Koresh in 1987
|Born||Vernon Wayne Howell
August 17, 1959
Houston, Texas, U.S.
|Died||April 19, 1993
Mount Carmel Center
McLennan County, Texas, U.S.
Cause of death
|Branch Davidian ranch
McLennan County, Texas, U.S.
|Memorial Park Cemetery
|Residence||Elk, Texas, U.S.|
|Occupation||Religious leader of Branch Davidians|
and twelve others
Coming from a dysfunctional family background, Koresh became a born-again Christian in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, before joining a splinter group, based at the Mount Carmel Center in Waco, Texas, which took the name Branch Davidians. Here he competed for dominance with another leader named George Roden, until Roden was jailed for murdering another rival. Koresh was then accused of seducing a 13-year old girl, apparently with her parents’ consent, a relationship that he sanctified as a ‘spiritual marriage’. But it was the serving of arrest and search warrants by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as part of an investigation into illegal possession of firearms and explosives that provoked the historic 1993 raid on the center. Four ATF agents and six Davidians were killed during the initial two hour firefight, both sides claiming the other side fired first. The subsequent siege by the FBI ended with the burning of the center, where Koresh and 79 others were found dead after the fire.
Koresh was born Vernon Wayne Howell on August 17, 1959 in Houston, Texas, to a 15-year-old single mother, Bonnie Sue Clark (September 8, 1944-January 23, 2009). His father was a 20-year-old man named Bobby Wayne Howell (August 3, 1939-July 16, 2008). Before Koresh was born, his father met another teenage girl and abandoned Bonnie Sue. Koresh never met his father, and his mother began cohabiting with a violent alcoholic.
In 1963, Koresh's mother left her boyfriend and placed her 4-year-old son in the care of his maternal grandmother, Earline Clark. His mother returned when he was seven, after her marriage to a carpenter named Roy Haldeman. Haldeman and Clark had a son together named Roger, who was born in 1966. Koresh described his early childhood as lonely, and it has been alleged that he was once gang-raped by older boys when he was 8. Due to his poor study skills and dyslexia, he was put in special education classes and nicknamed "Vernie" by his fellow students. Koresh dropped out of Garland High School in his junior year.
When he was 22, Koresh had an affair with a 15-year-old girl who became pregnant.[unreliable source?] He claimed to have become a born-again Christian in the Southern Baptist Church and 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 allegedly found the Bible open at Isaiah 34, stating 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.
In 1982, he moved to Waco, Texas, where he joined the Branch Davidians, a religious group originating from a schism in 1955 from the Shepherd's Rod, themselves disfellowshipped members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1929. They had established their headquarters at a ranch 9 miles (14 km) out of Waco, which they called the Mount Carmel Center (after the Biblical Mount Carmel), in 1985. Koresh played guitar and sang in church services at Mount Carmel Center; his band played a few times at clubs in Waco; former members (such as David Thibodeau) have written that he recruited them through music. He also tried pursuing his own record company but because of lack of funds and support was not successful. His status as a "rock singer" was very localized.
Ascent to leadership of the Branch Davidians
In 1983, Koresh began claiming the gift of prophecy. It is speculated[by whom?] that he had a sexual relationship with Lois Roden, the prophetess and leader of the sect who was then 77 years old, 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 Roden 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 (who then added Koresh to her name), there was a short period of calm at Mount Carmel Center, 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 Center and set up home in Gadsden, Alabama.
In 1985, Koresh and around 25 followers set up camp at Palestine, Texas, 90 miles (140 km) from Waco, where they lived under rough conditions in buses and tents for the next two years, during which time Koresh undertook recruitment of new followers in California, the United Kingdom, Israel and Australia. That same year Koresh traveled to Israel where he claimed he had a vision that he was the modern day Cyrus. The founder of the Branch Davidian movement, Victor Houteff, wanted to be God's implement and establish the Davidic kingdom in Palestine. 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.
