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Who was David Koresh?

By Ashley Fantz, CNN
The Branch Davidians believed David Koresh was the messiah. He loved two things: Playing guitar and preaching.
The Branch Davidians believed David Koresh was the messiah. He loved two things: Playing guitar and preaching.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Koresh was born Vernon Wayne Howell; his mother was 14 when she had him
  • He loved two things: Music and going to an Adventist church with his grandmother
  • In 1981, he moved to Waco to live at Mount Carmel, the Branch Davidian compound
  • Koresh: Teachings allowed him to sleep with any female follower brought to him by God
RELATED TOPICS
  • Waco
  • Religion

Waco, Texas (CNN) -- David Koresh liked for people to think of him as a loser. He often lied, saying he'd dropped out of school years before he actually had. His classmates nicknamed him "Mr. Retardo," playground teasing that Koresh said sent the "sun ... down over my world."

When you appear beaten down in life, and then rise to influence as many people as he did, starting from small potatoes seems that much grander.

David Koresh was not his real name. He was born Vernon Wayne Howell. His mother was 14 when she had him. The boy was dyslexic, but he learned to write phonetically and was an average student, despite reminding people that he was belittled for his learning disability. He dropped out in the 11th grade.

Young Vernon Howell loved two things: music and going to an Adventist church with his grandmother. By 12, he'd taken to lecturing other little boys with long, memorized scripture.

His passion for the Word heightened as he got older. As journalist Dick Reavis writes in his exhaustive book "The Ashes of Waco": "The Bible was second nature to him. Howell's relationship to the Holy Writ was like that of a current affairs junkie to a collection of newsweeklies. He knew every character in them, and constantly relived their exploits. ... He made the Bible a smooth running machine."

Throughout his teens, the shaggy-haired Howell rambled around, worked on his guitar skills, got a preacher's teenager daughter pregnant, left her and jumped into the Adventist church with a fury, according to Reavis' book.

In 1981, he moved to Waco to live at Mount Carmel, the Branch Davidian compound. At the time, the Davidian sect was controlled by Lois Roden, one its early self-proclaimed prophets. Roden had just started preaching to followers that she'd found references in the Bible that suggested God was a woman.

Survivor Clive Doyle had trouble buying her interpretations, he told CNN.com.

"I looked and looked and just could not find those feminine parts in the Bible," he said. "Lois liked to stretch it a bit. But when David came, it took us some time, but we started to believe he had something."

Doyle and other followers say that part of the reason Roden liked Howell was that the two were involved, in the biblical sense. Roden began promoting her protege. Again, it wasn't the easiest sell. He had a bad stutter and didn't look like a man of God.

Former Branch Davidian Kathy Jones told CNN that Koresh seemed like a "bum" to her.

"I remember in the beginning, everybody was just, 'Oh, he's crazy, you know, he's this and that, that's all I heard. And then all of a sudden people were saying, 'We're listening to him. He has a message.' "

In the mid-1980s, Howell traveled to Israel with other Davidians. He came back with something special, Doyle said.

God had spoken to Howell so everybody should gather round and have a listen. "He had the spirit," Doyle explained.

In 1990, Howell legally changed his name to Koresh, after King Cyrus, who allowed the Jews to return to their homeland.

Koresh claimed to have unlocked the Seven Seals within the Book of Revelation, passages that contain a series of symbols whose meanings have vexed Bible scholars for centuries. Generally, the Seven Seals are supposed to portend events leading to the apocalypse.

Among Koresh's teachings were the "New Light Message" and a philosophy he equated to "winning" in the bedroom, according to Reavis' book. The teachings set forth that "spiritual weddings" would take place between Koresh and any female follower he felt that God had ordered him to bed. That included underage girls and legally married women. The men should observe celibacy. Followers observed the order as a test of their faith. Some refused to participate and left.

David could have whatever woman God gave him, he once told survivor Clive Doyle. Another woman God told Koresh that he could have -- superstar singer Madonna.

God had also mentioned something else, Koresh said. The folks at the Davidian compound should start building an "Army for God," Doyle recalls.

One day the world as they knew it would end, and all nonbelievers would be cut off from a glorious kingdom where Branch Davidians would go, Koresh preached.

So they began ordering weapons, and preparing.

 
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