Vernon Wayne Howell was pretty much your average Houston
teenager. "Vernie," as the other kids called him,
was a dyslexic high school dropout born to an unwed teenaged
mother. Pretty typical. In 1979, he went to Hollywood to
make it as a rock guitarist, but after only two years gave
up and moved to Waco.
In Waco he became a member of the Branch Davidian
Seventh-Day Adventist religious cult, led by 67-year-old
Lois Roden. Vernon enjoyed a sexual relationship with the
charismatic senior citizen. When Lois died in 1986, a bitter
power struggle ensued between Vernon and Roden's son George.
When a majority of congregants sided with George Roden,
Vernon's followers were forced off the Mount Carmel complex
at gunpoint. They relocated to Palestine, Texas. It seemed
to have been basically a peaceful schism, as far as your
crazy religious cults go.
But truth be told, nobody was all that surprised when
Vernon returned to Mount Carmel in 1987 dressed in
camoflauge with seven trusted acolytes. They had two
shotguns, seven rifles, and 400 rounds of ammo. George Roden
wound up with gunshot wounds in his hands and chest. Vernon
and his squad were brought up on attempted murder charges,
but none were ever convicted.
After the trials, Vernon was the undisputed leader of the
Branch Davidians, but the whole experience had made him sort
of paranoid. It attracted the attention of the Bureau of
Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms when they got into the
business of selling guns. Beginning in 1991, the group began
spending what would become a total of $199,715 on inventory.
The UPS guy was dropping by Mount Carmel on a near-daily
basis to deliver their weapons and gun parts.
In 1990 Vernon legally changed his name to David Koresh.
The paperwork stated that it was "for publicity and
business purposes." Koresh believed he was the
reincarnation of both King David and King Cyrus of Persia;
he had been appointed by God to rebuild the Temple and
destroy Babylon. In other words, Koresh claimed to be the
By that time, Koresh had already declared that he was
owed at minimum 140 wives, and that he was entitled to claim
any of the females in the compound as his. Evidently he had
fathered at least a dozen babies by the harem. Some were
girls as young as 12 or 13 when they got knocked up by the
Understandably, federal officials were starting to get Jonestown
flashbacks. Then the ATF got wind that the Davidians had
failed to pay taxes on a bunch of machine guns that they
possessed. So they mounted a now-infamous raid on the Mount
Carmel complex in February 1993.
It was completely screwed up before the ATF even arrived
on-scene. An ambulance company hired by the ATF leaked
details of the operation to a local TV station. To verify
the story, KWTX-TV dispatched photographer Jim Peeler who
discussed the rumor with the Branch Davidians' mailman. The
mailman turned out to be David Koresh's brother-in-law David
Jones, who immediately passed the information along to the
When the ATF finally did show up, all 131 Branch Davidians
(as well as a couple of local television news crews) were
waiting for them. Not fully appreciating the seriousness of
their situation, the ATF chose to plow forward anyway. A
team sent to gain ingress through a second-story window were
met with immediate gunfire.
All told, the abortive raid cost ten lives, four of them
ATF agents. It was followed by a 51-day siege, coordinated
under the auspices of the FBI. The siege ended only when
Attorney General Janet Reno ordered that the Branch
Davidians be hauled out by force, using FBI extraction teams
backed by snipers and tanks.
Things went horribly wrong when something caught the place
on fire. Based on the resulting arson investigation and
audio surveillance conducted inside the buildings, it seems
likely that cult members themselves lit three fires
simultaneously, possibly as an ill-conceived defensive
tactic. Surveillance tapes reportedly indicate Koresh
discussing "spreading fuel" -- tapes which the FBI
denied any knowledge of.
Not helping matters any were the FBI's pyrotechnic CS
tear-gas grenades, which the agency swore had not
been used, until they were forced to admit it six years
after the fact. Further loss of life occurred because the
FBI deliberately rendered inoperable all exits to the
burning building, logic apparently dictating that in order
to save the children, they had to destroy them.
Timothy McVeigh was one of the civilian spectators
hanging around outside the perimeter. Two years later, he
chose the Waco anniversary to blow up the Murrah Federal
Building in Oklahoma City.