The Dallas Morning News
PUBLIC TRAGEDY, PRIVATE GRIEF
Relatives mourn for cult victims, struggle to fathom disaster
To most people, the residents of the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco were nameless and faceless.
During the 51-day siege that followed a deadly shootout between federal authorities and members of the religious cult, they were the "95 followers' referred to in news briefings. After fire swept their compound home, they became the "86 believed dead' in countless media reports.
But to their parents and siblings, they were family.
The experience of family members with cult leader David Koresh and the cult differ. Some witnessed harsh discipline, others never did. Some hadn't seen their relatives in years, while others visited frequently. Now they're all trying to live with their loss, to make sense of the lives and the deaths of their loved ones.
Everyone wants to know about David Koresh, Ruth Mosher lamented recently, but few people inquire about her daughter, Sherri Jewell.
Sherri, a graduate of Loma Linda University, turned 43 during the siege. Before moving to Waco from California, she taught high school, worked as an aerobics instructor and helped counsel troubled kids. "She was the mom, I was the child,' Mrs. Mosher joked. "You know if I had any pain, she was there consoling me.'
Sherri, a divorced mother, joined the Branch Davidians in the mid-1980s after meeting members during a trip to Hawaii. She was active with the group in California but eventually moved to Waco because she liked the rural atmosphere and thought it was a good place to raise her daughter, Kiri, Mrs. Mosher said.
The compound's Spartan living conditions, which included sharing rooms, digging latrines and hauling water for cooking, didn't bother Sherri, who boasted of the cult's self-sufficiency and thriftiness. The only material goods she wanted were school supplies for the children she taught, Mrs. Mosher said.
As a Branch Davidian, Sherri dressed plainly, emphasized healthy eating and stayed fit. Mrs. Mosher learned about her daughter's life through frequent phone calls and personal visits.
"We were very close,' Mrs. Mosher said, adding that she and Sherri were debating recently where to vacation together. Sherri invited her mother to visit Waco again, as she had done previously.
During those visits, Sherri seemed happy, but Mrs. Mosher was disturbed by the communal lifestyle. She queried Sherri repeatedly about mass suicide plans, which her daughter denied. She also had Sherri meet with her minister, to expose her to a different perspective. And when Mrs. Mosher heard rumors of child abuse at the compound, she confronted Mr. Koresh with them. "I asked him point-blank, "Are you having sex with young children?' ' she said, but Mr. Koresh answered only "in biblical passages.'
Sherri, however, denied reports of physical abuse, Mrs. Mosher said. Branch Davidian children called Mr. Koresh "Daddy' whether he was their biological father or not, and Sherri said they were disciplined with words. If talking failed, they received "one whack with a rice paddle,' followed by hugs, Mrs. Mosher said.
But those reports of child abuse caused Sherri's ex-husband to seek emergency custody of Kiri. In 1991, Kiri was forbidden to stay in the compound.
Though disturbed that Kiri was not allowed to remain in Waco, Sherri remained devoted to the Branch Davidian beliefs, and gradually Mrs. Mosher quit worrying.
Her last conversation with Sherri, two days before the gunfight Feb. 28, held no hint of approaching Armageddon, but Mrs. Mosher thinks her daughter was planning to leave the compound soon. When Sherri taught school she "dressed like a model,' wearing matched suits and blouses, Mrs. Mosher said. Recently she asked her mother, "Please, don't get rid of my suits.'
Mrs. Mosher faults the government for handling the raid and siege poorly, but she blames David Koresh for controlling her daughter's mind. She has been reading about mind control extensively, and she said those living in the compound could have been anybody's child. "They were not weirdos.'
"I couldn't have asked for a better child,' Mrs. Mosher said, her voice breaking. "She was my only one.'
To Margaret Parker, David Koresh was a "monster.' Shortly after the blaze April 19 she asked, "Can you imagine watching that fire and knowing that your child and grandchildren are in there?'
Mrs. Parker, of Wareham, Mass., is the mother of Lorraine Sylvia, who is believed to have died with her two children, 14-year-old Rachel and 2-year-old Holly. A third grandchild, a 7-year-old boy named Joshua, left the compound during the first week of the siege.
Mrs. Sylvia's husband, Stan, was in California when the siege began. In November he had moved to the Branch Davidian home there to work for a while, as members occasionally did. He was planning to return to Waco in the spring and is devastated by the loss of his family and friends, attorney John Coale said.
Last week Mr. Sylvia filed suit, seeking $18.06 million from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the FBI for negligence in the deaths of his wife and children.
Mr. Sylvia grew up in the Branch Davidian sect under another leader, Mr. Coale said. He and Mrs. Sylvia were married approximately 20 years, moving to Waco in the early '80s.
