The Cokeville Miracle: Is the 2015 Movie a True Story of Survival?

Directed by T. C. Christensen, ‘The Cokeville Miracle’ is a 2015 drama movie that follows the residents of Cokeville, a small ranching town in Wyoming. Set in May 1986, it revolves around David and Doris Young, a couple that enters the local elementary school with a homemade bomb and holds all the students and teachers hostage. Meanwhile, Ron Hartley, a cop struggling with his religious faith, is suddenly called to help with the hostage situation. As the Youngs detonate the bomb and the hostages pray for their lives, a miraculous series of events leaves everyone stunned, making Ron question his beliefs.

Featuring moving performances by talented actors like Jasen Wade, Nathan Stevens, Kymberly Mellen, and Sarah Kent, the family drama movie accurately depicts a small town in the 80s. Besides, the relatable characters and a spine-chilling hostage crisis being the narrative’s focal point makes one wonder if ‘The Cokeville Miracle’ draws from any real-life incident of the exact nature.

The Cokeville Miracle is Based on a True Tale of a Hostage Crisis

‘The Cokeville Miracle’ is based on a true story. Adapted from Hart and Judy Wixom’s 1987 book, ‘The Cokeville Miracle: When Angels Intervene’ (originally titled ‘Trial by Terror’), the movie delves into an actual harrowing incident that occurred on May 16, 1986, in Cokeville, Wyoming. At around 1:00 PM that day, former town marshal David Young and his wife, Doris, entered the Cokeville Elementary School. Armed with a homemade bomb, the duo threatened to blow up the building and took the 154 people present as hostages.

This included 136 students and 18 adult staff members, and David demanded $2 million per hostage as ransom, as well as a meeting with the then-President, Ronald Reagan. According to reports, he and his wife had ties with white supremacy groups and had even distributed a manifesto when they arrived at the school, which read, “ZERO EQUALS INFINITY.” David allegedly wanted to create a new world order and establish himself as the leader. The couple took assistance from Princess, his daughter from his previous marriage, and two old friends, Gerald Deppe and Doyle Mendenhall.

However, when the latter three accompanied the couple to the school and realized what they were up to, they refused to participate and escaped the scene to inform the authorities. On the other hand, Doris lured a large number of students and teachers at the school into a single classroom on the pretext of an emergency, where David attached the bomb switch to his wrist and terrorized the hostages for the next 2.5 hours. To help calm the anxious young kids, the teachers engaged them in games, prayer, and movies. Eventually, David got agitated and briefly left the room, attaching the bomb switch to his wife’s wrist.

In a shocking turn of events, Doris accidentally lifted her arm and caused the bomb to explode before time, injuring her and causing shrapnel to fly everywhere. Once Hearing the commotion, David opened the door from the connecting bathroom, saw his wife on fire, and shot her dead before shooting John Miller, a music teacher helping students escape from the room. Next, he shut himself in the bathroom and shot himself dead while all the hostages successfully fled from the building. In a miraculous turn of events, a79 teachers and students, including Miller, sustained severe injuries but survived, whereas the rest remained unharmed.

David Young//Image Credit: Casper College Western History Center

Interestingly, authors Hart and Judy Wixom’s 12-year-old son, Kamron, was one of the survivors of the Cokeville Elementary School hostage crisis. The young boy’s bone-chilling experience prompted his parents to write the book, which eventually became the source material for the T.C. Christensen directorial. Not just that, the character of Ron Hartley is based on an actual police officer who was the lead investigator for the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office at the time. On top of it, Ron’s four children also survived the bombing.

While the movie and the book accurately account what happened on that fateful day in May 1986, they mainly explore some unexplainable incidents that the survivors allegedly reported. Many kids who escaped the bombing claimed they had supposedly spotted angel-like figures in the classroom while being held hostage, including Ron Hartley’s six-year-old son. Furthermore, when the police officer went and spoke to the bomb experts, more shocking evidence came to light.

Findings apparently indicated that three of the bomb’s wires had been miraculously cut and that an unexpected gasoline leak had prevented the explosive powder from causing a fire. Since many of these incidents had no plausible explanation at the time, the survivors and other Cokeville residents considered it a divine intervention that saved lives that day. Over the next few months, many survivors came forward, claiming they saw visions of their ancestors during the hostage crisis, who ultimately guided them to safety.

Coming to how director T.C. Christensen decided to make a movie on the subject, he shared in a 2015 interview with Mormon Artist that around 2008-09, his cousin Stan and Norma Brunswick approached him with the idea and briefly told him about the 1986 incident. Intrigued by the same, the filmmaker met with a friend of the duo who gave him Hart and Judy Wixom’s book and some related videos. Since Christensen was already busy with other projects then, he revisited the idea later and worked on the script for two years, including extensive research.

Given Christensen’s expertise in making faith-based movies, he was the apt choice to direct the film, which sensitively captures the beliefs of the residents of Cokeville and how their religious faith has helped them overcome their trauma. Whether one believes in the divine intervention aspect of the incident or not is subjective, but the director believes that so many people claiming the exact same experience is no less than a miracle. “…A great thing about this film is that it’s not one person; it’s several people. Even though they’re kids, there are several of them. They have different experiences, but they all corroborate with each other, and so it’s like “In the mouth of two or three witnesses,” he said.

Christensen added, “…You have a much more solid testimony of what happened…so let’s say somebody at some point was to come forward and say, “You know what, I made that up.” Well, you’ve got a whole bunch of other ones that would have to do the same thing because it was not one person.” Considering all the points above, one can say that though ‘The Cokeville Miracle’ mostly stays true to the book it is based on and gives a relatively authentic account of David and Doris Young’s real-life actions, some parts of the movie are solely based on religious faith and their accuracy lies in the eyes of the audience.

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