At Bible Study With David Koresh’s Last Followers

Branch Davidians Clive Doyle and Sheila Martin lost almost everything in the Waco fire, but not their faith.

Texas Monthly/April 2018

By Eric Benson

Every Saturday afternoon, on the Branch Davidian sabbath, Clive Doyle drives to the North Waco home of Sheila Martin, where the two old friends study the Bible together, often joined by a small group of spiritual seekers and curious interlopers. Doyle grew up in Australia, Martin in Boston, but both are now in their seventies and have lived in McLennan County for decades. In the Waco area, where many residents would just as soon forget the tragic events that embroiled the Branch Davidians 25 years ago, Doyle and Martin are unique. They are the last two people living there—and among just a handful left in the world—who fervently believe that their former spiritual leader, David Koresh, was not a crazed cult leader, or a delusional narcissist, or even merely a gifted interpreter of scripture, but a genuine prophet of God.

One of these Saturdays, I drove up to Waco to join Doyle and Martin. Outside, it was cold and raw, with low-hanging clouds throwing off an occasional mist of rain. Inside Martin’s living room, the climate was far cozier, with potted plants, soft lighting, and religious paraphernalia cluttering the space. Martin—who is petite and African-American, and still speaks in a pahked-the-cah New England brogue—took her usual hostess’s position at a small table next to the kitchen, ready to accommodate anyone who needed a glass of water or something to eat. Doyle—jowled and a little stooped as he nears eighty—lowered himself onto a worn couch, taking charge of the room. Seated around the two Branch Davidians were Doyle’s roommate Ron Goines, a messianic Jew who first came to Mount Carmel in 1998, and Marlene Joyce, a former follower of Herbert W. Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God who has been attending Branch Davidian services since the mid-nineties.

Ed Brown, an old acquaintance of Martin’s, was the last to arrive. He had met Martin in 1996, when she brought her youngest son, Daniel, to join Brown’s Cub Scout pack. Brown had never been to a Branch Davidian Bible study before, and he announced himself by saying he was curious about the sect’s theological underpinnings.

“This is your fellowship now?” Brown asked. “How many do you have that consider themselves—”

“Sheila and I are the only two survivors in this room,” Doyle answered in his Texas-inflected Australian accent. “There are other survivors around, and some of them are hanging onto their faith. There are a lot that have renounced it, given up on it, they’re out there doing their own thing, gone back to their old lifestyle or whatever.”

“This is the heart of it right now?” Brown asked.

“It’s the heart of Waco,” Doyle replied.

“We’re not ashamed,” Martin smiled. “We know that everything starts small.”

The forebears of the Branch Davidians were a tiny breakaway band of Seventh-day Adventists who arrived in the Waco area in 1935, after their leader, a Bulgarian immigrant named Victor Houteff, had been expelled from his Los Angeles church. Houteff believed, like mainstream Adventists, that the second coming of Christ was imminent, but he taught an even more literal, even more eschatological reading of scripture and set himself up as a prophet whose arrival would presage the Second Coming. Houteff had settled his followers on the shores of Lake Waco on a property that he called Mount Carmel, but he expected their stay to be brief. Within a year, he and his followers believed, Christ would return, and they would move to the Holy Land to meet him. In fact, they remained in the Waco area for much longer, and over the next four and a half decades, the sect prospered and grew despite Houteff’s death, fights for succession, a schism, and a relocation to a tract of land on a hilltop ten miles west of Waco that was christened as a new Mount Carmel.

In 1981, a stuttering 22-year-old aspiring rock musician named Vernon Wayne Howell arrived at the new Mount Carmel, and he quickly established himself as a preacher in Houteff’s mold. He seduced the sect’s then-leader, Lois Roden, began displaying a preternatural recall of the Bible, and claimed a special role for himself in the onset of the Judgment. He would eventually change his name to David Koresh, after two Biblical kings.

Both Doyle and Martin accepted Koresh’s claims to leadership. Like many in the group, they believed that he was the “Lamb of God,” the individual described in the Book of Revelation who will unlock the fullness of Christ’s message just before the End Times. And they remained loyal to Koresh even as he hoarded guns, required attendance at sermons delivered at all hours of the night, and unveiled a controversial new message that compelled his followers to be celibate—with the exception of Koresh himself and his growing group of “spiritual wives” (at least one was as young as twelve years old), with whom he hoped to father 24 children who would, after the Second Coming, sit on 24 thrones in Heaven.

On February 28, 1993, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, after investigating Koresh and the group for possible federal weapons violations, staged a raid on Mount Carmel. The operation was a disaster from its first moments, and the ensuing shootout left four ATF agents and six Branch Davidians dead. A 51-day law enforcement siege led by the FBI followed, and on the morning of April 19, the feds tried to force the Branch Davidians to surrender by using tanks to inject tear gas into the group’s multi-story building. Shortly after noon, a fire broke out at multiple locations inside the building. Martin and her three younger children had left weeks earlier, and she watched on television as the blaze engulfed the structure. “At first they told us twenty had gotten out,” Martin remembers. “Then they told us it was nine.”

Doyle was one of the nine. Koresh and 75 of his followers perished that day. Among the dead were Doyle’s daughter Shari; Martin’s husband, Wayne; and the four eldest Martin children.

