"...The sad reality is this: they wanted a big one. They wanted a spectacular one."
As the morning sun inched into the rain clouds over the blackland prairie on Sunday, February 28, Special Agent Sharon Wheeler braced herself for the raid that was about to begin. Her agency, the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), was launching the biggest and most important operation since the days when it had been the Bureau of Prohibition. If the raid on Mt. Carmel went as planned, it could make the acronym of Wheeler's agency as well known as that of the FBI.
Raiding is the expertise of the ATF, and statistically, it's not as dangerous as one might think. In the 36 months prior to the Waco mission, the agency had called out its SRT-- or SWAT--teams 578 times, executed 603 search warrants, mostly against dope dealers, and had seized some 1,500 weapons. It had encountered gunfire on only two of its raids, and the only fatalities (three of them) had been among suspects. During the prior decade, it had lost only one agent in the line of duty, and he was destroying fireworks at the time of his demise.
On this occasion in Texas, thorough preparations had been made. "Support Coordinators," the ATF called them--had been in Waco, about 100 miles south of Dallas, for more than a month. They had set up a command post at an airstrip northeast of downtown. More than 50 agents and helicopter crewmen had moved into town the night before, and for the evening of the 28th, the agency had reserved 150 rooms for its troops in Waco's three leading hotels.
The ATF had also contracted an ambulance service, told hospitals to make ready, and enlisted sheriff's deputies and Texas Highway Patrolmen for back-up duties. The Support Coordinators had ordered coffee and doughnuts, and even portable toilets, for the men and women who, within a few minutes, at about 9 a.m., would rally at the Bellmead Civic Center, some 10 miles from their target, off in the countryside.
Fresh from training and a sunup briefing at the Army's Fort Hood, some 60 miles southwest, the raiders were moving north on Interstate 35, in an 80-vehicle convoy more than a mile long. A half-dozen snipers--"forward observers," the ATF called them--had already taken up positions, both in front of and behind Mt. Carmel, and the leadership of the burgeoning assault was converging on the command center, to suit up in combat gear.
Much of this movement was being filmed, because documentation of the event was as important to the ATF as the action itself. The agency faced congressional budget hearings on March 10, less than two weeks away. Televised film of the raid--"a dynamic entry," the ATF called it--would, at the very least, establish a counterpoint to the sprinkle of bad publicity that its director, Stephen Higgins, had received a few months before. Dramatic footage of the raid might even air in a documentary serial like "Cops." A raid on cultists would make a titillating episode; the ATF's routine work, such as enforcing the Contraband Cigarette Act, was far from that.
Wheeler had already planned a news conference for the operation's close. Days earlier, she'd telephoned several television stations to find out who would be available for a February 28 conference.
ATF preparations to film the assault had been so intensive that they'd inspired a code name for the operation. The brass called it "Operation Trojan Horse." But the grunts had named it "Showtime."
The young Messiah
"My mother always thought I was a strange one."
The target of the government's extraordinary efforts was, of course, David Koresh. Born Vernon Wayne Howell, he was the illegitimate son of Bonnie Clark, a young woman who had been only 14 when she'd brought him into the world in 1959. Her turbulent affair with Vernon's father, Bobby Howell, had produced no lasting relationship, though it did give the infant a moniker, "Sputnik." His parents chose the nickname because of the child's apparent hyperactivity.
Bonnie, who had dropped out of school in Houston, Texas, because of her pregnancy, married another man as soon as her affair with Bobby Howell was over. But her marriage collapsed almost as soon as it began. Her new man, Bonnie said, beat his 2-year-old stepson.
After her divorce, Bonnie left Vernon in Houston with her mother and father, whom she refers to as "an alcoholic." She began a new life in Dallas. Her son didn't join her until he was 5, after she had married Roy Haldeman, a former seaman and lounge operator. His mother recalls that at the lounge Roy operated, "...there was a lot of prostitutes that hung out around there, but they didn't work out of there."
Vernon told the FBI that his mother had been a prostitute. She denies the charge. "I had some rich boyfriends, and we did a lot of partying and stuff," she explains, adding, "I don't think that my personal life is anybody's business."
In Dallas and in Tyler, 99 miles east, Bonnie Haldeman established a construction clean-up service; her husband was known as a carpenter who carried a union card. Vernon's life in their household, the Haldemans say, was merely a drab slice out of the routine of the Texas working class. Its backdrop was a lush East Texas lake, where Vernon and his grandfather went fishing on weekends, and the raw plains surrounding the Dallas suburbs of Richardson and Plano, where Vernon, like a lot of Texas boys, hunted rabbit, squirrel, and dove with a .22 rifle and a 410-gauge shotgun.
In working-class Texas households in those days, children were spanked; they still are, and civilization doesn't seem to have suffered much from the practice. David Koresh would claim that when Roy spanked him, "he made me fly like a kite." And Bonnie, he said, had even beaten him in view of the guests at his 13th birthday party. His detractors would later say that David Koresh took his revenge on children who lived at Mt. Carmel, and he probably did.
