Cult leader Vernon Howell died from a gunshot wound between the eyes before the fiery destruction of the Branch Davidian compound, officials said Sunday.
James Collier, McLennan County justice of the peace, joined with other county peace justices to announce medical examiners had indentified Howell’s body.
It was found in the kitchen area of the compound with a single gunshot wound to the head an inch above the bridge of his nose, according to the preliminary autopsy.
Howell’s body also was severely burned in the April 19 end to the 51-day siege at Mount Carmel. Investigators have found 72 bodies including 17 children, in the remains of the compound occupied by Howell and his devoted followers.
Collier could not say if Howell’s gunshot wound was self-inflicted. He said he was not notified if any weapons were found near Howell’s body.
Collier said Tarrant County Medical Examiner Nizam Peerwani and his team confirmed Howell’s identity through dental comparisons and extensive models of his mouth, and body X-rays that showed a gunshot wound to his side he sustained during the Feb. 28 raid on the compound by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents.
Investigators located MCDOE-18, the number given Howell’s body, at 3:58 p.m. Thursday, April 22, according to David Pareya, another peace justice.
Pareya said Howell’s skull was broken up into several fragments. An anthropology team worked for several days to reconstruct it.
Houston Attorney Dick DeGuerin, who met with the cult leader during the siege, reacted angrily Sunday to official handling of the identification of Howell’s body.
Despite justices saying Texas Rangers were notifying next of kin, DeGuerin said Howell’s mother was not officially notified before the press conference. DeGuerin was hired by Howell’s mother during the standoff to represent her son, who was also known as David Koresh.
“I think what disturbs me most is that neither I nor Bonnie Haldeman, his mother, or anyone else in the family was contacted or even attempted to be contacted,” he said from Houston in a telephone interview.
Haldeman called DeGuerin after hearing about the identification of Howell’s body from a reporter who is a personal friend, he said.
“She’s been very upset since April 19,” he said. “She’s handling it very well, I think. She thought it typical of the government to have a news conference instead of attempting to notify her.”
He said Haldeman’s “primary thought has been for her grandchildren and that they had to die in the fire. She was angry.”
DeGuerin said he and Haldeman cooperated with authorities last week in locating Howell’s dental records.
The attorney said he gave information on how to locate the records to the head of the Texas Rangers, who “took it from there.”
DeGuerin was not surprised Howell had a gunshot wound to the head. “I would be surprised if trapped in a burning building . . . seeing people around you burning and dying a horrible death, who wouldn’t opt to die without pain?” he said.
He suggested the gunshot wounds discovered in some autopsies reflected “personal decisions” made by cult members trapped in a fire with no way out, rather than an organized mass suicide. “Suicide was not an option to him, was not planned, was contrary to their religious beliefs,” DeGuerin said.
Robyn Bunds, a former follower and mother of one of Howell’s children, said she told her preschool-age son of his father’s death.
Shaun, her son, is one of only a few of the children Howell fathered who survived. “He’s sad because he doesn’t have his daddy, but he never really had a daddy anyway. I’m not going to raise him to hate his father. I feel people encouraged him to believe he was Christ and to do what he was doing,” Bunds said.
Marc Breault, a former right-hand man to Howell, said confirmation of Howell’s death is “a relief. Now this is pretty much over. There’s no question, with the self-inflicted wound, that they chose suicide. And now the grieving process can run its course.”
Breault, who with other former followers hired a private detective to come to Waco in 1990 to try to alert authorities to Howell’s activities, said Sunday he believes the Mount Carmel disaster could have been averted.
“I can’t help but think that if the INS or the tax man or local officials had done their job, they could have gotten Vernon out of the way. They could have prevented this. They didn’t take our information seriously,” he said in a telephone interview from Australia.
Breault said perhaps Vernon’s legacy will be to change how officials approach cults. “Maybe . . . authorities will be more aware of what cults are doing and when ex-members make complaints, they won’t consider it sour grapes.”
For relatives of dead cult members, getting custody of the bodies may take at least another week.
Pareya said Peerwani indicated he would like to keep the bodies that have been identified another week to shore up any tests, such as toxicology or DNA tests.
Pareya said some relatives of those who died in the Mount Carmel fire have requested their family members be buried in the Green Acres Cemetery next to the compound site.
The Branch Davidian burial ground is not a registered cemetery, he said, and county officials will have to decide whether to allow those burials or whether bodies already buried there will be removed.