Post-387: A BBC podcast on the Waco 1993, Koresh cult story; podcast review and thoughts on Waco’s place in history

Losing a pair of gloves I felt particular attached to, I decided I’d be willing to retrace my steps around town. Chances were fair that I could find the missing gloves, as I had in similar cases before. I was committed. I figured the had fallen out of my pocket while I was cruising along on the bicycle.

The glove search failed.

But unexpected good thing have a way of showing up, springing from the bad. I decided to make the best of this perhaps-several-hours-long commitment to carefully and slowly retrace all my steps by listening to a podcast along the way, so as “not to waste the time.” This is how I justified the search to myself. I am not in the habit of listening to earphones in public these days, so this was a conscious decision.

I googled around for a podcast that would make my time worth it. Something new. I came to the BBC podcasts page. The top one I saw was called “End of Days.” I said, Okay, yes, this’ll do. I don’t even have a good working pair of earphones anymore. I have a few freebies from airlines. Only one earphone worked.

Gone forever though the gloves may be, those gloves did give me a final gift, one arguably even better than hand warmth, as without losing them, I’d never have come to hear this really excellent “BBC Five Live” podcast. It’s less about the 1993 Waco incident, more about the personalities involved, a retrospective after 25 years. About 4.5 to 5.0 hours of total listening time; eight episodes. Some impressions and reactions follow in this post. First personal re:Waco, then a long review of the podcast’s contents, then a brief final thought on cults as I encountered them in my years in Korea.

(Update: A brief, follow-up search the next day across some of the same ground resulted in my spotting not my beloved gloves but another person’s lost items. Three books, one of which was a handwritten journal. Here is the amazing thing: It was in Korean. Some English words and phrases, too, but the English was all in Korean-style handwriting which I well recognize by now. I took pains to try to figure out the person’s name or contact info to return it, which was hard. But I became determined. This kind of book can have real sentimental value to people. It was hard to figure out who the person was, or how to find them, but I think I succeeded. I did my best.

The three books are now en route to being back in the owner’s possession. I dropped them off Feb. 20, the day I write this, at the HR office of the place this person works and explained the situation to the person in charge.

The lost gloves, therefore, created two good things: The podcast-consumption for me and the salvation of someone’s journal, someone alone in the US who was probably devastated to lose this journal, the last entry of which was dated five or six days before I discovered it. How the books were lost, I don’t know. Godspeed, books, and good luck, Korean journaler, wherever you are.)

The Koresh Cult

Many know the name “Branch Davidian.” Under charismatic cult leader David Koresh, the group became paranoid, militant, and engaged in various disturbing behaviors.

From the podcast, which was produced in 2017 and released in spring 2018 in line with the 25th anniversary of Waco, I learned that the Branch Davidian religion predated the rise of the drifter who changed his legal name to David Koresh in the mid-1980s, but by the late 1980s he had control of the group.

Koresh preyed on his followers, his followers prayed to him.

What we most remember is that some of their hardcore members lived in a compound in Texas, and then were subject to weeks-long siege by the FBI. In the fiery end, a large majority of the cult members holed up in the compound died. That’s “Waco.”

There was worldwide attention, first with the made-for-TV-like, all-day gun battle between cult members and federal agents, when the latter tried to raid and storm the compound. Many were killed and wounded on both sides. Then the weeks-long siege, ending in the deaths of eighty of the hundred-plus heavily armed cult members holed up in the compound. I believe all the children who were present died. Many of those who survived were severely burned and deformed for life.

That was spring 1993.

Remembering the Nineties and Waco’s place therein: Personal recollections.

I like to add personal memories to these posts. Or, I figure that is what I should be doing. In this case, it’ll have to be my lack of personal memory that I add: I can say with certainty that I have no memory of Waco. Not as it happened, anyway. I was too young to have followed the news, and no one told me, or if they did it didn’t stick. I was aware of the 1992 presidential election that preceded Waco by a few months, but only because I’d heard about it directly from authority figures, the kindergarten teacher, and parents (my dad had voted for Clinton and my mom was a Perot supporter; I think I have a memory of my dad, characteristically, mocking Perot ’92 [not ’96,] by deliberately mispronouncing the name as “Pee-Rot”).

I don’t remember Waco. I do remember the shadow Waco cast over the rest of the Nineties, though, which I picked up on slowly as I aged into some kind of political consciousness, even if as-yet weakly formed by the end of the decade.

This BBC podcast was, therefore, the first time I really heard the story of Waco. I am glad I heard it the way I did, from a foreign perspective, somewhat more detached. It made it all the more interesting.

What do I remember about Waco as a child in the Nineties. I remember “Waco,” the word as proxy for the siege and fiery end, as a slogan or watchword used often by right-wing types, ranging from AM talk radio types to serious dissidents. (Not that I often heard AM talk radio or encountered “serious dissidents.” This is me reconstructing a child’s memories from the perspective of the year 2020, with years of full political consciousness now behind me.)

