WACO, TEX., MARCH 6 -- Six years ago, David Koresh and another cult member engaged in a gruesome duel. One hid behind a tree, the other behind a broken-down car as they shot at each other to settle a question. Who could raise a 20-year-old corpse from the dead?
The body of Anna Hughes had been dug up, draped with a flag of the Star of David and placed on a simple altar. Scripture was shouted over the skeleton for days. But even though Koresh and his rival failed to breathe life into the corpse, the episode was a turning point that won the loyalty of Koresh's followers and alerted local authorities that something very strange was happening on the edge of town.
Since last Sunday, Koresh, 33, a man obsessed both with firearms and the doomsday visions of the Bible, has kept a deadly stand against hundreds of police outside his fortified compound, the Ranch Apocalypse. As the stalemate that began with the shooting deaths of four federal agents entered its second week, officials continue to unravel the mystery of Koresh and how he came to possess such extraordinary power over seemingly ordinary men and women from around the world.
"People have written about children being held against their will, relatives being held against their will, and the possibility of mass suicide," said Dan Hartnett, associate director of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF).
Koresh, a ninth-grade dropout born in Houston, began life as Vernon Wayne Howell. From an early age, he loved to play with toy guns and enjoyed singing songs about following Jesus, said his grandmother, Jean Holub. Years later, he would use his polite manner and immense knowledge of the Bible, particularly the Book of Revelation, to persuade the deeply religious -- and the down-and-out -- to join his group, the Branch Davidians.
"He knows so much verse and he knows how to be convincing with it," said Mark Bunds, a Waco resident whose parents introduced him and his sister, Robyn, to the sect. "He knows about being lost, out in the world, with no direction."
But as his belief that the world was about to end in a fiery battle between good and evil coincided with his love of guns and his increasing paranoia about authorities, Koresh took a deadly turn. He instructed his estimated 100 followers, who lived with him on a 77-acre expanse of trees and cow pastures, to train against invaders. Even women in their seventies, according to a federal affidavit, were taught how to shoot.
In the past few years, wells were dug, power generators were installed, a watch tower erected. A network of underground tunnels was excavated beneath the group's barn-like living quarters; a school bus was sunk underground to serve as a bunker. Shipments of guns, high-powered enough to blast through targets a mile away, poured into the compound. Neighbors complained that they often heard gunshots.
And when federal agents arrived last Sunday morning, in helicopters and cattle trucks, with warrants to search for illegal weapons, Koresh and his followers were ready.
'Messiah' Business Cards
The cards Koresh would hand out to people he tried to convert -- and that apparently included everyone he encountered -- were typically grandiose. "Messiah," they said. The "i" was dotted with a star. A sword with an intricate hilt slashed through the middle of the word.
The cards were an indicator that Koresh believed he was more than just a man. He was sent to do battle for God.
In Southern California in the 1970s, Koresh became deeply involved in the Branch Davidians, a renegade sect that believes the world is coming to an end and that the righteous must fight their way into heaven. He used his amazing capacity for memorizing and interpreting scripture, along with his persuasive personality, to cast a spell over many who were looking for direction in their lives. He found some of his followers in churches, others in bars. They were engineers, nurses, plumbers, computer programmers and illegal immigrants without a place to live. In recruiting trips to Israel, Australia and England, he built his group into an international flock.
Eventually, the cult took up residence in several homes donated by members, including a grand Mediterranean-style house in Laverne, Calif. But by 1991, local police were called there to investigate Koresh amid charges that he had kidnapped the small son of cult member Robyn Bunds and taken the boy to the sect's world headquarters outside Waco. Detectives said they discovered Koresh was living in a harem of teenage girls, some as young as 12. He had sex with them whenever he liked and appeared to have them under hypnotic control, according to California police. But police could not build a case against Koresh because the teenagers believed Koresh was Jesus Christ. He told them it was his divine right "to plant his seed" to fill "the House of David."
He also apparently believed he had the right to discipline the cult's children, an increasing number of them his own. "He used to draw blood," said Robyn Bunds, who, before she left the group, was one of more than a dozen women who had been Koresh's "wives." As she put it, "All the children had leather bottoms."
