Zealot of God


For someone who claimed to believe he was Jesus, David Koresh was a twisted representation of Christian ideals. Rather than practice the forgiveness of sinners, he frequently punished children as young as 8 months old by beating them till they were bruised and bloody. Instead of putting temptation behind him, he had a harem of as many as 19 “wives” and slept with girls 12 and 13 years old. And unlike the Prince of Peace, Koresh packed a Clock 9-mm pistol and kept a deadly arsenal he was willing to use. Despite all this, he had a passionate following—his own religious cult of several hundred members—who believed that to get to heaven they had to go through hell.

Last week they may have begun their infernal journey, with a bloody 45-minule shoot-out with federal agents at the cult’s fortified compound cast of Waco, Tex. The battle left officials scrambling to explain why they were not better prepared for the resistance they met when they tried to serve search and arrest warrants on the cult. Four agents of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were killed and 15 injured. Inside the compound, perhaps as many as 15 died and three—including Koresh—were reportedly wounded. Afterward, hundreds of federal, stale and county lawmen surrounded the sprawling complex, waiting for the sect to give up—as Koresh at one point promised to do. But as PEOPLE went to press on March 4, the standoff continued, with former cult members predicting it would end in mass suicide. “They are all prepared to die for him,” said one, Marc Breault, 29, of Melbourne.

To Koresh’s followers, he is a sweet-talking evangelist, a charismatic Messiah who will lead them through the rapidly approaching apocalypse. “If the Bible is true, then I’m Christ,” he said in a taped message broadcast during the siege. But to his detractors, Koresh—or Vernon Howell as he was known until he legally changed his name in 1990—is closer to being another Charles Manson or Jim Jones. “He courts these people with a guitar and takes control of their lives,” says James Breckenridge, a cult expert at Baylor University in Waco. “If you are the Messiah, you have a direct pipeline to God. And if you have that, then the parameters of your power are very wide.”

Koresh, 33, hardly fits the profile of any ordinary religious leader. An accomplished guitarist who enjoys a beer or two, he left his native Texas in the early 1980s to pursue rock stardom In Hollywood. When he failed to achieve that dream, his fundamentalist religious fervor look over. He set up there group home in the Los Angeles area where he tried, unsuccessfully, to develop a subcult of a religious sect called Branch Davidian, itself a spin-off of the conservative Seventh-Day Adventist Church.

In 1984 he returned to the cull’s headquarters outside Waco and tried to establish himself as the group’s leader by sleeping with cultprophetess Lois Roden. He was 24; she was 67. Her son George, objecting to the relationship, claimed that Koresh had raped his mother and began a lengthy campaign against him for the cult’s leadership, using ladies even more extreme than his rival’s. In 1987, Roden dug up a former cult member’s body from a local cemetery and challenged Koresh to a kind of messianic duel: The man who could bring the woman back to life would take over Branch Davidian. Koresh promptly asked the local sheriff to arrest Roden for corpse abuse. When the sheriff demanded proof, Koresh and seven men tried to steal the body in a predawn military-style raid.

A two-hour shoot-out followed, and Koresh and his followers were arrested and charged with attempted murder. They were never convicted, in large part because George Roden, the prosecution’s chief witness, was then serving six months for harassing the courts. He had filed legal motions asking God to give AIDS and herpes to the Texas Supreme Court.

After that, Koresh look over Branch Davidian. His megalomania, say former followers, quickly became evident—as did his tactic of controlling the group through isolation, constant activity and, especially, fear. He insisted that cult members begin each day at 5:30 a.m. with boot camp-style physical training and no water. “He felt that not drinking during exercises in hot weather was a sign of toughness,” said Breault, his onetime recruiter. The rest of the day was spent rebuilding the rundown compound. Koresh, meanwhile, stayed in bed, not getting up until around 2 p.m. Then he would begin Bible classes, sometimes preaching for 15 hours straight while his exhausted followers tried to slay awake.

One of his teachings was that he was the “Lamb,” or the son of God—something most of his followers grew to accept without question. Koresh argued that being the son of God gave him total control over the sex lives of his followers. “He taught that all the women in the world belonged to him, that those of us who were married had to give up our wives to him, and that only he had the right to procreate,” says Breault, who eventually left the cult with his wife, Elizabeth, rather than comply with Koresh’s rule that men and women sleep in different quarters. Leaving was not done easily; former members say Koresh maintained a “hit list,” forcing some ex-believers to go into seclusion.

Koresh insisted that female cult members wear long skirts and not cut their hair. He put them on such bizarre diets as popcorn and fruit to keep them thin, the way he liked them. And he eventually “married” as many as 19 cult women and fathered at least 10 of their children. His offspring, he said, would “rule God’s kingdom.”

Some of his “wives” were young teenagers. “He became fixated with sex and with a taste for younger girls,” Breault says. One girl reportedly earmarked for the “House of David,” as “marriage” with Koresh was called, was Kiri Jewell, now 12. She lived in the compound off and on for about five years with her divorced mother, Sherri, now 43, who was a Koresh “wife” herself. Sherri’s former husband, David Jewell, 35, a disc jockey who lives in Michigan, became frightened for Kiri’s welfare and sued for custody last year. To support Jewell, Breault submitted a written statement saying that “by early to mid-1989, Sherri was beginning to prepare…Kiri to become one of Vernon’s wives.”

