Today marks thirty years since the last day of the FBI siege on the Branch Davidians of Waco, Texas. We hear from three authors who released books on the events this year: Jeff Guinn (Waco: David Koresh, the Branch Davidians, and a Legacy of Rage), Stephan Talty (Koresh: The True Story of David Koresh and the Tragedy at Waco) and Kevin Cook (Waco Rising: David Koresh, the FBI, and the Birth of America’s Modern Militias) They address why they chose to tell this story now, what exactly happened in Waco (and why), and why this story is still relevant today.
The Stacks Book Club selection for April is Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay. We will discuss the book on April 26th with Clint Smith.
*Due to the nature of podcast advertising, these timestamps are not 100% accurate and will vary.
Traci Thomas 0:09
Welcome to The Stacks, a podcast about books and the people who read them. I’m your host Traci Thomas and today, April 19 2023, marks the 30th anniversary of the siege and fire on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. This came after a gun battle with the ATF and a 51 day standoff with the FBI. To mark the occasion we’re doing a special episode of The Stacks. I’ll be joined by three different authors who have all released books this year that examine, rethink and contextualize these events, David Koresh and the legacy of Waco. First up is Jeff Guinn, who wrote the book Waco: David Koresh, the Branch Davidians and a Legacy of Rage. Jeff and I talked about what exactly happened in Waco in 1993, the misunderstandings that left so many people dead and the importance of religion in this story. Then we’ll hear from Stephan Talty, author of Koresh: The True Story of David Koresh and the Tragedy at Waco, who shares a lot more about David Koresh the man and the villain. And finally, Kevin Cook will discuss his book Waco Rising: David Koresh, the FBI and the Birth of America’s Modern Militias. Kevin talks with me a lot about what Waco means to us now and how it’s become a rallying cry for the far Right and America. Remember, our April book club selection is the poetry collection Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay. We will be discussing the book with Clint Smith on April 26th. And a quick reminder, everything we talked about on today’s episode, and every episode of The Stacks can be found in the link in the show notes. If you love The Stacks, and you want more of it, like our incredible community on Discord, our bonus episodes, our monthly meetups, discuss our book club pics and more. Join the Stacks Pack on Patreon. It’s just $5 a month and you get all of that plus you get to know that you’re part of making this black woman run independent book podcast a reality every single week head to patreon.com/the stacks to join now. Quick shout out to our newest members, Sigrid Anderson and Madeline postman. Thank you both so much and thank you to everyone in this backpack. Okay, now it’s time for extra special episode to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the event in Waco, Texas with Jeff Guinn, Steven Talty and Kevin Cook.
All right, everybody. I am so excited. If you know me, you’ve heard me talk about this author Jeff Guinn, his brand new book is called Waco: David Koresh, the Branch Davidians and a Legacy of Rage. Jeff, welcome to The Stacks.
Jeff Guinn 2:38
Thank you very much. Nice to meet you.
Traci Thomas 2:40
It’s so nice to meet you. I’m just so excited to talk to you. My listeners know this. But I have like a very sweet spot of interest that involves Waco, Jonestown and Charles Manson. So you’ve been very formative in my personal reading life. It’s like my, my holy trinity is those three. So I do want to just sort of start here in about 30 seconds or so can you just tell us about the book?
Jeff Guinn 3:05
Well, I’ve tried to do even though Waco has been a big topic of conversation for 30 years, is not just tell what happened there. But why and how the full context for the first time. So we’re marking the 30th anniversary of this event this year, which I’m sure you’re well aware of. And aside from that anniversary, why do you think it’s important to tell this story now, things that happened 30 years ago, are still sort of the starting point for a lot of the things that have happened since waco really initiated not just say, the bombing in Oklahoma City, the Federal Building Two years later, but the same people who were so pissed off by what happened at Mount Carmel, and who believe that all kinds of government conspiracies, actually were at the forefront of the January 6 2021 attack on the capital. There’s direct links, we prove them in the book. And if people want to understand what’s happening now, understanding what happened in Waco 30 years ago is a great starting point. So let me ask you about that. Because one of the things you mentioned towards the end of the book, sort of as you’re wrapping up is about how you know how Americans like believe that the government isn’t helping them but maybe oppressing them. And something that I found to be really interesting about that. And I think gets at the complexity of the event in Waco, is that I think that that kind of is true for both sides of the political aisle, right. There are people who feel like they’ve been left behind. The government isn’t helping them with minimum wage or with health care. And then there’s this other side that is a little bit more towards this January 6 moment, this militia moment that feels like the government’s coming to take away their guns and more specifically, in this case, take away their guns.
Traci Thomas 2:40
Do you think that there’s common ground between those groups or should there be or could there be?
Jeff Guinn 4:55
There can always be common ground if people want to see the other side’s perspective. That’s all it really takes trying to understand the other side. Things happened in Waco 30 years ago, because there were three separate groups with different agendas. You had ATF Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, the FBI, in the Branch Davidians. Talking today to the people who were involved in to this day, none of them understand what the other folks were thinking or why they did what they did. This is why we have confrontation. This is why we have violence. And that’s why Waco, the lessons that are there, if we want to look really matter to us today is you say so athlete.
Traci Thomas 5:01
I think so for me, you know, as I mentioned, I have read a lot of books about Charles Manson. I’ve read a lot of books about Jim Jones, those are two stories and events happen before I was born that I like cannot get enough of, and wait goes happen happened in my lifetime. And it’s the third one. But with the other two, it feels really clear to me what happened. It feels like there’s clear villains. There’s clear bad guys, there’s clear victims. And with Waco, it feels like that’s not true at all. This one feels really hard to parse. So how did you approach writing about it? Where were your allegiances? Sort of when you started? Did that change? As you wrote? Do you feel like you have a better sense of who the victims were? And who the bad guys were any like, can you help make sense of it?
Jeff Guinn 6:40
That’s always the challenge. When you try to write narrative nonfiction about a controversial topic. This is my 25th book. A lot of people only know my books about Manson and Jim Jones, because they’re attracted to the idea of cults. I didn’t pick Waco as the subject, because I wanted to complete the trifecta.
Traci Thomas 7:05
I feel like you did. Thank you.
Jeff Guinn 7:07
Well see, here’s the thing. Charlie Manson, Jim Jones, and David Koresh can all honestly be identified as demagogues, the demigod being defined as person who says there’s this great, terrible possibility? I am the only one who can make things right. But only if you follow me and do exactly what I say. Right? The big difference here and this is I had to learn this, I didn’t know it. When I write books, basically, I’m helped by my ignorance on subjects, to try not to write a book where I think I already know everything that happened. I want to go in sort of is a petri dish and get everything from every side. And to me, the inevitability of what happened. And from the three groups involved, ATF, FBI, Branch Davidians. No side understood the motives of the other ones, they didn’t bother trying to find it they didn’t think they had to ATF survivors, and some of the ATF died that first day of the raid, tell me today, we didn’t care anything about their religion, we knew and it just a bunch of religious idiots following some demagogue, no big deal. The only thing we cared about was they had illegal guns, we were going to enforce the law. That’s our job. The Branch Davidians felt that everything they were doing, including gathering these illegal weapons and preparing for battle with anyone who was going to come try to take them away, was what they were told to do in the Bible. So what ATF was doing, basically perfectly matched the prophecies David Koresh was claiming he was getting from God. Right? So what’s going to happen when these two forces get together? It didn’t have to be that way. But nobody ever cared about understanding the other side. And to this day, the survivors still don’t.
Traci Thomas 9:12
Yeah, I found that part so interesting. I mean, so for me, one of the things that really stuck out is what you’re getting at, which is that David Koresh had been telling his followers, this story about what was going to happen rooted in biblical text, a very literal interpretation of Babylon, which and his telling equates to the US government. They were going to come, they were going to have a fight, they were going to die, and then they were going to be reborn into the kingdom of heaven. And I didn’t know any of that. And I personally am not a religious person at all. And I usually find like anyone who’s super religious to be very off putting for me, but there was something about the way that you wrote about this story and the way that you explained how this all came to be. That really had me sitting there being like, yeah, of course there’s going to be a huge shootout and firefight if you’re a Branch Davidian, and you’ve been told for years that Babylon is coming to get you. And then Babylon comes to get you with guns at your front door. And I feel like that lends itself to why probably many of the survivors still believe because the prophecy was right, whether or not the prophecy came from God or from his ego or whatever, sort of irrelevant, if you believe. And I found that part that was sort of the linchpin for me. And understanding this, and sort of making it make sense, it made it make sense for me whether or not I agree with it made it makes sense. And on the flip side of that, I am predisposed to be very critical and cynical when it comes to law enforcement. And I gotta tell you, they were doing themselves no favors. I mean, were you at all shocked by the ineptitude of the ATF and the FBI and like the ego, and the pettiness and, and all of that stuff that we saw happen for the 51 days of the of them going there, and then the siege and everything.
