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'Moon Knight:' Who was David Koresh, the inspiration for the series' villain?

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‘Moon Knight:’ Who was David Koresh, the inspiration for the series’ villain?

The cult leader behind Arthur Harrow?

You can watch Moon Knight on Disney+ right now, but before you do, check out the real-life villain who Ethan Hawke called “a source of great character inspiration” for his role as series antagonist Arthur Harrow. Who was David Koresh, and what did his sway over people ultimately lead to?

On February 28, 1993, the world was introduced to David Koresh and the Branch Davidians when the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF, now the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives) raided their Mount Carmel Center compound in Waco, Texas. The attempt to serve a warrant related to the suspected illegal modification of rifles led to a 51-day standoff between the U.S. government and the devotees of a cult. The violent incident killed more than 80 people, 21 of them children, and left many of us wondering who Koresh and the Branch Davidians really were.

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Koresh was born Vernon Wayne Howell in 1959. His 14-year-old mother was abandoned by his father before David was born, and she in turn took off with her abusive new boyfriend when David was only 4, leaving him to be raised by his grandmother. David was a lonely child without many friends and, suffering from dyslexia, he dropped out of high school in his junior year. When he was 19, David had an illicit affair with a 15-year-old girl who became pregnant, at which point he decided to turn to God for guidance and joined the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.

David Koresh

David Koresh

This particular branch of Christianity was known for believing in the immortality of the soul and its emphasis on the imminent second coming of Christ. While a part of the denomination, Koresh became infatuated with the pastor’s daughter, and insisted that God wanted them to be together. He was eventually expelled from the congregation when he refused to stop pursuing the girl. In 1981, Koresh moved to Waco and joined the Branch Davidians.

This apocalyptic religious movement was founded in 1955 as an offshoot of another small cultist sect of Christianity. The Branch Davidians occupied the large compound called Mount Carmel and were led by Lois Roden, the widow of the group’s founder. By 1983 Koresh, now in his 20s, was claiming to be a prophet and was (you might have guessed) having a sexual affair with Roden. Though she was in her 60s, Koresh claimed that God told him their baby would be “the chosen one,” and Roden began to allow Koresh to teach his own message.

This didn’t sit well with the future leader of the Branch Davidians, Lois’ son, George Roden. George finally forced Koresh and 25 of his followers out of Mount Carmel at gunpoint in 1988, following a large fire that Koresh claimed was retribution from God for George’s treatment of him.

During his exile from Mount Carmel, Koresh began to recruit new followers from California, the U.K., Australia, and Israel. In 1990, God told Koresh to go to Israel to set up the Davidic Kingdom in Jerusalem. After only being able to convert a small number of new followers, and losing many of his existing ones back to Judaism, Koresh declared that God told him he would become a martyr. Claiming a vision that he was the reincarnated Cyrus, a great Persian King who was named a messiah and whose Biblical name was Koresh, Vernon Howell renamed himself David Koresh, the spiritual descendant of King David.

Throughout this period, things at Mount Carmel were also beginning to unravel. Lois Roden had died in 1986, and after accusations of exhuming bodies, George had lost the loyalty of the majority of followers to Koresh. In 1989, Roden was confined to a psychiatric ward for murdering a man he claimed was sent by Koresh to kill him. Roden owed thousands of dollars in taxes on the Mount Carmel compound, which Koresh and his followers were able to raise the money to reclaim in 1991. Koresh returned from Israel and settled back into his old home.

It wasn’t long before stories of child abuse and rape began to leak from Mount Carmel. The doctrine of the House of David allowed Koresh to “marry” any woman he chose from the congregation, in order to conceive 24 children who were to be “ruling elders” after the return of Christ. This included at least one underage girl, the younger sister of his legal wife. Claims were made that other high ranking members of the cult were allowed to have sexual relationships with underage girls, and that Koresh had been seen beating his infant son, though an investigation by Texas Child Protective Services found no evidence to support these claims. In June of 1992, a USPS worker informed the police they believed they’d been delivering explosives and firearms to the compound.

The revelation allowed the ATF to obtain an arrest warrant for Koresh and a search warrant for Mount Carmel. On February 28, 1993, the ATF attempted to execute their warrant without notifying the Davidians. ATF agents claimed they heard shots coming from inside the compound, but Branch Davidian survivors claim the first shots came from outside. In either case, Koresh was injured in those first shots. By the time a ceasefire was finally brokered, four ATF agents and five Branch Davidians were dead, and numerous others were injured.

After 51 days of negotiations the FBI launched a final assault on the compound on April 19. Armed with Combat Engineering Vehicles equipped with explosives, the FBI punched through the wall of the main building of the compound and began launching tear gas grenades into Mount Carmel. Around noon, the massive fires that would end the siege began. When the smoke cleared, any devotees who’d remained in the compound were dead, and Koresh was found to have been shot in the head.

Oddly enough, nearly 30 years later, the survivors of the siege still believe Koresh was a messiah, and still have a church at Mount Carmel. They await the resurrection of Koresh and “…all those that died … we believe that God will resurrect this special group,” and that He will vindicate those who’ve suffered for the truth.


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