The Dallas Morning News
BYLINE:Terry Box

Texas may have many extremist groups, cult experts say

Wide-open Texas, where arms and isolation are abundant, could be home to dozens of groups as extremist as the Branch Davidians in Waco, some cult experts say.

With its acres of empty, inexpensive land, Texas would seem ideal for groups that want to cloister themselves from society and veer far from the mainstream -- without attracting much attention, the experts said.

And although some experts believe that there are indeed many well-armed cultist groups in Texas, most speculate that no more than 10 or 12 have any real potential for violence.

"I would say treat this (incident in Waco) as an aberration, don't set up surveillance of minority or new religious groups, and don't assume that they all contain within them the seeds of violence,' said Dr. Lonnie D. Kliever, professor of religious studies at SMU.

Said Russ Wise of Probe Ministries of Dallas, a Christian research organization: "(Group leader) David Koresh is a small fish who made a big splash.'

Part of the problem in dealing with cults or extremist groups is that no central agency in the state tracks them. The Texas Department of Public Safety "tracks crime, not groups like cults,' said agency spokeswoman Laureen Chernow.

"We would certainly look at something on a selective basis if we think a law is being broken, but not otherwise,' Ms. Chernow said.

In addition, many of the private organizations that do try to keep up with the groups can't agree on what exactly constitutes a cult.

"One man's cult is another man's church,' noted Dr. Kliever, who has studied cults for a decade.

Despite the lack of any official data on cults, there have been attempts to assess their strength.

The Encyclopedia of American Religions, for example, lists 34 groups in Texas that some might view as cults or as having cultist tendencies. They range from the Branch Davidians in Waco to Madalyn Murray O'Hair's American Atheists organization in Austin, and include at least three groups in the Dallas area. Klanwatch, which monitors white supremacist groups, lists nine such groups in Texas -- among them one each in Dallas and Fort Worth.

The North Texas chapter of the Cult Awareness Network, which has collected information on the Branch Davidians in Waco for at least five years, has no official estimate of the number of cultist groups in Texas.

But Nelda Neale, president of the Dallas-based chapter, said she thinks that the number is "in the hundreds and maybe thousands.'

Groups emerging

Though most are not as self-contained and well-armed as the Branch Davidians, "new names of groups are emerging all the time,' Ms. Neale said.

"In my opinion, the aberrant Christian groups are just exploding,' she said. "My own personal opinion is I'm surprised it's taken so long for this to occur because there are so many armed camps out there.'

Because of the lack of central information on cults in Texas, it is difficult to estimate the number of cults or compare activity here with that in other states. But Ms. Neale said she would be surprised if there were an unusually high number of cults in the state, if only because they are a relatively recent phenomenon.

"The big cults all sprang up on the West and East coasts, and Texas was one of the last states to get them,' she said. "There's nothing about the culture of the state that lends itself to cults. It's the vastness of the state and the availability of cheap land that attracts them.'

When the Children of God left California for Texas in the 1970s, one reason they did so was the cost of land in California, Ms. Neale noted.

That sort of mobility -- in which groups move into and out of the state for a variety of reasons -- complicates attempts to track cults, the experts said. Further aggravating the problem is that cults can undergo dramatic transformations over time.

For more than 50 years, the Davidians were considered "different,' but never posed a threat to anyone, said Dr. Bill Pitts, a professor of religion at Baylor University in Waco.

"Actually, the founder (of the group) was opposed to the bearing of arms,' Dr. Pitts said. "The members of the group were viewed as being a little different, but they were considered good workers, good laborers. During World War II, they were conscientious objectors so they worked in the hospitals.'

Many oddities

All that began changing in 1987 when the group's current leader, Mr. Koresh, stepped to the forefront after a gunbattle with George Roden, who was trying to take control of the group.

The Davidians' recent history is only one oddity about the group, the experts said. It also is structured in a way that makes it distinct from most other cults and sects.

"They are not that psychologically different, but they are sociologically different,' said Dr. Kliever of SMU. "The members of this group have sociologically separated themselves by creating a self-enclosed, self-sustaining community. For a lot of practical reasons, there aren't many groups in the United States -- much less Texas -- that do that anymore.'