After being exiled to the Palestine, Texas camp, Koresh and his followers eked out a primitive existence. When Lois Roden died in 1986, the exiled Branch Davidians wondered if they would ever be able to return to Mount Carmel Center. But despite the displacement, "Koresh now enjoyed the loyalty of the majority of the [Branch Davidian] community." By late 1987, George Roden's support was in steep decline. To regain it, he challenged Koresh to a contest to raise the dead, going so far as to exhume a corpse to demonstrate his spiritual supremacy. Koresh went to authorities to file charges against Roden for illegally exhuming a corpse, but was told he would have to show proof (such as a photograph of the corpse). Koresh seized the opportunity to seek criminal prosecution of Roden by returning to Mount Carmel Center with seven armed followers attempting to get photographic proof of the crime. Koresh's group was discovered by Roden and a gunfight broke out. When the sheriff arrived, Roden had already suffered a minor gunshot wound and was pinned down behind a tree. As a result of the incident, Koresh and his followers were charged with attempted murder. At the trial, Koresh explained that he went to Mount Carmel Center to uncover evidence of criminal disturbance of a corpse by Roden. Koresh's followers were acquitted, and in Koresh's case a mistrial was declared.
In 1989, Roden murdered Wayman Dale Adair with an axe blow to the skull after Adair stated his belief that he (Adair) was the true messiah. Roden was convicted of murder and imprisoned in a mental hospital at Big Spring, Texas. Since Roden owed thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes on Mount Carmel Center, Koresh and his followers were able to raise the money and reclaim the property. Roden continued to harass the Koresh faction by filing legal papers while imprisoned. When Koresh and his followers reclaimed Mount Carmel Center, they discovered that tenants who had rented from Roden had left behind a methamphetamine laboratory, which Koresh reported to the local police department and asked to have removed.
Vernon Howell filed a petition in California State Superior Court in Pomona on May 15, 1990, to legally change his name "for publicity and business purposes" to David Koresh. On August 28, 1990, Judge Robert Martinez granted the petition. Koresh is the Persian name of Cyrus the Great (کوروش, Kurosh), a Persian king who is named a Messiah for freeing Jews during the Babylonian Captivity. His first name, David, symbolized a lineage directly to the biblical King David, from whom the new messiah would descend. By taking the name of David Koresh, he was "professing himself to be the spiritual descendant of King David, a messianic figure carrying out a divinely commissioned errand."
Accusations of child abuse and statutory rape
The child abuse and sexual abuse claims have been widely circulated in the press coverage though it is often difficult to separate the purported claims from the evidence. Koresh's doctrine of the House of David did lead to spiritual marriages with both married and single women in the group and with at least one underage girl. The underage girl was Michelle Jones, the younger sister of Koresh's legal wife Rachel and the daughter of lifelong Branch Davidians Perry and Mary Belle Jones. Koresh took Michelle as a spiritual wife when she was thirteen, evidently with the consent of the Joneses. This means Koresh was in violation of state law and could have been prosecuted for statutory rape in Texas. A six-month investigation of child abuse allegations by the Texas Child Protection Services in 1992 failed to turn up any evidence, most likely because the Branch Davidians concealed the spiritual marriage of Koresh to Michelle Jones, assigning a surrogate husband (David Thibodeau) to the girl for the sake of appearances. A second allegation involved an underage girl, Kiri Jewell, who testified in the Congressional hearings on Waco in 1995. She claimed that, beginning from when she was ten years old, Koresh forced her to perform sexual acts.
Regarding the allegations of child abuse, the evidence is less compelling. In one widely reported incident, ex-members claimed that Koresh became irritated with the cries of his son Cyrus and spanked the child severely for several minutes on three consecutive visits to the child's bedroom. In a second report, Koresh was said to have beaten the eight-month-old daughter of another member for approximately forty minutes until the girl's bottom bled. In a third incident, a man involved in a custody battle visited Mount Carmel Center and claimed to have seen the beating of a young boy with a stick. Finally, the FBI's justification for forcing an end to the 51-day standoff was predicated on the charge that Koresh was abusing children inside Mount Carmel Center. In hours following the deadly conflagration, Attorney General Janet Reno told reporters that "We had specific information that babies were being beaten." But FBI Director William Sessions publicly denied the charge and told reporters that they had no such information about child abuse inside Mount Carmel Center. A careful examination of the other child abuse charges found the evidence to be weak and ambiguous, casting doubt on the allegations.
