He loves God and he loves women. He has total control over
the lives of his followers who believe his message: the Apocalypse
Young girls and old women, innocent and worldly, virginal and
fecund. Within the walls of the kingdom on the flat plains of
Texas, David Koresh knew them all-in the Biblical sense, former
followers say. He began a decade ago with Lois Roden. She was
67 and the widowed leader of the Branch Davidians when the 23-year
old Koresh, still called by his birth name of Vernon Howell, arrived
at the Mount Carmel compound. He confessed to the group that
he worried about his excessive masturbation. Ex-members say Roden
felt sorry for him and they became lovers, even tried to have
a child. Koresh now disavows the union, saying she was as ugly
His next lover was at least a little bit closer to his own age.
In 1984, he married Rachel Jones, the 14-year old daughter of
two followers; she bore him a son, Cyrus, and a daughter, Star.
Koresh claimed to be monogamous for two entire years. But then,
followers say, God told him to build a new House of David, one
with many wives, just as King David had. Many wives, like Robyn
Bunds, then 17, and later, her mother, Jeannine, 50. Robyn
Bunds says Koresh fathered her 4-year old son, Shaun. According
to the Waco Tribune-Herald, she fled when Koresh took up with
her mother. Both women now live in California.
As the years passed, the "wives" got younger and younger.
Michelle Jones, 12, was his wife Rachel's little sister and,
an ex-follower says, Koresh's special favorite. At least a dozen
other nubile members of the flock succumbed; they wore Star of
David pendants, a sign that they had been chosen. When the ex-husband
of one Branch Davidian heard that his 10-year old daughter was
wearing the star, he sued for custody and, after winning, whisked
her away to his home in Michigan, according to the Waco paper.
Many of the girls' parents were Koresh's followers; they gave
their blessings because "they believed in his message,"
says Robyn Bunds's brother David. All in the name of God, of
course. Koresh often preached from the 45th Psalm,
where it is written that the king's head is anointed with the
"oil of gladness." Koresh's unique analysis: the oil
refers to vaginal secretions. During intercourse, his "wives"
anoint the head of their king's penis.
It sounds like crazy talk now. Who could have believed it? But
there they were, dozens of devotees, lured to a lonesome place
on the Texas prairie by the promise of salvation. They had traveled
from all over the country and beyond-Hawaii, Britain, Australia
Koresh had recruited many of his forays around the globe in search
of new blood. Some turned all their worldly goods over to him.
In several cases, that amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
They were holed up in the fortress with the man who claimed to
both a prophet king and a warrior angel with the keys to heaven.
Maybe even the Messiah.
He was a ninth-grade dropout, but his knowledge of the Scriptures
was so formidable it truly seemed superhuman. And he could talk
for hours and hours and hours, from early morning to well past
midnight, while they listened until they could hear no more, not
moving, not eating, not sleeping. "They lived in constant
fear," says Rick Ross, a deprogrammer who counseled a former
Branch Davidian. "He developed a crisis mentality, constantly
talking about the end of the world, telling them they always had
to be ready for the aggressors who would come from without the
walls to destroy them." They were ready for Armageddon,
and when federal agents stormed their fortress, it must have seemed
as though the Last Days had begun.
This wasn't what the Creator had in mind. The Branch Davidians
are an offshoot of a schism of Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Their ancestors are the Davidian Seventh-day Adventists, founded
in the 1930s by Victor Houteff, a Bulgarian emigre and prominent
Los Angeles area Adventist, who bolted to Texas when a book he
had written upset church officials. Houteff believed that the
Adventists had become lax. "He believed that the return
of Christ was imminent but that it could not happen until there
was a purer church that could receive Christ," says Bill
Pitts, a Baylor University religion professor who has studied
Houteff attracted scores of members to his semicommunal farm in
Waco, but the organization began to fall apart a few years after
his death in 1955. His widow, Florence, took over the helm and
moved the group to the current. In 1959, Pitts says, she proclaimed
that the Kingdom of God would arrive on Easter Day. Hundreds
of followers across the country sold everything, quit their jobs
and made the trip to Waco for the big event. They were looking
for some sign that the kingdom would be coming-a war in the Mideast
or some other signal of cataclysm. Alas, the Lord didn't come
and the failed prophecy shook the Davidians to the core. "After
two or three weeks," says Pitts, "they experienced what
is called 'The Great Disappointment'."