Jeff Guinn 11:10
Every book I write, I find some surprising things like this. In this book, I found more surprising, almost unbelievable things, new information than I’d ever found for anything else. And I left feeling as though all these people who are antagonistic towards each other, in one way or another, everyone involved became a victim. In some ways, there’s no winners here. There’s no clear cut good guys, or bad guys. And I sat in a room with one of the Branch Davidian survivors, a grandmother, who believes David Koresh is going to come back as the Lamb. And we’re still going to have all the in time start any minute now. You know, I kept asking all these people in all different sides. How is this possible? What were you possibly expecting to happen? And this is what I was told. From the Branch Davidian perspective. If you believe that God was commanding you personally, to do something, wouldn’t you do it? To them, it was that simple. They absolutely have no regret. Except in this got me that they didn’t die during the attack, initial attack or the fire. The ones who did were the lucky ones, they’re already with God. Right? And, you know, I’m sitting there thinking, how can you do this? I mean, your house you’re playing with your granddaughter on your knee? You know, obviously, you’re a very intelligent person. People believe what they believe. And then to the ATF agents, not the people in charge, who made unconscionably bad decisions, particularly when they learned without question, the Branch Davidians with their automatic weapons, new ATF was about to come and still send them in. But the 76 what they call themselves POS, plain old agents, all they’re told by their bosses are these people have illegal guns, and oh, by the way, here’s some newspaper stories about how their leader is raping 12 year old girls, and they’re breaking the law, and we’re gonna go up there and we’re gonna get them but they don’t know we’re coming. They have no access to their guns, we’re just going to kind of jump in there. Arrest some of them, it’ll be easy. One of the pilots of a plane part of the raid, was so convinced by what he heard, hey, it’s going to be in and out. He had flown there from Waco, Waco from Houston couple hours away. And the raid was going to be attend in the morning. He had a golf tee time back in Houston at 1pm. Because it was going to be that quick and simple. And the agents were promised, above all, if we lose the element of surprise, we’re not sending you in, don’t worry. And then as they’re geared up and getting ready to go in the vehicles, they’re told, Oh, they do know we’re coming. But if we hurry, it’ll be okay. And what happens? They’re getting out of the two cattle trailers that they came in. And from every window in this huge structure, Mount Carmel, automatic weapons firing at the cutting them down. Of the 76 ATF agents that went in that day, over 25% of them were either killed or seriously wounded. It was a slaughter on both sides and dammit, it didn’t have to happen. And then the FBI comes in and takes over. We actually, We have experts in this book who did understand their religion, who went to the FBI during the siege and said, Can we explain? He didn’t want to know. And finally, the FBI when the Branch Davidians aren’t coming out, say they’re going to put in gradually over two days, MCS gas. Two minutes into the final day, they just put in two days worth of gas at once. Because they say they’re being fired upon from inside their in tanks, you understand? Yeah, yeah. And there’s clouds of combustible gas. Now. Of course, there’s going to be a fire. None of this had to happen. It did not happen because of some nefarious plot. It was human hubris, human ignorance. So not only do we have this tragedy, but the tragedy continues to impact us, as you and I were talking about.
Traci Thomas 15:59
Right, right. Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting, because you said it’s not because of a nefarious plot. But I sort of feel like the incompetence part of it makes it so much worse. I wish that the FBI was like, we’re gonna go in there and burn this place down. Because then at least I could be like, they knew what they were doing. And they did what they thought was right. But in this case, it’s like, you guys didn’t really even think it through like you knew there were all those kids in there, like, and you just did a half assed job after 50 days, like you had so much time to do the right thing or do something that you thought would minimize, but you were so butthurt about him, you know, saying they were going to come out after Passover then wanting to write this, like, it just felt so personal. I do want to ask you a few just like Jeff going on the record, I’m holding you to like questions? Do you have a feeling of who fired first?
Jeff Guinn 16:56
Yes, both the ATF and the branch. Davidians insists the other side fired? Correct. And there is no way of knowing the truth because the FBI knocked down the remainder of Mount Carmel and there would have been bullet holes and exit holes. So we’ll never know. But let me just say this. You had with the ATF, the 76 agents approaching, we’re all extremely experienced in law enforcement. They had deliberately gotten weaponry that was low caliber so that there wouldn’t be bullets flying through thin walls and killing innocent people. And their whole raid was set up to not have anybody pull the trigger. Inside Mount Carmel, you had about 90 adults, who had been trained at least somewhat in using fully automatic weaponry. Who had been guaranteed that these people were coming to kill them right away. And then had waited years for their opportunity to finally do what God wants. Now who is more likely to panic and pull the trigger first. Right?
Traci Thomas 18:14
That was my sense was that it was the Branch Davidians fired first. But it’s interesting because there’s a part in the book where you where there’s a line where someone’s like, we didn’t fire first, like, we were told not to, or whatever. And I’m like, I don’t even believe that you were told not to, I believe that you were told to for years, based on everything I’ve read about what happened. Like, it’s okay if you fire first, because that’s what you were taught for the last however many years. I want to ask you about the ending of your book, you end with a little epilogue with from Clive Doyle, who was a survivor of the siege. And I’m just curious, why end with him? And what what does that say to us as your readers?
Jeff Guinn 18:53
I hope by the time we get to the epilogue, readers for this book, and as all my other books, will see that what I’m trying to do is find facts that haven’t been out before. Put them into context, and let readers ultimately make up their minds. Here you have Clive Doyle, who lost his daughter in the fire, who stays in Waco, where everybody’s coming to look for him. And over and over whether he thought somebody agreed with them or not. We talk about how David is the Lamb these things were all prophesized. And so he’s staying, he’s just turned eight. He’s stricken with cancer. He’s in Waco, Texas in a dingy little duplex. It’s hot as blazes and a Jew morning when I come to see him. And he’s sitting on his porch waving away flies. And he sits on his porch. Because anyone who walks down the street may be David Koresh back as the lamb to start reclaiming the kingdom of God, and Clive starts telling me about how in all these years, occasionally people come up to it on the porch or somewhere else. Say, I’m David. And Clive said, I haven’t believed any of them yet, but I have to talk to everyone. Because someday, he’s coming in my lifetime. And not long after I saw Clive, he died of cancer. What kind of faith would a person have to have? Not just to follow Quraysh when Qureshi is there, but having your own daughter burned to death? Because of David Koresh, His prophecies? And then for almost 30 years afterward, you’re the one who is going to sit there. All the skeptics all the people who think you’re insane, you talk to politely to explain everything, and right up to the day you die. This is going to be David coming back. Right? And then he did die. You know, Courage didn’t come back. And I thought that’s what I want to leave people with. The sense that whatever else you might say about the Branch Davidians, they were sincere in their beliefs unto death. Yeah. Is there anything that’s not in this book that you wish was? Anything I write I tried to have firsthand either from people who were participants or from documents from the people who were there. All this turned really this would not. However else it might have played out. The way this transpired would not have happened. If the ATF number two on the operation original raid named Chuck Seremban, after hearing from an undercover agent that morning, they know we’re coming. We got to call it off. Seremban says, No, we can go ahead, we can still do it. And of course, everything follows. Seremban testified to Congress later that the undercover agent really hadn’t told him yes, they know we’re coming with gotta call it off. That instead, he was more vague about it. And so if Seremban had just had the right information, of course, I would have called it off. The agent, the undercover guy testified to Congress and to all his ATF associates, how el he could misunderstand that I told him exactly what was going on. So when I’m trying to write the scene in the book, what I basically have are two conflicting testimonies, Chuck Seremban. And Robert Rodriguez, the agent, both refused to talk to him. And so what I was going to have to do in the book, as much as I hate to do that is simply say, okay, he said this, and he said that, right. However, it turned out, there was a third person in the room with Chuck Serembin, another agent named Phil Lewis, who had never ever talked, Phil Lewis not only met with me to tell me what he heard on both sides of the conversation. But he had transcripts. It kept all these years. And Phil Lewis, a member of ATF, the number three guy in the chain, right, right under saraband. Said, there is no question Chuck was told. They know we’re coming, we have to call it off. And Lewis said, he even tried to grab Sarab when Sarah Ben ran out of the room to get in his car and go tell the other ATF agents we have to go now. And Seremban broke away from it. So finally, after all these years, there’s an objective, firsthand testimony about this, there is no longer any question. And when that happened, when we had that locked in, then I felt with the survivors that are left with the documentation we have, we now can follow every step of that we can say this definitely happened this way.
