History of the ’90s podcast: Doomsday cults

The Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, is shown engulfed by flames in this April 20, 1993, photo. Retreating from its past denials, the FBI is acknowledging that federal agents fired one or more incendiary tear gas canisters during the standoff with Branch Davidians, while maintaining its stance that it did not start the fire that consumed the compound with Koresh and more than 80 followers inside. (AP Photo/Susan Weems)

On the next few episodes of History of the ’90s, host Kathy Kenzora looks at the doomsday cults and their rise to infamy in the years leading up to the new millennium.

During the 1990s, the world began to seem more dangerous, with war, environmental destruction and social breakdown becoming part of the everyday fabric of society.

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As a way of coping, some people turned to new religions and cults for guidance and support. In some cases, that decision yielded deadly consequences.

In Part 4, we look at the story of the Branch Davidians and the complicated legacy of the deadly siege in Waco, Texas.

In February 1993, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives or ATF raided the Davidians’ compound in Waco, Texas, after learning they were stockpiling weapons. Agents expected to execute a typical arrest warrant but instead ended up in a deadly gun battle with Branch Davidian leader David Koresh and his followers.

A 51-day standoff between the FBI and the Davidians ended when flames swept through the compound after tear gas was fired into the buildings. Nearly 80 people died, including almost two dozen children.

Charges and counter charges followed the incident, and questions about how the fires stared and whether federal agents or the Davidians were responsible for the deadly outcome remain to this day.

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In Part 3, we look at Heaven’s Gate. In March 1997, the cult made headlines around the world when 39 members died by suicide, and today, it remains one of the most recognizable and notorious cults of the 20th century.

The group was formed in the 1970s by Marshall Herff Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, who combined their belief in extraterrestrials with Christian theology. They travelled around the country, collecting a loyal following of like-minded people.

By the 1990s, they settled in California and began to prepare for the end times. When the Hale-Bopp comet was discovered, Applewhite told his followers that a spaceship was travelling behind the comet and would pick them up and take them to the “Next Level.” But the only way followers could join the spaceship was by dying by suicide.

In Part 2, we look at the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo, which killed 13 people and injured more than 5,000 others in a sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in March 1995.

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It’s believed they were trying to bring about a world war that would result in an all-out nuclear conflict. Aum’s leader, Shoko Asahara, convinced his members that only they would survive the nuclear war and transcend into a new utopian society.

Aum Shinrikyo reportedly had 40,000 members in countries around the world including Japan, Russia and the United States. In Tokyo, the majority of its members were highly educated young men who had grown disillusioned with Japanese society’s pressure to succeed. With the help of these followers, Asahara was able to build a network of chemical labs and computer companies worth $1 billion.

In Part 1, we uncovered the little-known story of The Order of the Solar Temple. The religious sect had branches in Canada, Switzerland and France and its members included politicians, journalists, executives and police officers. We looked at how members hoping to start a new life instead found horrific and tragic ends.

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Thank you to our guests on this series:

Dick Reavis, author of The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation.

Alan R. Warren, author of “Doomsday Cults: The Devil’s Hostages”

Facebook: @radiocub

The description of Officer Robert Brunk’s discovery of the crime scene was included in an article by Gary Warth in the San Diego Union-Tribune on March 26, 2007.

Michael Kropveld, Executive Director of Info-Cult

Paul Midford, Professor and Director of the Japan Program at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology

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