But if Koresh felt any resentment about the way he was raised, it showed only when he spoke of the past. He wept when his maternal grandmother died in the early 1980s, and late in the decade, his mother, stepdad, and half brother were guests at his invitation for months on end at Mt. Carmel. After he was wounded in the February 28 raid, thinking that he was dying, David Koresh picked up the telephone.
"Hello, Mamma. It's your boy," he told her answering machine. "They shot me and I'm dying, alright? But I'll be back real soon, okay? I'm sorry you didn't learn the Seals, but I'll be merciful, okay? I'll see y'all in the skies."
Young Vernon was a special case, even inside a troubled family. Most people who knew him before he came to Mt. Carmel thought of him as only half-bright. Childhood friends had given him the nickname "Mr. Retardo," and sometimes he played the part. "There's not one grade in school that I didn't fail in," he bragged. "I already failed the first grade twice, so I failed the second grade." As he told the story, the opening day of the third grade was a day that, sadly, he'd never forget.
"So, we went to this special school," he explained. "And we got like three teachers to one small class, right? And the teachers are presenting to us, 'Well, now class, you're special students and we have more teachers to be able to help you'...you know, making us feel real good like, yeah, we're special students, right?...And so it came time for recess...and we got let out a little bit later than the other kids in the same school...And these other kids in the school, they weren't special. They were regular kids, you know what I mean? So, here me and these special kids are coming out the door to go to the swingsets and all that...and we're running as fast as we can...and all of a sudden you start hearing this, 'here comes the retarded kids!' And it's like, I just stopped in my tracks. It's like the sun went down over my world....That day was the longest day in my life....So, my mom came to pick me up that evening...and I walked over to the car and I sat in the car and I burst out crying. I said, 'I'm in retarded class.'...She, she says, 'You're not in retarded class. You just have a learning disability.'"
When Vernon reached puberty, he did not rebel in the usual way. He was never arrested, his deportment grades were always good, he obeyed his parents around the house. Later, as David Koresh, he tried to create the impression that he had been more of a failure than he was. For example, he did not drop out of school during ninth grade, as he sometimes claimed; instead, he dropped out during the 11th grade. "He was in class; he was an average student; he did nothing to warrant remembering," a school official reported. But in after-school hours, the young Vernon had been an adolescent obsessed.
Music distracted him. On a guitar he found in an abandoned barn, and with a few lessons from a local music store, he learned to play the mostly country and western songs that were a part of his environment. In adolescence, he formed garage bands, whose short lives he blamed on the drug hobbies of other members.
Religion was his strongest--and most unexpected--concern. "I was raised in the Adventist church, but I didn't know what I believed," Bonnie confesses. Earline Clark, Vernon's grandmother, took him to church often, and his mother says that she took him from time to time. Both women note that from an early age, unlike other children, Vernon was rapt in the pews. Though he'd later make fun of their "dyed, fried and tied to the side" hairstyles, he also listened closely to TV and radio evangelists.
Former junior high classmates complain that Vernon Howell lectured them from the Bible, and family members recall that he had memorized large tracts by the time he was 12. It was at that same age, his followers point out, that little Jesus of Nazareth had amazed the rabbis in Jerusalem with his knowledge of the Law.
In 1981, when Vernon Howell, then 22, came to live at Mt. Carmel, he was interested in theology. But he wasn't consumed. He had personal problems to solve. Something was on his mind, something that had happened between his adolescence and manhood. It plagued him. He talked about it for hours at a time, days on end--for years. Vernon wept, too. He cried both when he was alone, his former housemates say, and when he was with others, even during prayers and Bible sessions.
He was suffering from an adolescent crisis of love. It was the sort of tragic situation that, had he been either more worldly or more sanctified, would have never come to pass.
Vernon was obsessed with his first love. "I came to God because of her," he declared in one of the first statements he made to the Mt. Carmel community. He'd met her in 1977, when he was 18 and she was 16. It was the time of the Texas oil boom, and Vernon, a non-union carpenter, was flush: he was making payments on a brand-new pickup. During his off-hours he frequented a North Dallas arcade that was a hangout for the students he'd known before he abandoned his schooling.
One night the young woman, then only an acquaintance, had approached him, asking for a ride home. Vernon was hesitant. "I didn't want nothing to do with her," he said later, "because...you know, she was very beautiful and everything and, you know, how sometimes you get in trouble like that.
"This is one of those experiences where, you know, good men fall," he warned when telling the story.
Vernon gave her a ride home, once, and their chat ended without consequence. But it was fateful the second time. On that encounter, when the couple arrived at the house where she lived with her father, she found that her dad was asleep. She invited Vernon inside. "So, we ended up talking and stuff like that and everything," Vernon said in a lighthearted way. "And one thing led to another and I tell you what...there should be a law against it, but you know how humanity is."