Traci Thomas 24:12
Yeah. Okay, I have two questions for you that are sort of unrelated to the book, but related to you as a writer. How do you write where are you? How many hours a day? Do you listen to music? Are there snacks and beverages? Are there rituals? I mean, you’re seriously professional writer, you’ve written 25 bucks. So how do you do it?
Jeff Guinn 24:32
Well, first of all, every time I start a book, I’m petrified.
Traci Thomas 24:36
Love hearing that!
Jeff Guinn 24:37
Well, it’s true. I think most of us who are writers who do narrative nonfiction feel that way. We have the germ of an idea, a story we think hasn’t been told completely. So we’re going to try to tell it again. Are we going to be able to find people who haven’t talked before? Are we going to be able to find letters, documents, anything that absolute literally would bring our book from speculation to actual corroboration. And it scares the crap out of me every time. I’m talking to you today from my writing room upstairs in my house at Fort Worth, Texas, any book I start starts in the room here, I’ll have five or six ideas. And I always try to pick something a I don’t know much about. And D I want to know much more about. And then I get in my car. I go everywhere I write about when I was writing about Jim Jones, I was in the damn overgrown jungle piano. And if I’m writing about Waco, I not only have to go down the road to Waco, but I have to go to California with the Seventh Day Adventist movement started, I’ve got to find the surviving agents, I try to do my interviews face to face. And then once you get back and every narrative nonfiction writer has to space this moment, okay, I’ve got enough research, I’ve got to start trying to write a draft. And if you write the draft, that’s where you see you need to find out more things. And you have to go back out again, it takes me about three to four years to write one of my narrative nonfiction books, two years to do the research, six months to write the draft, another six months to go back and do more research that I found out I had I needed to do. And then finally you have to sit down and you have to write the book. And then you have to worry, did I get something wrong? Is there someone I should have discovered? So it should have talked to that I miss if I misinterpreted something. Because no nonfiction book on a complex subject is perfect. And then you and I think very intelligently touched on one of the big problems, people remembering something that happened 30 years ago, from traumatic maybe there’s parts of it, they wish had gone a certain way. And way back, then they start telling people that this happened, after 30 years, you can put them in a lie detector. And because they’ve come to believe it is absolutely true. That’s why you can’t talk to one or two people and say I’ve done my research. Here’s the book. You know, I will talk to 150 200 people anyway. In the course of every book, I may only put remarks from 50 of them in the book. But you’ve got once somebody tells you something you want to find other people who saw it happen. So it’s tough and I’m never satisfied.
Traci Thomas 27:46
Okay, but let me ask you this part’s really important. And you didn’t mention it and I know you’re gonna laugh, but on all those drives, and all the time you spend reading and writing, what are you snacking on Jeff, what beverages are you drinking?
Jeff Guinn 27:58
People think that when somebody who’s writing nonfiction is traveling around the country, the publishers paying for the gas and the hotel and the food and everything else. That’s not the way it works. We pay our own way. And for that reason, I believe I am expert in more sort of crummy, barely habitable motels in America than any other human being. And what I always do before I leave home, is I buy granola bars and fruit.
Traci Thomas 28:27
Okay, you’re a healthy person.
Jeff Guinn 28:29
No, they’re cheap. And in the mornings, if I’m at a motel it doesn’t serve a free breakfast. Yeah, granola bars and fruit at night. I always have granola bars and fruit. And in between at lunchtime, I tried to buy myself a whole meal. I’m partial to Mexican or barbecue if I can find it.
Traci Thomas 28:51
A true Texan.
Jeff Guinn 28:52
Or roadkill if there’s nothing else. And I live on two beverages, Coke Zero Sugar and ice water.
Traci Thomas 29:04
Yes, I love this. Okay, what’s a word? You can never spell correctly on the first try?
Jeff Guinn 29:10
Many of them. I am a terrible speller. I hate modern conveniences a lot but spellcheck on Word Perfect, which is called Word. You know all I can do is say thank you Jesus. It saves me a lot. I have problems with words like flamboyant. Where the hell do you put the U?
Traci Thomas 29:37
I didn’t know there was that you? I was just falling on my head. I’m a terrible speller. So yeah, the best people are terrible spellers. It’s just the genetics. Yeah, I firmly agree. Okay, so for people who have read and loved waco or really want to read it and are excited about it, what are some other books you might recommend to them that are in a similar you know, maybe not the same topic, but just like books that are in conversation with your work. Not your books – other people’s books.
Jeff Guinn 30:06
For this book. There was one in particular if you if you’re interested in when we go if you read my book and go, Hey, this is great. I want to know more. There is a book called The allure of immortality by Lynn Milner. David Koresh was not the first Quraysh to claim himself to have this name and be the lamb and the Prophet of Revelation, everything else. He took everything he prophesized from an earlier crash, a guy named Cyrus steed down in Fort Myers, Florida. And Lynn Milner wrote a brilliant book about cybers T. And in reading that book, I learned so much about how someone can try to adopt a certain personality to draw people to him. I learned more from that book, I think that I learned from 20 years of my own research, she was just a great writer. And she knew how to explain things. And as we say, in Texas, I went to school on that book. I think my book is better for having read her and learn some better ways to explain things about people who believe certain religious things that most of us would think were absolutely nuts.
Traci Thomas 31:20
Wow. Okay, I only have two more questions for you. One is, what do you think the legacy of Waco and the Branch Davidians and the siege and everything is? And does it really matter now, and should it?
Jeff Guinn 31:37
The legacy of Waco is simply giving more ammunition to those who are paranoid about government, those who are conspiracy theorists. And waco remains important because it’s really directly responsible for a lot of tragedy sense and a lot of the atmosphere today, Waco happened because nobody cared enough to take that extra step to try to understand the other guy. Look where we are today. There are lessons we can learn. It’ll be worth it. I just hope this book of mine helps. And I hope that whatever next book I decide to write, can make a contribution to. Yeah. All right. I hope so too. If you could have one person dead or alive, read this book, who would you want it to be? John Steinbeck? When I was a kid, somebody gave me a copy of travels with Charlie, by John Steinbeck. And of course, that Steinbeck talking about getting in a truck with his dog and going all over America. And I thought to myself, 10 years old. Wait a minute. Do you mean he gets all these adventures, and somebody pays him to write about it? I want a piece of that. And I would love to be able to give this book to John Steinbeck and say, I know it’s not anywhere close to the quality of your work. But I want you to know that because of you, this book was really written.
Traci Thomas 33:04
I love that so much, Jeff Guinn, thank you so much for being here. Everyone, again, the book is called Waco: David Koresh the Branch Davidians and a Legacy of Rage. You can get it. It’s out in the world now. And thank you so much, Jeff.
Jeff Guinn 33:20
Thank you, Traci. You bring books to the attention to readers. It’s a wonderful thing you’re doing. Thank you so much for it.
Traci Thomas 33:28
Thank you. Alright, everyone. I’m so excited. I am joined today by Stephan Talty, who’s the author of Koresh: The True Story of David Koresh and the Tragedy at Waco. Stephan, welcome to The Stacks.
Thanks for having me. Will you just tell folks in about 30 seconds or so about your book Koresh?
Stephan Talty 33:47
Sure. My book really focuses on David Koresh before Waco, the childhood, his school years, highlighting how he became who he became. So it’s almost evenly divided. First half is biographical. His childhood in small town, Texas is really kind of disastrous relationships with older men is stepfather grandfather, and then the journey to Waco how we got involved with Branch Davidians. And once we’re in Waco, of course, we deal with the ATF and FBI. But I think what sets my book apart a little bit is this really intense focus on David Koresh. And you know how he got to be this kind of very dark and important figure.
Traci Thomas 33:47
Yeah, I mean, I definitely agree your book. I mean, just from the title alone, the other two books are waco related and yours crash so we know that that’s what we’re getting into. I’m really curious, because you’ve written about so many people. But aside from the anniversary, the 30th anniversary, why is it important or why was it important for you to tell this story now to read this man in his life?
