Waco: American Apocalypse (2023) Recap & Ending Explained: The infamous 51-day standoff between Branch Davidians and Federal agents northeast of Waco, Texas, plus its terrible aftermath, continues to be one of the most haunting incidents in the history of modern America. Numerous audiotapes, eyewitness accounts, independent reports, literature, documentaries, and dramatizations exist on the subject. Yet, thirty years later, many questions remain unanswered regarding what exactly unfolded between February 28, 1993, and April 19, 1993. What we are left with is each side’s version of the truth. But two things are primarily the reason for the Waco disaster: religious extremism and militarization of law enforcement.

The Branch Davidians might have exhibited the tendencies of a cult, and David Koresh could be an evil madman with a God complex. But how could a government and its law enforcement agencies exhibit such tyrannical behavior that resulted in the death of 82 Branch Davidians (including 28 children) and four Federal agents? While the FBI stands accused of using excessive force, we also wonder about the egotism of David Koresh – the self-proclaimed prophet – who put his followers at risk. Netflix’s 3-episode docu-series, Waco: American Apocalypse (2023), directed by Tiller Russell, takes an even-handed approach to address such issues plaguing the traumatic event.

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Waco: American Apocalypse (2023) Recap:

Why David Koresh Came Under the Radar of Government Agencies?

In the early 1990s, there were multiple allegations against David Koresh – born Vernon Howell – for committing child abuse and statutory rape. Under his leadership, the Branch Davidians inhabiting Waco’s Mount Carmel Center were nudged to believe in the doctrine of the House of David. The doctrine includes the revelation that involves the birth of twenty-four children from chosen women in the community. These 24 children are believed to be the elders who will reign with Christ.

David Koresh, who formed his own interpretations of the second coming of Christ, ‘assumed the burden of sex’ and took many wives. He was accused of having sex with underage girls and of physically abusing those who averted his advances. At some point, he made all the Branch Davidian married men take a vow of celibacy and slept with their wives.

However, the investigation led by Texan Child Protection Services didn’t lead to a conviction on any charges. In 1993, Branch Davidians came under the radar of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) for amassing a vast arsenal of machine guns and hand grenades. David Koresh and his followers were believed to be violating federal gun laws by turning semi-automatic weapons into automatic firearms. The resale of firearms at gun shows is one of the ways the religious sect made their money. There was nothing illegal about it, but the inordinate amount of buying and modifying weapons raised red flags. Unforunately, what should have been a simple search and seizure procedure didn’t unfold as usual. The result was the mess made by ATF on February 28, 1993.

Recommended Read: 10 Must-See Documentaries about Cults

Who All Provides Us an Account of the Waco Incident?

Unlike many previous documentaries on the subject, Waco: American Apocalypse has brought together an interesting set of interviewees or talking heads who have experienced the crisis first-hand. On the Branch Davidian side, there is: Kathy Schroeder, a young mother in 1993 who still defends David; Heather Jones, a 9-year-old in 1993 who lost her parents in the siege; and David Thibodeau, a then 24-year-old drummer and one of the survivors of the April 19th tear-gas assault. Thibodeau’s mother, Belinda Ganem (who is skeptical about David Koresh), and Criminal Defense Attorney Dick DeGuerin, who tried to appease David and make him surrender, offer critical observations on how the federal agents failed to de-escalate the tension.

ATF special agents Bill Buford and Jim Cavanaugh offer their version of events at Mount Carmel Center on Feb. 28th. That day, the slaying of four ATF agents automatically brought in the FBI to take over the negotiation and rescue. FBI special agent Bob Ricks, FBI Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) sniper Chris Whitcomb, and the FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit veteran agent, Gary Noesner, withhold first-hand knowledge of the extended siege. Finally, two reporters provide their insights on the incident: Lee Hancock of Dallas Morning News; and John McLemore, one of the first reporters to cover the gunfight between ATF and Branch Davidians on February 28.