Vernon's baptism into sex didn't sit well with his Seventh-Day Adventist conscience. He had a reputation among his friends as an upright and religious young soul, and what he'd done didn't square. Besides that, the girl was a minor, jailbait. So, as he told the story, the following day he returned to her house, to apologize--"and I fell into it again."
This time, he was really dismayed, because, "you know, Mr. Cool and Mr. Religious ain't so hot." To put himself out of contradiction's reach, Vernon moved to the home of a family friend in Tyler. For two months, he had no contact with his first love. Then one night the telephone rang. She was on the line. She was pregnant, she said.
The news shook Vernon. "Me, Mr. Retardo, going to have a baby!" he said to himself.
Howell had a deft and devious mind. He knew in an instant just what to say to her.
"...My reaction was, I says...'I'm sterile.'" He later claimed, "I heard that statement from a movie or something." She hung up the phone, and didn't call again.
But that wasn't the end of the story, because God stepped in. He had, in fact, been stepping in for quite some time. While imbibing Adventist doctrine in elementary school, Vernon had been puzzled. "Why did God write all this book if we're supposed to wait 'til we get to heaven to learn it?" he'd asked his teachers.
Since they couldn't answer the question satisfactorily, he had taken it and other pressing matters directly to their chief. One afternoon he slipped out of school and into the sanctuary of its church. There he'd bent on his knees to pray. "Dear Father," he'd said, "...I don't understand why I'm this way....I know I'm stupid but...please talk to me because I want to serve you..." Before long the good Lord was addressing Vernon. By the time his first love called, Vernon Howell and God had been carrying on conversations for six years.
In the weeks following the girl's confession, the voice of God spoke to Vernon again. According to his understanding of the Scriptures, he was already married to her in God's eyes; their first copulation had been the vow. Now God told Vernon to live up to his worldly duty. He obediently went back to Dallas, ready to make her his wife.
When Vernon telephoned her from Dallas, she told him that, with her father's permission, she'd gotten an abortion--and oddly, that she wanted to see him again. Vernon couldn't understand why, but years later, he still recalled the praise she'd given him that day. "She goes, 'You know, you were always so different from everybody else...like guys who'd smoke dope--you wouldn't take it. Guys would be drinking a lot of beers and you'd only maybe have a half of one, or one....But you always seem to be able to, to be with everybody else...but...to be independent of everybody else and you didn't have to, to do what everybody else was doing to have a good time.'
"...This girl had a head on her," Vernon concluded. "I never realized, I just thought she was another...beautiful, gorgeous girl, but she really had a deep mind."
Realizing she had shown him that she was "more religious than most of the religious girls...a good Christian without being a Christian," Vernon resumed seeing his first love. Her father wouldn't permit his daughter to marry, but before long Vernon was living in her bedroom--with her father's permission, Koresh claimed.
Because Vernon thought that the Writ forbade it, Mr. Retardo and his girlfriend did not practice birth control, and sure enough, a couple of months later she turned up pregnant again. She wasn't happy, apparently because Vernon's professional status was less than enviable, and when he blurted out that he'd fathered her first fetus, her dad ran Vernon out of her life. The young Adventist was confused--it would be years before he'd understand--because it seemed that God's marriage plan had been derailed.
Vernon Howell slept in his pickup on the edges of Dallas suburbs for weeks after he left her house. As he was bedding down one night, God came around to explain. "This presence enshrouds me," Howell said, when recounting the event. "And I'm talking about [how] its authority encompasses me. And here I am zeroed in and all of a sudden I start shaking and I'm scared to death. I mean, you would be scared if you was out in the field and all of a sudden two black guys came at you, wouldn't you?
"...And here I am, looking at the sky, but all of a sudden it's like, it's like I'm being watched from every angle. And there's this, there's this being confronting me, and it's like I have no place to run....And this voice says to me, it says--it's not a voice such as, see, when I'm talking to you....It's a voice that imparted a picture completely perfect in my mind....And He says, 'You're really hurt, aren't you?' And, and, you know, 19 years of my life flash in front of me, just like on a film. The whole damn aura of being.
"It says, 'You're really hurt, aren't you? You've loved her for about a year, and now she's turned her back on you. And now she's rejected you.' And which, you know, that's, that's the climactic thing, because the, the most highest elevation of human completeness is, is marriage, right?
"And then the voice all of a sudden--it, it re--it reviewed to me all of these weird and strange and unique and enstrengthening experiences throughout my whole childhood and life. And it says, 'Don't you know that for 19 years I've loved you and for 19 years you've turned your back on me and rejected me?' And all of a sudden, everything is like, bang! It hits me all at once. Ah, what an ability to forget the reasons and purposes of life!...But the key note is this. God said he would give her to me later."
Just how God would do that became one of the theological puzzles that Vernon Howell would resolve after he joined the community at Mt. Carmel.
"I was just a bonehead coming to see what was going on."
