David Koresh was born Vernon Wayne Howell in 1959, to a 14-year-old mother Bonny Clark and 20-year-old father Robert Wayne Howell, who promptly abandoned his family.
Much of Vernon Howell’s life as a boy was fractured and dysfunctional but he gained some sense of solace and direction through religion, joining the Seventh-day Adventist Church in his early twenties.
Then in 1982 he joined the Branch Davidians, a splinter group from the Adventists. The term “Davidian” was an indication of a belief in the Davidic Kingdom of Israel, that the followers thought would be restored prior to the Second Coming of Christ. However the Adventists rejected the teachings of the Davidians as contrary to official Church doctrine.
The Branch Davidians, numbering several hundred, including men, women and children, set up in a compound located at Mt. Carmel near Waco, in Texas where they became highly insular, intentionally cutting themselves off from the rest of the world. There was no running water or electricity inside the compound and Bible Study was conducted three times a day.
In 1990 Howell changed his name to David Koresh, taking David after the biblical King David and Koresh after a Persian King from Babylonian times.
After an intense power struggle, Koresh became leader of the Davidians. Charismatic and persuasive, he preached a brand of “apocalyptic prophesy”, in which he was on a mission from God, and could truly interpret the Bible and protect his people from the outside world. One of his fundamental beliefs was that the compound would someday be attacked by the US Government, and as a result he oversaw the stockpiling of guns and ammunition.
Life in the Mount Carmel compound became increasingly bizarre with Koresh openly practicing polygamy, and it was strongly suspected, underage sex as well as multiple cases of child abuse.
On February 28 1993 the compound was raided by the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and a savage gunfight followed in which four US Agents were shot, together with six Branch Davidians. The FBI Hostage Rescue Team then took control of the operation, establishing contact with Koresh inside the compound, and a lengthy standoff followed that lasted 51 days.
Finally the FBI stormed the compound on 19 April 1993, and 79 Branch Davidians perished in a huge fire that consumed the central church building. The death toll included 22 children under the age of 17, with many of the victims exhibiting gunshot wounds. Koresh himself perished in the confrontation, reportedly from a self inflicted gunshot to the head.
It is believed that Koresh had considerable psychological hold over many of his followers, with the general belief that he was a Messiah pervasive in the compound. There have been many comparisons made between Koresh and Jim Jones, the leader of the Peoples Temple, whose followers committed suicide en mass through cyanide poisoning in November 1978.
Image: A police image of Vernon Howell (David Koresh) taken in 1987, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.