1993 as our six-part coverage of the miniseries continues.
See also: Waco: “Visions and Omens” Episode Review
Ardi Alspach was born in Florida, raised in South Carolina, and now resides in New York City with her cat and an apartment full of books. By day, she's a publicist, and by night, she's a freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter at @ardyceelaine or check out her website at ardyceelaine.wordpress.com.