Though Mr. Coale seems doubtful that his client was one of Mr. Koresh's soldiers, he said Mr. Sylvia participated in the gunbattle with former leader George Roden in 1987. He was acquitted in the trial that followed, Mr. Coale said, adding that Mr. Sylvia's knowledge of guns is minimal.
"Once Koresh took them out and showed them how to use guns for sport -- one time in ten years,' Mr. Coale said.
According to Mr. Sylvia, life in the compound was much more normal than has been portrayed. The Sylvias shared meals with other residents but maintained a typical family life, with no wife sharing, no vows of celibacy and no child abuse, the attorney said.
Mrs. Sylvia's family can't vouch for that normalcy, however, because they lost almost all contact with Mrs. Sylvia in recent years. According to her sister, Gail Magee, Mrs. Sylvia became more distant after Mr. Koresh took control of the group, even returning all her family photos.
Mrs. Parker last spoke to her daughter more than a year ago, but Mrs. Sylvia was unwilling to discuss her life, Mrs. Parker said. She hadn't seen Rachel in six years, and she never met Holly.
When Mrs. Parker saw her grandchildren years ago, they didn't celebrate Christmas or birthdays, couldn't wear shorts or swimsuits, and didn't talk about children's topics such as the Easter bunny or tooth fairy. Rachel attended public school for a while, Mrs. Parker said, but Joshua was schooled at the compound "because they didn't want to mix him with the outside world.'
Joshua has been placed with one of Mrs. Sylvia's sisters, Mr. Coale said, and Mr. Sylvia is working to earn the money to return to his family in Massachusetts. Mr. Sylvia filed suit because he is bothered by the way his relatives died, he is concerned about potential loss of religious freedom and he wants to ensure his son's future, Mr. Coale said.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Parker wonders about the deaths of her other grandchildren. "I pray to God that maybe they took something and were dead before the fire,' she said. "I can't imagine children burning up and dying in a fire like that. And Rachel, God bless the little child, she had no life.'
Guillermo Andrade never met David Koresh. "I might be in prison now if I had,' he said, hinting at the anger he has harbored toward the cult leader for the past two years.
Mr. Andrade's two daughters, and a grandchild he never knew, reportedly fathered by Mr. Koresh, are believed to have perished in the fire.
Though Mr. Andrade said his attitude toward Mr. Koresh made him unwelcome at the compound, his wife, Isabel, stayed in close touch with their daughters. For months before the siege, she tried to loosen Mr. Koresh's hold on Kathy, 24, and Jennifer, 21.
Working with a psychologist, Mrs. Andrade learned how to speak in a non-threatening way to her daughters, and how to bring out their "pre-cult' personalities. She phoned her daughters regularly and visited them often.
Before joining the cult, Kathy was an office worker who loved art and horses and had "normal friends,' her mother said. Then she met Branch Davidian Paul Fatta at a Bible study class and followed him to Waco from California in 1991.
Jennifer, who worked in a Walt Disney store -- where her mother joked that she spent more than she made -- left home a year later to visit her sister. She never came back.
Despite the compound's lack of modern conveniences, and the fact that they had given up jewelry and makeup, the women seemed content when Mrs. Andrade journeyed to Waco.
But "this was not my child,' Mrs. Andrade said of Kathy, who seemed to be immersed more deeply in the cult than Jennifer. "This was a child that was under mind control. And she lost all her choices.'
On her last visit, just a few weeks before the firefight, Mrs. Andrade was worried by Kathy's deteriorating condition. Usually meticulous, she was unkempt and focused almost totally on religion. Jennifer was not as difficult to talk to but occasionally mentioned the Biblical Seven Seals, the secrets of the Book of Revelation that Mr. Koresh claimed to understand. The opening of the seals is supposed to signal the end of the world.
Mrs. Andrade's unease grew when she called the compound Feb. 27. Mr. Koresh answered the phone and asked whether she'd read the Waco Tribune Herald. Mrs. Andrade said no, so Mr. Koresh read the story about him headlined "Sinful Messiah' aloud.
"Those people hate me,' Mr. Koresh told Mrs. Andrade. "They want to kill me.'
When Kathy finally took the phone, she told her mother to come right away to "learn about the Seven Seals.' Kathy sounded "as if we didn't have much time,' her mother said.
The siege began the next day, ending Mrs. Andrade's attempts to free her daughters from the cult. If she'd had more time, Mrs. Andrade thinks they would have left the compound. Instead the Andrades spent last week waiting for notification of their daughters' deaths.
