© Copyright 1993 Waco Tribune-Herald
The pleas for help began three years ago.
But it was only nine months ago that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms began its investigation that led to the Feb. 28 raid at Mount Carmel.
It was the lone government investigation of the Branch Davidians to get out of the chute. Most never got started. Others folded within weeks. Former cult member Marc Beault, who led the fight to get criminal charges filed against cult leader Vernon Howell, said he could never figure out what authorities were waiting for.
“It was terribly frustrating,” Breault said. “Nothing we told them seemed good enough.”
In 1990, several former Branch Davidians pooled their money and hired an Australian private detective to lodge their complaints against Howell with U.S. authorities.
Geoffrey Hossack met with authorities at Waco’s federal courthouse on Sept. 18, 1990. Present were Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Johnston; then-McLennan County District Attorney Paul Gartner; his top aide, Ralph Strother; Sgt. Terry Lee, an investigator with the Department of Public Safety; and Lt. Gene Barber, of the McLennan County Sheriff’s Department.
Hossack’s report was chilling.
He told of charges that Howell had sex with underage girls, whipped babies until their bottoms bled, and stockpiled weapons — all in the name of religion. Hossack handed authorities signed affidavits from former cult members detailing the charges.
But the meeting went nowhere.
It wasn’t the first time that Howell — who remains hole up in a compound outside Waco with followers after a shoot-out in which four ATF agents were killed — had escaped the law.
In the summer of 1990, Robyn Bunds told police in La Verne, Calif. that Howell had kidnapped her son, Shaun, in retaliation for her leaving the cult.
La Verne police gave Howell 48 hours to return Shaun Bunds to California from the cult’s Mount Carmel base, 10 miles east of Waco. That he did. But Howell left before police could question him about Robyn Bunds’ claim that he was having sex with a 14-year-old girl staying at the La Verne house.
The girl returned with him to Texas.
A missed opportunity
“If they had detained her that first night, this would be all over,” Robyn Bunds said.
Howell also got away from Immigration and Naturalization Service officials about that time. La Verne police, after talking to Bunds, reported evidence of sham marriages to the INS.
Bunds had revealed that she married Cliff Sellors, a native of England, in 1989 at Howell’s request. It was a marriage in name only. Bunds was in the House of David, the girls and women in the cult having children by Howell who were supposed to rule the earth one day with him.
INS officials in Los Angeles opened an investigation. But they called it off when Howell fled to Texas. A spokesman defended the agency’s action in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.
“We did everything we were asked to do,” said John Brechtel, assistant district director for the INS in Los Angeles.
Robyn Bunds disagrees.
“They’re covering their butts,” she said. “They knew that my marriage was a sham. Why didn’t they do something?”
Howell’s departure from California bought him a couple of years of freedom from questions about his activities. It would be the spring of 1992 before law enforcement officials again became interested in his cult.
The Department of Human Services, apparently acting on affidavits alleging past child abuse, visited the cult twice. Case workers talked with children there, but sources said they reported finding no evidence of abuse.
However, a former cult member and Lt. Gene Barber of the McLennan County Sheriff’s Department both told the Tribune-Herald that DHS workers advised Howell of their visits beforehand. Director Bob Boyd of Children’s Protective Services denied the accusations.
Fears of mass suicide
The Tribune-Herald began investigating the Branch Davidians last April, when relatives of Australian cult members reported fears of a mass suicide. Those fears proved groundless. However, Howell subsequently told the newspaper that he was Christ, “if the Bible is true.”
It was only four years earlier, at his trial for the attempted murder of rival prophet George Roden, that Howell had denied even being a prophet.
He was just a man who taught the Bible, Howell said.
After the newspaper contacted former cult members, though, a story began to emerge of life in the cult under Howell - physical and sexual abuse, 15-hour Bible studies and the building of a harem.
The FBI in April 1992 received a letter concerning the sexual abuse of underage girls by Howell. It was forwarded by U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco. When he received no reply, Edwards in February again sent a copy of the letter to the FBI.
The Dallas Morning News reported that a Feb. 23, 1993 FBI memo stated, “to date no information has been developed to verify the allegations.”
An FBI spokesman in Washington refused to say how the agency reached its conclusion. But major sources in the Tribune-Herald series “The Sinful Messiah” — including Marc Breault, Bruce and Lisa Gent, Robyn Bunds and Kiri Jewell — told the newspaper that they were never contacted by the FBI.
“When this is over, the FBI is going to have to ask itself some serious questions,” Breault said.
ATF officials report that they began their investigation last June.
Spokesman Jack Killorin on Friday declined to comment on whom the agency talked to during its investigation. However, Breault told the Tribune-Herald that it was mid-December before ATF officials contacted him.
In early January, the ATF flew Breault from Melbourne, Australia to Ontario, Calif.
He met with two agents. They asked questions about Howell’s psychological makeup and how he would react if subpoenaed or summoned.
Breault said the ATF agents asked who would be in charge if Howell left Mount Carmel. They also wanted to know if Howell would leave the compound if he received a call from the Department of Human Services. Breault answered that Howell might; since Howell thought he had beaten the child abuse rap.
But Howell would not show up to answer questions about firearms, Breault said he told ATF agents.
Robyn Bunds declined to say when she first met with ATF officers. However, she said, it was after an October interview with the Tribune-Herald, when a reporter flew to California to interview Bunds and her mother, Jeanine, both former members of the House of David.
Bruce and Lisa Gent said ATF agents never contacted them.
David Jewell and his daughter, Kiri, 12, who was in the cult, traveled to Austin about 10 days before the raid to talk to ATF officials.
Jewell’s ex-wife, Sherri, is a cult member who has been identified as being at Mount Carmel. They have joint custody of Kiri, but Sherri Jewell has not seen her daughter in more than a year, ever since a judge ordered Kiri kept away from Howell.
Last summer, Kiri began talking of her experience in the cult, David Jewell said. That led him to place a telephone call to Children’s Protective Services in Waco.
He wanted to discuss filing criminal charges against Howell, stemming from an incident when Sherri Jewell left Kiri alone with Howell.
A frustrating experience
“I was frustrated,” Jewell said. “I came to the opinion on a personal level that they wanted to help. But within the framework in which the law was interpreted and carried out, they didn’t feel a great deal could or would be done. Big dog, no teeth, basically.”
District Attorney John Segrest told the Tribune-Herald that his office was not aware of Jewell reporting possible child abuse until he read it in “The Sinful Messiah” series.
After taking office in 1991, Segrest said, he did review copies of the affidavits outlining the charges by former cult members against Howell.
“I vaguely remember seeing them after I took office,” he said. “They were typewritten, unsigned statements. How much credence can you give to an unsigned statement from Australia?”
Two weeks before the raid, however, Segrest’s office began investigating possible child abuse within the cult.
He refused to say what keyed the investigation.
The Tribune-Herald published its series on Howell and his cult on Feb. 27. A day later, the ATF launched its raid.
But to Robyn Bunds and other former cult members, action against Howell was late in coming.
“I used to think a lot of the government,” she said. “I used to see movies about the FBI and I would think they were smart, that they really knew what they were doing. But they’re just people.
“No one wanted to deal with this. They let it go and they let it go and they let it go. Look at it now. For it to get to this point is totally crazy.
“Something could have been done years ago,” Bunds said. “It’s frustrating. For years, no one would listen to us. Now they’re listening to us, but it’s too late.”