In the aftermath of the fire, the government charged eleven surviving Branch Davidians, including Doyle, with crimes related to the killing of the ATF agents. But a jury found Doyle not guilty on all counts, and he returned to Waco ready to help lead what remained of the group. At the time, many of the Branch Davidian women were still living in the area, and Doyle found a number of young men circling the survivors, offering them help but also, in his estimation, looking for control. One, an anti-government conspiracy theorist named Ron Cole, started dressing like Koresh, drove a Camaro just like Koresh, and, even though he was far from a biblical savant, styled himself as Koresh’s successor.

“When I got back, I saw all of the women, and I said, ‘Do you believe this guy is the next David Koresh?’” Doyle told me. “And they said, ‘I don’t know, he thinks he is.’”

The Koresh wannabe eventually moved on, and Doyle became the small group’s de facto leader and lay preacher. In 1998, he moved into a trailer at Mount Carmel—it had remained the property of the Branch Davidians—and began to lead services there. But Doyle’s leadership wasn’t unchallenged. Charles Pace, a Branch Davidian who had left the group in the 1980s, was also living on the property, and he liked to get up in front of the congregants after Doyle finished preaching to refute the Australian’s sermons and assert that Koresh had been the Antichrist. By 2006, Doyle had had enough. He left Mount Carmel for good and moved to Waco proper.

“The people that accepted David, the people who think God was using David, didn’t take kindly to having David run down and castigated constantly,” Doyle told me. “All of the members stopped coming to our meetings, and it got to the point where we had a flock of believers all downtown, and I figured the shepherd needs to go where the sheep are.”

On the day I visited Doyle and Martin’s Bible study, the conversation often departed from Scripture into analyses of the siege and Koresh. TV programs marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the tragedy had been airing for the past month, focusing on the Branch Davidians’ history and theology, Koresh’s controversial leadership, and the FBI’s aggressive tactics during the siege—which included crushing the Branch Davidians’ parked cars and blasting loud sounds through a loudspeaker all night.

At the end of January, A&E had aired a new documentary, Waco: Madman or Messiah, which had included an on-camera admission from a Branch Davidian survivor named Graeme Craddock, who, like Doyle, had fled the compound as it was being consumed by flames. Craddock said that he’d heard another Branch Davidian say “light the fire,” and went on to explain that “David had set up the building so if the FBI were to attack us in a full onslaught, he would set fire to the building.”

For the past two and a half decades, “who started the fire?” has been perhaps the most polarizing question about what happened during the siege. Government reports had previously quoted Craddock saying he’d observed other Branch Davidians spreading fuel and yelling “light the fire,” but he’d never made so full and public a statement about the origins of the blaze. To many who had long doubted the official story that the Branch Davidians had started the fire, Craddock’s interview was startling.

“I had a friend from California call me the other night after he saw Graeme on the show making his statement,” Doyle said as we sat in Martin’s living room. “This guy has been supportive for 25 years and that floored him. He said, ‘That creates a whole different ball game.’ I said, ‘Well, why he said it, under what circumstances he said it, I don’t know.’”

“You don’t believe that people inside set the fire, do you?” Ed Brown, Martin’s friend, asked Doyle.

“I never saw where the fire started,” Doyle sighed.

“But there was never a discussion–” Brown continued.

“Not with me,” Doyle said. (Law enforcement officials have alleged that Doyle had accelerant on his hands when he left the burning building, possible evidence that he helped start the fire. Doyle denies that he played any role in igniting the blaze.)

“On the other hand,” Doyle mused, “the FBI and the ATF both promoted David as being a crazy madman. If they really believed that, why would you keep pushing a guy with all the things that they were doing—the loud noises, the destroying the vehicles, the ramming the building? Why would you keep doing that, unless you were trying to egg him into running out the door—crazy and shooting—so you could take him out? It doesn’t make any sense to do it.”

Brown asked if, after everything, Doyle and Martin regretted following Koresh. “Somebody asked me one time, they said, ‘Do you blame David Koresh for all that happened to you?’” Doyle answered. “And I said, ‘No, I blame God. God is supposed to be in control. God permitted it to happen for a reason.’”

The Bible, Doyle continued, is full of examples of God commanding his prophets to perform strange acts, and many of those prophets have faced ostracism and persecution.

“Prophets are asked to do things,” Doyle said. “Isaiah was told to go naked, and he wasn’t the only prophet that was told to go naked to deliver his message.”

Brown turned to Martin: “Sheila, would you make the same decision again?”

Martin paused for a second, then answered. “If they said that my kids would have lived all these years and they were sitting in this room with me, that’s the one thing that would make me happy. But the fact that they’re not with us—I’d much rather that than for them to be lost, out here, on this side.”

Doyle jumped in. “It’s not that we wish we could relive it all the exact same way just for the heck of it, but would we make the same decisions based on the faith we had? The answer is yes.”

Both Martin and Doyle believe that their loved ones will be resurrected at the time of the Judgment along with Koresh himself, part of a select order of martyrs. At Martin’s house in Waco, Doyle said that he kept observing his faith in part “so that I can see my daughter again—I don’t want her coming back and finding Dad went off and jumped off a cliff because he gave up everything.” And when I called Martin a few weeks later, she was even more direct about how this vision of the end times gives her a measure of hope, a reason to stay resolute in her beliefs, a reason to keep studying, a reason to carry on.

“My peace of mind all these years is that God will eventually raise them up,” Martin said, “and they will be part of the group that will be in the Last Days bringing truth to others.”

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