The Truth About David Koresh's Tragic Childhood

In 1993, CNN lit up with stories of the demise of a violent and deadly cult tucked away in the otherwise nondescript Texas town of Waco. Over 51 excruciating days, people watched horrified as the situation degenerated into an ugly stalemate, a violent standoff, and ultimately, the deaths of over 70 people. Nearly thirty years later, the Netflix series Waco once again brought that weird chapter back into the limelight — from protracted and badly bungled sieges to the dangerous yet magnificently mulleted man at the heart of it all, one David Koresh. Many fans of the heavily binge-watched series are left wondering, who was this guy? And is there anything in his tragic origin story that explains the weirdly charismatic yet deeply fractured human he'd later become? Here's the truth about David Koresh's tragic early years, from his sadly neglected childhood to his angry, bible-thumping teens.

Koresh's early years

Koresh was born Vernon Wayne Howell in Houston, Texas in 1959. With a 15-year old mother who wasn't ready for motherhood and a father who disappeared and played no role in his upbringing, it fell to Howell's grandparents to shelter and raise him. As PBS reports, Howell described his early years as lonely and difficult ones. Compounding his isolation, frequent bullying, poor grades in high school, and a constant struggle with dyslexia — an issue he'd battle his whole life — Howell had few prospects and even fewer joys in life. None of these hardships on their own foreshadow a guy who would one day mullet up, invent a cool name, and successfully convince over 75 adults that he was God incarnate and worth dying for, but it seems not much of a stretch to imagine that Howell felt he had little chance of dragging himself out of a tough and unrewarding existence. He did, however, have two things going for him: A natural aptitude for music and a near-pathological fascination with the Bible, all the juicy bits of which he had memorized by age 12. Those two small strengths were the personality building blocks that his alter-ego, David Koresh, would be built on. 

The genesis of a cult leader

From his teen years through to early adulthood, a few things happened to Howell. First, he transformed from a gangly, bespectacled kid into a surprisingly handsome dude. From a lanky frame and scholastic air, Howell cultivated a sexy-Jesus vibe just enough that people began to pay attention. He also developed a raw, scary intensity that drew people into his orbit. Through his teens, Howell figured out how to use his word-for-word recollection of the Bible to win arguments, as well as hearts and minds. Howell became adept at lobbing a devastating barrage of biblical arguments to explain, justify, and defend any questionable life decision. As Spectrum Magazine reports, in 1979 When Howell was 20, he started a relationship with a 15-year-old in his church. Confronted by angry members of the congregation, he fell back on the Bible, passionately denying any wrongdoing. When backed into a corner, Howell could defend himself against the establishment with a combination of prophetic zeal and rock-star panache. He had finally found influence with the marginalized youth who watched him clapping back at authority -– and he wasn't afraid to use it. Tragically, Howell's way out of a difficult life also became the binding ingredients for his eventual transformation into David Koresh and the death of the 75 people who chose to follow him to Waco.