The making of the paedophile prophet: How, 30 years ago, a Bible-obsessed loner transformed himself into an all-powerful cult leader, taking child brides, stealing his followers' wives – and triggering the Waco massacre

Daily Mail UK/February 18, 2023

By Jeff Guinn

At 9.48am on a misty February morning, a lawyer raced to his office and rang the emergency services. 'There are 75 men around our building shooting at us!' Wayne Martin shrieked.

Gunfire was clearly audible in the background. The number on the operator's screen indicated that Martin was calling from Mount Carmel, a sprawling building located on scrubland nine miles from Waco, Texas.

The operator transferred the call to the county sheriff's office, where it was picked up by the deputy sheriff.

By now, Martin was screaming: 'Tell them to fall back — we got women and children in danger! Call them off! We're under fire . . . They're still attacking!'

The deputy sheriff muttered to himself: 'I can't believe this.'

But Wayne Martin was telling the truth. As the rest of the world would soon discover, the attackers were U.S. federal agents.

What he failed to mention, however, was that the Mount Carmel men and women, stationed at first and second-floor windows, were shooting right back.

Which side fired the first shot? Even now, approaching the 30th anniversary of the Waco massacre, no one has ever been able to provide a definitive answer.

Whatever the truth, by the end of that first morning four federal agents had been killed, and 16 wounded. Also shot dead were five Mount Carmel inhabitants, including a mother of four children.

But there was far worse to come.

In the area around Waco, the locals never considered the 100 or so residents of Mount Carmel to be a threat. Sure, the Branch Davidians — as they called themselves — were religious weirdos, but even the district attorney, who was on amicable terms with their leader, considered them harmless.

Many of them, like Wayne Martin, were middle-class. They were intelligent and hard-working — running various businesses, including a bakery and a car-repair shop. Some sent their kids to state schools.

No eyebrows had been raised when their leader, Vernon Howell, had married a 14-year-old in 1983. This was Texas, and it was legal to marry a girl of that age, provided her parents gave their consent.

The general feeling among law-enforcers was: 'They mind their own business. Leave them alone.'

This perfectly suited the Branch Davidians. As far as they were concerned, it was no one's business but God's that they were secretly building up an immense arsenal of illegal weapons.

Or that their leader was regularly having sex with their children — some as young as 12 — as well as with all their wives.

What did any of that matter? The End Time was coming, when they were all destined to be 'translated' to a new world.

Vernon Howell had first visited the compound in summer 1981, when he was 21. The very idea that he'd one day lead the Branch Davidians would have elicited raucous laughter.

Born to a single 14-year-old mother, he'd been so hopeless at school that other pupils called him 'retarded'. At 13, however, he began to change: while his contemporaries were reading comic books, Howell was memorising entire sections of the Bible, then dissecting what they meant.

After school, he drifted aimlessly from one blue-collar job to another — until a friend mentioned a woman near Waco who was apparently a modern-day prophet. Lois Roden, the leader of the Branch Davidians [an offshoot of the Davidians who were, in turn, a sect that had broken away from the Seventh-Day Adventists; they believed the Second Coming was imminent], claimed once to have seen a 'shining silver angel' flying past her window.

That was enough for Howell, who immediately paid her a visit. After being asked to join the group, he was exhilarated to find himself studying the Bible with Lois, then in her early 60s. The awkward young man seemed the answer to her prayers. She wasn't getting any younger and hoped he might succeed her. The rest of the Davidians, however, found him socially inept, with an off-putting habit of discussing how he pleasured himself.

Some time in 1983 — when Lois was 65 and Vernon 23 — the pair became lovers. This was not out of lust, he said later, but from a desire to fulfil Isaiah 8:3 in the Old Testament: 'And I went unto the prophetess; and she conceived, and bore a son.'

Lois, of course, was long past her menopause — but Howell insisted she'd become pregnant and later miscarried. Whether she bamboozled him, or he lied about the pregnancy, is impossible to say.

By then, it was clear the protégé had surpassed his teacher, who was now suffering from terminal breast cancer. Howell started conducting Bible studies with her followers, amazing them with his prodigious memory.

The Bible, he told them, predicted future events; it was just a matter of figuring it out, and updating the terminology. For instance, when the Bible mentioned a sword, that was a gun in modern times.