Ben Roden, the longtime leader of the radical Seventh Day Adventist sect called the Davidians, died in 1978. Even before he expired, it was evident that his wife Lois, a slender woman then in her early 60s, would be his successor--and that she would deliver a revelation more controversial than perhaps any in Adventist history, a message so radical that, in honor of it, she'd rename her organization the Living Waters Branch. Lois had declared in 1977 that the Christian Trinity--God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit--was a family, in whose ranks the Holy Spirit was the female member.
Lois Roden was at the peak of her career in 1981 when, on an afternoon almost no one remembers, a bearded, stuttering Vernon Howell found his way into Mt. Carmel and the Living Waters Branch. "I was just a bonehead coming to see what was going on," he'd later say. But at Mt. Carmel, the bonehead would become a Messiah.
When Vernon Howell first came to Mt. Carmel, he was not a ready pick for leadership. He had memorized the Bible, perhaps, and had developed some theology of his own, but he did not show the aggressiveness that distinguishes those people who rise in group hierarchies. He would have to change the group before it could follow him. His ascension would require the group to reorganize and to adopt a new and developing theology, to which only Howell had the keys.
If Vernon Howell had been living in a fog during his first months at Mt. Carmel in 1981, his potential had not escaped the eye of one of its denizens, George Roden, Lois' barrel-chested, bearded 43-year-old son. George had a future in mind for himself, and he instinctively feared that Howell would spoil it. Roden believed, on Scriptural grounds, that when his mother died (she was not yet dead, or even ailing), he should take over leadership of the Branch.
Almost nobody bought George's message, for a basketful of reasons. He was not a decorous leader, and most people referred to him, almost derisively, as "Poor George." The hulking would-be heir was sorely afflicted. "...You'd be standing there talking to him and he'd all of a sudden twitch and spit in your face," David Koresh recalled. "Not that he meant it. He just couldn't control it. He would be sitting there and all of a sudden slam his hand down on the table and he'd--the soup would go everywhere. And your, your plate would fly off, you know. He couldn't control it."
Not even Lois supported her son's bid. Looking for a relief preacher, two years after Howell came into the Living Waters Branch, she began letting him spell her at the pulpit. Howell came in and out of Mt. Carmel, leaving, he claimed, to take construction jobs in the cities, coming back when he was flush. But during weeks when he stayed at Mt. Carmel, followers saw him visit Lois' quarters at night. He told people that his visits were for private discussions of the theological issues he would bring to his sermons.
Vernon would later confess that, for several months in 1983, he'd also bedded Lois, in an attempt, inspired by a vision, to fulfill the Scriptures (Isaiah 8:3): "And I went unto the prophets; and she conceived, and bare a son...." That Lois was years past menopause was no obstacle, Howell insisted: the Bible says (Genesis 17:21) that thanks to God's intervention, at the age of 90, Sarah, the mother of Israel, had borne Abraham a son.
Some detractors who did not distinguish between the imperatives of custom and those of Holy Writ--which celebrates several spring-autumn marriages--had been appalled by the 40-year difference in Lois' and Vernon's ages. Others were aghast at their unwed status. George Roden, never to be outdone, claimed that his mother had been raped. Frustrated and politically jealous, he began issuing tracts in which he predicted Howell's demise.
In the spring of 1984, as tension rose, Howell and his followers left Mt. Carmel for an encampment of school buses and 8-foot by 16-foot plywood boxes near Palestine, Texas, some 100 miles east of Waco.
Lois Roden was still formally leader of the Branch. For months she traveled back and forth from Palestine to Mt. Carmel, hoping to salvage the organization. But the dispute was still unresolved when she died in November 1986. By this time, George Roden was practically alone at Mt. Carmel; most people had left in fear of him.
Howell's defeat of Roden would require the faithful to pass through a virtual birth of fire, a paramilitary campaign in which--foreshadowing 1993--Howell and his followers would raid the property, displacing the one who claimed to rule as a Messiah there. In the wake of the gunfight, Howell and his closest associates, like the survivors of the 1993 inferno, would face a jury on attempted murder charges. The young preacher and his comrades-in-arms won that fight--their first battle for Mt. Carmel.
"David didn't read anything but the Bible and Camaro magazines."
-Follower Wally Kennett
Vernon Howell's rise to the throne of the Living Waters Branch was, in theological terms, a pretty unremarkable ascent at first. During his initial years in the pulpit, 1983-85, he laid out no startling new doctrines, brought no epochal messages, and little was revealed to him. But the way in which he began to reshape the group's ministry, both at Palestine and after retaking Mt. Carmel, was nothing short of revolutionary. Vernon Howell put oxygen--or maybe ammonia--into the nose of an asphyxiating sect.
Howell did not suspend the formality that is commonly associated with the religious profession; he defied it, he burlesqued it, he chased it out of the sanctuary. He came to the pulpit in jeans and jogging shoes, sometimes unshaven, sometimes with motor oil on his hands. He did not deliver his sermons in a stentorian style, but as a downscale conversationalist.
