© Copyright 1993 Waco Tribune-Herald
Steve Schneider gave up all he had to follow Vernon Howell, whom Branch Davidians believe is Christ.
Even his wife, said former cult members.
Schneider, 42, is emerging as Howell’s spokesman in the standoff at Mount Carmel, the cult’s base 10 miles east of Waco.
Authorities have surrounded Mount Carmel since Feb. 28, when four agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were killed trying to arrest Howell for possessing illegal weapons.
FBI Special Agent Bob Ricks said Sunday that negotiators talk as much to Schneider as they do to Howell.
“Mr. Schneider has been very much in integral part of the negotiating process,” Ricks said. “Originally he began and appeared to be a calm, cool, deliberate individual. He also at times has been more aggressive than Mr. Koresh in our discussion with him. And he speaks in terms of, ‘We don’t know what we’re dealing with when we deal with Mr. Koresh. He has powers that we are not aware of, and for us to even challenge him, we’re making a great mistake.’”
Howell legally changed his name two years ago to David Koresh, to conform with his religious beliefs.
Schneider’s loyalty to Howell doesn’t necessarily mean he likes the cult leader, former cult members sid. They say he hates the man that Branch Davidians believe can open the Seven Seals in Revelation, bringing about the end of the world.
“He has legitimate reasons to hate Vernon,” said former cult member Marc Breault. “For what he’s doing with Steve’s wife, for one thing. She’s part of the House of David. I know she doesn’t want to do it, but she does it anyway. The other thing is that Steve doesn’t like the lifestyle. But he believes that he can’t refute Vernon’s teachings.”
Four former cult members said Schneider’s wife, Judy, became one of Howell’s so-called wives.
Breault and Schneider met in Hawaii and became friends. Schneider was best man at the wedding of Breault and Elizabeth Baranyai.
Indirectly, Breault led Schneider into the Branch Davidians.
In 1986, Breault met Perry Jones, Howell’s father-in-law, in a grocery store near Loma Linda University, a Seventh-day Adventist school in Southern California.
The Branch Davidians shot off from the Adventists in the 1930s.
Like most Seventh-day Adventists, Breault believed in end-time prophecy. Jones arranged for Breault to meet Howell, who at the time claimed to be a prophet. Impressed by Howell’s encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible, Breault traveled to Hawaii to seek Schneider’s counsel.
They knew each other through the Diamond Head Seventh-day Adventist Church in Honolulu.
Steve was the only person I respected in terms of biblical prophecy,” Breault said. “I went to Hawaii to get his thoughts on whether Vernon was true or not. To my surprise, Steve accepted his theology. I guess I recruited him, but in another sense his acceptance cemented my belief that Vernon was true. I thought if anyone could refuse Vernon, it was Steve.”
Howell came along at a critical moment in Schneider’s life. He and his wife, Judy, now 41, lived in a dinky Honolulu apartment. Schneider taught comparative religion at the University of Hawaii, part time, Breault said. But Schneider really wanted to be a minister. When a pastorate opening went ot the nephew of the president of the local Seventh-day Adventist conference, Schneider became bitter, Breault said.
“He had been actively recruiting for the church, but it wouldn’t hire him,” he said. “INsteady someone just out of college was hired. It turned Steve against the church.”
A South Carolina man who knew Schneider said he tried several get-rich schemes to finance an independent ministry. They fizzled, the man said.
“Steve was a good talker, and he loved people. But he became frustrated. Vernon came along at the right time. He offered Steve something he couldn’t refuse. He really had nothing else to fall back on.”
Schneider had a lot to offer Howell, Breault said.
“This guy could sell you smog,” he said. “He’s that good.”
Even tough Howell was a Branch Davidians’ prophet, he learned much from Schneider, Breault said.
“Steve is a good evangelist, and Vernon learned from him how to act and how to present himself,” he said. “He wasn’t always charismatic. When he first started out, he was sort of like a bum. But he polished himself up as time went by. Vernon is like a vampire. He takes everything you have. That’s how he progresses.”
After joining the Branch Davidians, Schneider’s work was doing Howell’s bidding, former cult members said. He gave up his own hopes of a ministry. Howell became his calling. Schneider studied at Newboldt College in England and made trips there former cult members said, to recruit followers for Howell.
Judy Schneider supported her husband in everything he did, former cult member said. “Sweet,” is the word they most often use to describe her. When they talk of both Steve and Judy Schneider, the word is “team.”
“Whatever Steve couldn’t do, Judy could, and vice versa,” Breault said.
In 1989, Howell announced in Pomona, Calif., that all women in the world belonged to him, as the Lamb who would open the Seven Seals. His was the only righteous seed. All other relationships between men and women, even marriage, was adultery.
Former cult members said Schneider’s wife, Judy, was one of the women Howell targeted.
The Schneiders initially balked at Howell’s new light. But Judy Schneider became the object of Howell’s wrath in his Bible studies, Breault said.
“He would condemn her in the studies for still wanting to be with Steve,” Breault said. “She knew what was right, he said. She should do it, otherwise she was a whore because she belonged to Vernon. She and Steve had gotten married just because they wanted to get married, Vernon said. They didn’t have the Lord’s permission. They were committing adultery.”
Bruce Gent, a former cult member from Australia, said Schneider told him that Howell worked on the couple for weeks.
“After the studies, Steve and Judy used to get on his motorbike and they used to just ride for hours, hanging onto each other,” Gent said. “Just for the security and to feel one another.”
In 1990, Howell visited Australia in a bid to keep followers there from breaking away. Howell told them that Judy Schneider was pregnant with his child, said former cult member Jean Smith.
“The gist of what he said was that Steve and Judy had been happily married, but Judy could see the truth of what he was saying,” Smith said. “She agreed to be his wife, and he was very happy she was pregnant.”
Gent said Howell never let Schneider forget that he had lost his wife. He made that point painfully clear in telephone calls.
“When Steve was in earshot, Vernon would say, ‘And I love you, too, Judy,’” Gent said. “What would that do to a guy had given up his wife?”
Schneider told Gent that he gave up his wife because of “what they were going to accomplish in the kingdom,” Gent said.
Robyn Bunds, a former cult member who was in the House of David, said the new light crushed Schneider.
“Steve went crazy,” Bunds said. “Vernon had been lusting after Judy for a long time. Judy’s a very attractive lady, very witty, very personable. It’s like Judy and Steve were made for each other. To me, the worst thing about all this is that Vernon and Judy are together and not Steve and Judy. They’re so much alike. You ever see a couple that just looked like they belonged together? They love each other so much.”
Although some former cult members hold out hope that Schneider may assert influence over Howell and end the weeklong standoff, neither the FBI nor those who’ve studied the cult that as likely.
“He controls Schneider,” said Rick Ross, and Arizona cult expert who has deprogrammed a former member of the Brand Davidians. “Schneider is his puppet.”