Stephan Talty 34:02
You know, I think like a lot of Americans, I watched the original siege on CNN. And at the end of it, I kind of just stared at the screen, kind of like at the Sopranos finale. And I’m like, what just happened? What did I just watch? You know, right? The fact that, you know, CNN and all the other cameras had be like, a couple miles back. So you never saw the faces of the Davidians. In the Windows, you never saw the kids. You never sort of humanize the people inside. So I’m like, a lot of people immediately focused on the government role. And that’s very important. A lot of disastrous decisions there. But I’m like, I have no idea who these people were. And it kind of bothered me. So when I saw the anniversary approaching, you know, I really didn’t feel that there was a definitive book on David Koresh, the way that we have ones on Manson or Jim Jones. And I kind of felt like there was a hole in the culture, if you will, that David Koresh was this kind of iconic figure for many people, especially on the right. But I don’t think many people could tell you, you know, what formed him would cause him to go this way. And so I set out to explore that.
Traci Thomas 36:12
This is a big question I have for you, because so much of David Koresh, his narrative and story, especially towards the end comes from, you know, recordings of his preaching and the ways that he retells his own story. And we know that he is, you know, considers himself a prophet of God, we know that he has these, you know, I would say delusions of grandeur. We know that he reshapes his own narrative to fit whatever he’s trying to get that you know, so I’m wondering when you’re sourcing something like this, and you’re doing research, and you’re talking to people who are in those rooms, hearing him talk, but knowing that he’s not a reliable narrator. How are you hashing out what is like, Yes, I believe this and what is I don’t know, man, this feels like a stretch.
Stephan Talty 37:00
There’s a lot of that with David Koresh, believe me, the good thing about the Branch Davidians is I mean, I think it’s fair to call it a cult, very insular, personality driven. See, and of course, almost all the members of the branch of Indians died in that fire. So David was kind of the authority on David, but there were dissidents who left the Branch Davidians. And people got kicked out. And when I was sourcing it, and listening to these people, I think when you’re sourcing something like that, and the person is fanatically, obsessively angry with the subject with David Koresh or whatever, and only really tells a very skewed heightened anecdotes about what happened. They’re all against David. But that’s not what I found a lot of the people I’ll tell you one thing that a high school friend of his told me, David, of course, was born Vernon Wayne Howell in Texas, changed his name later, I spoke to a high school friend and he said, If I saw Bernie and Howard walking down the street, today, I would cross over and shake his hand. If I saw David Koresh walking down the street, I would keep going. You know, he wasn’t a completely dark figure. And people that I spoke to gave credit, especially to his early self, when he was really trying to be a Christian really trying to be selfless, and give himself the way that the Bible instructs. So the way I trusted their versions was that they were not trying to, you know, vilify David, they were really trying to see how they had gotten into the situation and how he had gotten into it. So a lot of it was their testimony, was it? You know, was it sort of an expos day? Was it a teardown job? Were they really just trying to hurt him? Or were they really exploring their own experiences and being truthful about it?
Traci Thomas 38:50
There’s one figure that comes up in your book, Mark brow, who comes up in everybody’s book and who comes up in the story a lot, because he’s sort of the rival. Some might say, I think that’s how you characterize him. I think that’s like his title chapter one of his chapter titles. And he supplies information to the FBI and ATF that maybe were or weren’t true. And how does he plan to you as a reliable source? Because not that I’m a fan of David Koresh, but I also have my doubts about Mark and so I’m wondering how you parse that.
Stephan Talty 39:24
Well, I had several people who were in those rooms- a guy named David Buns who knew Mark well, other people who sort of either wrote about it or spoke to me, I found Mark credible. I read through a lot of his, you know, he does a lot of blog posts and again, I feel that he didn’t let himself off easily he felt responsible for he brought people into the Branch Davidians and, and they eventually died. So like there’s one example the he had a debate in Australia with David once he’d broken off that relationship and, you know, there are other people in the room, I spoke to some of them. And, you know, they verified his account. And we have often we have David’s account, as you said, through his preaching. So I just found that Mark was more credible, certainly the David’s recollection of, of his own history and of that meeting in particular.
Traci Thomas 40:20
Okay, I like that, I’m happy to hear it. Because I, you know, it’s like, you don’t really know who anybody is, especially in stories like this, you kind of feel like everyone, like you feel uneasy almost as a reader, because it’s like, I don’t know who to trust, like, you were there. And you know, so it’s good to hear that you feel like you know that he was a very credible source, I want to talk about one of the things that your book really gets into that other books don’t and that is David Koresh is abuse of young women and girls and his marriage to them and having having raped many of the young Branch Davidian women and groomed them. And you really got into that in this book, I feel like it’s very, I mean, not not detailed in the sense that it’s like graphic, but detailed you explain what happened and how it happened. And I want to know why that was important for you and telling the story.
Stephan Talty 41:12
To me, he was important, because it was a deep pattern in his life, and he was himself sexually abused, or he claimed to be, and I found that pretty convincing. I mean, he told other people about that and, for me, this paradox of someone who not only was abused sexually as a child, but had some perspective on it, he would talk to others in the divisions who experienced, you know, unwanted sexual touching and things like that, and was very empathetic. So the fact that he, you know, was kind of evolved on this issue, but then went ahead and pursued it so vigorously and really didn’t want to give up. And that’s, I think, one of the reasons he didn’t come out, he didn’t want to give up that collection of adoring women that he had. So to me, it shows that David, especially early on was a wounded person, a person who had somewhat of a disastrous childhood as far as relationships go. And then he turns around and does these things to young women in his care, so that to me, those dimensions of his behavior kind of fascinating.
Traci Thomas 42:20
This is something that has never made sense to me. And I don’t know if you can make it make sense. I feel like after all the reading, I’ve done, it should make sense, but I just I can’t wrap my brain around it. Why did David Koresh want to be the leader of the branch? Davidians? Why was it? Was it money? Was it the wives? Was it the potential to actually fulfill this prophecy? Like, when I think of Jim Jones, it feels very clear to me what happened there and why that happened. And this one still just feels like I don’t I don’t know. I don’t get it. I just, I don’t why, David, why David Koresh?
Stephan Talty 42:57
You know, I’ve had that sort of question from other people that I interviewed who knew David and basically what people say is, you know, I went through a very similar childhood, as David did, he didn’t know he got whipped, etc. But that was sort of standard. And in the 1970s, he’s like, I didn’t become a cult leader. What happened? Why did he want this so much? I just think that his childhood created a hole inside him that was just so profound. And you’re also talking about a person who really from his early childhood, was not only a narcissist, but as you said, dreams of grandeur. He had a grandiosity about himself. So things that other people did to, you know, sort of get over their childhoods therapy, drugs, he tried drugs, once, he tried to, I believe was Xanax. And he just hated how it sort of robbed him of his voice. He was very quiet under that drug. He wanted to be exalted. He wanted to be glorified. So I think when he saw the dominions, it was everything he wanted. He wanted to be rock and roll star, he wanted to have groupies. Well, he was gonna get groupies here. So I think it was the power it was the sex, the money was less important, but I just think it was this feeling that he had that the compound at Waco and the Branch Davidians. He was kind of, in a way reassembling the family that he never had. And what’s curious about that, to me is that I think deep in his mind, he knew that it was going to end up with people dying. So, you know, that’s a very conflicted view of your own family. But I think it all goes back to what he experienced as a child, what he felt had been taken away from him. And he was damn sure gonna get it back. That’s, I mean, as far as terms of pride and respect, and, you know, exultation he wanted all of it.
Traci Thomas 44:48
Why do you think he thought it was going to end in death?
Stephan Talty 44:54
Well, he gave really signs in the 80s. He would he would tell his, his aunt Sharon, you know the guy somebody’s going to come after me. And this is way before any kind of ATF investigation, right? You know, the Chris, the curious thing is that he would say, yeah, the Feds gonna come and kill me. And it’s because I have, you know, multiple wives. But you know, polygamy is not a, it’s not a capital offense in America, you’re not going to go to the electric chair, I just felt that he knew he was going to, he was going to push the extremes to such a way in such a way that he was going to attract the attention of the government. And I felt, I feel that he knew that he was not going to back down, he was not going to go back to jail. Interesting.
Traci Thomas 45:36
Do you think that in some ways, maybe he was courting this? Like, do you think that he was laying stones was trying to get in trouble so that this could happen? Or do you think this was sort of like, the luckiest fucking Oopsy Daisy ever? I don’t know. So what do you think?