"That nasty old sin, how can you get rid of the stuff? It's like a booger on your fingers, right? You're trying, you know, and you're picking, and it gets on your other finger? Even when you're going 50 miles an hour down the road and you're trying to flick it off! I know what I'm talking about, you see."
His explanation of the purpose of religion, and all of the Scriptures, was equally direct. What's the purpose of faith? According to Howell: "We want out of here....We want to go from here to a place of freedom where we're no longer in bondage to the flesh, our stupidity, our good looks. We want to get away from the guy in the mirror, don't we?"
Howell was anything but self-righteous. When a hearer expressed doubts about the Bible, he countered with a contemporary lecture whose opening line was, "Let's pretend that the Bible is just a game that the Jews made up, okay?"
Marc Breault, who would become one of the key figures seeking to bring public attention to the Branch Davidians in the years before the Mt. Carmel raid, had been a 22-year-old student of religion in 1986, when he was drawn into the circle that adored Vernon Howell.
The young grad student moved from California to Texas to join the bulk of Howell's 50-odd followers, who, at the time, were living in Palestine. Because Breault was good-natured and theologically fast, he soon won the endearment of the tribe.
Early in his relationship with the group, Breault noted that although Vernon Howell was married to a member of the flock, he also had conjugal relations with, and children by, several other women in the Palestine camp, including at least one who had not reached the legal age of consent. Howell's acolyte at first paid little mind. "As far as I was concerned, Biblically speaking, what Vernon was doing was okay," he explained. "The Bible does not actually condemn polygamy outright. In fact, there are certain passages in the Old Testament that say it's okay."
Nor did Howell's brazen disregard of laws against statutory rape disturb Breault. "...What we believed was that if the girl was living with her father...then Vernon would actually have to get parental consent..." he would say. This, too, Breault had argued, was Biblical. "Everything we did was based on the Bible and prophecy," he insisted.
Breault had completed his master's thesis from Palestine, and along with the others, had migrated to Waco in 1988. There he played keyboard instruments in the sect's musical group, whose lead guitarist and chief vocalist was, of course, Vernon Howell. Breault also built a reputation as a spinner of the speculative theology that Howell concocted best, and before long he was named an evangelizer for the sect, making recruitment trips to Hawaii and the West Coast.
But as time went on, the Master of Religious Studies began to doubt his unlettered teacher--especially after Howell began to style himself as "the exclusive expositor of Scripture," Breault explained. "Everyone else was wrong, and only he had the right and the ability to interpret the Bible." The acolyte's eyebrows were further raised, and his skepticism further deepened, he said, in the spring of 1989, when his leader bedded a 13-year-old who, Breault believed, could not have comprehended the theological importance of her act. The pupil became downright obstinate--and bolted the sect--after the teacher laid claim to Breault's new bride, who, to Breault's great relief, was safely in Australia at the time.
Upon reuniting with his wife Down Under, Breault began campaigning to oust Koresh from his throne. Fully donning the prophet's role--this time insincerely, he now says--Breault approached sect members with a divine message whose upshot was that David Koresh was wrong, and perhaps, a fraud. In 1990, Breault and his apostate flock hired a detective to inform American authorities about the goings-on at Mt. Carmel. The emissary met in Waco with local and federal law enforcement officials, but nothing came of the trip. No one would seem interested in Breault's tale--for two more years.
Late on February 27, 1993, when helicopters landed at the command post airstrip and ATF forces gathered around, it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that something was brewing. A few of Waco's newsmen caught wind, and were elated. Television reporter John McLemore, for example, went out that night to celebrate the big event that he'd already been told to cover at sunup.
The building targeted for assault was a rambling, rumpled, L-shaped structure, haphazardly slapped together during the past three years. Its wood-paneled exterior was painted beige, but its interior was of raw fiberboard, sheet-rock, and plywood. The more than 100 people who lived at Mt. Carmel spoke of their home more with amusement than with pride, as if referring to an old shoe. Its newcomers didn't even call it "Mt. Carmel." To them, it was "the anthill" and "the camp."
The long building's back pointed in the direction that its residents called north--though it was actually northwest--and the leg of its L pointed toward what they called "east"--as if Mt. Carmel set the directions of the compass. The building had a double front door, whose core was plastic foam enveloped in steel, painted white, and stamped to look like wood. From the perspective of a visitor standing on its front porch, just inside the doorway, to the left, or "north," ran a 60-foot-long first-floor hallway that passed by a dozen ordinary-sized rooms, where men slept in bunks; males and females did not bed together at Mt. Carmel. The women and children slept in nearly identical rooms, off a hallway upstairs.
The sleeping rooms had no closets, and only a few had doors; they were mere enclosures of a space that had formerly been used as a gymnasium. Most tenants covered the entrances to their quarters with sheets or blankets hung from nails. Only a few had chests of drawers, and clothing was slung on rods and hooks that occupants rigged as best they could. Because there were no suitable storage areas, many of them kept surplus belongings in the trunks of their cars, in the parking lot outside. Those who didn't have cars boxed their gear and stuck it in the long hallways.