What Happened During the Chaotic Raid of ATF on the Branch Davidian Compound?

The more sensible question would be: why it happened the way it did? David Koresh could have been easily picked up by ATF agents when he was jogging around the compound. Moreover, the ATF’s element of surprise was gone as David was tipped off about the impending raid. The crucial question would be: which side first fired their gun? Again, no concrete answers are provided. Bill Buford, the ATF agent in full tactical gear, says it’s definitely the Branch Davidians. But the other side claims that ATF fired at the compound, and they were only defending their children. Nevertheless, the worst fears of the federal agency were proved true on February 28, i.e., the Branch Davidians have a lot of firepower.

By the time a ceasefire was declared, four federal agents had died in the gunfight, more than ten agents were injured, and six Branch Davidians were killed. As Bill Buford and Jim Cavanaugh tearfully recall, they were forced to carry their injured and withdraw from the compound. Since the ambulance was filled up, reporter John McLemore drove the media truck to take some of the injured, including Bill.

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The then 9-year-old Heather Jones talks about witnessing the shootout and the traumatic death of her unarmed grandfather Perry Jones. Perry was shot in the stomach, and he begged to be put out of his misery. David Koresh was also shot in the abdomen. But he survived to the dismay of everyone and only perished 51 days later.

Let’s Wait for a Sign From God

The Hostage Rescue Team (HRT), including Chris Whitcomb, established the perimeter immediately after taking over the scene. They were locked and ready for action. On the other hand, the negotiating unit, including Gary Noesner, was trying to establish communication with David and his right-hand man Steve Schneider so that they could end this without firing another bullet. The first few days looked relatively hopeful as David Koresh agreed to come out with his followers once he could spread his message through the media.

Once the message was relayed, the negotiators worked out everything regarding the peaceful surrender. David had even lined up his followers in the hallway to say goodbye. However, he reneged from the deal, and Steve mentioned that David received a sign from God and he must wait.

The Contradictory Signals Sent by the FBI

Chris Whitcomb exemplifies the aggressive attitude within the FBI. He believes HRT is all about saving the good and gunning down the bad guys. Perhaps, according to them, in this scenario, the toddlers and unarmed individuals can be saved, whereas the rest can be gifted a bullet. The forceful approach also withheld the fear that the more days they stall, the Branch Davidians might opt for suicide. Interestingly, Kathy Schroeder mentions that they would have committed suicide if the FBI had stormed the building. Kathy’s confession is also intriguing because it’s often said that Branch Davidians never considered suicide.

Gary and the team of negotiators wanted to persuade David Koresh to relent his hold on the followers gradually and at least send out the children. Though Gary believes that David Koresh is a conman with narcissistic tendencies, he understood that using deadly force will be met with resistance, which could be disastrous for both sides. While HRT and Jeff Jamar, the Special Agent in charge of the FBI Squad in the Waco siege, kept parading their military tanks and pointed their weapons 24*7 on the compound, the negotiating team secured the release of many Branch Davidians. Despite HRT’s attempt to turn up the heat with psyops or noise torture, the FBI negotiating unit brought out 44 people, including Heather Jones and Kathy Schroeder.

The Curious Case of Kathy Schroeder

Kathy Schroeder, who is still committed to defending David Koresh and his doctrine, states, “Every single one of us was married to David because David was our Christ, giving our truth from God.” Kathy is that one controversial character Netflix manages to enlist to deliver some dubious yet sensational statements. In a roundabout way, she confirms that David Koresh had sex with underage girls. Furthermore, she offers her spin on David’s abuses: “People think that a man having sex with under-aged girls is a crime….. However, these weren’t under-aged girls, because you come of age at 12…So, all of these girls were adults in our belief system.” Kathy also recalls her own sexual encounter with David as: “a little bit of tenderness with my god.”