Stephan Talty 45:56
I think he was actively courting his own destruction. You have to remember that the Branch Davidians had Prophet leaders before he was the first one. And what had happened. And he saw some of this is that, you know, they were stuck in this dusty compound in Waco. And nothing happened week after week, month after month. And the vitality, the joy, the juice of that whole experience of we’re going to meet God just drained away because nothing happened. So one thing that set David apart was that he said, it’s going to happen soon, in my lifetime in your lifetime, and you’re gonna see the face of God. And it was immensely attractive to his followers, we’ve been waiting, waiting for the message, you know. So he did not want to be this person hanging on and losing followers. And I think one thing you have to remember is that David wasn’t the only fanatic in that compound. He had people, his lieutenants who were just as obsessed, perhaps even more obsessed than he was. And were pushing him to have some kind of resolution, they would say, David, when is this going to happen? So this any kind of challenge to his authenticity, I think, drove David crazy, he could not be doubted, he couldn’t be wrong. That’s something that a lot of his followers told me again and again, is that he would actually change the meaning of words, rather than admit that he was wrong. So if he said he was going to bring, you know, the apocalypse, he had to bring it.
Traci Thomas 47:25
Okay, so now to his followers a little bit. Why did they stay? Was he blocking the exits? Or did they really believe like, and then to the end of that question, and sort of the end of the event? Was this, in your opinion, a mass suicide? Or was this sort of a spiraling of events that went wrong?
Stephan Talty 47:45
You know, that’s a tough one, because I think there was a real range of thoughts and emotions inside the compound, I think, some people did doubt that he was really the Messiah at some points. But the psychological pressure does to remain was tremendous. And also, you know, these were a self selected group of people who literally would give up anything for a shot at being close to the Messiah, even if that shot was 15% or 20%, that David might be the real deal. That was enough for them. It might not be enough for me or you. But these people really felt this almost cellular need to be with Jesus in the End Times. So if David was even halfway convincing, and you have to remember that, sort of the events and the actions of the ATF, and the FBI really reinforced the biblical prophecies that he was giving, he was 33. At the time, like Jesus, he was shot in the side, and he had an injury to his hand like Jesus. And he would sort of show them what was happening outside and give them the biblical interpretation. You know, the tanks out there really chariots, as it says in the Bible. So when you’re in this worldview, and everyone around you has the same worldview, and you’re one of a select group of people who are going to, you know, lead to the rebirth of the world. Those are very sort of heavy incentives to remain where you are. So if you’re already in that mindset, it’s really difficult to get out of, especially when there are people pointing guns at you from outside.
Traci Thomas 49:17
Right, going into writing this book. What were you thinking? And what if anything changed for you about who David Koresh was what happened from February to April? Did you have an idea in your mind what you thought you were going to write about? And did through your research? Did any of that change in any meaningful way?
Stephan Talty 49:38
I think there were two things that kind of shocked me in my research. The first I’ve already mentioned that, you know, David was a pretty good guy starting out. I mean, I had testimony saying that he would, you know, try to help recovering addicts get back on their feet. He really cared about people. That was a surprise to me, because, right, perhaps from the media, I just think of him as a very dark figure. And the other part when we get to the siege is just how badly the government messed up. I didn’t believe going in that, you know, the FBI was taking target practice from outside and picking branch to bidding and so off. And the interesting thing about that, to me is these conspiracy theories about the government, you know, intentionally killing the Davidians, which to me are not true. My research does not prove that sort of gives cover to what the government really did badly, which was they got people killed just through laziness, stupidity and bad planning. I mean, these guys thought, listen, and they have good reason they conduct 1000s of these raids before and they just never had this idea that people were going to shoot back. So yeah, that did surprise me just how really awful the mission was. And one thing that really I have to say I spoke to a lot of ATF agents, and they just hate this idea. They hate these two words, botched raid, because they’re like, We didn’t botch any damn thing. We went in there. We were outmanned. We were outgunned. And we got this shit shot out of us. So it wasn’t our fault. And I, you know, after talking to a lot of people, I agree.
Traci Thomas 51:18
Well, it wasn’t like the ATF agents fault like the men on the ground, but it was theirs fault for what happened to the poor planning and the decisions that were made around whether or not they should even have gone in that day at that time, right like that. To me, that’s what the botches the botch. Isn’t that there were 70 or whatever men on the ground men and women on the ground who were injured and who were shot at and who were, you know, had the worst day of their life, but the Boche raid idea for me, it’s like those guys at the top who are planning who when when Rodriguez or Gonzales, I can’t remember what was his real name? And what was his fake name. When he was like, they know, and they were like, yeah, no, let’s just go faster right now. Like that is the botch to me.
Stephan Talty 52:07
That is absolutely correct. It was middle management. And the higher ups who completely fucked up this raid and then tried to blame it on the media and also tried to cover it up. So that is the only part of the conspiracy. That is true. The ATF definitely told us agents to shut up saying reporters tipped off the Branch Davidians not true. They did. Unintentionally sort of alert the Branch Davidian says back that the raid was coming just because of reporters were out there and one of the national met Branch Davidian. But that, to me, is what makes me angry about conspiracy theorists. I’m like, you’re actually providing cover for the government? Because I’m not allowed to believe these insane theories. But if you told them the truth, the truth is actually just as shocking is right, these outlandish theories, because it happens every day, and it could happen tomorrow.
Traci Thomas 53:00
Yeah. Who do you think fired the first shot on February 28? Oh, my God. I know, it’s an impossible question. But I’ve just it’s so I have such a I, in my mind. I’m like, I know who did it. But I love asking view men who have written these books. I’m just curious what you think.
Stephan Talty 53:21
Okay, I’m gonna weasel out a little bit. I’m gonna give you my top two theories. The first one is that it was either a misfire by the ATF or they were shooting the dogs that were in a pen in front of the front of the compound building, and that set off the all the gunfire, either was that or was the Davidians?
Traci Thomas 53:44
Well, those are the two options, Stephan.
Stephan Talty 53:46
Well, no, I mean, the ATF, I don’t think
Traci Thomas 53:49
Oh, you don’t think ATF was like shooting at them?
Stephan Talty 53:51
No, because tactically, it’s stupid. Yeah, you’d have your target in sight, and you’d start shooting at a building that’s, that goes against their training. So I don’t think that happened. So I mean, if you put a gun to my head, so to speak, I would say it’s probably the videos because they were they’ve been primed for this for so long. And this was, this was the fulfillment of the prophecy. This was just not it wasn’t just a raid by the ATF. This was, you know, this was the word of the Bible. So it was gonna be a gun battle regardless.
Traci Thomas 54:22
Yes, I agree with that in your outro or maybe it was an acknowledgment, I can’t remember. I think the acknowledgement you mentioned Executioner Song as being an inspiration for this. And that’s a book that I’ve actually read the entire thing which I’m shocked myself about. I did it. I want to know how that book informed this one for you what you were thinking about with Executioner Song as you were writing Koresh.
Stephan Talty 54:43
I’m so glad you asked that question. Executioner’s Song is one of my favorite books. And what enthralled me about that book and still does is that Norman Mailer was giving this assignment to cover the execution of Gary Gilmore who had murdered people in Utah and instead of doing what almost every author does, which is have kind of this 30,000 foot view down on the events where you’re kind of omniscient. And you’re kind of guiding the reader and telling them what’s happening, and perhaps a little bit what to think about what’s happening. Mahler threw all that away and let the characters sort of direct the action. So he had sort of an over the shoulder camera to put it in cinematic terms. And there’s sort of no judgement, you’re just seeing their lives as they really experienced them. To me, he really brings out the humanity of the characters as they saw themselves, not as he saw them, which is very hard to do. I just felt it was kind of a same situation David Koresh grew up in, you know, not remarkably different terms than what Gary Gilmore went through. And I just wanted to answer the questions about motive. What brought them to Waco. And the only way for me to do that was to sort of use their own words, their own sort of regional dialect, to talk about, you know, who they were and where they were going. So I kind of wanted to give the book over to the characters instead of, you know, being the center of it. Right. You know, I can’t touch Norman Mailer, he was an absolute genius. But I’m glad for that inspiration, because it gave me a way to approach this book that I thought was really different from the other books I’ve written.
Traci Thomas 56:26
Nobody asked me but I like this better than Executioner Song.