Mt. Carmel was a Spartan place. Only the kitchen had running water. There was no basement, air conditioning, or central heating. The men had rigged a bathroom and shower beneath a tree outdoors, but women and children used chamber pots and took sponge baths. Wastewater was carried in buckets to an old septic tank on the grounds. When winters came, the residents plugged electric space heaters into the outlets in their walls, or ran cords from outlets that were screwed into the plain, ceramic bulb sockets in their ceilings. In summertime, they just sweltered. "It's like camping indoors," resident Steve Schneider remarked.
Its inhabitants believed there was a reason why Mt. Carmel, though always under construction, was in a primitive state. The group had never organized itself as a true commune. Members did not pool their bank accounts, possessions were not held in common, and, indeed, were so zealously guarded that some occupants put name tags on washcloths and initials on clothespins. But nobody paid rent or board.
"I want to keep the building kind of rough in shape and not really finished and that way people that come here, they're coming for one reason, because they're coming to know something....Let it be a stumbling block," Koresh had said.
Winning in the bedroom
"...In Christ, though we might keep the laws of God, the laws of men may condemn us."
According to his reading of the Bible, Revelation and the "Second Isaiah" provided Vernon Howell with an imperative for fathering many children, by various females, including virgins. And this command, as Howell would have called it, was given him without the caveat of an age of consent. The writers of the Bible regarded females of childbearing age as appropriate mothers: God, not legislatures, established the age of consent by natural or developmental means. Like most devout Christians, Vernon Howell and his followers believed that the laws set forth by God were of greater consequence than those made by earthly powers.
Like Adam, too, the Waco Messiah believed that his conquest of the world would come through replenishing it. "...Man's power comes through his mind and his ability to enforce his mind by the numbers of his procreation...if you don't win in the bedroom, son, you're not going to win on the battlefield," the new Messiah said.
Howell, who had been "winning" in the bedroom since he was 18, continued his streak at Mt. Carmel. Before he died, he would father 17 children, two by underage mothers who were not his wives, and others by adult women who were already wed.
"Winning in the bedroom" was the most radical and costly doctrine ever preached at Mt. Carmel. It caused grief among people who would outlive Koresh--Stan Sylvia, for example. Sylvia, despite a reputation for challenging Howell, had been a loyal follower at Palestine and Mt. Carmel. But Sylvia's devotion tried him as few men have been tried since Job's day.
His wife, his daughter, and his best friend, Floyd Houtman, all died in the April 19 blaze; he learned of their deaths from television. At the time, Stan was living with other followers in California, in what some people took to be an exile. At Mt. Carmel, Rachel Sylvia had borne to Stan a son, Joshua, then 7--who left Mt. Carmel during the siege--and had also given birth to another child, Hollywood, 2 years old when she died in the blaze. Hollywood's father, the scuttlebutt had said, was David Koresh.
The story tested Stan's loyalty, and he refused to accept it, either in theology or as fact. In the months that followed the Mt. Carmel fire, a videotape and DNA tests would confirm Koresh's paternity. Sylvia isolated himself from other survivors, they suspected, to "leave the message." But in the end, he didn't. In 1995, after regaining custody of Joshua, he returned to the fold, though he still won't talk much about Hollywood. "I'm not interested in who was screwing who," he snaps. "I'm interested in who killed who, and the FBI killed my wife and children. If you're interested in who screwed who, turn on the soap operas."
Koresh's sexual practices were not only a stumbling block to preserving the flock, they impeded its extension as well. Shannon Bright, a drummer with a Waco rock band, admitted to the Tribune that he might have been recruited by Koresh, had the issue of sex not stood in the way. "What David showed me made more sense than anything that anyone has ever shown me in my life," he said. "...Anything you wanted to ask David, you could, even why the leaves fall off the trees. He could take you to the Bible and show you why...The way I see it, if he is who he says he is, he wasn't doing anything wrong. He was just telling the truth. If he's not, he's stupid if he thinks he's going to take my girlfriend and I'm not going to do anything about it." Rather than take that risk, Bright backed away from the group.
The doctrinal basis of the seed scattering that Koresh said was his duty was both far-reaching and complex. It started when he quit defining marriage as the civil courts of Waco, 10 miles away, defined it. One of Howell's evolving definitions was drawn from Deuteronomy 22:28-29: "If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found; Then...she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days."
"Vernon went on to state," Marc Breault recalls, "that God's plan"--though it could be construed as condoning polygamy--"was much more responsible than the rampant single-mother policy of today. He believed that if society followed God's plan, men would be forced to take responsibility for their offspring regardless of their legitimacy."
