|“||If the Bible is true, then I'm Christ||”|
David Koresh (born Vernon Wayne Howell) was the leader of the Branch Davidians religious cult. He was responsible for the events from February 28 to April 19, 1993, which would then became infamously known as the Waco Siege. The siege, led by the FBI, left 86 people dead (including Koresh himself) and nine injured.
Koresh was born in Houston, Texas to a 14-year-old single mother, Bonnie Sue Clark, who became pregnant with him after sleeping with a 20-year-old carpenter named Bobby Howell. The pair remained unmarried. Two years later, his father met another woman and left. He never knew his father and was raised by "a harsh stepfather".
Koresh described his early childhood as lonely, and it has been alleged that he was once raped by older boys. A poor student because of dyslexia, Koresh dropped out of high school. By the age of 12, however, he had learned the New Testament by heart.
When he was 19, Koresh had an affair with a 16-year-old girl who became pregnant but left him because she considered him unfit to raise a child. He then became a born-again Christian in the Southern Baptist Church but soon joined his mother's church, the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
There he fell in love with the pastor's daughter and while praying for guidance he opened his eyes and found the bible open at Isaiah 34:16 which stated that ..."none should want for her mate"...; convinced this was a sign from God he approached the pastor and told him that God wanted him to have his daughter for a wife. The pastor threw him out, and when he continued to persist with his pursuit of the daughter he was expelled from the congregation. A member of the congregation is reported to have said that he never "thought above his belt buckle."
In 1981 he moved to Waco, Texas where he joined the Branch Davidians, a religious group originating from a schism in the 1950s from the Shepherd's Rod, themselves excommunicated members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the 1930s. They had established their headquarters at a ranch about 10 miles out of Waco, which they called the Mount Carmel Center (after the Biblical Mount Carmel), in 1955.
Ascent to Leadership of the Branch Davidians
In 1983 he began claiming the gift of prophecy. Koresh then had an affair with Lois Roden, the prophetess and leader of the sect who was then in her late sixties, eventually claiming that God had chosen him to father a child with her, who would be the Chosen One.
In 1983, Roden allowed Koresh to begin teaching his own message which caused controversy in the group. Lois Roden's son George intended to be the group's next leader and considered Koresh an interloper.
When Koresh announced that God had instructed him to marry Rachel Jones, there was a short period of calm at Mount Carmel, but it proved only temporary. In the ensuing power struggle, George Roden, claiming to have the support of the majority of the group, forced Koresh and his group off the property at gunpoint. Disturbed by the events and the move away from the philosophy of the community's founders, a further splinter group led by Charles Joseph Pace moved out of Mount Carmel and set up home in Gadsden, Alabama.
Koresh and around 25 followers set up camp at Palestine, 90 miles from Waco, where they lived rough for the next two years, during which time Koresh undertook recruitment of new followers in California, the United Kingdom, Israel, and Australia. In 1985 Koresh traveled to Israel and it was there that he had a vision that he was the modern day Cyrus. The founder of the Davidian movement, Victor Houteff, wanted to be God's implement and establish the Davidic kingdom in Palestine, Israel.
Koresh also wanted to be God's tool and set up the Davidic Kingdom in Jerusalem. At least until 1990, he believed the place of his martyrdom might be in Israel but by 1991 he was convinced that his martyrdom would be in the United States. Instead of Israel, he said the prophecies of Daniel would be fulfilled in Waco and that the Mount Carmel center was the Davidic kingdom.
At the Palestine, Texas, camp, Koresh "worked it so that everyone was forced to rely on him, and him alone. All previous bonds and attachments, family or otherwise, meant nothing. His rationale was if they had no one to depend on, they had to depend on him, and that made them vulnerable." By this time, he had already begun to give the message of his own "Christhood", proclaiming that he was "the Son of God, the Lamb who could open the Seven seals".
Lois Roden died in 1986. Up until now, Koresh had been teaching that monogamy was the only way to live, but suddenly announced that polygamy was allowed for him. In March 1986, Koresh first slept with Karen Doyle, aged 14.
He claimed her as his second wife. In August 1986, Koresh began secretly sleeping with Michele Jones, his wife's younger 12 year old sister. In September 1986 Koresh began to preach that he was entitled to 140 wives, 60 women as his "queens" and 80 as concubines, which he based upon his interpretation of the Biblical Song of Solomon.
