The Legacy of an American Tragedy

Rebecca Cole


Waco: American Apocalypse is a new documentary from Netflix featuring Sewanee alum and current advisor to The Purple, Lee Hancock (C’81). In 1993, cult leader David Koresh and his religious followers, the Branch Davidians, faced off against the federal government in a 51-day siege that ended in 86 deaths. The siege took place in Waco, Texas at the Branch Davidians’ home, Mount Carmel. Hancock was a reporter for the Dallas Morning News and covered the events as they unfolded. The Purple met with Hancock in order to learn more about her personal experience of the events, still incredibly relevant today, and the creation of the Netflix documentary. 

Lee Hancock in Waco: American Apocalypse Courtesy of Netflix © 2023

At the time of the siege, Hancock had been a reporter for more than a decade and was experienced in reporting on crisis situations. Working at the Texas and Southwest regional desk for the Dallas Morning News, she received a call on February 28 that there was a shootout involving federal law enforcement and a cult. She left Dallas for Mount Carmel immediately and got to the site between 12 p.m. and 1 p.m., not long after the shootout started. Hancock said, “The feds had set up a command post at this airport, this old air force base. Ironically, or sadly, it’s the same base and same place where Donald Trump is going to have his first campaign rally on Saturday [March 25] – no coincidence, I am sure.” 

Hancock described the scene from the moment she arrived as chaos. She met a Waco reporter she was familiar with and obtained a phone number inside the compound. “A colleague in Dallas got David Koresh on the phone,” she said, “and did the only print news interview with him on the day of the shootout as he’s lying there wounded.”

The documentary features never-before-seen footage from the 51-day siege and includes interviews from key individuals. When asked about how the project came to be, Lee said she was writing a 25th anniversary piece as a freelance journalist and interviewed Gary Noesner, the FBI’s chief hostage negotiator for the first part of the siege. Noesner later became the FBI’s head of crisis negotiations. “Gary played an interesting, I think a pivotal, role, and I really find compelling his argument that had there not been aggressive tactical moves on the hostage rescue team side,” she said, “they could have and would have gotten more people out.” 

In his on-screen interview, Noesner described how he was told to leave on a pre-scheduled assignment and was not allowed to stay as the negotiator in Waco after he argued against the escalating, aggressive tactics being deployed against the Davidians. After he left, no more members of the sect came out of the building. 

Also in the documentary, the miscommunication between the hostage rescue team and the negotiations team that led to the disastrous ending, a deadly fire aired on live television, was openly discussed. On the topic, Director and Executive Producer Tiller Russell said, “For the most part, the story of Waco has been told, from the moment it broke through the Congressional hearings – as a finger pointing blame game.” But, while there were many mistakes made, “at the heart of this story, are the lives of innocent children who were trapped in the middle of this deadly and deeply fraught set of circumstances.”

During Hancock’s meeting with Noesner in 2018, she asked if he happened to have anything left over from Waco, and he pulled out a box containing some video footage. He had never watched it, and they sat down to view it together. “They were these incredible home movies of the negotiations as they were going on,” Hancock said. The footage was intended to be used as a teaching tool, but were shelved and forgotten after the tragic ending of the siege. As a published author, Noesner already had some contact with Hollywood and was curious about the possible use of the footage for a documentary. Russell was invited by Netflix to use the footage to create something on Waco, and so, Waco: American Apocalypse was born. 

Hancock, as an original reporter and someone who had covered the siege and its aftermath extensively on and off for over 10 years, was asked to assist in the creation of the documentary. She did research, suggested sources, helped obtain the FBI’s bug tape recordings, and assisted the documentary team in Netflix’s extensive fact-checking process in addition to agreeing to an on-camera interview. “The FBI had listening devices that they sent in during the standoff. The first set we got had been so deteriorated,” she said, “so, as recently as October I ended up going to find another source for some of the bug tapes that were essential.” About her on-screen interview, Hancock said, “that was intense. It was about seven to eight hours.” She also mentioned how Netflix funded a therapist to be available for interview subjects. 

Hancock continued to talk about how valuable her liberal arts education at Sewanee was to her career as a journalist. “I can’t really think of a better background and, you know, foundation, for being able to do a lot of stuff,” she said, “and get into a lot of weird topics.” Dealing with Koresh and the Branch Davidians, who were immersed in apocalyptic prophecies, the Old Testament, and the Book of Revelations, allowed Hancock to draw on religious studies classes she had taken at Sewanee. The amount of writing and critical thinking she did at Sewanee also provided her a skillset that was pivotal in her 30-plus-year career as a journalist. 

The documentary intentionally did not take a side in still-heated debates over the Waco tragedy. “By allowing an intimate look [at individuals involved], you get a much more nuanced sense of how hard this was,” and she said, “in terms of the Davidians, the depths of their belief.”

She said that the “careful effort to allow different voices and viewpoints, and yet adhere to the truth, is something that hadn’t been done before.” 

The 1993 siege in Waco was incredibly influential and is very relevant today in our politics. “It’s still part of our national discourse,” said Hancock. Russell also said that, “thematically, much of what is roiling our culture today is embedded in the DNA of Waco. So, there’s a deep resonance with the world we’ve inherited and inhabit now.” 

Our current discourse surrounding gun rights, law enforcement, and the FBI itself developed out of this event. 

In an opinion piece for CNN titled “Trump’s visit to Waco is a provocation of historical significance,” Vanderbilt professor Nicole Hemmer argues that the Trump campaign’s decision to hold the first rally of his 2024 Presidential campaign at Waco during the 30th anniversary of the deadly standoff was intentional. “For the past three decades, this incident has been a key element of far-right mythology: a rallying cry for armed resistance to the federal government and its representatives,” wrote Hemmer, a political historian specializing in media, conservatism and the presidency. “For Trump, whose first term ended with an assault on the US Capitol, the choice to rally in Waco sends a clear message that will energize proponents of far-right extremism among his base.”

The documentary is a great piece of work that highlights the event with new footage, while demonstrating the crucial humanist view of such a tragic outcome. Anyone watching should be aware of the potentially triggering themes and scenes of gun violence, death, and abuse shown and discussed in the documentary. There is also a new four-part podcast that accompanies the documentary, in which Russell and other creators and subjects discuss the real stories behind the events that weren’t shared on-screen. 

The trailer for the documentary can be found here on Youtube and the documentary itself can be found on Netflix. The podcast can be found on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and other podcast streaming sites. 

Waco: American Apocalypse Courtesy of Netflix © 2023