Mr. Wise of Probe Ministries said he doubts that cult membership in general is growing much in Texas.

"They lose as many members as they gain,' he said. "The average stay is three to five years. It takes about that long for people to wake up and say, "What am I doing?' '

Like most of the other experts, Mr. Wise discounts the possibility that a large number of groups similar to the Branch Davidians could be thriving in remote corners of the state -- mainly because the Davidians are so different.

But he said that the situation could change -- and change quickly.

"Everything's up for grabs in the '90s,' Mr. Wise said.

The Dallas Morning News
BYLINE:Victoria Loe

Upheaval feeds cults, experts say Groups may prosper by offering security in rapidly changing world

Ever feel like life is spinning out of control? Has the world begun to look strange and scary? Does it seem, sometimes, that none of the old values apply?

Join the club -- or the cult.

When people -- ordinary, average people -- get overwhelmed by the uncertainties of life, they may gravitate to any individual or organization that promises a secret key to security and happiness. So say sociologists, psychologists and professional cult-watchers who have studied the origin and dynamics of such groups.

From age to age, fringe groups have flourished in times of social, political or economic stress, times when average citizens might well fear that the world -- as they know it -- is falling apart.

"Down through history, whenever there's a breakdown of the social structure, there tends to be a burgeoning of cults,' says Margaret Singer, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley.

From the fall of the Roman Empire to the black plague, from the French Revolution to the Industrial Revolution, from the social upheavals of the 1960s to the demise of the Soviet Union, scholars say, traumatic change is mother of all manner of peculiar inventions.

In particular, millenarian movements such as the Branch Davidian, which believe that the new world is about to replace the old, thrive in "times when people's way of seeing the world no longer makes sense to them,' says William Martin, who teaches the sociology of religion at Rice University.

Both Islam and Christianity also tend to millenarian outbreaks around the turn of each century. A 1979 attack by Islamic militants on the Great Mosque in Mecca came in the first hour of the first day of the first year of a new century in the Islamic calendar. The Crusades grew out of a millenarian movement that began about A.D. 1000.

So here we are: just seven years shy of the new millenium, in an era when, as Dr. Martin says, "Everything that's not nailed down is coming up.'

Not always odd

Even the most bizarre cults cater to perfectly normal needs: for a philosophy that makes the world comprehensible, for security and fellowship, for improving the society in which one lives. Millions of organizations, from churches to self-help groups to political parties, exist partly to satisfy those needs.

Countless groups that strike nonmembers as weird -- crystal gazers, whirling dervishes, UFO watchers, millenarian sects -- may be perfectly harmless or even salutary for those who join them. Strangeness does not a cult make.

A cult, experts say, is defined by the power relationships within it. Members give up their personal power to a leader who purports to have special, magical knowledge denied to the rest of the world.

Some cults even trick people into joining and then use behavior modification to break down their autonomy so that they will not leave.

Cynthia Kisser of the national Cult Awareness Network calls those "destructive cults.' In rare instances, they can become dangerous not only to their members but also to the surrounding community.

A nasty argument is raging over how many destructive cults exist. Ms. Kisser's number -- 2,000 to 3,000 -- is quoted by many scholars.

But J. Gordon Melton, founder of the Institute for the Study of American Religions, counts 600 to 700 "nonconventional religions' nationwide, of which 200 to 250 qualify as cults. Only a portion of those are abusive, he says, and only a handful ever become dangerous.

Dr. Melton calls cult-watch groups such as Ms. Kisser's "paranoid.' She calls him "an apologist for cults.'

The vulnerable

Who joins cults -- or mainstream churches or legitimate religious sects or birdwatching societies, for that matter? Most often, psychologists say, it is people in need of connection.

The classic example is a college student, away from home for the first time. But it might be someone who's just been divorced, lost a job or undergone a crisis of faith.

"All of us have vulnerable times, transitional periods when we are in between meaningful relationships,' says Dr. Singer.

The more alienated the person is, says Dr. Martin, the more likely he is to join a radical fringe group, led by an alienated, marginal figure such as David Koresh of the Branch Davidian.