Koresh then built up an entirely new theology around his "marriage" to Doyle. This theology was called the "New Light", with a doctrine of polygamy for himself, which he called "The House of David".
According to this doctrine, Doyle was supposed to have a daughter named Shoshanna who would then be married to Koresh's firstborn son Cyrus. Doyle failed to conceive however, so Koresh then transferred his attention to his wife's sister. Former Davidian David Bunds said that Koresh's doctrine of polygamy "rose out of his deep desire to have sex with young girls. Once he was able to convince himself that it was God's will then he was able to be free of guilt and have sex with as many young girls as he could get his hands on."
By late 1987, George Roden's support had withered. To regain it, he challenged Koresh to a contest to raise the dead, even digging up one corpse to practice on it. Koresh returned to Mount Carmel in camouflage, with seven armed followers. All but one - who managed to escape - were arrested by the local police who had been alerted by the sound of gunfire. When deputy sheriffs arrived and ended the shoot-out, they found Koresh and six followers firing their rifles at Roden, who had already suffered a minor gunshot wound and was pinned down behind a tree at the Compound.
As a result of the incident, Koresh and his followers were charged with attempted murder. At the trial, Koresh testified that he went to Mount Carmel to uncover evidence of corpse abuse by George Roden. Koresh's followers were acquitted, and in Koresh's case, a mistrial was declared.
In 1988 Roden murdered Dale Adair with an axe blow to the skull after Adair stated his belief that Koresh was the Messiah. Roden was convicted of murder and, as he owed thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes, Mount Carmel was placed for sale. Koresh and his followers raised the money and purchased the property, which he subsequently renamed "Ranch Apocalypse". A methamphetamine laboratory was discovered on the property, which Koresh reported to the local police department and asked to have removed.
Koresh believed himself to be a modern-day Cyrus, who had delivered the Jews from Babylon. Koresh is the Hebrew word for "Cyrus". In the documentation involved, Koresh stated that the change was for "publicity and business purposes." The switch arose from his belief that he was now head of the biblical house of David, from which Judeo-Christian tradition maintains the Messiah will come.
The name Koresh is a transliteration of the Hebrew name of Cyrus the Persian king who allowed the Jews who had been dispersed throughout Babylonia by Nebuchadnezzar to return to their homelands.
Both King David and Cyrus are referred to as Messiah (literally anointed one) in the Hebrew Bible (King David on several occasions, Cyrus in Isaiah 45:1), thus the names, "David" and "Koresh", Vernon Howell chose evidenced his belief that he too was an anointed one, a belief that stemmed from a vision he claimed to have received from God in 1985 during his trip to Israel. During the siege, Koresh would explain to the FBI negotiators that (in Koresh's mind at least) "koresh" had a deeper meaning:
Koresh: "What is Christ revealed as, according to the fourth seal?"
FBI: "Pale... a rider on a pale horse".
Koresh: "And his name is what?"
Koresh: "Now, do you know what the name Koresh means?"
FBI: "Go ahead..."
Koresh: "It means death".
Accusations of Child Abuse and Statutory Rape
Koresh advocated polygamy for himself and asserted that he was married to several female residents of the small community. Some former members of the cult also alleged that Koresh felt he could claim any of the females in the compound as his. Evidently, he fathered at least a dozen children by the harem. Allegedly, his harem included girls as young as age 14. The other adults at the compound were told by Koresh not to tell anyone else about this "because they wouldn't understand."
The 1993 U.S. Department of Justice report sets out detailed evidence of historical child sexual and physical abuse. ATF Special Agent David Aguilera had interviewed former Branch Davidian Jeannine Bunds, who claimed that Koresh had fathered "...at least fifteen children with various women and young girls at the compound.
Some of the girls who had babies fathered by Koresh were as young as 12 years old. She had personally delivered 7 of these children. According to Ms. Bunds, Howell annuls all marriages of couples who join his cult. He then has exclusive sexual access to the women. He also, according to Mrs. Bunds, has regular sexual relations with young girls there. The girls' ages are from 11 years old to adulthood.
In his book, James Tabor states that Koresh acknowledged on a videotape sent out of the compound during the standoff that he had fathered more than 12 children by several "wives", some of whom were as young as 12 or 13 when they became pregnant. DNA testing of the women and children in the video who died in the subsequent fire confirmed that the children were his.
