When Jeff Guinn was reporting his 2019 book, The Vagabonds, he learned that his primary subjects, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, liked to spend time in Fort Myers, Florida. While there, they enjoyed visiting a compound created by Cyrus Teed, a late nineteenth-century religious firebrand who came to identify himself simply as “Koresh,” the Hebrew pronunciation of the Persian king Cyrus, of whom Teed claimed to be a new iteration. This Koresh, who had a couple hundred followers, insisted that he was the Lamb, the one who would open the Seven Seals of God named in the Bible and achieve, with his followers, a prominent place in God’s new kingdom. This all sounded familiar to Guinn. It sounded like the pitch of another Koresh—David.

These are the kinds of previously undiscovered details that can push any author toward his next book, but for a writer drawn to dangerous demagogues, they were impossible to ignore. The tragedy of David Koresh and his followers, the Branch Davidians (an offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventists), has been chronicled ad infinitum in other books and films. It is widely known that Koresh saw a holy war on the horizon, pitting his believers against the outside world, and that Koresh was a polygamist who was having sex with underage girls in an effort to spread his seed for his postapocalyptic kingdom. Documentaries and podcasts chronicle the 1993 Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms raid and FBI siege at the Davidians’ compound outside of Waco. If Guinn was going to write about the Branch Davidians, he needed something new. The Teed revelation certainly qualified. “We absolutely found solid evidence that David Koresh plagiarized all of his major prophecies from an earlier Koresh who was operating down in Florida,” Guinn says from his Fort Worth home.

The Teed tale comes early in Guinn’s new book, Waco: David Koresh, the Branch Davidians, and a Legacy of Rage (Simon & Schuster, January 24), timed to the thirtieth anniversary of the siege. Guinn, whose previous books include Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson and The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, always finds new information. He spent 25 years, many of them as an investigative reporter, at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, utilizing his gift for finding people who have seldom or never been interviewed and getting them to tell their stories. “He always seems to find somebody who knew something who hadn’t talked to the press before,” says Robert Bender, Guinn’s editor at Simon & Schuster. “That goes back to his personality. He’s the kind of person you feel comfortable with, and you trust him innately, and you’re willing to sit down and talk to him. He’s a very personable guy.”

A personable guy with some dark interests. For Waco, Guinn spoke with disgruntled former ATF agents who had never commented on the disastrous, ill-planned raid of February 28, 1993, that ended with the deaths of four agents and six Branch Davidians. He found an FBI analyst who was on the ground almost two months later during the FBI siege and subsequent inferno that killed 76 of Koresh’s followers. And he spoke with surviving members of Koresh’s flock who still believe what their leader told them. “You got to remember, all these people feel they’ve been unfairly persecuted,” Guinn says. “If one of these folks—and they stay in touch with each other—believes, ‘Hey, this guy may not agree with us, but at least he’ll tell our side of the story as we see it,’ then you get to talk to other people.”

The result is a panoramic view of a horrific sequence of events. The principals naturally disagree on important details, and the fog of war has a way of obscuring. But here’s the short version: the ATF, believing that Koresh and his followers were turning large quantities of semiautomatic weapons into automatic weapons (correct) and manufacturing drugs (incorrect), executed a raid, even though it now seems clear they had lost all element of surprise. This ended badly. Almost two months later, the FBI, frustrated with negotiations that went nowhere, lobbed gas canisters into the Davidian compound, which shortly went up in flames as the world watched on TV.

Guinn covers all of this in detail, from multiple perspectives. But he goes a lot deeper than that. As in his other cult studies, he asks the reader to consider the nature of belief. As Guinn illustrates, the Waco conflict was really a battle between two universes: one was based on secular law and order; the other created its own belief system, based on Koresh’s claims of godliness and his insistence that war with the forces of Babylon—the world outside the compound)—was not only inevitable, but welcome. The two sides barely tried to understand each other; the book makes it clear that the federal agencies had no idea how ready the Davidians were to die.

“To Koresh’s followers—and it took me almost two years to understand this, after talking to survivors over and over again—everything they did in their lives, from when they got up in the morning, to what they ate, to the clothes they wore, was based on what they believed God wanted them to do,” Guinn says. “Their belief to this day is that the initial raid by ATF and the siege by the FBI was a violation of their religious freedom.” Guinn does not see Koresh as a con man (unlike, say, Charles Manson). Koresh fully believed what he was selling.

Guinn doesn’t always write about charismatic cult leaders. His other subjects range from Santa (The Autobiography of Santa Claus) to the Texas Rangers (War on the Border). But when he does go dark, his goal is to strip away myth from fact, conspiracy from careful explanation. He wants people to understand. Writing about Charles Manson, he shows how a group of aimless California kids could fall under the sway of an intoxicating hustler. With Jim Jones, he shows how a social reformer used his pulpit to fight racism before hubris and drugs led him to mass murder.

Guinn sees two common traits in the figures in his unholy trinity, and in other cult leaders. One is the insistence that the leader is the only person who can keep the forces of evil at bay (or, as a recent presidential candidate put it, “I alone can fix it”). The other consistent message is that outsiders are evil (as in, the media is the enemy of the people). Such traits are hardly limited to maniacs. “Every politician, to a certain extent, is engaging in demagoguery,” Guinn says. “Elect me or the country goes to hell.”       

Guinn recently placed a call to Kathryn Schroeder, a surviving Branch Davidian who remains a true believer. He wanted to tell her about the Cyrus Teed findings, to prepare her for the revelations of the book. She had been forthcoming and helpful when he interviewed her previously; he figured he owed her the courtesy. “I knew it would be a blow to her, but I respected her enough that I wanted to tell her myself so whatever questions she might have for me, she could ask,” Guinn says. “And we actually parted on good terms after the conversation. One of the things that happens when you write these books is even if you don’t agree with somebody’s perspective, you can appreciate them as human beings.”