Besides controlling the minds of Branch Davidian Cult members, leader Vernon Howell also has an iron grip on assets worth more than $1 million, sources say.

Howell, also known as David Koresh, reportedly controls members’ credit cards, paychecks and property and demands that members tithe not 10 percent but 100 percent of their earnings.

“I would say that Vernon Howell…must be controlling between half a million and a million dollars,” said Rick Ross, a cult expert from Arizona who has deprogrammed at least one former member of the Branch Davidians.

“I think Mr. Howell is a millionaire,” Ross said.

Ross added that thousands of dollars in ammunition were purchased using the man’s credit card while he was in the cult.

The former member, who is afraid to be identified, said that besides charging the ammunition, he gave all his money to Howell.

He said Howell “pressures” people to get a line of cash from their credit cards or charge things for him.

“I didn’t keep any of it,” he said of his income.

Over a period of years, the former member thinks he gave Howell between $30,000 to $40,000.

In exchange, he got only room, board and necessary items.

“He’s at the head of the group. He’s getting all the women,” he said. “He’s got all the money, so he gets to do and buy whatever in heck he wants – and that’s all in the name of God.”

Ross also said one elderly couple, who now lives in Hawaii, told him they probably gave Howell $250,000 to $500,000 while they were in the cult.

“He raided their life savings,” Ross said. “And keep in mind that any self-respecting cult leader can get 10 percent in tithes.”

Other former cult members have verified the amount the couple gave to Howell.

Former cult member Bruce Gent, who lives in Australia, said in an affidavit that he liquidated his assets at Howell’s direction to come to America and join the cult. He and his wife, Lisa, sold his house and possessions and traveled to the U.S. in December of 1986.

Tithing not enough

They gave Howell a tithe of 12,000 in Australian money.

“He was angry at this amount, claiming that we should have given him a full third of our assets,” Gent said.

Australian Michelle Tom, who was in the group in the mid- to late-1980s, said Howell got a lot of money through tithes.

“In my day, I think it was 30 percent of their income,” she said, but added Howell demanded 100 percent of members’ income later.

“And then Vernon would just give them back an allowance…,” she said.

Tom worked for starvation wages while in the cult, she said.

Tom said they had to pay $30 a month for their food.

“It wasn’t much money, and it wasn’t much food.”

During 1986 and 1987, she got between $2 and $5 a week for working up to 18 hours a day in a San Bernardino, Calif., bakery controlled by Howell, she said.

Poia and Leslie are a New Zealand couple who lived with the Branch Davidians in Palestine for five months in 1986 while trying to decide if they would join. Poia said Howell never lacked funds.

‘Everything he wanted’

“I got the impression he had everything that he wanted, needed, when he wanted them,” said Poia, who asked that her last name not be revealed.

Much of Howell’s money came from “wealthy” cult members who moved to Mount Carmel from Australia and England and who gave Howell everything they had.

“There were people who were strong enough and qualified enough to work,” Poia said. “They would get work and bring money in, but most of the money would come from some wealthy families that joined the group, and everyone gave Vernon everything. That was part of the teaching. We had to give everything.”

Howell also has or had control of thousands of dollars’ worth of property.

McLennan County tax records show that the land at Mount Carmel was appraised in 1992 at $122,080.

Unpaid taxes

McLennan County tax records show the Branch Davidians owe $3,275.88 in taxes to local entities for 1991 and 1992. The 1992 taxes were due Jan. 31, 1993.

The taxes are due for 75 acres of the 77-acre compound. The rest, which includes the peach-colored buildings, are exempt from taxation because they are used for religious purposes.

Robyn Bunds said her parents, Jeannine and Don Bunds, bought a home in Pomona, Calif., valued at about $100,000, at Howell’s request. Her parents also bought a $10,000 van at Howell’s request, she said.

Another house in LaVerne, Calif., owned by cult members and frequently used to house the women of the cult, is valued at more than $340,000. The house was purchased in 1990.

Howell reportedly spent large sums of cash on various items he bought for the compound and himself.

One source close to the cult told the Tribune-Herald that Howell drove a Corvette and had $30,000 worth of musical equipment.

A good customer

Larry Young, an employee of Waco Rental at 906 N. 25th St., said he delivered a track loader to the Mount Carmel compound Feb. 23.

The company service manager, who declined to give his name, said cult member Greg Summers called to arrange the lease of the small bulldozer and asked that it be delivered to the “DK Ranch.”

While he was there, he collected $3,150 for the equipment rental, part in cash and the rest by a check signed by cult member Perry Jones, he said.

The track loader rents for $3,150 for 28 days, the service manager said. The Branch Davidians rented the track loader for 28 days and it was on the property when Sunday’s bloody siege with federal agents began.

Davidians have also rented equipment from Central Rental.

Employees there report the Davidians were good customers who always paid their bills. The store’s manager said the cult sometimes paid bills of more than $1,500 in cash.

Staff writers Tommy Witherspoon, Mark England and Marc Masferrer contributed to this story.

Read the Tribune-Herald's 7-part investigative series on the inner workings of the Branch Davidians. Hours after Part 2 appeared in print, the ATF raided the group's compound.

Read the Tribune-Herald’s account of the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound on Feb. 28, 1993. Four ATF agents and six in the compound were killed in the gunfight.

Read the daily news accounts of the 51-day siege at the Branch Davidian compound near Elk, which began Feb. 28 and lasted until April.

April 19 and beyond: FBI agents began inserting canisters of tear gas into the Branch Davidian compound in the early morning hours. By noon, it was on fire.

Federal officials left the compound site in late May 1993. As identifications of bodies continued, questions about the survivors, the compound and the cult itself began to emerge.

As the world began to take a critical look back at the events and legal proceedings continue, the ATF's bombshell report forces a shakeup at the top after the raid gone "tragically wrong."

In 1994, the surviving Davidians went on trial in San Antonio. Over six weeks, more than 140 witnesses testified, with the verdict coming just two days prior to the anniversary of the ATF raid.

The Rodenville shootout and the 1988 trial, the end of the world in 1959 and more stories from deep in the Trib archives.