Why did you do it?" his mother asked him.
"Because I love you," he replied.
She said nothing.
If Robert had not rescued his parents from David Koresh and the branch Davidians when he did, they most likely would have perished with 75 other people that fateful day last year. Like many cults, Koresh's group counted a number of older people among its members.
That's why the story of Robert and his family, who asked that their real names not be used, is a cautionary tale for both the elderly and those who love them.
It began eight years ago. Robert's parents, both retired civil servants, were at loose ends. Their children were grown and they were in the throes of coming to terms with their old age. After one son divorced they offered to take in their grandchildren. When social workers told them they were too old, it was a crushing blow. They became very stressed, recalls Leslie, Robert's wife. "And that's what cults look for."
Robert's parents had long been member s of the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Hawaii when David Koresh visited there in 1986. "My mother-in-law told me Koresh had the answers to all their questions," Leslie recalls. "I remember looking at their Bibles. Every single passage was underlined in red. There were notes everywhere, on every page. It looked to me like Koresh had rewritten the Bible - for his own purposes."
In 1988 Robert's parents decided to follow Koresh to Texas. Robert knew nothing about the move until he learned his parents had sold their home. The proceeds - more than a half a million dollars - went to Koresh in accordance with his teaching that all worldly goods be turned over to the prophet. The older couple stopped in California and tried to convince Robert to follow them to Texas and to salvation.
"We were alarmed, but at that point we knew nothing about David Koresh and the Branch Davidians," Robert says. 'One of my brothers said something about religious freedom. WE knew we couldn't stop them."
The family's concern grew as their parents became more and more isolated. Phone calls were not returned for months on end. When a family member did talk to the parents, the had little to say. Finally, about a year after they moved into the Waco compound the couple were allowed to leave and visit Robert. It was then the younger man realized the real consequences of his parents' association with the cult.
They were extremely thin, Robert remembers. They refused to eat a special dinner the family had prepared. They had unconventional diet restrictions they adhered to unflaggingly: Bananas and oranges were all right, for instance, but they couldn't eat apples because the thin skin allowed poisons to enter the fruit; and vegetables had to be cut into perfect cubes.
Further, the older couple's clothes were unwashed, their hair long, and Robert's father suffered from constant colds and a terrible rash.
During the visit Robert and Leslie managed to find out more details of Day-to-day life in the Waco compound. The parents had no heat in their shack and were not allowed to keep or cook their own food. They had learned to shoot M16 rifles. And they had sold their van when they got to Texas and used the money to buy a red Camero because Koresh had told them God ordered it.
Robert also found out that his mother no longer lived with her husband, but instead stayed with the other women of the compound as a "wife of god." That god, of course, was David Koresh.After this harrowing visit Robert and Leslie searched for information about the Branch Davidians, but they were able to learn next to nothing. [Eventually though, their search led them to Rick Ross, a cult expert and deprogrammer who had spent years helping families affected by the group. They talked to Ross repeatedly by phone and step-by-step through hours of conversation they learned about cults, brainwashing and the techniques of mind control employed by Koresh.]
That's the first time the word cult was used. And that's when Robert knew he and his family had to get his parents away from Waco.
It wasn't until 1991 that they got their chance.
One of Robert's brothers, who lived in Hawaii, fell off a roof and was seriously injured. Robert called their parents and asked them to go to the brother. They said they had to get Koresh's permission, and it was several weeks before he would allow them to leave the compound.
Once the brother was no longer in danger, the parents went to California to visit their other sons. Robert decided the time had come to make the break.The parents stayed with Robert and Leslie. Each day Robert found some excuse to delay the older couple's departure, and they were never left alone. Robert [called Rick Ross constantly seeking advice about what to do and how to reach his parents through a virtual "do-it-yourself" deprogramming intervention.]
He began showing them counter-cult videotapes [and sharing with them other materials suggested by Ross.] Robert talked to his parents endlessly to make sure they understood what they were seeing [often using explanations coached by Ross through phone conversations.] And he hid their Bibles,[which were full of highlighting and notes dictated by Koresh.]
Despite all this, it wasn't until another couple, who had once belonged to a cult themselves, talked to the parents that they agreed to leave the Branch Davidians.
First, however, they wanted to return to Waco and pick up their belongings.
Fearing he'd lose his parents again if both of them went back to the compound, Robert insisted that his mother stay in San Francisco and he, his father, and a friend drove to the Texas compound. They arrived at dawn in their rental truck. Several of the other older members including David Koresh' stepfather, Roy Haldeman - came out to help and wish them well.
As Robert, his father, and the friend were about to drive away, Koresh himself stepped out of a doorway. Robert's father bolted from the truck and ran over to him. Robert watched as his father talked to the skinny young man dressed in blue jeans and a black T-shirt. Finally, the older man returned to the truck - in tears.
The hold David Koresh had on his followers is hard to understand unless one has had first-hand experience. Marc Breault, one of Koresh'' early lieutenants and co-author of Inside the Cult (NAL/Dutton, 1993) describes his former leader's power:
"Vernon [Koresh's real name] used the Bible to accomplish one thing He used it to convince us that he was a prophet Once a person thought he [Koresh] was a prophet, he had them. One a person thought he [Koresh] was a God, there was no turning back The Bible is full of stories about people leaving their homes and loved ones to follow God."
Today, Robert's parents are back in Hawaii living quietly. They are recovering, however slowly. It was a year before they even began to contact old friends. His mother only recently started to attend church again. They still fear for their lives. And, most unfortunately, their relationship with Robert remains strained.
Robert's only concern is that his parents are safe. He believes they will eventually understand the danger they were in. "I find that society in general knows little about cults," he says. "We forgot Jim Jones very quickly. I hope we don't forget David Koresh."