James Tabor, professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, has listened to about 50 hours of Vernon Howell's taped Bible studies.

He says: 'I've never met anyone who knows the Bible better than me. But [Howell] was picking out things I'd read, but had never put together.'

Howell married 14-year-old Rachel Jones, the daughter of two Davidians, and travelled to Israel with her. He'd later claim that while in Jerusalem, he'd been taken to heaven by seven wingless angels who revealed he was, in fact, Cyrus — a Biblical messiah whose Hebrew name is Koresh — and should take his name.

They also told him he was the Lamb of God — as identified in Revelations — the only being capable of opening the Seven Seals that would unleash an apocalypse on the sinful world. However, they said, if the Davidians followed his teachings, they'd return to a perfect new world.

There was a catch. They'd first need to take on the forces of Babylon — the modern-day government — and die in the ensuing battle.

Granted, this wasn't the most enticing of prospects. But, as the newly minted David Koresh pointed out, everything the angels said was backed up in the Bible.

The Lamb would obviously need an army for the clash with Babylon — so followers were dispatched to Australia and England, returning each time with more recruits.

Koresh established a Californian satellite base, and was soon regularly shuttling between Los Angeles and Waco. Money started pouring in — not just from his followers' jobs, but also from donations.

Even so, life was no picnic. Followers had to eat whatever could be bought cheaply in bulk, so dinner sometimes consisted of only popcorn and bananas. They also had to build the ramshackle multi-storey building that housed them all, where living conditions were primitive.

The only shower was outside, and there were no lavatories. Each morning, the children had to empty all the chamber-pots outside. There was no electricity in the bedrooms — apart from Koresh's, which had the only air-conditioning unit.

No one was permitted to smoke, again apart from Koresh. He justified this with Psalm 18:8, in which smoke emerges from God's nostrils.

'The conditions weeded out people who were just there for a good experience,' explains a former follower. 'It was a test. A lot of people came, then left.'

Then came one of the biggest tests of all. In 1986, Koresh said God had told him to take another 'wife' — Karen Doyle, the 14-year-old daughter of one of his followers.

Her father didn't object; like all Davidians, he believed God's law superseded the secular laws of man. Koresh's legal wife, Rachel, was less keen, until God conveniently visited her in a dream and told her she must accept.

Not long afterwards, Koresh announced that the Lord had expanded on his original message: he now had to take additional wives. Among the four he selected was Rachel's 12-year-old sister, Michelle.

It was a great honour to have been chosen, Koresh told them, as not every female was worthy of the Lamb's seed. He won the parents round by telling them: 'She's going to have a baby for God.'

Aware he was courting trouble, he covered his tracks by ordering followers to marry his new wives — some in legal and some in sham marriages — though the bridegrooms were forbidden from having sex with them. All they got for their pains were girls willing to wash their clothes.

Koresh continued taking new wives, though the exact number is unknown. In California, he kept six in a rented house he called The House of David. The women slept on bunk beds in one room, waiting to be summoned to his room.

Although some of the women were in their 20s, the Lamb's eye was drawn to younger girls. Kiri Jewell recalled being told by Koresh that she'd one day be one of his wives. Just seven at the time, she told her mother — who was thrilled. When Kiri was ten, Koresh laid her down on a bed, kissed her, rubbed himself against her and climaxed. He then read to her from the Bible.

'I just laid there and stared at the ceiling,' said Kiri. 'I didn't know how to kiss him back. Anyway, I was kind of freaked out.'

Later, Koresh shifted the sexual goalposts again: from now on, he announced, he'd be having sex with all the Branch Davidian women, no matter their age or marital status. His goal was to father the 24 souls who would — according to scripture — help rule over God's Kingdom on Earth after the End Time.

This new edict came as a catastrophic blow to the husbands, particularly after Koresh explained that God wanted them to be entirely celibate. All their energy would henceforth be devoted to Bible studies.

To placate his male followers, Koresh told them their obedience would guarantee a perfect, permanent mate in the next world.

As Branch Davidian survivor Livingstone Fagan says: 'We had to be brought to a place where our love of God was greater than our love for anything else.'