Though their bodies have yet to be identified, Mr. Andrade has little doubt that his daughters died in the blaze. Choking back sobs, he said that a survivor told them the last time he saw Jennifer she was "holding a gas mask.'
Lonnie Little of Galesburg, Mich., viewed the fire with similar agony. On April 19, he said, he "watched our son get incinerated.'
"Shocked isn't the word for it. I couldn't even breathe for an hour, we were so distraught. It was absolutely horrifying.'
Mr. Little said he "lost a beautiful son, one that was intelligent, one that helped his mother do dishes, and one that loved other people. That was taken away from me.'
Jeff, 32, joined the sect in the mid-1980s, while studying at the University of Hawaii. After graduation he lived with the group in California while working as a computer programmer. Three years ago he moved to Waco, where Mr. Little visited him.
By then Jeff was living in the back of a bus at the compound, Mr. Little said, and was no longer the boy he had raised.
During his visit, he listened to his son "talk about the violence they were preaching,' including how the Branch Davidians were going to "take over the world.'
After being bombarded by Scripture, Mr. Little was taken aback by a scene he witnessed in the kitchen a short time later. Children in the compound were "bright-eyed' and "healthy,' Mr. Little said, but when a young boy talked back to his mother, David Koresh, then known as Vernon Howell, told the woman to "take care of that,' Mr. Little recalls.
"She went out and beat him for 15 minutes,' Mr. Little said. "I heard the kid screaming. . . . Everyone else thought that was perfectly normal behavior.'
Upon leaving Waco, Mr. Little begged his son to come with him, only to be answered with "more Bible texts.'
Last year, contact with Jeff diminished to a bare minimum. Major events -- such as his reported marriage to another cult member -- were never mentioned.
Mr. Little blames "the ATF, the FBI, David Koresh, my son and the whole goldarned state of Texas' for the tragedy.
Not every relative is bewildered, hurt and angry. Surviving Branch Davidians -- even those who lost family members -- have found comfort in their faith.
Livingstone Fagan, 33, and his two children left the compound during the siege. But his wife and mother remained behind and are presumed to have died in the fire.
Mr. Fagan watched the blaze from his McLennan County jail cell, where he is being held as a material witness. In a telephone interview recently he didn't sound perturbed by the experience. "It's not a loss,' he said simply, because "I do expect to see my wife and mother again soon.'
Mr. Fagan hasn't spoken to his children about their mother's death. "I don't think that will be necessary,' he said, "considering that we will see them again.'
He isn't grieving, he said, because he knows the Seven Seals, "the mind of God.'
"My only concern is for those who are affected by this who do not know what we know,' he said, "because I appreciate that they will be experiencing grief, bitterness, anger.'
That serenity echoes the feelings of Ofelia Santoya, 62, another cult member who left the compound during the siege but who lost a daughter and five grandchildren in the fire.
"She is steadfastly clinging to her faith in what David Koresh told her,' said her court-appointed attorney, Russ Hunt. "I think she's got a real deep sense of peace.'
Oliver Gyarfas, father of a 19-year-old cult member by the same name, doesn't have quite that sense of peace. His son left the compound in March, but his daughter, Aisha, and granddaughter, Startle, are believed to have died in the fire.
Mr. Gyarfas said he is trying to forget about the horrific way his daughter died. "If I'm reminded, inside I explode,' he said, adding that his wife is deeply depressed.
Mr. and Mrs. Gyarfas are both Branch Davidians who adhered to Mr. Koresh's teachings from their home in Australia.
Aisha, 17, moved to Waco from Australia three years ago. Brother Oliver visited her a year later and stayed. Despite his children's youthfulness, Mr. Gyarfas said he felt good about their life in Waco. His children were "always happy,' he said. "They always wrote to us and everything was normal.'
Son Oliver told his parents "he had never even seen guns, let alone had one in his hand,' Mr. Gyarfas said. "There was no depravity of any kind' at the compound, Mr. Gyarfas said.
But although Mr. Gyarfas knew that Aisha had married a fellow cult member, he said he was unaware that she'd had a child. According to the FBI, that child was fathered by Mr. Koresh, not her husband.
Despite the circumstances of her death, and the questions surrounding her life, Mr. Gyarfas said he feels no bitterness toward Mr. Koresh. "Never did,' he said. "Never will.'
Mr. Koresh was a "great' guy, he said. "I loved him as my brother. Always.'
Staff writer Nora Lopez contributed to this report.
The Dallas Morning News
BYLINE:Lee Hancock, Enrique Rangel
Officials: At least 15 cult bodies had gunshot wounds
Treasury agents head to Waco to begin inquiry of Feb. 28 raid
At least 15 bodies recovered from the burned ruins of the Branch Davidian compound suffered gunshot wounds, law enforcement officials said Wednesday.