Stephan Talty 56:30
Traci Thomas 56:31
I did. I didn’t let execution or song I gotta be honest, it was a little a little long for me. No offense, a 1000 page book, I get it. But I wasn’t as captured by it as I thought that I was supposed to be. And I was very captured by this book. And yours was the third one that I read. So I like it wasn’t like, you know, I was worried. I was like, I’m gonna hate this because I’ve already done this. But I was very taken by it. I read it very quickly. And I thought you did a great, I do think you did that. Like you made me feel like I was on the ground with these people. Which is not a super fun. It was not a place I would want to be I don’t think I would have been a Branch Davidian. I want to know about how you write how often do you listen to music or not? Where are you are their snacks and beverages are their rituals?
Stephan Talty 57:13
It’s funny you ask that. You’d be shocked. I write in the recliner with a lap desk at my research next to me on both sides. I don’t know I don’t like it doesn’t matter to me. If you know, you see these pictures of writer cabins out in the woods. And I’m like, how do you get anything done? It’s so beautiful. Why would you want to sit at a computer? So I have to sort of trap myself in a place that I don’t want to spend too much time in and give myself over to the story. So yeah, I sit in a recliner, no real snacks, no music, definitely not. One weird thing is I find it really hard to write with somebody else in the house. I just feel like if I hear a noise, it brings me back to the place I’m sitting instead of the place I’m writing about. So yeah, kind of wait for everyone to read to leave the house. I tried to do 1500 or 2000 words a day, even if they’re terrible, you know, get the garbage on the page. And, and then you’ll turn it into something else. But yeah, so I spent probably three or four hours a day doing that. And if I hit that, mark, I’m happy.
Traci Thomas 58:22
What’s a word you can never spell correctly on the first try? You know what?
Stephan Talty 58:27
I wrote a book called The Captain’s Duty with Captain Rich Phillips. And I can never remember how to spell his last name- is it one L or two Ls? I get it wrong every time. I mean, I just I really do have a problem with proper names and the spelling. I don’t know, it throws me.
Traci Thomas 58:45
I’m a terrible speller. And Phillips is a hard word like a Phillips head screwdriver or whatever. Who knows.
Stephan Talty 58:50
Oh, my God.
Traci Thomas 58:52
Is there anything that’s not in this book that you wish was? Or could be?
Stephan Talty 58:57
One of the things I did for the book I’m sure the other authors did is read through all the transcripts of the negotiations. And there’s just so much in there. I mean, David is goofy. He’s really charming at times. And other times he’s absolutely frightening. Somebody should publish the transcripts just so people can get a flavor of just how weird he actually was weird, but relatable. You know. I mean, there were times I found myself sitting alone in the house laughing It’s something David had said, you know, 30 years ago. And I’m like, you always have this feeling. You know, it didn’t have to go this way. He was just a charming, good old boy at certain points. But then he could turn on a dime and just be almost demonic. So yeah, that’s the thing. I would love to have gotten more of that flavor of his actual dialogue in the book, but it was already over 400 pages, so that wasn’t going to happen.
Traci Thomas 59:54
Yeah. For people who love Koresh, what’s another book or what’s a few other books you might recommend to them that are in conversation with this? It doesn’t have to be specifically about Waco, but just books that are similar that people might enjoy.
Stephan Talty 1:00:06
Um, there’s a new book called Trust the Plan about Q Anon that I know a lot of people talk about connection between David in the far right and it’s definitely there. I’ve been fascinated by Q anon. And it’s when you listen to people who believe in it. If you close your eyes, you could be listening to a branch davidian and just talking about different things. It’s just this ability, not only to have conspiracy theories, but to kind of live inside of them. You know, I grew up I’ve heard conspiracy theories all my life, but this ability to sort of inhabit them in a way that everything that comes into your mind is just filtered by this by this idea, or this belief in David Koresh, or this belief that Donald Trump or whomever, the similarities were really eerie when I listened to people from both camps.
Traci Thomas 1:00:53
Yeah. I this kind of leads me into my second last question for you, which is, what do you think the legacy of Waco is 30 years out?
Stephan Talty 1:01:04
For me, it was this idea of hidden things coming out into the open. So people on the far right talk about David Koresh, I don’t think they really have a notion of who He really was, he’d be terribly disappointed to find out that he’s a figure for a lot of American people, but not a religious figure. You know, he’s, you know, he’s more of a renegade, a rebel, someone who stood up to the feds, which is part of his legacy, but not the most important part to him. So it’s just one of these things where, where this hidden reality sort of burst into life, and, and people never forget it.
Traci Thomas 1:01:41
Yeah. If you could have one person dead or alive, read this book, who do you want it to be?
Stephan Talty 1:01:48
You know, maybe Ron DeSantis. Because I think he’s, he’s sort of carrying the banner for people who see David Koresh in this light. And he’s doing it in a very in a way that is, you know, mainstream and he might someday be president. So it’s this idea of creating realities out of thin air is part of the American tradition that goes back hundreds of years. I mean, that’s why we have all these religious movements we really see as America is this place where a new world can be born in something that’s something certainly that David Koresh believed, and a lot of bronze synthesis followers beliefs. So I would hope that DeSantis and his, you know, believers would look at this and say, what’s real and what’s not? Because the government again, the government overstepped, you know, they’re, they’re kernels of truth to what you’re saying, obviously. But the danger is sort of taking all of these little parts of the story and putting it into a hole that is unquestionable and cannot be challenged. And I think that’s very dangerous. So, you know, I tried to tell both sides of the story, I tried to tell it in a way that, you know, a Branch Davidian reading it would be like, Okay, I see myself represented here fairly, in the same way that an ATF agent might. So hopefully there’s a way forward for both sides that does not involve you know, civil war.
Traci Thomas 1:03:14
Definitely. What a note to end on. Stephan, thank you so much for being here. Everyone. You can get Koresh now wherever you get your books. It is in the world. Thank you so much.
Stephan Talty 1:03:26
Thank you for having me. I really enjoyed it.
Traci Thomas 1:03:35
Alright, everyone. I am joined today by author of a brand new book called Waco Rising: David Koresh, the FBI and the Birth of America’s Modern Militias. Kevin Cook, welcome to The Stacks.
Kevin Cook 1:03:47
Hi Traci, it’s good to be with you.
Traci Thomas 1:03:49
I’m so excited to talk to you. I really enjoyed your book. I have a passion for Waco related things. So this is a big year for someone like me who likes to read at all. But in about 30 seconds or so. Can you just tell us about waco rising?
Kevin Cook 1:03:49
Waco rising is about naturally the standoff between the Branch Davidians led by David Koresh and the forces of the US government, which they called Babylon in 1993. At the Mount Carmel, they called their retreat about 10 miles from Waco proper. I think it’s one of the most misunderstood events of recent American history.
Traci Thomas 1:03:49
I fully agree with that sentence, which we will get into. I would love you know, obviously, this anniversary is a great impetus to write a book, but aside from the anniversary itself, why is it important to tell the story now?
Kevin Cook 1:03:49
I think it’s terrifically important because we’re getting into a place in our national discourse, in which we are talking at cross purposes. So often, this is an event that’s understood differently. It’s a flag that’s flown by different groups for different meanings, and it struck me as I had written a book about the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion in 1986. And I remembered that so vividly as a fiery moment on television, it was covered wall to wall by CNN, which was still relatively new. And I felt that I was one of millions of people who remembered it vividly. But not the details, not the remarkable story behind what actually happened. And I think that waco is similar in that way, millions remember it, very few have been able to find the story behind the story, who they were, who that bit of dividends were, why it happened the way it did, and why it has been interpreted and misinterpreted ever since.
So you mentioned sort of the the flags that people fly around around Waco. And I think, you know, one of the things that your book does that was really exciting to me is it talks about the after effects of what happened in Waco, I think, you know, obviously what actually happened starting in February 1993, all the way through to April 1990 93. There’s a lot that has been written about and talked about. And I think in the 30 years, since, you know, people have used waco as most famously, I would say, Timothy McVeigh use waco as impetus for his bombing in Oklahoma City, but also, you know, militia groups and all these things. And you talk a lot about that in the book. And my big question around that is, why is waco the thing? Why wasn’t it Ruby Ridge that happened a few years before that was similar in a lot of ways? Like, why was waco the one that, you know, we can even draw lines from, you know, January 6, why that day? Why that event?