Kiri, who now lives with her father, says that Koresh often spent the night playing his guitar, watching MTV and fantasizing about Madonna. “He thought Madonna was [put] in the world for him,” she said. With his dimples, flowing brown hair and beatific smile, many women found the 5’11” Koresh attractive. “As a person he was charming,” says singer Sheridan Stewart, 26, whom Koresh tried to pick up in a Los Angeles rock club in 1987. “He had a lot of magnetism because he was taking the Bible and giving women an active role instead of the passive role. He said women weren’t given proper value in the Bible.”

In his Bible classes at the compound, however, Koresh look a decidedly less enlightened tack. “Literally hours of lime were spent describing sex. sexual acts and sexual preferences in graphic detail,” Breault said, adding that Koresh would discuss the sexual habits of some of his wives in front of their children.

He also taught that youngsters needed harsh punishment. Those children in the Waco compound who refused to sit on his lap or to acknowledge him as their father—even if they were unrelated to him—were subject to severe spankings. In 1988, for example, an infant girl named Tarah Tom began crying when Koresh picked her up. Koresh beat her for 30 minutes with a wooden spoon. “My baby was 8 months old at the time,” her mother, Michelle Tom, stated during the Kiri Jewell custody hearing. “When he finished, her bottom was badly bruised and bleeding.”

Curiously, Koresh seemed to reserve his most savage torments for his firstborn son. Cyrus. When the boy was 3 he refused to acknowledge one of the cult women us his mother. Koresh ordered him to spend the night on the kitchen floor and go without food. After a few days the child became weak with hunger. Koresh allowed him to eat, but then made him sleep in the garage, telling him that large rats lived there and preyed on boys who were naughty.

Koresh’s own childhood wasn’t without hardship. He was born Vernon Wayne Howell in Houston in 1959 to a 15-year-old single mother, Bonnie Clark, who worked in a nursing home. His father, Bobbie Howell, then 20, was a carpenter. The couple split up when Vernon was 2, his paternal grandmother, Jean Holub, says, because her son started seeing another woman. His mother ultimately married Roy Haldeman and moved to the Dallas area. “He didn’t get along too well with his stepfather,” his maternal grandmother, Erline Clark, says. “But he was a sweet boy. He was always interested in the Bible.” Indeed, his mother says that even though he was a poor student in school, he managed to memorize the New Testament on his own by the time he was 12. “He would go out in the barn and pray for hours,” his mother recalled. “I’ve seen him sitting by his bed, on his knees for hours, crying and praying. Vernon was always a good boy.”

In 1979, Koresh returned to his childhood church, the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, but was expelled, elder Lynn Ray says, for being “a bad influence on the young people of the church.” Even at that early age, Koresh wanted to be in control. “He wanted power, and he wouldn’t adhere to the principles of the church,” Ray says. “I’m sure he tried to turn people against us.” That’s when he left Texas for Hollywood. At age 24, he married Rachel Jones, who was 14 at the lime. They had two children, Cyrus, now 7, and a daughter. Star, now 5. In 1990, when he legally changed his name to David Koresh, he staled that it was “(or publicity and business purposes.” The David was to idled his belief that he heads the Biblical House of David; the Koresh was Hebrew for Cyrus, a Persian emperor who helped free Jews held in Babylon.

When Koresh look over Branch Davidian in 1987. the sect was housed in a cluster of shacks in the center of a 77-acre farm called Mount Carmel. “Ceilings were falling in. There were doors of the hinges. says a former investigator for the local district attorney. “The duplex-style residences appeared barely livable.” Koresh had the shacks rebuilt into a series of connected buildings that law-enforcement agents now call a fortress. He maintained an arsenal of heavy weapons, conducted intense gun training and had a guard posted at the compound gate 24 hours a day. “This compound was built with a siege in mind,” says Sgt. Ronnie Turnbough of the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office. “They have their own water supply, their own generators. They are survivalist-type people.”

Nine months ago the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms began investigating the cult. Neighbors had complained of automatic gunfire coming from the compound, and undercover agents had spotted numerous illegal weapons, said Dan Hartnett, associate ATF director. Last week 200 ATF agents launched what they thought would be a surprise raid on the compound to serve their search and arrest warrants. The cult, however, was warned of the raid and responded with heavy gunfire. One of the three ATF teams attacking the compound, made up largely of agents from New Orleans, was hit the hardest. Three of its members were killed after entering one of the buildings through a window, and five were injured. ATF soon pulled back. “We lost our element of surprise,” said ATF’s Hartnett.

Then began the siege. Koresh agreed to let some of the children inside leave if a taped message of his beliefs were played on a Dallas radio station. The children were released, two by two, a pattern with Biblical overtones, since the compound’s underground quarters are sometimes known as the Ark. After four days, 18 children had been released and placed in temporary foster care. “The kids are in remarkably good shape,” said Michael Gee of the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services. “They’ve been seared. They were hiding under beds during the gunfire, but those coming out seem to be pretty calm.”

On March 2, Koresh promised to surrender entirely if a rambling, 58-minute pretaped sermon were aired on a Christian broadcasting network. After the tape was broadcast, however, the self-styled Messiah reneged on his promise and refused to give up. “God told me to wait,” Koresh explained. The lyric of a song he once wrote; about his archenemy George Roden now seems perversely prophetic about himself: “There’s a madman living in Waco. Pray to the Prince of Hell.”


JOSEPH HARMES, BOB STEWART and CARLTON STOWERS in Waco, JOHN DUNN in Melbourne, ANNE MAIER in Houston, JANE SUGDEN in New York City and DORIS BACON in Los Angeles

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