Heather Jones, however, reflects upon the physical and psychological abuse she suffered under the hands of David Koresh. She also recounts how harshly the FBI agents treated her on the day she was left outside the compound. As a young mother, Kathy also had to make tough choices. She sent her children out during the earlier phase of negotiations. But after seeing a videotape of her 3-year-old son (not born to her ex-husband) sitting alone in the children’s home, Kathy was forced to come out. The tape itself was a clever ploy employed by the negotiators. Unfortunately, Kathy’s reunion with her little son didn’t last long, as she was soon cuffed, arrested, and charged. While this sent a wrong signal to the Branch Davidians’ who might have voluntarily come out of the compound, the bureaucratic machine as usual was only concerned with due procedure.

Related Read: American Manhunt: The Boston Marathon Bombing (2023) ‘Netflix’ Docuseries: Recap & Ending Explained

The Arrival of a Defense Attorney and David Koresh’s Promise

A few weeks into the siege, David Koresh’s mother, Bonnie Haldeman, hired Texas’ best criminal defense attorney, Dick DeGuerin. Initially, it was believed that he could break the stalemate, and DeGuerin happens to be the only person from the outside, apart from the FBI, to communicate with David. DeGuerin was also escorted by the FBI in their tank to the compound to meet David in person. Five days before the tragic events on April 19th, DeGuerin met the press and said that David would come out with everyone once he finished his manuscript (his interpretation of the Book of Revelation) and delivered it to him.

By this time, Gary Noesner is gone on a training mission in the Middle East. He was pressured to leave. HRT has totally lost its patience and stopped believing David’s promises. The tactical intervention was decided as the only solution, and the FBI agents in charge flew to Washington to get the approval of the Attorney General, Janet Reno, to inject tear gas into the compound using the tanks. Reporter Lee Hancock mentions how the FBI agents held back certain information and twisted some to get the green signal from the Attorney General. The result was an unprecedented number of deaths.

High On Films in collaboration with Avanté

Waco: American Apocalypse (2023) Ending, Explained

Did the Branch Davidians Commit Mass Suicide?

On April 19, 1993, early morning, under the watchful eyes of national media, the FBI dispatched the tanks to ram into the Branch Davidian compound. The intention is to inject tear gas through the holes the tanks make. An announcement repeatedly said that the siege is over, asking everyone to come out of the compound with their hands up. Yet after hours of injecting tear gas, there was no movement outside the compound except for the tanks.

At some point, the reporters and HRT saw fire and smoke in the building. The FBI, to this day, maintains that the Branch Davidians set fire to their premises to commit mass suicide. The evidence of aerial footage and evidence collected from tiny listening devices inside the compound support their argument.

Or Is It The FBI’s Fault?

The surviving Branch Davidians, however, dispute the claim and that they never intended to kill themselves. The Netflix docuseries doesn’t explore what or who caused the fire. Neither does it answer why many women and children chose to perish in the fire. However, there’s a theory that the FBI’s excessive use of potentially flammable tear gas and live rounds caused the fire. Moreover, it’s alleged that the entry to the bunker door – where many women and children stayed – was blocked when the structure collapsed due to the massive holes made by the tanks.

While David Koresh is ultimately responsible for playing with the lives of his followers, the FBI’s tear gas and tanks tactic only culminated with discovering 76 charred bodies of Branch Davidians.

The repercussions of the Waco siege could be felt long after its disastrous ending. The American government’s attack on its citizens using military weapons happened to be the vital catalyst, which led to the rise of the militia movement in the US, which continues to wreak havoc across the nation to this day.

Overall, the docu-series Waco: American Apocalypse puts the usual Netflix narrative spin on the infamous Waco siege. It’s a consolidated and balanced look at a tragic historical event that serves as a cautionary reminder to law enforcement agencies on why communication is more important than guns. It’s a lesson the American establishment, in particular, might never learn.

Related Read: Waco (2018) Recap & Ending Explained: Who Is Responsible for the Death of 76 Branch Davidians?

Watch Waco: American Apocalypse (2023) Trailer

Waco: American Apocalypse (2023) Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes

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