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- May 03, 1993
- Vol. 39
- No. 17
Waco: 13 Who Died
What Kind of People Followed David Koresh to Their Deaths? Grieving Families Describe the Husbands and Wives, Sons and Daughters Who Were Captivated by the Self-Styled Prophet of Apocalypse
David Koresh called it Ranch Apocalypse—and that's exactly what his cult's headquarters, 10 miles cast of Waco, Tex., became. While millions of horrified viewers watched on national television last week, as many as 86 people—nearly a third of them children—died in a fast-moving fire that burned Koresh's compound to the ground. Within a few hours all that remained, aside from smoldering ashes, were questions: Was the blaze set on the orders of Koresh, 33, who had once claimed to be Jesus reincarnate? Or was it started when tanks on loan to the FBI ripped holes in compound buildings and pumped in tear gas. hoping to force cult members to give up after a 51-day siege? Was it a mass suicide that only nine Branch Davidians escaped? Or a tragic accident?
Perhaps the ultimate mystery, though, is how and why ordinary people, fanatically religious but presumed to be sane, came to believe in the man who eventually led them to destruction. Here is a look at 13 cult members from the U.S., Australia and Britain who found their way to David Koresh, Waco—and death.
Welcoming her father's survival, a cultist cheers a sister's "salvation"
Karen Doyle's only regret is that she wasn't at the Branch Davidian compound when it was incinerated. "I wish I had been there," says Doyle, 21, of the blaze that claimed the life of her younger sister Shari, 18. (Their father, Give Doyle, 52, an Australian-born printer, escaped and is in good condition in a Dallas hospital with burns on his hand.) A day after the conflagration, wearing a black T-shirt bearing a picture of David Koresh playing electric guitar, Doyle sits in the six-bedroom house occupied by the cult in L.A. Verne, Calif., which has been her home for the past three years. "I'm sure I will shed tears, but not because of sadness," she says. "I'm happy they have gone on to something better."
Both Karen and Shari were born Branch Davidians. Their father moved to Waco from Sydney in the mid-'60s as a follower of Koresh's predecessors, Ben and Lois Roden; it was at the complex that Clive met his wife-to-be, Debbie Slawson, who had come from Arizona with her parents, Athen and Barbara. But within a few years, Debbie and her parents moved to California to spread the Branch Davidian gospel. Later, Debbie and Clive split up, with him taking the little girls back to Waco. The children saw their mother and grandparents only during Christmas and summer vacations. Says their mother, now remarried and known as Debbie Brown: "I didn't even get a chance to know them."
Still, in 1984, when Brown heard rumors that Koresh was planning to take the girls, then 10 and 13, as wives, she tried to get them out of the cult. She and her brother, David Slawson, snatched them from a park in Waco and look them to New York. But when she brought the girls back a few weeks later, intending to fight her ex-husband for custody, police helped Clive and Koresh retrieve them.
The sisters became even more steadfast in their faith and soon joined the ranks of Koresh's wives. "I look at it as being married to God," says Karen. "God had ordained him." Shari reportedly bore Koresh a daughter (although her sister denies this). "Shari and Karen were totally wrapped up in this thing. They had no goals and aspirations," says their grandmother Barbara Slawson, 62, who heard Koresh preach in California in 1983. "I still don't know what his message is. It was like a handful of bubbles."
Slawson is angry at her former son-in-law for escaping but not managing to save Shari. She thinks that perhaps Clive fled the fire because he had last-minute doubts about his personal Messiah. "I don't think he would have owned up to it," she says. "But obviously if he would have believed, he wouldn't have come out."
A Koresh "bride" leaves a daughter who might have shared her fate
Sherri Jewell was a seeker. Charismatic and vivacious, the Honolulu native converted to the conservative Seventh-Day Adventist Church while in college, but continued to pursue highs of a nonspiritual variety—partying, drinking and men. While leaching at an Adventist school in Battle Creek, Mich., in the mid-'70s, she courted student David Jewell, seven years her junior, whom she married after his graduation in 1976. But even before the birth of daughter Kiri, in 1981, the marriage began to unravel when Sherri started looking elsewhere for love. The couple separated, and Sherri moved back to Hawaii. And then it seemed she finally found what she was looking for in David Koresh, who was recruiting Adventists there in the mid-'80s.