For Mike and Kathy Schroeder, who'd sold everything they owned in 1989 to join the Davidians, being told they had to separate came as a terrible shock. But when Mike complained, Koresh was understanding.

Obviously, he told the distraught husband, it would be too painful for him to live at Mount Carmel, where he'd be in constant contact with Kathy. Therefore, Mike would have to work at the Davidians' car-repair business, a few miles away, and spend most nights there.

Furthermore, whenever Mike did spend a night at Mount Carmel, he'd have to sleep in his car — in order to avoid temptation.

Other Davidians suggested Mike burn all his photos of Kathy, which he duly did. As part of the new arrangements, all the men moved to the first floor. Women and children, plus Koresh, slept on the second.

In the evenings, after Bible study, he'd choose his companion for the night. Soon, he had several 'wives' in various stages of pregnancy.

Sometimes, he couldn't resist winding the husbands up. 'I got all the women — aren't you jealous?' he'd goad them.

After a few months, the men noticed that Koresh's most frequent bed partners were the most attractive Davidians. As always, their leader had an answer: 'Shouldn't God's children be beautiful?' Come the End Time, he prophesied, he'd also have sex with non-Davidians — including the pop star Madonna, who'd been promised to him by the Lord.

In total, 11 women gave birth to 17 of his babies. Koresh said they were old, sacred souls who'd returned to earth in the form of infants.

No aspect of the Davidians' lives was separate from their religious beliefs. 'We followed what the Bible wanted,' said Kathy Schroeder. 'One of my sons killed a grasshopper, and I made him eat it. In the Bible, [the Book of] Leviticus tells you anything that's edible and you kill, then you must eat it, because that is the only reason to kill it.'

Yet no one saw a contradiction when Koresh conceived a new money-making venture in 1992: selling guns and hunting vests at gun shows. Nor did they worry when he had them buying gun conversion kits to turn semi-automatics into fully automatic rifles.

So what if that was against the law — their prophet had a direct line to God! Some of these guns, as well as illegal grenades, were stashed away for the forthcoming battle with Babylon.

No one imagined that was imminent. But the mood at the compound began to change when a former follower — who'd fled after refusing to give up his wife — started stirring up trouble.

First, he told the local paper in 1992 that the Davidians were planning a mass suicide at Passover. But the sheriff refused to investigate and the story fizzled out.

Then the local child protection services started poking around, concerned about rumours that children were being abused. They were — and not just sexually.

Corporal punishment was being meted out to babies as young as six months. There were, at least, rules to stop it getting out of hand: each beating had to be administered on the buttocks 24 hours after the transgression, with a wooden spoon known as 'the helper'. However, officials who visited the compound several times found no evidence of abuse, whether sexual or otherwise.

They had better luck when they visited 12-year-old Kiri Jewell, who had moved away from Mount Carmel and was now living with her non-Davidian father.

Jaws dropped when she described how Koresh had sexually abused her and other under-age girls. Any hopes of bringing a case against him, however, were dashed when Kiri refused to testify — saying she was afraid she'd burn in hell for being a tell-tale.

Koresh was in the clear, but he'd been rattled by both the abuse investigation and the suicide story. The forces of Babylon, he told his followers, were on the move and time was running out.

Surviving Branch Davidians agree that the tone of Koresh's teaching had now changed. 'If you can't kill for God, you can't die for God,' he told his followers.

Passover in 1993, he said, would probably be their last one.

He'd started sleeping with a gun under his pillow, and making followers watch violent movies about the Vietnam War, which he referred to as 'training films'.

Concerted efforts were made to persuade followers living abroad to come to Mount Carmel. Even people who'd left the Davidians were encouraged to return, in order to be among the 'chosen' in the coming apocalypse.

Everyone had to be ready to respond fiercely to an armed assault, said Koresh — and that meant they needed more weapons. Followers frantically applied for as many credit cards as possible, then maxed them out with orders from dealers across the country.

At the same time, everyone had to take part in compulsory gun practice, with separate targets for men and women.

Just a few months later, on February 28, 1993, 76 heavily armed federal agents burst into the compound.

As Koresh had prophesied, Babylon had arrived — and the Branch Davidians were fully prepared to fight and die . . .

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