Although a core group of about 50 stayed in Waco after this sad
episode, most of the Davidians moved on. A power struggle ensued.
The group splintered and eventually a man named Ben Roden rose
up and declared himself the leader of a new group, the Branch
Davidians. Roden ruled until he died in 1978 and was succeeded
by his wife, Lois.
Enter Vernon Wayne Howell. A would-be rock musician, he was the
illegitimate son of Bonnie Haldeman. Born in Houston, he grew
up in Dallas where he was raised as an Adventist. "He was
a very bright little boy in lots of ways," says his maternal
grandmother, Earline Clark of Chandler, Texas, "but when
he started school, he was dyslexic." He went to a special
school for a year or so, but never did well. By the ninth grade,
he had dropped out. Despite these difficulties, he studied the
Bible and played the guitar, Clark says. At 18 he moved to Tyler,
Texas, not far from Chandler, where he joined the Adventist Church.
But his grandmother says local church leaders didn't care for
his long hair and casual dress. Clarks says Howell became disillusioned
with the Tyler church and shortly thereafter moved to Waco to
be with the Branch Davidians.
When Howell arrived, Lois Roden's control over the Branch was
already waning. Her son, George, thought he should be his father's
true successor, and some Branch Davidians were more than a little
perturbed by Lois Roden's recent proclamation that the Holy Spirit
was feminine. Former followers say they didn't like George Roden
much, either. Thought he was buts. Howell walked right into
this power vacuum. Over the next few years, he bedded Lois Roden
and married Rachel Jones, according to the ex-adherents. After
his marriage, he shunned the old woman, declaring that his beliefs
were now the true revealed word. He had a charismatic manner
and a scriptural answer for everything. "He knew the Bible
awful well," says Doug Mitchell, a former member of the group
who now lives in California. "He was always teaching that
Sister Roden had lost he inspiration." Howell also pestered
Roden to get rid of her son. Howell and George Roden got into
a few fights (Howell's relationship with his mother couldn't have
helped), and George began wearing a gun around the compound.
It was the first weapon ever seen at Mount Carmel, Mitchell says.
Around this time, Mitchell recalls going to consult with Lois
Roden about some minor issue. "Ask Vernon," she said
with a sigh. "He seems to be in charge."
What Vernon put in charge was how his new revelation. He was
the seventh and final angel destined to be the agent of God who
brought about the end of the world. This was truly an apocalyptic
vision, but it was also the logical conclusion of Howell's earlier
prophecies. He had originally preached that the end would come
when he moved to Israel and began converting the Jews. The conversion,
he claimed, would cause worldwide upheaval, start a war and would
cause. American armed forced to invade the Holy Land. That would
signal the beginning of Armageddon. Then Howell would be transformed
into a warrior angel who would cleanse the earth in preparation
for the New Jerusalem.
Howell actually went to Israel in the 1980s, but things didn't
work out as he he'd predicted. So he switched to Plan N. In
1990, he legally changed his name to David Koresh (Koresh is Hebrew
for Cyrus, the Babylonian king who allowed the Jews to return
to Israel). Abandoning the notion of an Apocalypse starting in
Israel, he began predicting that the great battle would be in
Texas, says David Bunds. The group would stay at Mount Carmel
and await the moment when the American army attacked and brought
about the end of the world.
In the meantime, they managed to keep fairly busy with the mundane
details of pre-apocalyptic earthly life. Howell and a core group
of about 25 members left the compound after Lois Roden's death
in 1986 and wandered through Waco, other parts of Texas and California.