At the time, in Texas, the age of parental consent for a minor to marry was 14, as was the age for consent to sex. Kiri Jewell, daughter of Branch Davidian Sherri Jewell, claimed in testimony before Congress in 1995 that she was sexually molested at the age of 10 by Koresh, who then read to her from the Bible.
She originally related the incident in a 1992 custody battle, and the judge ordered that she be kept away from Koresh and Mount Carmel. While conceding that Jewell's testimony may be "100 percent true", Schneider's attorney expressed doubts about her veracity.
Twenty-one children, aged from 5 months to 12 years, were released from Mount Carmel over a 3 day period at the beginning of the siege. These children were placed in the custody of the Child Protective Services and housed together in a single cottage.
Over the next two months, these children were in the constant care of a multidisciplinary treatment team consisting of child care and mental health professionals from a variety of institutions and organizations, who carried out extensive evaluation and assessment. They concluded that the children had been raised in an abusive setting, and that Koresh's regime at Mount Carmel was clearly "a psychologically destructive environment for children."
Koresh deliberately undermined the traditional parent-child relationship and replaced it with a dependence upon a central figure, himself. The children related at various times that they had been instructed to call their natural parents "dogs" and to call Koresh "father." Children who were not biologically Koresh's or 'adopted' by Koresh were called "bastards."
Koresh continuously undermined all relationships within the Branch Davidian community, including sibling relationships, husband and wife relationships, and friendships. Any attachment judged by Koresh to be more important to an individual than the dependence upon him or God was not tolerated. By 1992 the children were being taught to view Koresh as their father, and soon after they were taught that he was God.
The children demonstrated inappropriate and age-inappropriate behaviors and significant gaps in general understanding, reflecting practices present in the compound. Very young children, including a six year old girl, knew an incredible amount about weapons, while they knew almost nothing about common age-appropriate concepts.
Child psychologists concluded that the children were significantly traumatized by previous harsh and inappropriate disciplinary techniques including severe corporal punishment, extended isolation and severe food restrictions. They were continually exposed to "harsh, capricious, and humiliating" disciplinary techniques.
Children, as young as 8 months, were beaten for trivial matters, and older children were beaten for not fighting hard enough in bouts arranged by Koresh between the children as part of their "paramilitary training". In the building where the children were first housed after leaving mount Carmel, one spotted the door to the basement:
"Do you have a whipping room down there?" she asked her new guardians. '"No, do you have one?" "Yes," said the little girl. "When they don't want everyone to hear us, they take us down there."
The children were also threatened with death if they revealed aspects of life inside the compound to the "non-believers". As is typical when an abusive adult threatens a child, they were told that outsiders would not understand "our special ways". The children were convinced that Koresh would return from the grave and punish them if they betrayed the Davidians by interacting with, or disclosing information to, the "bad guys" (eg law enforcement and non-Davidians).
Koresh was exploitive and manipulative of children and exposed them all to a variety of inappropriate sexual content - such as graphically describing intercourse and sexual technique in his hours-long sermons at which the children were present.
Furthermore, the girls were socialized to believe that sex with Koresh, by age 11-12, was normal, appropriate, and desirable as part of "God's plan" as revealed to and by Koresh. All of the young girls were being prepared to be his wives and to view that as a healthy and desired position to be in. One of the older girls expressed distress, now that she had been released from the compound, that she would not be able to be picked by Koresh as one of his brides. Koresh created an environment which had "an unhealthy, malignant and predatory quality of sexuality", and all of the girls were 'groomed' for sexual activity at an early age.
Several of the children mentioned dead babies, and stated that dead babies were kept in the freezer until they could be buried or burned. Amongst the children there was an ongoing secretive quality to these occasional allusions to births, dead babies, miscarriages, storage of dead babies in the freezer, burning bodies, a ceremony with a male baby underwater and other incomplete and unformed stories. When any of the children mentioned these subjects, there was evidence of peer-group monitoring, group censoring and avoidance of disclosing any more information.
Dr. Bruce D. Perry concluded that:
"The fact that the name of God and religion were used to obscure this exploitive and abusive practice make these activities even more heinous and destructive to the long term development of these children. The fact that responsible adults, either parents or 'academics', would minimize these activities is shameful. David Koresh systematically exploited the members of the Branch Davidian community, slowly but surely coercing that community to play out the tragic and destructive visions of his own disturbed inner world".