Once absorbed into a cult, members' wills are slowly subverted -- in the most extreme cases to the point that they will kill themselves or others.

The leader is venerated as the keeper of the "sacred science,' the unique knowledge that only he possesses and that is the path to salvation.

Giving up freedom

In return for surrendering critical judgment and free will, members are given "the feeling that they're making sense of the world and that they have special knowledge that gives them control,' says Michael Barkun, a professor of political science at Syracuse University.

The acts that society considers unthinkable -- 900 people drinking poison at Jonestown, cult members beating their children to death at the leader's direction -- are the result of a thousand tiny steps down the road to personal surrender.

Horrified outsiders never understand that "it's a step-at-a-time process,' says Dr. Singer.

For centuries, millenarian cults have tended to flout taboos, especially sexual taboos such as incest, says David C. Rapoport, a professor of political science at the University of California at Los Angeles.

"They have to prove that the conventions don't apply,' Dr. Rapoport says.

Violence, however, is a recent phenomenon. Although many cults expect persecution and view the outside world with hostility, few turn violent.

Some scholars say it's no wonder that cults have become more violent -- so has America. "It's no surprise that these people have these kinds of firearms,' says Lester Kurtz, an associate professor of sociology and former director of religious studies at the University of Texas in Austin. "The cultural norm is to have the best weapons you can.'

Power trip

And what of the monsters who batten on others' degradation? Some see them as true believers corrupted by power, others as cynical charlatans who deliberately exploit their followers for wealth, sex or power.

"There's such a fine line between Mother Teresa or John F. Kennedy and Hitler or Jim Jones,' says Dr. Kurtz. "Even Jim Jones was relatively benign at first -- it's the process that turned sour.'

"The leader gets amazed at how easy it is to make people feel guilty and inadequate,' says Dr. Singer, who has interviewed more than 3,000 former cult members. "They (the leaders) get addicted to their own power.'

Dr. Melton, who has studied nonconventional religions for more than 20 years, says he rarely has encountered groups in which anything but sincere belief was operating.

However, Richard Ofshe, a Berkeley sociology professor, says some fringe groups don the mantle of religion as a shield against society's prying eyes. Many officials are reluctant to investigate valid claims of wrongdoing by cult leaders because they fear they'll be accused of religious prejudice, says Dr. Ofshe, who shared a 1979 Pulitzer Prize with the Point Reyes Light in California for an investigation of Synanon, a therapeutic group turned cult.

"It's one thing to criticize or regulate a psychotherapy cult,' he says, "and another thing to criticize or regulate a religion.'

Or, as Dr. Kurtz says, "with divine justification, you can get away with almost anything.'

The Dallas Morning News
BYLINE:Lee Hancock

Agency says tips on sect point to holy war Public likely to be `stunned' by what may be in compound, official says

WACO -- The tips came in bits and pieces: a diplomatic cable warning of an impending bloodbath, a deliveryman's description of grenades spilling from boxes sent to a fortified compound, a gun dealer's boasts of new clients with an endless appetite for assault weapons.

Beginning last June, federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents began compiling an increasingly alarming picture of what lay beyond the high walls of the Branch Davidian compound. Authorities were told of a millennialist cult blindly loyal to a self-proclaimed prophet who talked of unleashing his doomsday arsenal on local police, the surrounding community or his own followers.

Even as the standoff with the sect enters its second week, federal officials say dozens of new leads suggest that David Koresh was planning an apocalyptic holy war, assembling enough firepower to hold more than 100 federal agents at bay.

"I think some people are going to be stunned at the pile of stuff we finally take out of there,' said an ATF official, who requested anonymity. "The information we're getting now suggests there's a lot more in there than even we suspected.'

On Saturday, federal authorities said negotiations with Mr. Koresh were continuing. One of Mr. Koresh's followers asked officials to remove a body from the compound Friday, and authorities say they are considering that request.

The 33-year-old leader has refused to discuss releasing more children, and authorities fear that he may be holding some adults inside the compound against their will.