The allegations of child abuse stem largely from detractors and ex-members. The 1993 U.S. Department of Justice report cites allegations of child sexual and physical abuse. But despite the merits of the charges, legal scholars point out that the ATF had no legal jurisdiction in the matter of child protection and it appears that these accounts were inserted by the ATF to inflame the case against Koresh. For example, the account of former Branch Davidian Jeannine Bunds is reproduced in the affidavit. She claimed that Koresh had fathered at least fifteen children with various women and that she had personally delivered seven of these children. Bunds also claims that Koresh would annul all marriages of couples who joined the group, had exclusive sexual access to the women, and would also have regular sexual relations with young girls. There is no question that Koresh had multiple children by different women in the group. His House of David doctrine based on a purported revelation involved the reproduction of 24 children by chosen women in the community. These 24 children were to serve as the ruling elders over the millennium after the return of Christ. 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". On March 3, 1993, during negotiations to secure the release of the remaining children, Koresh advised the Negotiation Team that: "My children are different than those others", referring to his direct lineage versus those children previously released.
At the time, in Texas, the age of parental consent for a minor to marry was 14, as was the age for consent to engage in sexual relations. In the documentary film, Waco: The Rules of Engagement (long version), Jack Harwell, Sheriff of McLennan County, stated: "You have to have proof to go into court.... Keep in mind, too, that most of the girls who were involved were at least 14 years old and 14-year-olds get married with parental consent. So if their parents were there and letting things happen in the way of sexual activities and what have you with their 14-year-old kids, you have common law husbands and wives. I don't say that I agree with that and that I approve of it. But at the same time, if parents are there and they're giving parental consent, we have a problem with that in making a case."
On February 28, 1993, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) raided Mount Carmel Center. The raid resulted in the deaths of four agents and six Branch Davidians. Shortly after the initial raid, the FBI HRT (Hostage Rescue Team) took command of the federal operation, since the FBI has jurisdiction over incidents involving the deaths of federal agents. Contact was established with Koresh inside the compound. 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.
The 51-day siege of Mount Carmel Center ended on April 19 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 on fire in circumstances that are still disputed. Barricaded inside the building, 80 Branch Davidians, including David Koresh, did not survive the fire; 22 of these victims were children under the age of 17. According to the FBI, Steve Schneider, Koresh's right-hand man who "probably realized he was dealing with a fraud," shot and killed Koresh and then committed suicide with the same gun.
Koresh is buried at Memorial Park Cemetery, Tyler, Texas. Several of David Koresh's albums were released, including Voice Of Fire in 1994. In 2004, Koresh's 1968 Camaro with a 427 cu in swap, which had been damaged during the raid, sold for $37,000 at auction.
The Mount Carmel Center raid was cited by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols as motivations for the Oklahoma City bombing, a terrorist act carried out on April 19, 1995—timed to coincide with the second anniversary of the Waco assault.
- Smyrl, Vivian Elizabeth. "Elk, Texas". Handbook of Texas - Texas State Historical Association. Retrieved June 30, 2012.
- "Frequently Asked Questions about Waco". Frontline/PBS. Retrieved February 27, 2015.
- Pitts, William L. "Davidians and Branch Davidians". Handbook of Texas - Texas State Historical Association. Retrieved November 25, 2012.
- Wilson, Colin (2000), The Devil's Party, London: Virgin Books, ISBN 1-85227-843-9
- Final 24 Episode on David Koresh.
- Valentine, Carol A. (2001), David Koresh and The Cuckoo's Egg - pt. 3
- David G. Bromley and Edward D. Silver, "The Davidian Tradition: From Patronal Clan to Prophetic Movement," p.54 in Stuart A. Wright, Armageddon in Waco: Critical Perspectives on the Branch Davidian Conflict (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1995)
- Marc Breault and Martin King, Inside the Cult, Signet, 1st Printing June 1993. ISBN 978-0-451-18029-2. (Australian edition entitled Preacher of Death).
