Vernon Howell’s legacy includes four children by three women other than his legal wife, Rachel, according to a Waco attorney investigating the cult leader’s heirs.
The legal record will soon reflect her findings.
Howell, his wife, and their three children, Cyrus, 8, Star, 5, and Bobbie Lane, 2, died in the April 19 fire that destroyed Mount Carmel.
Attorney Kathryn Gilliam said Howell’s mother, Bonnie Haldeman, admitted after initial reluctance that four of her son’s children are living. Three of the children have mothers once in the cult. The fourth child’s mother knew Howell, also known as David Koresh, before he became the leader of the Branch Davidians, according to Gilliam.
County Judge Jim Lewis of McLennan County appointed Gilliam to represent the interests of any children surviving Howell. Haldeman’s request for a declaration of heirs prompted her appointment.
On her initial list of heirs, Haldeman noted only a girl, approximately 12 years old, who lives with her mother in a Dallas suburb.
Gilliam, though, knew of Robyn Bunds, a former cult member who left in 1990. Bunds had publicly stated that Howell was the father of her son, Shaun, 4. Howell denied the claim, but Gilliam decided to put the question of paternity to the Branch Davidians staying at Waco’s Brittney Hotel — on the chance they might be forthcoming in light of Howell’s statement to KRLD radio of Dallas on Feb. 28 that “I do have a lot of children, and I do have a lot of wives.”
That revelation came in the wake of a raid on Mount Carmel by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that saw four agents and at least five cult members killed.
“I talked with Catherine Mattson,” Gilliam said. “She confirmed that Shaun was Vernon’s son. The Branch Davidians have been helpful in confirming information, but they haven’t volunteered any information.”
Attorney Percy Isgitt of Houston checked with Haldeman. The declaration of heirs was amended. It soon will have to be amended again, now that Gilliam has contacted Dana Okimoto, 27.
Okimoto left the Branch Davidians in early 1992. She took with her two children: Sky Borne, now 4, and Scooter, 2. Howell is the father of both children, Okimoto told Gilliam.
She had not publicly named him as the boys’ father before.
Former cult members, however, had told the Tribune-Herald for its “The Sinful Messiah” series that Howell fathered Okimoto’s two boys. A birth certificate listed Sky Borne’s father as unknown. Scooter’s birth at Mount Carmel was not registered, former cult member Jeannine Bunds said.
After again consulting Isgitt, Gilliam succeeded in getting an admission from Haldeman that Howell was the father of Okimoto’s children.
“Let’s just say I initially received different information from the mothers than what Bonnie was saying,” Gilliam said. “These children are entitled to be declared heirs under this proceeding. That’s a right that can’t be waived by anyone.”
Isgitt told the Tribune-Herald that he will amend the declaration of heirs to include Sky Borne and Scooter Okimoto. Haldeman has “personal knowledge” that Bunds and Okimoto had children by Howell, the Houston attorney said.
“I think we’ve got them counted for now,” Isgitt said. “If you remember, Bonnie was going through a lot of stress when this was first filed. Her son and most of her grandchildren had been tragically killed right in front of her eyes. I think it was a case of confusion and misunderstanding on Bonnie’s part. Some of the mothers said please keep our name out of it. I think it was a good–faith effort on Bonnie’s part until she realized she couldn’t do it. Sometimes when people have more than one set of grandchildren, they don’t like to think about it.”
Bunds, however, believes Haldeman had a different motive for not naming her child or Okimoto’s children as her son’s heirs.
“She was thinking of the way Vernon would want things,” Bunds said. “But after the shootout, Vernon was admitting things we had never heard him say publicly before: about having many wives and many children. He was past it all. It wasn’t a big secret anymore.”
Apparently not all the Branch Davidians heard Howell’s comments.
Rita Riddle, who left Mount Carmel before the fire, told a Dallas magazine in July that “as far as I know, David only had one wife and three children.”
Such statements don’t bother Robyn Bunds.
“Deep down they know who Shaun’s father is, even if they aren’t saying,” Bunds said. “It just makes them look stupid. But that’s the bed they made, and they can lie in it.”
Okimoto left the Branch Davidians, taking her two sons and leaving the country, because she had stopped believing and didn’t want to be around for what she was coming.
‘I no longer believed’
“I wasn’t ready to die,” Okimoto said. “That was the bottom line. I no longer believed. I admitted that to myself. I knew that I would die a violent death if I stayed there because of the way he would talk. It was always that we would have a really bad end. It was always, ‘Are you willing to die for me?’”
Her oldest son, Sky, remembers Howell and calls him “Daddy” and “David Crash.”
“I don’t bother his memories,” she said. “I’m keeping a personal journal and writing down the circumstances of both my sons’ births and my feelings about what was going on at the time. I want to have it ready when they’re old enough to understand.”
Though former cult members such as Robyn Bunds have reported that Howell sometimes cruelly spanked their children, Okimoto said Howell always treated Sky well.
“Sky openly adored him, and that was the way to the man’s heart,” she said.
Okimoto joined the Branch Davidians in 1986. Her first view of Howell dismayed her. She remembers thinking, “Oh, my God. The prophet’s a hippie.” But his knowledge of the Bible impressed her, and she moved to Mount Carmel. The New Light — Howell’s 1989 proclamation that all women in the cult, indeed the world, belonged to him — unraveled her faith, Okimoto said.
“It just didn’t seem right, to be very, very frank,” she said. “But by then, I had already acknowledged that he was the Lamb. I could understand his point of view. But, at the same time, watching the people go through what they had to go through was awful. Those people suffered a lot. The Schneiders. The Wendels. It was something else.”
Howell was on a power trip, she became convinced.
A ‘big game’
“I saw him throw chips on the floor once,” Okimoto said. “He made someone eat them, just because he could make them do it. And they did. It was all a big game.”
Gilliam said she finds both Bunds and Okimoto “believable.” Since Haldeman now acknowledges their children as Howell’s children, no testing will be necessary to prove paternity. What the children will inherit isn’t as clear.
“There are enough people who know this to be true,” Gilliam said. “At this point, I feel it’s common knowledge. I don’t know what kind of estate is out there. I’ve told all the women that. My duty is to protect the interest of any heirs in case there is an estate. Once the heirs are established, I’m out of it. I don’t legally represent the children I find. It’s just my duty to find them.”
Though the public record will now reflect Howell as the father of Okimoto’s two children, she hopes to keep herself and them shielded from public inquiry.
She doesn’t have faith that people will fairly judge her actions.
“No one in the world would understand unless they had been in that situation,” she said.