Raid and Siege
On February 28, 1993, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) raided Mount Carmel. The raid resulted in the deaths of four agents and six Davidians. Shortly after the initial raid, the FBI took command of the federal operation and contact was established with Koresh inside the church. Communication over the next 51 days included telephone exchanges with various FBI negotiators.
As the standoff continued, Koresh, who was seriously injured by a gunshot wound, along with his closest male leaders negotiated delays, possibly so he could write religious documents he said he needed to complete before he surrendered. His conversations with the negotiators were dense with biblical imagery. The federal negotiators treated the situation as a hostage crisis despite a two hour video tape sent out by the Davidians in which the adults and older children/teens appeared to explain clearly and confidently why they chose of their own free will to remain with David.
The 51-day siege of Mount Carmel ended when U.S Attorney General Janet Reno approved recommendations of veteran FBI officials to proceed with a final assault in which the Branch Davidians were to be removed from their building by force. In the course of the assault, the church building caught fire. The cause of the fire was later alleged by the "Danforth Report," a report commissioned by The Special Counsel, to be the deliberate actions of some of the Branch Davidians inside the building.
However this hypothesis is disputed in the documentary "Waco: The Rules of Engagement," which argues that the fire was deliberately set when the FBI fired an incendiary device into the building after loading the building with CS gas, which is highly flammable.
At the subsequent trial of the surviving Branch Davidians, the jury listened to edited parts of a tape-recording from hidden microphones inside Mt. Carmel during the final attack and fire of 19 April. These consisted of sounds of static during which one could faintly hear a voice saying "...fire..."
A government expert testified that through electronic enhancement, he had reconstructed some clearly incriminating comments, even if the jury couldn't hear them. It later transpired that the FBI, when meeting Koresh's demands that milk be sent in for the children's wellbeing, also sent in tiny listening devices concealed inside the milk cartons and their styrofoam containers.
Barricaded in their building, seventy-six Branch Davidians, including Koresh, did not survive the fire. Seventeen of these victims were children under the age of 12. The Danforth Report claims that those who died were unable, or unwilling, to flee and that Steve Schneider, Koresh's right-hand man, probably shot Koresh and killed himself with the same gun. "Waco: The Rules of Engagement" claims that FBI sharpshooters fired on, and killed, many Branch Davidians who attempted to flee the flames.
Testimony by the few Branch Davidians who did successfully flee the fire supports this claim. Autopsy records indicate that at least 20 Branch Davidians were shot, including 5 children. The Danforth Report claims that the adults who died of gunshot wounds shot themselves after shooting the children.
Koresh is buried at Memorial Park Cemetery, Tyler, Texas in the "Last Supper" section. Several of David Koresh's albums were released, including Voice Of Fire in 1994. In 2004, Koresh's 1968 Camaro, which had been damaged during the raid, sold for $37,000 at auction.
On January 23, 2009, Koresh's mother, Bonnie Clark Haldeman, was stabbed to death in Chandler, Texas; her sister, Beverly Clark, was charged with murder.
On Criminal Minds
- Season One
- "The Tribe" - The Branch Davidians were referenced for the first time.
- Season Three
- "Identity" - The Branch Davidians were referenced again.
- Season Four
- "Minimal Loss" - The Branch Davidians were mentioned again, and Koresh appears to have been an inspiration for Benjamin Cyrus ("Minimal Loss") - Both were cult leaders, statutory rapists, and ephebophiles who believed themselves Messiahs and leaders of self-sustaining cults located in rural areas with their own compounds. They are both believed to have abused their children, leading to standoffs with federal authorities and ending with the mass deaths of multiple members of both sides (including both of them, while Kerosh committed suicide while Cyrus was shot by Morgan). They also both changed their names at some point in their lives (Koresh was born Vernon Howell while Cyrus was born Charles Mulgrew). They were both born of young single mothers and said to be good at remembering portions of the Bible. And they both got the previous leaders of their cults thrown out before taking charge themselves. What's also interesting to note is that "Cyrus" is the Anglicised form of "Koresh", the surnames of the two criminals in question.
- Season Eleven