News of the Waco shootout involving the Branch Davidians left Robyn Bunds feeling a strange emotion for cult leader Vernon Howell.

It was one she didn’t expect: sympathy.

“When I found out that he had been shot, and might possibly be dead, I was crying,” she said. “I thought, ‘Why am I crying? What is this?’ I was shocked to be feeling all that.”

Bunds, 23, was one of the first women that Howell seduced when he became the cult’s prophet in the mid-’80s. Then she was a 17-year-old California girl, whose good looks caught Howell’s eye, even though he was legally married to Rachel Howell.

He “married” her, having sex with her, bringing her into the House of David. She was one of the women having babies who were supposedly destined to rule the earth one day with him.

Bunds gave birth in 1988 to Shaun.

After Howell continued to collect wives, though, she left the cult.

She became one of Howell’s most vocal critics, telling the media about Shaun, about the House of David and joining other former cult members in accusing him of sleeping with underage girls and whipping babies.

But after Howell admitted on radio station KRLD in Dallas that he had numerous so-called wives and children in the cult, her feelings softened.

“I was angry because he denied Shaun was his son,” Bunds said. “Now that he admits that he’s had a lot of wives and children, the anger is gone. Now, I just feel sad. I had pushed all the good times out of my head, so I could go on with life.

“I guess because I’ve seen so much of Vernon on the news, I keep remembering when he was a nice person and did nice things. I was close to him, and this is hard for me. I have mixed emotions. But I don’t feel anger anymore. I got angry because I got tired of being called a liar.”

Bunds said she believes Howell when he said the Branch Davidians didn’t mean to kill four ATF agents.

“I could hear it in his voice,” she said. “I could hear his voice shaking. I know when he’s acting. He’s not conning. He was protecting what was his. He felt he had to shoot back. I know he doesn’t deserve to die. I’m sorry for what he did to the officers, but he’s mentally unstable. I never wanted any of this for him. I just wanted the truth to be known.”

Although Bunds said she doesn’t fear Howell, she and her family sought shelter Monday at the La Verne Police Department in California. Speculation that cult members would kill Vernon’s enemies if he died frightened her, Bunds said.

Her fears have lessened, though.

“I don’t think Vernon is thinking about killing his enemies,” she said. “He’s thinking about getting his message out.”

The intense media coverage of Howell’s cult now has Bunds in hiding. She finally gave a press conference Tuesday, getting an agreement from most of the media that they would subsequently leave her alone.

Shunning notoriety

Her picture was digitized so she wouldn’t be recognized. But it wasn’t to protect Bunds from cult members, who are well aware of how she looks.

“I don’t mind people who know me knowing about all this,” she said. “But I don’t want to go to school and have people go, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s the girl in the cult.’ I don’t want prejudgment and whispers.”

Coverage of the shootout has disturbed Bunds. The media’s search for people who know the Branch Davidians has led them to talking to individuals such as Mark Bunds, her stepbrother.

“He’s never met Vernon,” she said. “It’s ridiculous when he claims he was part of it when he wasn’t. He acts like he and Vernon were buds. He said, ‘Yeah, they’re likely to use their guns,’ when he doesn’t know. He only knows what he has heard on the news. But his worrying is sincere. He does care about his father.”

Don Bunds, the father of Robyn and Mark, is at Mount Carmel.

‘Go out shooting’

“I’m so worried about him,” she said. “He is prepared to do this. Before he left, he told my brother, David, ‘We’ll go out shooting if they come and do something.’”

Although Robyn Bunds thinks Howell is disturbed, she doesn’t doubt his sincerity. She’s upset that some people consider him a con artist who used his knowledge of the Bible to further his ego.

“The media doesn’t know what’s going on,” she said. “They’re pulling people out of cracks who don’t know what’s going on. I don’t think it’s fair. I know Vernon is radical. I also know he is sincere. I know his voice. I know he’s not faking his beliefs.”

Bunds is studying pre-law at Mount San Antonio College. Even with what she’s been through, she believes she can forge a normal life in the years ahead.

“I’m not worried about that,” she said. “I’m not in the cult anymore. People are pretty understanding of me. At the press conference, reporters said I seemed like an intelligent woman. Why did I stay? Well, it’s not like I had a choice. By the time I was old enough to get out, I was brainwashed. I wanted to stay there. I thought if you left, you were lost.

“They don’t hold you. Your mind makes you stay. You don’t want to lose eternal salvation. That’s what everyone has in common. Eternal salvation is everything. I know. If he hadn’t treated me badly, I would still be there. I’d probably be gung-ho. But I got out. I don’t believe it anymore. But I still care about everyone.”

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.