I remember, on a Boy Scout trip about 1999 or 2000, a long-distance bicycle trip probably on the trip we took along the C&O Canal path north to Antietam, discovering a shrine set up by anti-government militants somewhere in the Maryland backwoods. The shrine was in honor of McVeigh. I think it said “Do Away CIA.” I strain to remember anything else about that shrine, but that’s exactly the kind of context some big mention of Waco would be had.

The dissidents lapped up Waco because it fit the script of an oppressive federal government so very well (the FBI and ATF handling of Waco is generally agreed to have been very bad; the podcast producers, normally quite neutral in their presentation, relying on the interviewees to tell their stories, did say outright that the handling of it was a debacle and that it need not have happened at all).

Tim McVeigh, whose 1995 attack I do remember, as a child, said Waco was a major factor in his decision to bomb the federal building in Oklahoma two years later, which seems very likely given that the Oklahoma bombing was two years later to the day. On the other side, anti-religion or anti-Christian people would sometimes invoke the name Koresh to mock religion or Christianity in particular. One commentator I used to read (now deceased) used to write “I swear to Koresh” instead of “I swear to God.”

The Excellent BBC Podcast on Waco

As for the BBC’s sleek podcast, really an audio documentary, on the Koresh group, its members, and Waco, and those left behind. It is “presented” by Chris Warburton, who is kind of narrator, host, and interviewer. A lot of work clearly went into it. Very well done by the people at BBC Five Live.

The first big surprise, to me, in listening, was discovering the reason why the BBC would take it upon itself to do such a podcast at all.

The reason for the BBC’s special interest is that a lot of the converts to David Koresh’s cult were British citizens. They were mainly Blacks of Caribbean origin who had either moved to the UK themselves while young or had parents who immigrated to the UK.

The podcast never really addresses why it was that Koresh could get so many Blacks but so few Whites from England to join. It’s not clear if there were any British Whites involved or at the Waco compound. A strange thing. In any case, when the smoke cleared, the literal smoke in this case, at least a quarter of the dead at Waco were British citizens.

That such a large part of the Koresh cult were from from the UK is something I never knew at all, which shows how little I’ve ever read or thought about Waco.

The entire podcast weaves in and out of trying to face the questions of How and Why. Why did so many, including the British citizens, die at Waco that day? The US government maintains the FBI was not liable for any of the deaths, as far as I understand. No one knows who started the fire that ended the siege but the US government’s position was/is that Koresh and his inner circle started several fires, presumably believing it was fulfilling religious prophecy or the like. Others say the FBI’s armored vehicles, which were involved in the siege, hit gas tanks or the like inside the compound, unintentionally causing an explosion; others say both sides may have started fires, intentionally and not, and once one fire was going on, it spiraled out of control and the horrible firestorm took many lives.

The podcast mentions all these claims and takes no sides; it doesn’t really focus much on the causes, which is not its purpose. The podcast also mentions that some of the inner-core cult leaders, including Koresh, were found with self-inflicted gunshot wounds.

The host, Chris Warburton, interviews a lot of people involved, generally UK family members of the people at Waco. The interviewees are mainly now-retirement-age Caribbean-origin people who were in the UK as of the 1980s when the cult began recruiting. One man, who lost his wife and all five of his children at Waco, if I understood correctly, had returned to Jamaica to retire. Another interviewee is a professor at the college where many of those who joined the Koresh cult were studying as of 1988 when they were targeted for conversion. Both people speak with a profound sadness.

All those interviewed had Caribbean accents, except one, a man named Devon Elliot. In fact, I assumed he was White based on his accent, but now that I am online to see his picture, I see he too is Black. He was at one time involved himself, if I understood/recall correctly, but had gotten out. He had relatives still involved when Waco came down and the group’s messiah was killed, said to be by his own hand, amidst the compound’s firestorm.

One of those who gets the most airtime, and who is the most intriguing in a disturbing way, is a Jamaican-born UK citizen named Livingston (or Livingstone) Fagan, possibly born in 1959. The podcast has him at age 34 during the 1993 siege (hence b.1959), but one news reports implies he was born as early as 1952. Resident of the UK since 1965, except for the years in Texas and in US prisons.

When I got the idea to write this post, a retrospective on the podcast, I think I was inspired to write it by hearing Livingston Fagan. So here goes.

In the first episode, he claims the Waco tragedy impelled him to change his name to Livingstone, with an ‘e’ and pronounced as such; a still-living record of the past, as in stone, I guess.