"While she was a very educated woman, she did not like to think for herself," says her ex-husband, David, 35. Last year the disc jockey won a fierce custody battle to get his daughter out of the Waco compound where she had lived on and off for five years—and where former cult members had told him Sherri was preparing the youngster to become, like herself, one of Koresh's wives. "On the one hand [Sherri was] a leader," he says, "and on the other she wanted desperately to be led."
In the cult, Sherri, 43, had it both ways. There was no need to make decisions because she had what her ex-husband calls "her own personal God" to obey. And yet, as one of Koresh's senior wives, Sherri exercised considerable power. For a while she was the Davidians' schoolteacher; at another point she planned and supervised the preparation of all meals. She looked after the younger wives, served as a peacemaker and "was a friend to everyone," says her daughter, Kiri, 12, who now lives in Michigan with her father and his second wife. "She was more like a sister than a mother."
The siege's fiery finale came as no surprise to Kiri, although she admits its enormity has yet to sink in. "I've been saying the whole time that they'd commit suicide," says the girl, who describes her mother as "completely devoted" to the "magnetic, intriguing" Koresh. "I know my mother wanted this. She was probably right up there in front. I will always miss her."
A couple blame themselves for leading their children into the cult
At first only Lisa Gent was ensnared by David Koresh. The Australian homemaker, a Seventh-Day Adventist, met the smooth-talking preacher in February 1986 while he was in Melbourne recruiting for his Branch Davidian cult. " 'If you want to learn what I'm teaching, you'll have to come and live with me,' " Lisa, 48, recalls Koresh saying. She decided to drop everything and go. "If you were to hear him expound Scriptures, you'd have to be very careful you would not be hypnotized," she explains. "He's very, very clever in the Scripture."
Eight weeks later she was back in Australia, convincing her husband, Bruce, now 50, to sell their suburban Melbourne home, abandon his construction business and return with her to Waco. They were soon joined by her two adult children from a first marriage, Ian Manning and Michelle Tom, and their spouses, Allison and James, but eventually visa restrictions forced everyone to return home.
In September 1988, Koresh again visited Australia. This time he set his sights on Nicole Gent, then 19, one of Bruce's two children from a prior marriage. "He was unbelievable," Bruce recalls. "He was like a Casanova. He worked on Nicole for a week, night and day, pointing out things to her, teaching her Scriptures. He made her feel like a queen." One night, Nicole told Lisa and Bruce that Koresh wanted her to be his "teddy bear" and she formally asked their permission to go to bed with him. They said yes. "We thought it was the correct thing at the time," Lisa says. "He was leaching that women who married him would become the wife of Christ...and their babies would judge the world."
Nicole returned to the United State with Koresh and became one of his "wives," giving birth to a son, Dayland, the following August and a daughter last year. At some point she formally married cult member Jell Little (see below), but friends say this was a sham marriage so she could get a green card. She was joined in Waco by her twin brother, Peter Gent, her two step-siblings and their spouses. But one by one, most of her family became disenchanted—especially after Koresh tried to discipline 8-month-old Tarah, the daughter of Nicole's stepsister, Michelle, by beating her with a wooden spatula for 30 minutes. When Michelle's husband, James, tried to intervene, Koresh had him taken outside and struck with a fence post. At another point, Koresh asked James to choose which of his two children he would offer as a human sacrifice.
By 1990 only Nicole and Peter remained in the cult, and Koresh furiously began threatening violence if the rest of the family didn't return. He even told Ian that Lisa and Bruce were on a hit list. Unable to get Nicole and Peter to leave, Bruce and Lisa joined other Australians in hiring private detective Geoff Hossack to obtain evidence against Koresh that could be used in an official inquiry. Hossack's efforts led to an investigation of the Davidians' stockpile of weapons by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and to an investigative series in the Waco Tribune Herald, but Nicole and Peter still refused to leave the cult.
Peter was shot to death during the abortive ATF raid on (he compound on Feb. 28; Nicole and her two children died in the April 19 fire—and the Gents blame themselves. "My biggest regret," says Lisa, "is that my choice [of religion] influenced the children." On the positive side is Koresh's fate, she says. "It's good he's dead now."
Losing a son, a Michigan family is confused, hurt and angry
By all accounts, Jeff Little, 31, was a bright young man, a computer analyst who knew how to gel what he wanted. "He always got straight A's in school, he picked up all his clothes and did the dishes without being asked," says his father, Lonnie Little, a retired civil-service worker in Galesburg, Mich.