But authorities left Koresh alone when he returned the child to Robyn Bunds and quietly retreated to the Texas compound, which had been owned by the sect and used as a religious camp since the 1950s.
Already, Koresh had wrested control of the Texas contingent in a bizarre incident still vividly recalled by many local residents and court personnel. In 1987, George Roden, then the leader of the group, challenged Koresh to a test of divine powers to see who could resurrect the elderly woman who had been buried on the compound for two decades. Their contest ended in a shootout -- 18 bullet holes were found later in a tree where Roden ducked for cover -- and Koresh was charged with attempted murder.
In the subsequent trial, the casket containing the remains of the former Branch Davidian was shouldered into the McLennan County courthouse by Koresh's followers. "The judge disallowed it as evidence," said Waco attorney Gary Coker, who represented Koresh. "But all the jurors saw it."
After a mistrial because of a hung jury, Koresh and his followers threw a party for the jurors, who accepted the invitation and seemed charmed by the friendly defendant. They were served non-alcoholic beer and vegetarian pizza.
The menu at the party was typical of the group. Koresh imposed strict rules on his members: no meat, no alcohol, no caffeine. Men and women were segregated, with the women cooking and the men digging tunnels and erecting new cement buildings in a construction project that has consumed the group for the past three years.
Bible study sessions would last as long as 15 hours, and visitors to the compound reported that they were sometimes wrested from sleep to join in, as Koresh rambled on in his soft voice. Almost always, the subject was the Book of Revelation, the mystical final chapter of the New Testament that speaks of plagues, beasts and dragons and trumpet-bearing angels.
Written near the close of the 1st century, the Book of Revelation reads as a terrifying vision of the Last Judgment and has long fascinated individuals on the religious fringe. Charles Manson, leader of a notorious California cult involved in killings in 1969, often quoted its apocalyptic passages.
Koresh appears to be drawing on Revelation's sixth chapter, claiming he can open the "seven seals" on the scroll that, according to the book, is held in God's right hand.
"What if I am the Messiah?" Koresh asked last Sunday night in a CNN broadcast after the shootout.
But his old enemy, Roden, now imprisoned at a Texas state hospital for the criminally insane, says he can answer that question: "He's not Jesus Christ any more than Satan is."
Awaiting God's Message
For months, the guns and explosive materials arrived at Ranch Apocalpyse. Koresh and his lieutenants bought them easily at shops and gun shows throughout Texas, a state known for its liberal attitudes toward weapon sales. Some were even delivered by United Parcel Service.
Cult members say Koresh knew he was being watched by undercover agents posing as college students in a house across from his compound. Neighbors had told him that federal agents wanted to put recording devices on their property to monitor his movements. His messages to his followers became more urgent about the impending end of the world. He told everyone to get ready for a violent attack.
"If we knew they were prepared to shoot it out, obviously we wouldn't have walked into gunfire," said Hartnett of the ATF. He has said the agency believes that an early-morning phone call compromised the raid against the cult leader that had been planned for months.
But more than the phone call may have been involved. Officials said Koresh was suspicious of an undercover agent who had infiltrated the cult and was at the compound just before the raid. Koresh also may have been aware of the movements of agents and police.
Today, Koresh remained in his fortress, surrounded by 107 followers, including 17 children he is believed to have fathered, and what the British Foreign Office said were more than 40 Britons. Immigration officials here said other cult members are from Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica and Israel. They have enough food and ammunition to last for several years. As many as 10 decomposing bodies are believed to be scattered around him, and Koresh asked today that one of them be removed.
Negotiators said today that Koresh has inquired about the judicial process. "He wanted us to give assurances that they will be treated fairly and humanely," said FBI special agent Bob Ricks.
As former cult members warn authorities that Koresh is capable of ordering a mass suicide, Ricks said negotiators are urging him to settle the matter in court. He added that some adults in the compound may not feel free to leave. "We are trying to appeal to Koresh to let those people go who want to go," Ricks said.
Outside Ranch Apocalypse, hundreds of federal agents keep watch, awaiting Koresh's next move.
"It is my understanding," said FBI special agent Jeffrey Jamar, "that he is still waiting for a message from God."
Staff writer Gustav Niebuhr contributed to this report.