- Thibodeau, David (1999), The truth about Waco
- Thomas R. Lujan, "Legal Aspects of Domestic Employment of the Army", Parameters US Army War College Quarterly, Autumn 1997, Vol. XXVII, No. 3.
- Clifford L. Linedecker, Massacre at Waco, Texas, St. Martin's Press, 1993, page 94. ISBN 0-312-95226-0.
- Bromley and Silver, p.57
- See Christopher G. Ellison and John Bartkowski, "'Babies Were Being Beaten': Exploring Child Abuse Allegations at Ranch Apocalypse," pp.111-152 in Stuart A. Wright (ed.), Armageddon in Waco: Critical Perspectives on the Branch Davidian Conflict (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1995)
- See Bromley and Silver, pp.60-65
- David Thibodeau and Leon Whiteson, A Place Called Waco: A Survivor's Story (New York: Public Affairs, 1999)
- Ellison and Bartkowski, 120-121.
- Sam Howe Verovek, "In Shadow of Texas Siege, Uncertainty for Innocents." New York Times, 1993, March 8
- Stephen Labaton, "Confusion Abounds in the Capital on Rationale for Assault on Cult," New York Times, 1993, April 21
- Ellison and Bartkowski, 1995
- John R. Hall, "Public Narratives and the Apocalyptic Sect," pp.205-235 in Stuart A. Wright (ed.), Armageddon in Waco (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1995); Stuart A. Wright, "Construction and Escalation of a 'Cult' Threat: Dissecting Moral Panic and Official Reaction to the Branch Davidians," pp.75-94 in Stuart A. Wright (ed.), Armageddon in Waco
- U.S. Department of Justice (1993), "Evidence of Historical Child Sexual and Physical Abuse", Report to the Deputy Attorney General on the Events at Waco, Texas February 28 to April 19, 1993 (From ATF Affidavit in Support of Arrest of Koresh, taken from ATF Special Agent Aguilera's interview of former compound resident Jeannine Bunds, included in Agent Aguilera's affidavit in support of the Koresh arrest warrant "Davy Aguilera, Special Agent Bureau of ATF, Subscribed and sworn to before me this 25th day of February 1993 Dennis G. Green United States Magistrate Judge Western District of Texas - Waco" (Redacted ed.), Washington, D.C.: U.S.DoJ, retrieved February 4, 2007
- Ellison and Bartkowski, 1995; Wright, "Construction and Escalation of a 'Cult' Threat," 1995
- Tabor, James D.; Gallagher, Eugene V. (1997), Why Waco?: Cults & the Battle for Religious Freedom in America, Berkeley, California: University of California Press, ISBN 978-0-520-20899-5
- "Frequently Asked Questions about Waco". Frontline/PBS. Retrieved February 27, 2015.
- Koresh's Top Aide Killed Cult Leader, FBI Official Says - The Washington Post | HighBeam Research
- Hart, Lianne (September 26, 2004). "Puny market for avid Koresh's pride and joy fails to excite many bidders". The San Francisco Chronicle.
- Lewis, J. R. (ed.), From the Ashes: Making sense of Waco (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1994).
- Wright, Stuart A. (ed.), Armageddon in Waco: Critical perspectives on the Branch Davidian conflict (Chicago, U. of Chicago Press, 1995).
- Tabor, James, and Gallagher, Eugene, Why Waco? Cults and the battle for religious freedom in America (Berkeley, U. of California Press, 1995).
- Reavis, Dick J. The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995). ISBN 0-684-81132-4
- Samples, Kenneth et al. Prophets of the Apocalypse: David Koresh & Other American Messiahs (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994). ISBN 0-8010-8367-2.
- Newport, Kenneth G. C. The Branch Davidians of Waco: The History and Beliefs of an Apocalyptic Sect (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2006).
- Shaw, B. D., "State Intervention and Holy Violence: Timgad/Paleostrovsk/Waco," Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 77,4 (2009), 853–894.
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