By this writ, Vernon Howell was married to his first love, and she to him. But Howell was also married, in this Biblical sense, to Rachel Jones, and later, to other women. Because he believed in the doctrine, Vernon Howell as an adult even urged his father, whom he had tracked down in Houston during the mid-1980s, to reunite with Bonnie Haldeman. She wasn't interested in the prospect.
Spiritual wedding vows were exchanged, Howell taught, whenever attractions developed. "He said that if you so much as go up and kiss a girl, you're married," follower Clive Doyle recalls. By these terms, some people were married to hundreds, and almost everyone was married to a score of folks. Beyond sexual attraction lay the marriage of Christ and the church, according to which, in almost all Christian traditions, all believers, regardless of sex, are "brides of Christ." Because these doctrines yield multiple definitions of marriage, when questioned by reporters, G-Men, and child welfare investigators, Howell was able to deny that he was married to anybody but Rachel, his wife under the doctrine of civil law, and/or to claim marriage to others whose first sexual experience had been with him, and/or to invoke the Bride of Christ tenet, saying, "I'm married to the whole world." His inquisitors were thoroughly confused.
Beginning in 1989, Howell/Koresh taught that his followers--males, anyway--were to observe celibacy.
"Mt. Carmel was like a monastery," Livingstone Fagan declares. The regime that prevailed after 1989 was an inverted Catholicism, in which the rank and file were expected to observe celibacy, but Koresh, the analog Pope, was expected to scatter his seed; females departed from celibacy only to serve his purpose. The number of female partners Howell might take was seemingly unlimited. After all, did not the Scriptures authorize for the Messiah "threescore queens, and fourscore concubines, and virgins without number"? (Song of Solomon 6:8)
By this logic, David Koresh did not have to forgo copulation, nor were his wife and his concubines expected to observe abstinence. They had to do what God willed.
Though the argument is somewhat the religious equivalent of the proverbial "refuge of scoundrels," the residents of Mt. Carmel, like thousands of Old Testament Hebrews, believed that once a person is a bona fide mouthpiece for God, he may break the Law as God instructs.
Koresh's followers, even--or especially--his dozen concubines, accepted these doctrines, though they rarely understood them fully, and indeed, couldn't have. As Stan Sylvia puts it, "Ezekiel was told by God to mix dung in a cake, human dung. He complained, and God let him mix in cow dung instead. That story is in the Bible to tell us that there would always be error in the message, and it's been there ever since." At Mt. Carmel, even living with a doctrine that was mystifying and potentially erroneous was part of the game.
Koresh reintroduced beef and poultry to the fare at the encampment, explaining that when its inhabitants went to Mt. Zion as a sort of welcoming committee for the Messiah, the Hebrew faithful, in accord with ancient tradition, would bring them animal sacrifices. In homage to that same tradition, he said, his followers would have to eat the sacrifices. The change was not popular among Mt. Carmel's majority. At least one resident vomited the first time she ingested animal flesh, and others turned their heads whenever meat was served.
Koresh also lifted the ban on alcohol, citing a dozen Scriptures that urged its use in moderation. Though most residents continued to eschew all brews, he and other members of the band fueled their practice sessions with beer. When Koresh began to puff on Marlboro Lights, however, Victorine Hollingsworth asked the Messiah to justify himself. He pointed to Psalm 18's description of God: "There went up a smoke out of his nostrils..."
Not all believers accepted explanations like this. But they all tended to believe, as Jaime Castillo still does, that "David didn't like cigarettes....We at Mt. Carmel believed that David had inspiration, but along with that responsibility, David was told by God...to do certain things that David himself didn't like or couldn't understand."
The Messiah that Koresh envisioned was to be both a lover and a fighter. "...Seventy-five percent of the Bible is nothing but about Israel being expert at war," he argued, with characteristic hyperbole. "The Bible is a whole book about nothing but killing."
Koresh, unlike the ministers of sweetness and light, didn't overlook the true cruelty and gore extolled in the Good Book. Indeed, he confronted his followers with it. During the siege of Mt. Carmel, a naive FBI agent asked believer Scott Sonobe, "Would you...violate any of the Ten Command-ments?" "Even God does!" was Sonobe's reply. God's law, theologian Fagan says, is "case law," an evolutionary and progressive body of rules, subject to considerations of equity. Like civil law, it is a form of present-day--and situational--truth.
Koresh argued that the Ten Command-ments were God's standard of behavior, before which all men, excepting Jesus, had failed, and were destined to fail. It would be cruel, he argued, for God to require an impossible obedience. "No man is to be saved because he's good," Koresh preached, "and no man is to be lost because he's bad. Because a person that may be naturally bad may be trying to be good, and a person who has evil thoughts may apparently be good."
In Vernon Howell's plan of salvation, humanity gained or lost according to how much "light," or true doctrine, it rejected. Those who had never heard of the Bible were entirely blameless before God, regardless of their deeds--and those who had partaken of the Seals were at greatest risk in the oncoming Judgment.