Also Wednesday, as federal agents and Texas Rangers continue their search for evidence at the Mount Carmel compound, Treasury Department investigators headed to Texas to begin an independent inquiry of the Feb. 28 raid that led to the standoff near Waco, a federal official in Washington said.
FBI Director William Sessions visited Waco on Wednesday to thank city and county officials and residents for supporting the agency during the 51-day siege of the cult compound.
He told reporters that his agency is not being "made a scapegoat' for its management of the standoff, which ended with a fire that consumed the compound and killed 72 cult members.
"I think there are many people that are concerned that people did not come out of that compound alive, that we were not able to extract the children alive,' he said. "People expected us somehow to work the miracle, and all I wish is that we did.'
But he also repeated an assertion he made to Congress last week that news photos of the fire clearly showed that holes knocked in the compound by FBI armored vehicles gave cult members an open passage of escape from the fires.
"They had a fair opportunity to save their own lives,' Mr. Sessions said.
The fires broke out after FBI agents began injecting tear gas into the compound and knocking holes in its walls in an effort to force cult members to surrender.
FBI officials have said that their snipers watched at least one cult member start a fire, and arson investigators have said that the conflagration -- which began in at least three separate locations inside the compound -- was deliberately set.
Investigators have found increasing evidence that some inside may have died before the inferno. FBI officials said immediately after the fire that their agents heard gunshots inside the cult's buildings after the fires began.
Law enforcement officials said Wednesday that at least 15 bodies recovered had gunshot wounds.
But McLennan County Justice of the Peace James Collier said Wednesday that he has been informed of only seven gunshot victims. He said the information about the wounds of the seven have been released to him because they have been identified by the forensic experts working with the Tarrant County medical examiner's office.
To explain the discrepancy, he said the medical examiner is releasing information about the injuries sustained by each body only after establishing identities.
"Something like 50 have been autopsied, but they're trying to identify the bodies before they notify me as to the cause of death,' Judge Collier said.
The seven gunshot victims include cult leader David Koresh, who sustained a single gunshot to the center of his forehead.
Federal prosecutors indicated in a court document filed this week that investigators culled almost 2,000 pieces of evidence from the compound wreckage, including 200 recognizable weapons, a number of gun parts and tools that can be used to make automatic weapons.
Federal officials have said that investigators found a number of guns that had been converted from semi-automatics to automatics, using machine gun replacement parts. The officials also have indicated that at least one M-60 machine gun and two weapons dropped by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents wounded during the Feb. 28 raid have been recovered.
Justice Department spokesman Carl Stern said Treasury Department investigators were expected to travel to Waco on Wednesday to begin examining information about the initial raid at the cult compound.
Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen ordered an independent review of the raid, which left four agents dead and 16 wounded. Agents from the Secret Service, U.S. Customs Service and Internal Revenue Service criminal investigations division have been assigned to conduct the investigation.
The agents will be given access to investigations conducted by the Texas Rangers for the U.S. attorney's office in Waco, Mr. Stern said.
"They'll get anything we have, except possibly the grand jury material. They'll get all witness interviews, and there are literally hundreds of interviews that have been done or will be done. Everything that's in our file that's not under a court order will be made available,' he said. "One of the objectives is not to get into a duplication of costs.'
Meanwhile, federal officials said ATF agents involved in the Feb. 28 raid will hold a memorial service for the four slain agents at a Waco Baptist church on Saturday afternoon. The service is scheduled to follow a "walk-through' for the raiding teams at the compound and a briefing by federal prosecutors on the ongoing criminal investigations.
ATF senior officials are planning a memorial service May 20 for the four agents at the National Law Enforcement Memorial in Washington.
During his Wednesday visit, Mr. Sessions told reporters that he has not been told whether Attorney General Janet Reno will dismiss him as FBI director.
"She has not informed me that that is the circumstance,' he said. "But if it is, she will communicate that to me.'
Mr. Sessions has been under fire since January, when the Justice Department issued a report accusing him of misusing his agency's resources and knowingly claiming an improper tax exemption.
A second report on Feb. 5 accused Mr. Sessions of using his position to obtain a home mortgage loan at a rate lower than offered to other consumers.
Quoting an unnamed Justice Department official, The Associated Press reported Wednesday that Ms. Reno would meet with the director within the next few days to discuss his future.
Justice Department spokesman Carl Stern said he had no information about any meetings scheduled to discuss Mr. Sessions' future. "I know nothing about it,' he said. "A meeting was scheduled. I'm told it was on another subject.'