Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

David Koresh: Millennial Violence

The Messiah

Former Davidian Marc Breault provides a long history of the development of the Branch Davidians as an offshoot from the Seventh Day Adventist Church. He also details how Koresh rose to power and eventually took over.  In the beginning, his name was Vernon J. Howell and he was a high school dropout with the gift of the gab.

The Seventh Day Adventists advocated purity of the body as the temple in which the Holy Spirit resides, so their habits of eating and drinking were strict. They believed the final battle between good and evil could happen at any time, and when it did, and only a select number would witness the return of Jesus Christ and be saved. Yet some members wanted regulations to be even stricter, and from the original church several sects formed. 

Within this congregation during the early 1930s, Victor T. Houteff preached about the approaching Apocalypse. He was chosen by God to cleanse the church, and when his defiant dogmatism forced him out, he took several followers with him. In 1935, they purchased land outside Waco, calling it the Mount Carmel Center.  Then Houteff renamed his sect the Davidian Seventh Day Adventists, and when he died in 1955, his wife Florence succeeded him as leader. She gave a confident prediction for the exact date of the world's end in 1959, and many frightened converts flocked to Waco.

David Koresh in 1981
David Koresh in 1981

When her prediction proved false, Benjamin Boden then attracted a disillusioned group to himself. He called this group the Branch, which then became the Branch Davidians. When he died, his wife, Lois, became the new prophet, and among the more ambitious members of her group was Vernon J. Howell, who had joined in 1983.

He was easy-going, handsome, and aggressive, with the flamboyance of a rock star. He could take any Bible verse and discuss it endlessly, which made him seem highly intelligent, even gifted—possibly inspired. Lois Boden's son and heir, George, hated Howell. He intended to be the group's next leader, no matter how charming Howell might seem. There could only be one Messiah.

As these two faced off, Howell charmed the elderly Lois into taking him as a lover. He claimed it was God's divine command that they produce a child together, although they failed in this.  Eventually the two men gathered their respective supporters, each claiming exclusive access to Biblical revelation. Howell insisted that as God's "seventh messenger," it was he who would set off the chain of events that would bring on the Apocalypse. In some ways, he was right, at least for his own flock.

When Lois died in 1986, Boden forced Howell out. Howell left for a while, but then returned for a face off.  Boden had dug up the corpse of an elderly woman to challenge Howell to raise her from the dead, so Howell tried to use this incident to get Boden arrested. The sheriff needed proof, so Howell armed himself and took some men to enter Mount Carmel to get photographs. Boden came at them with an Uzi and they shot back. Surprisingly, no one was killed, but Boden quickly went to prison on an unrelated charge and that opened the door for Howell to take over. In a court trial, Boden appeared to be more dangerous—especially when he had the corpse brought into the courtroom to prove his powers. Howell was acquitted of all charges, and he saw this as a sign of God's protection. Boden left town and was later committed to a mental hospital.

Koresh with wife Rachel and son Cyrus
Koresh with wife Rachel and
son Cyrus

Now Howell was free to affirm himself as a harbinger out of the Book of Revelations who could interpret the prophecies of the Seven Seals. When inspired one day by the "New Light," he divided husbands from wives and claimed all the women as his own. He gave each girl a Star of David, which Breault says was a symbol indicative of ownership. "That cheap piece of jewelry signified that a female belonged to the exalted House of David and was destined to become a Handmaiden to the Lord"—the "lord" in this case being Howell.

It was important, Howell said, that as God he had to spread his seed and create a divine army. Then he dubbed his male followers Mighty Men—the guards of King Solomon's bed—and they were to be his primary soldiers.  It was estimated that he'd claimed at least 15 girls and women for his harem, some as young as 12. 

In 1990, Howell changed his name to David Koresh to bring together the concept that he was an heir to King David and that his name meant death. He dictated strict rules about how his flock should spend their days, apparently changing those rules at whim, and he preached at his flock day and night. Yet he himself was above the rules.  He could eat food forbidden to them, sleep till noon, and drink alcohol.

By 1992, Koresh was teaching his followers about martyrdom for the cause. At the same time, he was stockpiling food and collecting arms to defend himself against any attacks, whether from defectors or government agents—the "Babylonians." While Wessinger claims that there's no evidence that the Branch Davidians were actually using the guns they were selling, they clearly had a siege mentality. The cult managed to acquire sufficient supplies—especially in terms of instant storable meals--to last a year, if the need arose.

According to defectors, Koresh demanded to know from members of his group how far they were willing to go in defense of the true faith. The only way to serve God was to be willing to die.  He even taught the children that suicide might one day be required and showed them how to do it with cyanide or a gun. Eventually he changed the name of Mount Carmel to Ranch Apocalypse.


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