‘Mad Man in Waco’: How David Koresh went from aspiring rock star to religious sect leader

Published: Feb. 21, 2023 at 3:50 PM CST
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WACO, Texas (KWTX) - Robert Darden, author of “Mad Man in Waco” and professor of journalism at Baylor University, described Branch Davidian sect leader David Koresh as a fiercely influential and manipulative leader who used scripture to prey on confused followers.

“He split the men and the women and worked on them differently and began relationships with the women, just classic, nothing new, nothing creative, nothing particularly charismatic, he just was convincing and he cut them off from all other form of input,” said Darden, who is considered an expert on the religious group and their polygamist demagogue.

On Feb. 28, 1993, federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents tried to arrest sect leader David Koresh for stockpiling illegal weapons at the Branch Davidians’ Mount Carmel compound in the community of Elk, about 15 miles outside of Waco. Four agents and six Davidians were killed during an ensuing gunfight that day.

Around 6 a.m. on April 19, 1993, FBI agents moved in to end a 51-day standoff with the religious sect, ramming holes in the group’s compound with armored vehicles and spraying tear gas inside. About six hours later, smoke poured from the compound, which soon was consumed by a massive fire.

A 2000 report released by the U.S. attorney general’s office claimed the Davidians spread fuel throughout the compound to feed the flames. Nine people escaped the burning building.

The report concluded that at least 76 people — including about two dozen teens and children — died that day, but noted that the exact number couldn’t be stated because of the “extensive burning” and “commingling of bodies.”

At least 20 people, including Koresh and some of the children, died of gunshot wounds. A 3-year-old was stabbed to death. Investigators concluded the Davidians shot themselves or each other as the fire broke out.

Darden co-authored “Mad Man in Waco,” a title inspired by a song the wannabe rock star recorded and sold in an attempt to make enough money to bond his “henchmen” out of jail; a small group of men who bought into Koresh’s message, and helped him overthrow the once wild leader of the sect, George Roden, the son of longtime leader Lois Roden, an elderly woman with whom Koresh had an affair.

“Ya know it’s not like these were stupid people, there were lawyers and nurses in there,” said Darden. “They were all searching and kind of confused, and what Koresh had that nobody else had is, he had every answer.”

Answers he engineered through scripture and tested on people around the globe including Australia, the United Kingdom, California, Massachusetts, and Hawaii.

Koresh took every opportunity he could to grow his congregation, even using music to recruit new followers.

“He knew I was a drummer, ‘I’ve got a new kit, it’s going to be a lot of fun,’ but I never did take him up on it,” said Darden, a music industry insider who wrote for Billboard Magazine at the time.

LEFT: This is an undated file photo taken aproximately six years showing David Koresh, right...
LEFT: This is an undated file photo taken aproximately six years showing David Koresh, right ,with his wife Rachel and son Cyrus. RIGHT: This is a 1981 photo of David Koresh taken at the Mount Carmel compound of the Branch Davidians cult near Waco, Texas.(PHOTOS FROM AP ARCHIVES)

People who knew Koresh as a young man said he was obsessed with rock and roll and women; two things rumored to have been behind his disfellowship from the Seventh Day Adventist Church in 1981.

Born in Houston, Koresh, whose real name was Vernon Howell, was born to a 14-year-old single mother and had a dysfunctional childhood.

Dyslexic, Howell eventually dropped out of Garland High School; at one point he goes into construction, at another he travels to California to try to make it in music, and fails.

By 1982, Howell had moved to Waco and joined the Branch Davidians, an offshoot of ‘the Shepard’s Rod’ (or Davidians) which split from the Adventist church in the 1930s due to disagreements over prophecy, according to representatives with the North American Division of Seventh-Day Adventists.

In 1990, Howell legally changes his name to David Koresh, after two kings, and starts ‘breeding’ the church he wants, citing scripture to justify taking his follower’s wives and multiple young brides.

“We talked to everybody, and here was a guy who had a cafeteria of choices and liked that cafeteria and did everything he could to keep it, and it was including, by the end, younger and younger girls,” said Darden.

“I don’t know that he had to work all that hard, these people were already broken down, and the ones with any backbone, had either left or he’d spent a lot of time breaking them.”