I think waco is important, both because it followed Ruby Ridge fairly quickly. And because it was bigger and and took much more time, Ruby Ridge unspooled fairly quickly. And it was it was a smaller event. It was another botched effort by the ATF to surround people that the ATF was after for somewhat legitimate reasons. I think it was an overreach on the part of that bureau. The ATF was then looking for a win at Waco and went in with the awful muscle that was unnecessary. And they’d had had they understood their opponents, they would have known that their tactics were exactly what would have said correction brands to billions on an even more extreme path. The fact that it was on television for 51 days, with increasing pressure on on the FBI, which took over after the ATF actually messed things up on on February the 28th. I do want to emphasize that I have great sympathy for some of the ATF agents who risked their lives they were doing their jobs that day. I think they were misled. I think they believe that, too. But I think to go directly to your question, the reason it was became so big, is because it seemed to prove what a lot of people like Koresh believed that the government is out to take your weapons and will kill you if necessary. If you do not submit, people even today, point to Waco as proof of that in the same way that Qureshi has followers. So being surrounded by government forces coming in eventually to fire tear gas at them as proof that what he had told them was coming, actually was coming. So to use what happened in Waco to support one’s own philosophy. I think that’s why it fits. So so well, even 30 years later.
Traci Thomas 1:08:46
What do you make of David Koresh? I mean, I feel like we’re going into, you know, reading about all of this this year, I sort of was like, he’s a, he’s a Wackadoodle. He’s a monster. He’s an egomaniac. And I think that maybe my understanding was void of a lot of the religious elements of the story. I think a lot of people probably don’t understand a lot of the religious stuff. And I still don’t think that I fully understand that it feels very complex or complicated Bible stuff. But it did sort of change my opinion of David Koresh and an even more so of the Branch Davidian. So I’m wondering, you know, if you had what you make of him?
Kevin Cook 1:09:30
You use the term monster, and I think that’s appropriate. I think that he was a monster. And terminology is important here too. I take care not to use the word cult. I like I think sect works, I think an offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventist, but as the great Tom Wolfe once said, what’s the definition of a cult? A cold isn’t religion with no political power? I think to understand Koresh he’s often described as charismatic and some of the survivors told me that wasn’t it. These were very sincerely religious people who believed that the Bible is God’s word. But the Bible is confusing. The Bible carries conflicting stories, what Koresh was able to do in a way that I’ve heard described again and again, as a singular, mesmerizing thing, if you believe that the Bible is meant to bring meaning to your life, was to weave the stories from the Old Testament to the new, to make that whole book make sense in a new way that gives particular meaning to the lives of his followers. And I life is confusing and scary. And I think we are all looking for meaning and to be told that you are part of the last generation, they did believe that the Apocalypse was right around the corner, that you are going to play a part in God’s plan. And to make it clear and compelling to his followers. That’s what he did, day after day in a way that I wonder I wish I could have heard it. I have heard him speak. And as you mentioned, it’s hard to understand if you don’t come from a Seventh Day Adventist tradition, but you do get a sense of what a good storyteller he was, and how he wound his followers up and made them want to be back tomorrow to look forward to tomorrow. Because our live we’re playing a part in a great drama.
Traci Thomas 1:11:21
Yeah, I think for me, one of the things that’s really tough to parse with, with what happened in Waco is sort of, you know, who’s to blame? Who did what wrong? Were people provoked? And if so, are they absolved of the crimes that they may have committed, etc? When you went into write this book? Kind of where did you start? And did that change as you researched? Did you Did your opinions change about what had happened? Did you feel like some people maybe got off the hook who shouldn’t have or some people should have taken on more blame or or just that you felt more sympathy towards certain groups of people versus others? I’m just curious, like, you know, what, what you knew before you started writing it versus all the research that you’ve done, what’s changed.
Kevin Cook 1:12:06
To start? What changed the most was that I gained more sympathy for everybody on both sides going in, I was under the impression that after a long standoff, that the FBI had rolled in and attacked the Branch Davidians. Right. To a degree that that’s that is true. I was fascinated by the mystery of how the fire began. I learned a great deal about that. And that was one of the mysteries behind what happened in Waco, that appealed very much to me, but the most, the thing that changed the most I would say is that I came to understand the plight of the ATF agents who were following orders, who, who knew that the Davidians had been tipped off that day. It’s been said they went in having no idea. In fact, they had been told yes, they know we’re coming to go in. In any case, they were shocked to find themselves in the heaviest firefight that the ATF had encountered. The FBI comes in. Then, immediately after that, and takes over the long siege. I had a great deal of, of sympathy for the plight of Garin Asner, who was the FBI as lead negotiator in the first part of the siege, who was doing what he could to get along, even if you have to humor David Koresh, who was a maddening character, especially if you’re on the phone, listening to him go on and on about his Bible prophecies, and the guitar nebula that’s moving toward the earth at the speed of light and is actually made up of angels. You gotta listen to that stuff for hours on end, and the patience of the FBI negotiators I admired but that patients ran out as the pressure mounted national TV every single night, making the FBI look foolish, making the the Justice Department and the Clinton administration look foolish. The pressure by the hardliners became so great that Nesner is relieved. And then I believe that Attorney General green Attorney General Reno was misled by an FBI that was so determined to go in that they were going to have their way one way or the other.
Traci Thomas 1:14:21
Okay, so here’s the thing I learned from your book that I had did not know at all going in, I was always under the impression that waco in addition to being you know, the Branch Davidians, in addition to being a religious group, led by David crash was exclusively or almost exclusively white. Turns out, that’s not the case, right? However, the legacy and the story and the people who hold up the branch to videos and what happened there. A lot of them are white supremacist groups. And so I’d love for you to talk you talk about it a little bit in the book, but it’s the one thing that I’m like, I could read a whole book just on this little nugget of information. Because you mentioned it’s almost, I think, around 50%, or close to 50% people of color. They’re one of their, like, lead lead guys, the lawyer guy is a black guy, a black lawyer, his family. Yeah, his family sort of plays a prominent, they’re prominent family in the community. And I would just love to know, what was actually going on with the branch of idioms around race, and then how come they became this white supremacist thing when Randy Weaver was right there, you know, like true, like, you just been like, yeah, like someone who was like, I’m a white supremacist, and like, you know, that sort of kind of, you know, what my earlier question was, it’s like, why not just go full Ruby Ridge, when they believe all the things that you believe in, whereas the branch of idioms sort of believed in other things, and it was different? And you know, so it’s sort of a complicated question, but go ahead.
Kevin Cook 1:15:57
It’s such an important point. I do make the point in the book that the Branch Davidians were quite racially diverse. And in one of his sermons to the caress would tell them, I hate black people. And then he would say, I hate white people. And he would say, I hate every color of people who don’t follow God’s word. This is this is one of his tropes. There were contingents from all over the world. And as you say, this is really one of the more racially diverse religious groups you will ever encounter. And it is true that some militias are motivated by the idea of white supremacy, and they tried to ignore that aspect of who the Branch Davidians really were. The survivors have been confused a few times to be adopted by militia. So you’re, you’re just like us, the the current pastor at the chapel that stands on the site of the fire, tells militia members who make pilgrimages there. Oh, if David Koresh were here today, he’d be one of you. Well, he wouldn’t at least he wouldn’t share the ideas behind white nationalism that motivates some of the militias. I think it’s important to mention that that wasn’t the point of Waco rising because my job I felt right was to point out the links to mention that the survivors are uncomfortable when they’re embraced by people who said you share our values? And their answer is, well, we share some of them. But not that one. I did speak with a former FBI agent who was embedded with some very extremist militia groups. And he said he met hardly a single one of them who did not call Waco, his or her awakening to to the opposition to government that they feel called to do. But if they feel that the Branch Davidians were white supremacist at all, then they couldn’t be more wrong.
Traci Thomas 1:17:58
Yeah, I mean, it’s just it was just really fascinating. Obviously, no, I’m not suggesting that you have to write that book. But there is a book there. So whoever’s listening, please write this book for us. Kevin and I both want to read it. So you’ve written other books, like you mentioned, the challenger book, and I just finished your Kitty Genovese book, you’ve written books about all sorts of other things like baseball, the things might. I’m curious, when you write about these disasters, and these people and these like huge moments in the cultural consciousness, why are these stories important for you to tell? And what what do you feel like they have in common with each other?
Kevin Cook 1:18:35
That’s such an interesting question. I think the Kitty Genovese book is a good example of it seems to me that fairly recent important moments in American history tend to be understood in a very limited fashion. And what’s fascinating about them, is what really happened. The nuance the fact that Kitty Genovese didn’t die with 38 people looking out their windows and paying no attention to what was happening, that the Challenger mission was utterly misunderstood and was the result of a long chain of decisions that what happened in Waco was not good guys and bad guys. Either way, that there was good and evil on both sides. And that the reasons behind the fact that the way that this American drama played out are every bit as important and fascinating as the the what little most of us remember about this this fire incident 30 years ago.
