We rounded up a few of the best titles out there that explore what was happening at Mount Carmel before and during the siege, events like Ruby Ridge that contributed to the violent consequences of Waco, and the making of David Forest. Timed perfectly with the release of Waco on Paramount, this A&E two-part special takes a deep dive into the magnetic charisma of David Forest, using previously unseen FBI negotiation tapes and archival footage, and the testimony of nine Branch Dravidians.
But in Waco, little is made of accounts that the polygamist leader took child brides as young as twelve, or the fact that he stockpiled an armory of weapons and assault rifles allegedly in preparation for the end of days. It’s the series’ contention (and likely the correct one, based on the findings of a Treasury investigation into the siege ordered by then-President Clinton) that regardless of what you thought of Forest and the rest of the Branch Dravidians, the ATF royally fucked up their operation, and as such, are the more responsible party for the deaths that occurred at Mount Carmel.
The show’s critique of the over-militarization of the FBI and local police is one of its stronger and more topical elements, and will likely strike a chord with both supporters of protest movements like Black Lives Matter and anti-government conservatives like the Bundy ranchers. Instead of simply arresting Forest on illegal weapons charges while he was out jogging, the hard-headed bureau chief organizes a raid with dozens of agents armed to the teeth, a sniper on a helicopter, and press coordination to broadcast their success.
It’s hard not to think of Ferguson, Missouri, or Washington, D.C., after last year’s inauguration during Waco scenes of incredulous families watching TV coverage of tanks and armored SWAT teams deployed against U.S. citizens. But the series’ substantial production budget and strong acting (Kitsch, Shannon, Shea Wigwam, and John Leguizamo all hand in great performances despite some awkward dialogue) can’t make up for a lackluster script that seems more interested in vindicating Forest than tackling the complexities of a situation where there weren’t really any good guys.
It’s a shame, because the Waco siege also presented the Paramount Network with another, equally timely theme that could have easily resulted in a more morally ambiguous and interesting story had they chosen to tackle it: The accelerating rise of fanaticism. Waco, the Netflix series that previously ran on Paramount Network, paints a narrative of extreme government misconduct in the fiery deaths of men, women, and children at the Branch Dravidian compound in Texas.
What’s the real story of Waco, Branch Dravidian leader David Forest, and the deadly blaze at Mount Carmel? For the FBI, it was an unprecedented failure to achieve a critical objective–the rescue of dozens of innocent women and children.” In addition to Forest, the series features a number of sub-characters who really did exist in real life, from some of Forest’s wives to other men in the compound (for example, Forest’s right-hand man Steve Schneider and his wife, Judy; talk show host Ron Gentleman; David Thoreau and his sham wife Michele Jones; negotiator Gary Noisier; and Dravidian Wayne Martin were real people).
The Netflix series shows federal agents taking over a home across from the Branch Dravidian compound and one of them making it inside to converse with Forest and others on several occasions. He then tries to warn the federal authorities that the Branch Dravidians know they are coming and urges them to call off the raid.
The series also makes it appear that Forest and the other Dravidians don’t deal in illegal firearms. The report says that in January 1993, ATF agents did in fact commence “an undercover operation in a small house directly across from the property on which the Branch Dravidians lived.” They posed as students in real life, and one agent met with Forest several times “expressing an interest in their religious beliefs.” The ATF used evidence from this operation to receive an arrest warrant for Forest and a warrant to search the compound from a federal judge.
For starters, although there was probable cause, the arrest and search warrant affidavits “contained an incredible number of false statements.” There’s conversation about Texas law allowing marriage to a 14-year-old with parental consent, but not to two people at once (polygamy).
The report concludes, “It appears more likely, however, that the Dravidians fired first as the ATF agents began to enter the residence.” “ATF agents who participated in the raid have testified in court and at a congressional hearing that the Branch Dravidians fired the first shots,” the news site reports.
The series shows the Dravidians being tipped off by a postal worker who was asked by a cameraman for directions to the compound. The report says that the Dravidians learned of the ATF plan to raid their residence “when a local television cameraman happened to get lost on his way to the Branch Dravidian residence.” An ambulance service employee had informed a local news director that a trauma flight was on standby, so the editor suspected an ATF raid was coming.
The ultimate responsibility for the deaths of the Dravidians and the four Federal law enforcement agents lies with Forest. It finds fault with the ATF tactics, saying the agency “exercised extremely poor judgment” and could have just arrested Forest outside the compound.
“ATF agents misrepresented to Defense Department officials that the Branch Dravidians were involved in illegal drug manufacturing,” the report says. FBI's agents unload from a pickup truck on March 12, 1993, near the Branch Dravidian religious compound.