He was also deeply religious. Like his two brothers, Aaron, now 32, and Stuart, 30, Jeff went to Seventh-Day Adventist schools. But unlike his two brothers, he never rebelled against his parents' religion. "He was always toeing the line," recalls Aaron.
In 1981, Jeff took up computer studies at the University of Hawaii. While there he met David Koresh, and over the next few years he became steadily more involved with the Branch Davidians. By the late '80s, Jeff had moved to Loma Linda, Calif., where Koresh maintained a house. At one point his mother, Pat, and brother Aaron visited, and Jeff look them to what Aaron now calls "an opening lesson for new cult members." Halfway through the day, Aaron got into an angry argument with his brother. "I told him I didn't want to hear any more of that shit and to take his cult religious stuff and go to hell," says Aaron. It was the last time he ever saw his brother.
A year later, Jeff moved to the cult's compound near Waco. Soon afterward his father made a surprise visit. "Jeff had changed," Lonnie says. "He'd gone from being a happy-go-lucky kid to a very serious person totally engulfed with this crazy religiosity. I told him this guy was way out in left field." His son did not agree. "Jeff told me Koresh was the Lamb of God," Lonnie recalls. "I told him, That's blasphemous,' and he started to get hostile, telling me every other Christian is wrong and they are the only ones who are right."
After that, Lonnie avoided any mention of the cult whenever he talked to his son by phone. Jeff, meanwhile, married Nicole Gent to help her get U.S. citizenship. But Lonnie believes his son died a virgin. "Koresh told him he was one of the 144,000 special ones who was going to heaven because he'd never been with a woman," Lonnie says. Now that his son is dead, he is more confused than ever as to why Jeff joined a cult—and why he died. "I'm angry at the FBI, angry at Jeff, angry at Koresh, angry at religion," he says. "If anyone tried to preach anything to me right now, I'd tell 'em to shove it."
A father survives the wife and children who mocked his lack of faith
Sitting alone in his big, empty house in Manchester, England, last Christmas, Samuel Henry felt as if he was losing everything. His wife of 28 years, Zilla, was divorcing him because he refused to become a follower of David Koresh and join her and their five children in Waco. Last Monday, with devastating finality, he did lose everything. Inside the inferno were Zilla, a 55-year-old Trinidadian nurse, the couple's daughters, Diana, 28, Pauline, 25, Vanessa, 19, and sons, Stephen, 26, and Phillip, 22. "I told my family, 'You are on the road to destruction,' but they would not believe me," said the stunned Henry, 56, a Jamaican-born builder, minutes after watching the compound go up in flames on CNN. "Now [my family] are dust and ashes."
The seeds of the tragedy were planted in the summer of 1988 when Koresh came to Britain to recruit members of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, to which the Henrys belonged. Diana, a college graduate with a degree in psychology who was doing social work while wailing to start a master's program at Leicester University, fell under his spell. She recruited the rest of her family—including Phillip, a talented pianist and student headed for medical school—and, eventually, nine other people from Manchester, some of whom were among the 25 Britons who died at Waco. "The real blame belongs to this man with the demonic force," Samuel Henry told Britain's Daily Mail last month. "No one knows the Bible like him, and they think he must be a man of God."
Henry fought hard to retrieve his family. He fasted and prayed for them with members of his church. He kept calling the Waco compound. And he even went to Texas in July 1989 to try to persuade them to return. But he was forced to come home alone after some "spooky" meetings with Koresh. "He got really mad and angry and called me a hypocrite," said Henry. "He wanted to whip me." Henry's last contact with his family was a telephone call al Christmas when Phillip, he said, called him a fool for not joining them.
After the inferno, the grieving father blamed both Koresh and the FBI. "I warned the authorities that the man has satanic powers," he said. "They should have anticipated what this evil man would do. All I wanted was for everyone to come out with their hands up and alive."
PAM LAMBERT and JOE TREEN
LYNDON STAMBLER in L.A. Verne, JANE SUGDEN in New York City, BOB STEWART in Waco, BENITA ALEXANDER in Galesburg, MARGARET WRIGHT in Manchester, and bureau reports
- Lyndon Stambler,
- Jane Sugden,
- Bob Stewart,
- Benita Alexander,
- Margaret Wright.
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