In 1987, they were living in the aptly named town of Palestine,
Texas, when they decided to wrest back Mount Carmel from George
Roden, who at that point claimed to be the true prophet of the
Branch. Roden heard about their intentions and challenged his
rival to a grisly contest. He dug up a coffin containing the
corpse of an 85-year old woman and announced that whoever of them
could resurrect the woman was the true leader. Howell wisely
declined to participate.
In Halloween of that year, Denise Wilkerson, then a prosecutor
in Waco, received an unusual request from sheriff's deputies.
Howell wanted to prosecute Roden for corpse abuse. "Given
that it was Halloween, we thought it was a joke," Wilkerson
says. Nevertheless, she told the sheriff's department that without
evidence of a crime, say a photograph showing that there was actually
a corpse in the coffin, she could not file charges. A few days
later, in the early morning hours of Nov. 3, Howell and seven
heavily armed comrades dressed in camouflage fatigues made their
way from Palestine onto the grounds of Mount Carmel. Their alleged
goal: to get a picture of the corpse. The invaders waited until
many of the adults and children at Mount Carmel had left for work
and school, then went from building to building warning members
to leave because there might be trouble. One member notified
Roden instead. Wilkerson says Roden grabbed his Uzi and a 20-minute
fire fight followed. The sheriff was called and the shooting
stopped. No one was killed, but Roden was slightly wounded in
the hand and chest.
Howell and his men were charged with attempted murder and released
on bond. Then Roden was jailed for contempt of court in an unrelated
case after he filed "some of the most obscene and profane
motions that probably have ever been filed in a federal courthouse,"
says Wilkerson. Howell seized the moment, moving his followers
into Mount Carmel and fortifying the place.
In early 1988, Howell and the seven members of his team went on
trial for attempted murder. Claiming that he was aiming at a
tree, Howell admitted shooting in Roden's direction, and that
his colleagues had merely fired their guns into the air to scare
Roden into giving up. Howell's accomplices were acquitted, and
Howell's trial ended in a hung jury. "After the verdict
was announced," Wilkerson recalls, "a couple of jurors
came over and hugged Vernon because they found him to be a very
sympathetic character." Then, as the spectators were filing
out of the courtroom, Howell invited everyone, including the jury,
out to Mount Carmel for an ice cream social.
A few months later George Roden got out of jail on the contempt
charges and moved to Odessa. Not long afterwards he was sent
to a state mental hospital after killing a man. (Still there
last week, he said, "I've been trying to warn people about
Vernon for years.")
Since the trial, Mount Carmel has presented a quiet front to the
outside world. Neighbors reported that Howell/Koresh was a regular
guy, who often turned up at local clubs to listen to live music.
Brent Moore, manager of the Chelsea Street Pub, says he last
saw Koresh about a month ago, when he came to the pub with a man
and a woman in their early 20s. They were happily showing down
bean and cheese nachos with iced tea.
But within the cult, former followers say life grew more and more
bizarre. At the compound, there was an armed guard at all times
and Koresh was in total control. In August 1989, former followers
say, he announced that not only was he allowed to have as many
wives as he wanted; he was the only man allowed to have wives.
Every other marriage was annulled. Many happy married couples
in the group were shocked and quite a few left. Marc Breault
was one of them. After moving to Australia, he organized other
former Branch Davidians and hired an investigator to go to Waco
to get local authorities to bust Koresh, according to the Waco
In addition to the weird sex, there were charges of child abuse.
Followers claimed that Koresh beat even very young children until
they were bruised and bleeding. Koresh has denied these claims,
and child-welfare workers who visited Mount Carmel aid they found
nothing wrong-although some followers say Koresh was tipped off
before their arrival.
But just as Koresh had predicted, the end of the world-at least his world-was near. A few years ago a bus was buried to serve as a bunker; in recent months stores of food and ammunition have been brought in. None of the children Koresh released after the shoot-out were his, the heirs to the House of David, ex-members believe. So all is still in place for the grand finale. The adults, says Bunds, are probably happy to stay. "They are waiting to get zapped up to heaven where they'll be transformed and fight a war where they get to kill all their enemies The only people that may be sorry are the parents who had to let their children be released." With youngsters gone, they had but one life to lose for their prophet.