Howell's followers had been armed ever since the shootout with George Roden, and they remained vigilant against the return of his thuggish friends. Even though by 1993, Mt. Carmel was a virtual armory, its guns were no match for smart missiles and Stealth bombers. On the plane of material life, the conquering Messiah was outgunned, and he knew it. He expected to lose any confrontation with the government, or, if he won, to secure his victory only by supernatural means.
"...There [are] 20,000 chariots parked all around this world..." he warned the FBI during the Waco siege. "I'm talking about the chariots that come from heaven, God's chariots...I'm talking about my army." When the Merkabah came over the horizon, Koresh would trounce history's best-armed police squad!
Howell/Koresh's picture of himself was mainly just words. It described what he, in flights of wild imagination, wanted to be. His material performance was far more modest, beginning with the question of his first love. For several years he visited her now and then, to offer her a queenship in his verbal kingdom. But she always turned him down. In time he resigned himself to the reality that his kingdom would not be of this world.
"In the flesh, as a human being, he at first thought that God would give her back to him pretty quick," recalls Clive Doyle. "But as time went on, as he saw from the Scriptures that he was going to be killed, he began to see that wouldn't be until he came back."
According to Revelation, in the End Time, 144,000 true believers are to be gathered by the Lamb, and after them "a multitude without number." His first love, Vernon came to believe, would certainly be among them. She would be his again, though "not in a personal sense," Doyle points out.
Not only did Howell conclude that the young woman would be "his," but legions of other women he admired would join her. One was rock star Madonna, promised to Howell, Doyle says, in a vision. "I think that David prayed over her, that she would not be his any time soon," the faithful disciple recalls. "Whenever a new person came into Mt. Carmel, they always brought a lot of headaches, and Vernon knew that with somebody like Madonna, he was going to have a lot of ironing out to do."
In the theology that Vernon Howell came to espouse after 1985, the Messiah was to be a lover and a fighter; but like Jesus, he would realize his full stature only across the divide of End Time.
The element of surprise
"I knew they were coming before they knew they were coming."
Robert Gonzalez was a cop, just as Koresh suspected. "Gonzalez" was an alias, the name that the former high school football coach, Special Agent Robert Rodriguez, 42, had taken while gathering information undercover inside Mt. Carmel for weeks. He had dropped into Mt. Carmel that morning to make sure than nothing out of the ordinary was underfoot. It was his job to confirm that it was safe for "Showtime" to begin.
Parts of Rodriguez's testimony about what he saw and heard that morning indicate that, inexplicably, Koresh knew plenty about the impending raid. "He turned and told me the ATF and the National Guard were coming," Rodriguez swore under oath.
"I went to the window," Koresh explained, "and I says, 'Robert,' I says, 'it's up to you now'....And I turned around and he just--his eyes were real big and everything....And he goes, 'what do you mean?' I says, 'Robert, you know what I mean....We know they're coming.'"
Rodriguez was nervous. "I said to myself, 'He knows.' I felt I was in danger. I just knew he had been tipped off," he later testified. "I told myself, 'Relax. Don't give yourself away.'" Rodriguez was especially anxious because, to make sure that he wasn't inside Mt. Carmel when the raid began, his commanders had told him to return to the undercover house by 9:15 a.m. It was already past nine.
Koresh, according to the report Rodriguez gave, extended his hand to his visitor and said, "Good luck, Robert." Steve Schneider opened the front door for his exit and Rodriguez went out in a sweat: "I said to myself, 'They were going to shoot me in the back.'"
Rodriguez walked toward the parking lot, less than 25 yards from the front door. As he got near, for some reason, the pickup's burglar alarm went off. It sounded like a siren. Rodriguez blazed down Mt. Carmel's driveway, flashing his headlights as he neared its end. Parking outside the undercover house, he ran to the telephone, gave a report to a superior who was posted there, then dialed the command post. "Chuck, they know. They know," he blurted to the raid's commander, Charles Sarabyn.
The ATF's report on the affair says that Sarabyn, instead of ordering the raid aborted, "asked Rodriguez a series of questions from a prepared list provided by the tactical planners: Did you see any weapons? Was there a call to arms? Did you see them make any preparations?" Rodriguez responded in the negative to each question. Then Sarabyn asked what the people in the compound were doing when Rodriguez left. Rodriguez answered, "they were praying."
After the call, Rodriguez scolded his comrades at the undercover house for sticking the lenses of their surveillance cameras too near to open windows: the devices were obvious to passersby, he said. Then he ran back to his pickup and barreled toward the command center, hoping to stop the assault by collaring his superiors. "I was upset," Rodriguez would later say, "...because I knew what was going to happen."
When Rodriguez reached the command post, a few minutes later, it was too late: everybody had left. The raid was underway.
Editor's note: Dallas writer Dick J. Reavis wrote two cover stories about the Branch Davidians while an Observer staff writer from 1992 to 1993. This article is excerpted from his new book, The Ashes of Waco, Copyright 1995 by Dick J. Reavis. reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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