Traci Thomas 1:19:36
Yeah. I’m wondering if there’s anything that is not in Waco rising that you wish was in Waco Rising?
Kevin Cook 1:19:44
I dearly wish that I could have talked to some of the people who died there. Certainly the for ATF agents, who died on February 28. And someone like Wayne Martin, whom you mentioned who was their lawyer who chose to die for his faith who chose to stay behind his wife, Sheila Martin, who is a very important part of the book had gone out to be with three of their children. Her husband, and the rest of her family is still inside. He, like David Tibideaux. And Clive Doyle who did escape through a burning wall could see the outside. And he chose to die for his faith. It’s not a faith that I share. But I think it’s impossible not to be moved and struck by the power of that faith. And I think that carries some explanatory power in terms of when people ask what what were those people all about? Why did it happen the way that it did? Right?
Traci Thomas 1:20:42
Okay, so I want to circle back one more time to sort of the legacy of Waco because another thing that I was really struck by in reading about these events, of course, I knew, you know, the Timothy McVeigh connection, I did know the Alex Jones connection as well, that he was like a teenager who was I think, as the, as they say, radicalized by this or whatever, I don’t know, he’s a monster. But anyways, there’s another side of this sort of distrust of the government and the police. And that’s, I think, you know, there’s like this right, this right wing militia, you know, sometimes white supremacist, etc. But then on the other side, there are people who are victimized by the police, and the government constantly has an eye, obviously, especially, especially thinking of black people, but a lot, you know, people who want to defund the police and abolish police and prison systems and those things. And I wonder if there is any, if you found any tie to to that through Waco, if there’s any tied to the Waco legacy with people who are maybe more progressive or left leaning, who saw what happened in Waco, and felt like that justified some of their thinking.
Kevin Cook 1:21:49
I think there’s an important link, in that that was the first major instance of the militarization of government that law enforcement forces against Americans on American soil. We’ve since seen an enormous expansion of that. And and we’ve seen it in recent decades, I think there is now becoming a movement toward let’s, let’s take away some of the military equipment from police departments. We’ve seen many, many police are utterly sincere public servants. There are some who are killers. And we need to have policies that limit their destructive power, the ones who are killers. And I think demilitarizing American law enforcement is a very important lesson from what happened in Waco. And also the idea that that military force should be used reluctantly, I believe, against foreign opposition, and never against Americans on American soil.
Traci Thomas 1:22:58
Yeah. There’s two big questions that come up in the book. And I’m trying to get you know, all three of you who’ve written about in the book on record on your opinions of what happened here. So the first question is, Who do you think shot first, on February 28? Was it the ATF agents? Or was it the Branch Davidians? And then the second question is, do you think that the helicopters had real firepower going on? Or do you think that that’s not true? And I know you address it in the book, but I’m trying to get everyone on the pod to say it too.
Kevin Cook 1:23:34
Sure. As far as the helicopters go, I do not think that they were military helicopters with with rifles as part of their armament. I think that the agents inside were definitely armed. And, and that’s important to know. But these are not the Blackhawk helicopters that we see in movies firing down on the Davidians. I think it is impossible to know who shot first, if I were forced in Las Vegas to make a bet as to who shot first, I would bet without without great confidence, but a preponderance of the evidence that I’ve encountered to say that the first shots may well have been by the ATF to shoot the dogs who are outside. Interesting, the mere fact that after 30 years, we wonder which it was, I think shows how, how compelling a story, this is that particular aspect of it. I think we’re still going to be wondering about in 30 more years.
Traci Thomas 1:24:41
I agree. I think you know, it’s definitely yeah, definitely. So I talked to every every author I talked to on the show, I asked them a few of the same exact questions. And this one for you is How do you like to write? Where are you how often how many hours a day do you listen to music do you write in your home? Do you have an office? Are there snacks and beverages involved? Do you like candles set the scene for us?
Kevin Cook 1:25:06
Definitely no candles, no music, I think I would find music terrifically distracting. I sit on the couch in front of my computer every day, I wouldn’t know what to do. I’m not sure that it’s 365 days a year, but it certainly averages more than 360. Because it would hate that wouldn’t know what to do with with myself, without having some work to do. It’s not usually more than four or five hours in a day, which leaves lots of time for bike riding when the weather is nice and other things of like that. I like very much to have more than one thing going at a time, it’s great to have a book, and to have some journalism to do. So you can work hard on your book, and then blink and take on another project for a little while. The books are always the most important. And in thinking about them. I think because the book is a big job and it takes a good deal of time. Their biggest motivator, it seems to me is always trying to level with the reader. You never you never want to do anything. But try as hard as you can to express what you’ve learned as effectively as you can to the reader. And and the other motivator is to try to do justice to the people that you’re writing about.
Traci Thomas 1:26:23
Snacks and beverages?
Kevin Cook 1:26:25
Snacks and beverages, coffee- an enormous amount of coffee to the point that it’s by the afternoon. It’s half coffee and half water. Because a person can only tolerate so much coffee. No snacks.
Traci Thomas 1:26:39
No snacks. Okay, you know, I’m a snack gal myself, but I’ll allow it. What’s a word you can never spell correctly on the first try?
Kevin Cook 1:26:49
I’m drawing a blank.
Traci Thomas 1:26:51
Are you a good speller?
Kevin Cook 1:26:52
Yes, yes. Spelling Bee person from ah, from way back. And and I think it’s interesting that I think spelling a lot of spelling has to do with whether you have a visual memory or an auditory memory. I have a visual memories. So the words that you encounter, then you can see them afterward and just Oh, okay. There are definitely many many words that I have to go and look up to see how to spell them correctly. I’m just not thinking of them right now.
Traci Thomas 1:27:17
Okay, that’s fair. For people who love Waco Rising. What are some other books that you might recommend to them that are maybe in conversation with this story or told similarly or, you know, whatever that means to you.
Kevin Cook 1:27:30
Rather than a book as much as I love books, a everyone should go to his or her or their independent bookstore and support independent bookstores as much as possible. I think for people who are reading waco rising, it would be awfully interesting to see the dramatized Docuseries that ran on Paramount plus a few years ago, that much of it was fascinating. A lot of it was fictionalized, but the ways that it was fictionalized are interesting. And I think to compare a book to another form of storytelling in that way, is is awfully educational. As far as a book, I often find myself rereading John lecarre. A, and just to try to write better so hoping it will Osmos a little bit. I always go back and read Roth, I read Hilary Mantel, again, hoping that it that it rubs off to some degree. But there are so many terrific writers working. And I think there’s a lot of competition for reader’s attention. So I prize everybody who takes the time to take a look at one of my books.
Traci Thomas 1:28:45
Here’s my last question for you. If you could have one person dead or alive, read waco rising, who would you want it to be?
Kevin Cook 1:28:52
Dead or alive? I think we’d probably have more good effects if it were someone who was alive. Joe Biden, huh?
Traci Thomas 1:29:04
I love this. Alright. Thank you. This has been a conversation with Kevin Cook, author of Waco Rising which is out now in the world. Kevin, thank you so much for being here.
Kevin Cook 1:29:12
Thank you, Traci. It’s one of the best conversations about a book that I have had.
Traci Thomas 1:29:16
Oh, yay. Everyone else we will see you in The Stacks.
Alright, y’all, that does it for us. Thank you so much for listening. And thank you again to Jeff Guinn, Stephan Talty and Kevin Cook for joining the show. And thank you to Rebecca Rosenberg, Maureen Cole and Carolyn O’Keefe for helping to make these conversations possible. Don’t forget to listen next week on April 26. To our book club discussion of Ross Gay’s poetry collection Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. We will be discussing the book with Clint Smith. If you love the show, and want insight access to it, head to patreon.com/thestacks and join the stocks hack. Make sure you’re subscribed to the stacks wherever you listen to your podcasts. And if you’re listening through Apple podcasts or Spotify, be sure to leave us a rating and a review. For more from the stacks follow us on social media at the stocks pod on Instagram and at the stackspod underscore on Twitter and check out our website thestackspodcast.com This episode of the stacks was edited by Christian Duenas with production assistance from Lauren Tyree. Our graphic designers Robin MacWrite. The Stacks is created and produced by me, Traci Thomas.
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