Livingston(e) was involved with the Koresh cult starting in 1988. He was recruited out of the same religious college in the UK that many others were and became a zealous follower. He had previously wanted to be a mainstream Christian pastor, but his life trajectory was changed forever by the influence of the Koresh evangelist who converted him in 1988. Livingston(e) eventually got his wife, mother, and cousin all involved, and not just as run-of-the-mill believers but as among those willing to move to the compound in Texas. All three endured the long siege and died at Waco in the firestorm.

As the podcast goes on, we slowly realize that Livingston(e), as of the present, still very a believer in the Koresh religion, still believes that David Koresh was, and is, a divine being. This is unsettling. The podcast producers did this ‘reveal’ very effectively. It was never announced until we heard it from him emerge piecemeal. It was a dramatic moment, as I continued to fruitless glove-search, when I realized Livingston(e) was still a believer after 25 years. Well-made investigative-storytelling podcasts are, in this sense, like a revival of the old radio dramas.

Why didn’t Livingston(e) die at Waco? He was among the others at the “Davidian” compound when the siege began. The answer is that he likely would have been killed, had he not been captured and sent off by the FBI a few weeks into the siege. Koresh had sent Livingston out of the compound in a bid to try an in-person negotiation, as they were making so little progress in phone-based negotiations. The FBI ignored this and promptly tossed Livingston in jail with no “negotiation” at all. He may have spent a few years in US prisons before release, on conspiracy to kill federal agents and gun charges.

Livingston(e) says he was defiant in prison, and that they kept moving him around “from prison to prison” to try to break him. He says he remembers one day being whisked away, escorted under heavy armed guard, to, as he put it, “Doo-liss” Airport (Dulles Airport), “south of Washington,” and flown back to Heathrow in London, from whence he returned to his former home at Nottingham. He wrote a book but has few remaining friends and few want anything to do with him. Towards the end of the podcast he recounts the cold shoulder from all his previous church acquaintances and friends.

The thing is, Livingston(e) is well-spoken and sounds intelligent. His accent, as the host says, shows real signs of being a “mix of Jamaica, Texas, and England.” He is even sympathetic and reasonable most of the time, certainly at first.

But this, from the eighth and final episode:

Host: If it had ended peacefully…What would be David’s place be now?

Livingston Fagan: He’d become Christ in the physical sense. The first among equals.

Host: So once the Seventh Seal —

Fagan: Actually the Sixth Seal. The next event.

Host: The next event. And David himself will return, will he?

Fagan: Exactly.

The power of these groups is real.

Many small children were among the dead at the siege, and DNA tests showed up to twenty of the dead children were fathered by David Koresh himself, by many female members of the cult living at the compound in the early ’90s. It is also said that the other children at the compound were being sexually abused by Koresh in ritualistic fashion.

People were also unable to leave. The podcast reports the story of how one mother is known to have made a daring nighttime escape with her two children; she snapped out of the spell she was under and made an escape plan, but because the perimeter was monitored, she escaped entirely on her stomach, kind of slithering out to avoid detection, and eventually was able to flag down a car on a road the next morning.

The Koresh group was truly a classic destructive cult of the worst kind, really a kind of criminal operation. And the thing that gives on a twist feeling in the stomach is that every one of those people, the adults, anyway, had gone by their own free will. None were snatched off a street, blindfolded, tossed in a van, and ended up at Waco. They were all believers in Koresh.

The podcast was not meant as an analysis of how cults work. But in reviewing the story of how dozens of people left the UK to join the Koresh compound at Waco, though, a few of the classic warning signs do come up.

I know the signs.

Observing, dealing with, and being targeted by cults, broadly comparable to the Koresh group, in 2010s South Korea.

One day I might write about my experiences with cults. In the years I spent in Korea, I had many, both trivial and serious, and all unrelated (as far as I know). Friends did, as well. I still recall how one friend in Incheon in the early 2010s, Danielle, was hurt when she realized a Korean friend and organization she was part of had been a cult front.

Yes, U had experience with some groups active in South Korea that use the same tactics and make similar claims as the Koresh people were ca.1988. One in particular, whose initials are SCJ. It is a group I grew to hate when I learned more about the extent of their operations. I, and others, were targeted, and the people doing the targeting are pretty good at it. It’s a story (series of stories) worth telling. These groups have non-trivial influence, though there is plenty of opposition to them by mainstream Christians.

I might compare cults to a bright source of light which, while it may look benign or intriguing from a distance, or as something that can be dismissed peremptorily. Easy to ignore. But it is a source of light that can really sting when you get too close. A light bulb emits light, but you’d better not get too close or touch it for too long or you’re potentially doing damage to yourself. Same. And I am not talking (only) about being a ‘member,’ as such, or even a relative or friend of a member. I am talking about being someone in any way involved, including through no fault at all of their own, having been deceived in one way or another by cult recruiters. They act as a kind of parallel state. Their work is akin to that of intelligence agents. I’d really like to write more on this some day. It’s a topic I have long avoided.


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