As of Saturday, 21 children and two women had been released from the compound, and reports from Mr. Koresh suggest that 107 men, women and children remain inside. Mr. Koresh has repeatedly denied any interest in forcing his followers to kill themselves.

In the last day, authorities said, negotiations have slightly shifted to discussions of how Mr. Koresh and his followers will be treated if they surrender.

"He understands very well what charges are facing him,' said Bob A. Ricks, special agent in charge of the FBI's Oklahoma City office. "What we have dealt with is the (surrender) process itself.'

Agent Ricks also emphasized that Mr. Koresh will not be in personal danger, addressing the cult leader's fears while indirectly acknowledging federal officials' acute awareness that Mr. Koresh is monitoring every televised report and official briefing on the standoff.

"If he is listening, we want to give him and his followers our assurance that he and everyone inside will be treated fairly and humanely if they come out,' Agent Ricks said.

Inquiry begins

The ATF official said the agency began formally investigating the cult last June after receiving reports from sources as diverse as the U.S. State Department and the McLennan County Sheriff's Department that the Davidians were arming themselves for Armageddon.

Last April, other federal officials say, the U.S. consulate in Australia cabled information warning that the cult was contemplating mass suicide and intended to kill any authorities who intruded on their property.

McLennan County sheriff's deputies and other local law enforcement officials forwarded reports suggesting that the group was conducting military exercises and amassing a massive arsenal by mail.

From the county sheriff, said the ATF official, authorities learned that a United Parcel Service deliveryman had begun reporting potential problems from the cult after a box he was delivering to the cult broke open and disgorged dozens of fragment grenade casings.

From local sources, federal investigators also began hearing about Henry McMahon, a Florida man who had set up his own gun business in nearby Hewitt after moving to Waco about a year and a half ago.

Mr. McMahon bragged of selling dozens of AK-47s and AR-15s, the civilian version of the M-16 assault rifle, to Mr. Koresh and his followers.

Another area gun dealer said many Hewitt residents wondered about the Floridian because he appeared out of nowhere to begin a brisk business in guns out of his girlfriend's Hewitt home.

"Then in January, he just mysteriously disappeared back to Florida. Since he left I've had customers telling us he was trying to recruit them for that cult . . . We knew he was selling to those people, and we kept hearing they were converting the weapons to automatic after they'd buy them.'

The ATF official said Mr. McMahon, who has moved back to Pensacola, has been questioned extensively by federal agents in recent months but is not in federal custody and has not been charged with a crime.

Other acquisitions

By monitoring additional shipments to the 77-acre Davidian compound, federal agents learned of more disturbing acquisitions: a massive array of chemicals, gunpowder and other propellants commonly used in making homemade explosives, grenades and bombs.

"We identified persons with knowledge that would enable them to build bombs and explosives,' who were members or were assisting the cult, the ATF official said.

Cult members also were amassing instruction books detailing how to convert arms to automatic weapons, the official said, adding, "They were moving in what I would have to describe as very aggressively in the latter part of 1992 to acquire material and knowledge.'

Mr. Koresh also seemed to be interested in unleashing Armageddon from his small, rural compound, the ATF official said.

"They were involved in discussions of violent activity . . . Sometimes they would talk of violence toward the community (of Waco), sometimes toward law enforcement officials, sometimes toward themselves.'

The cult's growing extremism prompted officials to plan a surgical strike aimed at surprising Mr. Koresh's followers and overwhelming the compound.

Weeks before the raid, they began drilling with U.S. Army special forces units in specially built mockups of the compound constructed at nearby Fort Hood, federal officials said.

Although felony warrants were pending against "a number of individuals' connected with the cult, ATF associate director Dan Harnett said, the assault teams decided to focus only on taking Mr. Koresh into custody and gaining control of the compound's massive arsenal.

But none of the assault teams' planning could prepare for a still unexplained telephone call that tipped the group off to the coming raid, he said.

Authorities say they are still investigating who may have called Mr. Koresh within an hour of the raid to warn him that federal agents were about to descend. The result was a horrific, 45-minute bloodbath that left four federal agents and three cult members dead.