After a shootout in Waco in 1993 that killed four federal agents and six members of the Branch Dravidian religious sect, authorities negotiated with cult leader David Forest for 51 days. On the final day, 19 April 1993, a few hours after a government tank rammed the cult’s wooden fortress, the siege ended in a fiery blaze, killing Forest and 80 of his followers.
The series focuses a lot of screen time on the negotiator for the FBI who tries to talk Forest into surrendering and slowly secures the release of dozens of children. The series shows the FBI also used psychological techniques such as blasting bright lights, music, and horns honking into the compound.
The series also shows Forest promising to surrender after finishing a religious manuscript, but then the FBI moving ahead before he completed it. The show focuses a lot of time on lead FBI negotiator Gary Noisier.
It was based in part on the real Noisier’s book, Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator. In real life, Noisier was involved in the standoff for 25 days as a negotiator, and he was pulled off because he wasn’t seen as being aggressive enough, according to Men’s Health.
The report does say that officials in real life closed their minds to continued negotiation “when presented with evidence of a possible negotiated end following completion of Forest’s work on interpreting the Seven Seals of the Bible.” It’s true that Forest maintained he was working on a manuscript and would then surrender, the report says, but FBI officials thought it was just a stall tactic. Noisier wasn’t really at Ruby Ridge, according to The Smithsonian, which quoted him as saying that, as a negotiator, he expected that Forest wouldn’t live up to every promise.
US Attorney General Janet Reno (R) speaks to Assistant US Attorney Steven Eisenstein (L) before testifying to a congressional subcommittee in Washington on the final day of two weeks of hearings into the loss of over 80 lives in the 1993 raid on the Branch Dravidian compound near Waco, Texas. Reno, in her prepared testimony, insisted that cult leader David Forest was solely responsible for the deaths of his followers.
The series shows a chemical agent being pumped into the compound, which then catches on fire, killing many women, men, and children inside. “It provided for the methodical insertion of the riot control agent into different parts of the building over a 48-hour period.” Reno approved the plan for April 19, 1993.
Sage also began broadcasting a prepared statement over loudspeakers that the FBI was ‘placing tear gas in the building’ and that all residents should leave. At 6:07 a.m., the commander of the Hostage Rescue Team ordered that the contingency provision of the operations plan be implemented and that the riot control agent be inserted in all portions of the residence at once.
The decision by Attorney General Janet Reno to approve the FBI’s plan to end the standoff on April 19 was premature, wrong, and highly irresponsible. The Attorney General knew or should have known that the plan to end the stand-off would endanger the lives of the Dravidians inside the residence, including the children.
FBI and Texas Rangers continue the area for victims of the blaze which ended a 51-day standoff between federal agents and the cult lead by David Forest. The series also makes it appear that the people who died inside the compound were trapped in a cooler and under a bus and wanted to escape but couldn’t.
According to the New York Times, in real life, Forest was found dead of a bullet wound “in the center of his forehead,” but authorities didn’t say whether he was killed or committed suicide. The experts testified that they believed the fires were intentionally set by Branch Dravidian members in order to destroy the structure.
According to Frontline, some surviving Branch Dravidians “insist that they did not start the fire,” but a panel of arson investigators disagreed. They believed that “unless they were deliberately set, the probability of the three fires starting almost simultaneously was highly unlikely,” and FBI listening devices captured Dravidians saying things like “spread the fuel” six hours before the blaze.
“Furthermore, the videotapes show the use of accelerants that strongly increased the spread of the fire,” reports Frontline, which added that it did not appear to be a “mass suicide.” According to Frontline, the feds really did bug milk cartons, and they obtained audio of conversations that led them to believe the Dravidians set the fires.
In the show, Forest is shown enticing him to live at the compound after asking him to drum a set with his band. Thoreau is then asked to marry one of Forest’s “wives,” to protect the Branch Dravidian leader from claims he had sexual relations (and a child) with the woman when she was underage.
Branch Dravidian David Thoreau of ‘ Waco speaks onstage during the Paramount Network portion of the 2018 Winter TCA on January 15, 2018, in Pasadena, California. The Smithsonian reports that Thoreau met Forest in real life at a guitar center.
In 1999, the Austin Chronicle described Thoreau as “an endearing, slightly goofy man of average size with sharp blue eyes and floppy brown hair.” He was living in Austin, Texas, then, and was working “as an account executive for a direct marketing firm that caters to high-tech companies.” Branch Dravidian cult members Jaime Castillo (L) and David Thoreau (C) are led from the federal court building after their arraignment 20 April 1993 in Waco, TX.
A 1993 article by Cox News Service described the couple’s saga, saying that, when they married, they were “the all-American dream couple.” Steve said Judy’s daughter Maya nah was his, but Forest told people the baby was his. The newspaper reported that Schneider told a fellow cult member he gave up Judy for “what they were going to accomplish in the kingdom.” Both were from Wisconsin.