Twenty-five years after federal agents raided an armed religious compound outside of Waco, Texas that was led by self-proclaimed messiah David Koresh, a new documentary tells the inside story of the sect and the bloody battle that resulted in one of the longest standoffs in American history. Featuring previously unseen archival footage and using only firsthand accounts by survivors and those directly involved in the tragedy, WACO: THE LONGEST SIEGE looks at unexplored facets of the Waco story, the Branch Davidians and their charismatic leader, and the uneasy relationship between the media and national law enforcement agencies, which further complicated the deadly series of events that claimed 75 lives, including 25 children. WACO: THE LONGEST SIEGE premieres Monday, April 9 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Smithsonian Channel.
The film provides an intimate portrait of a young Vernon Howell (later renamed David Koresh) and his Branch Davidian followers, who came from around the globe to join the Pied Piper-like figure. At only 25 years old, the self-styled prophet used his charisma, ability to recite scripture, and taped sermons for an extraordinary international recruitment effort to persuade believers to join him.
WACO: THE LONGEST SIEGE features interviews with key players from the investigation, including local journalists and federal agents who were struggling to unlock the sect’s secrets and investigate any suspected criminal activity by its mysterious leader, as well as local law enforcement and the McClellan County Sheriff. Interviewed for the first time ever on camera are Bob Lott, then-editor of the Waco Tribune-Herald, and Rod Aydelotte, the paper’s chief photographer. Aydelotte’s one-of-a-kind photographs are the only images ever to capture the first moments of the ATF’s initial raid on the Waco compound. Previously unseen archival footage also shows Aydelotte and local TV news cameramen scrambling amid the gunfire and facing angry reproaches from ATF officials waving them off the scene — which sheds light on the frequently overlooked story of the conflict between the two factions. On one hand, the ATF and FBI, tasked with capturing Koresh and the Davidians at the Waco compound; on the other hand, local media outlets like theWaco Tribune-Herald and KWTX, which were trying to report the story inside the compound’s walls.
In the film, viewers hear directly from those followers who lived at the compound – some who relocated from as far away as Hawaii, England, and Australia – and those who are among the handful who survived the siege that began in February 1993. Some are now disillusioned former Branch Davidians. Others are still faithful and maintain allegiance even after losing multiple family members to the fatal events that transpired. “I think those people truly believed that they were being delivered up into heaven behind this holy fire,” says FBI negotiator Byron Sage in the film. “I still don’t totally comprehend it.”
Former Branch Davidian Marc Breault, who became Koresh’s closest friend and, later, his fiercest adversary, met his wife, Liz Baranyai, at the compound. The couple describes the passion and vision that originally drew them to Koresh, but they also recall how their friendship with the leader eventually eroded due to deepening concerns about Koresh’s darkening message and his shocking predilection for pedophilia. Eventually the duo defected, at different times, and aided investigators looking into Davidian crimes of child abuse and amassing at least 200 illegal weapons. Breault tried to warn the Feds about going in guns blazing. He says in the film, “You’re dealing with martyrs. This is the prophecy they’re living through right now, and if you go there, the whole place is going to go up.”
Survivors candidly share their stories – including how they escaped the siege’s fiery end, from which only nine people got out alive – and how their families were not as fortunate. Sheila Martin, from North Carolina, surrendered with her three younger children during the standoff and was arrested, but lost her husband and four older children in the blaze. “I trust God for why he allowed it to happen,” she says. Clive Doyle, of Australia, survived, but he lost one of his two daughters in the fire. The girls were both wives of Koresh – counted among his more than 15 adolescent brides. Both Martin and Doyle still believe to this day that the events were the Lord’s will, that Koresh is the resurrected Son of God, and that they will be reunited with their leader and prophet in time.