Since 1984, Debborah Brown has felt powerless.
That year, she made an unsuccessful attempt to save her two daughters from the clutches of Vernon Howell’s cult.
Now Brown watches helplessly and angrily as the standoff at Mount Carmel drags on. Since Feb. 28, Howell and his Branch Davidian followers have holed up in a compound 10 miles east of Waco after a deadly shoot-out with federal agents.
Brown, 39, believes her daughter Shari Doyle is in the compound. She has not seen her in more than a year. Now she prays the 18-year-old was not killed or injured in the gunfire.
A second daughter, Karen Doyle, 21, now lives in California, where Brown believes she may be held against her will. Brown has not seen Karen in six years.
Brown says her two daughters were taken from her after she broke from the cult in 1975. Since then, she has seen them only about six times.
She says authorities have done little to help, and Howell threatened her after she tried to rescue the girls when they were 12 and 9.
Ironically, her most precious memory of Shari and Karen is of the time they were “on the run.”
Meanwhile, she tries to maintain some semblance of normalcy.
Looking around her cozy Robinson home, Brown appears to have typical family life.
During an interview, the slender woman with straight blonde hair sits at the dining room table and nibbles from a bowl of popcorn. A white Labrador retriever snoozes at her feet while a dachshund curls up for a nap on a recliner. Brown’s husband relaxes on the couch, and her daughter sprawls on the living room carpet.
But no matter how idyllic the picture, it still lacks two vital components – her two older daughters.
For now, the closest Brown can get to them is by looking at their most recent photographs.
“This is Karen and this is Shari,” she says softly, offering two small pictures that were taken during of Brown’s rare visits to the compound.
In Karen’s photo, the face of a pretty, brunette girl beams at the camera. Shari’s shows a blonde, fresh-faced teen.
“I miss them,” Brown said. “I have always missed them. I have cried my heart out many nights.”
When Brown was 14, her parents – former Seventh-day Adventists – took her and her two brothers and moved into the Branch Davidian compound. At that time, the cult was still controlled by Lois and George Roden.
By the age of 16, Brown said, the cult married her off to member Clive Doyle, a 29-year-old Australian.
“They needed a way to keep him in the country so they decided that we should get married,” she said.
Shortly after Karen and Shari were born, Brown’s parents moved to California. When Brown grew disillusioned with the cult, she gathered up her children and went to stay with them.
“Clive came out and took the girls and didn’t bring them back,” she said. “When I called, he said he wasn’t going to bring them back.”
Brown said Doyle was given custody in Waco, but she never went through a formal hearing.
“It was never really actually decided,” she said. “I never got the papers until it was all over with. My lawyer in California and the judge left it open. The courts here gave him custody, but I never went to court and nothing was ever proven against me as to why I shouldn’t have the children.”
Taking back her girls
The couple divorced, and, in 1984, Brown planned to get her children back. She, her new husband and her third daughter, who were living in New York, arranged to meet Doyle and the girls at a park in Waco.
“They showed up, and we took the girls,” she said. “We just pulled them away from them and started running through the park, got in the car and left.”
The children did not resist, she said.
It took a week to drive to Jamestown, N.Y. That week spawned some of Brown’s most precious memories.
“All the way up there, we stopped at all the sights on the road, went to some caverns, took them out to eat,” she said. “They wanted to try everything. It’s like they were starved. That was quite an adventure. We made it as much fun as we could.”
But once there, a lawyer told them they should return to Texas and fight for custody.
They returned to Texas and stayed with her brother in Canton.
After only six weeks of this reunion, authorities tracked her down. She remembered seven squad cars showing up at her door.
“When the officers appeared at the door, Karen and Shari both ran in separate directions,” she said. “One went out the back door and crawled into a playhouse that we had in the backyard. The other one hid behind a bar we had.”
Police took the children and arrested Brown, charging her with assault and kidnapping. She said Doyle later dropped the charges.
Threats from Howell
But threats from Howell soon followed.
“The exact words he said were something to the effect of ‘You don’t have any girls. I’ve got them and they’re mine,’” she recalled. “So it wasn’t a fight between me and my ex. It was a fight between me and Vernon. He told me and my brother one time that he was going to remove me and my family from the face of the earth.”
Undaunted, Brown settled in Robinson and contacted authorities like child welfare to help. She faithfully sent packages of perfume, bubble baths and brushes to her daughters. But she soon became frustrated.
“I gave them the names of the girls that were living there, and they said they were going to investigate,” she said. “They said they went out there and talked to them but couldn’t find anything wrong.”
Brown said she thinks those officials called the compound before they visited.
“I think they were of afraid of them and didn’t want to go in without notifying them that they were coming,” she said.
Sadly, Brown has only snippets of memories of her children.
“Shari was taken from me just before she turned 2 years old, and Karen had just turned 5, so I really don’t know,” she said. “I know the six weeks I had them, we had a lot of fun. But there are a lot of years in between.”
‘She’s dead inside’
The last time Brown saw Shari was 16 months ago. She and her husband drove by the compound and were allowed to see her.
The result broke her heart.
“She was real out of it and real rude to me,” Brown said. “She was real cold. It’s like she’s dead inside. I put my arms around her and it was like no feeling at all.”
Brown said she has heard Shari has borne Howells’s children, though she doesn’t know how many.
“I don’t know if she’s dead or alive,” she said. “I would just tell her that I love her no matter what. I wish for her well being. I wish we could be together some day. And if she has children, I love her children, too.
Meanwhile, Brown recently spoke to Karen on the phone after a reporter gave her the California number.
“I didn’t even know if I’d recognize her voice,” she said.
“She seemed real happy to hear from me. That was a big weight off my shoulders. She did say she still believed in his message.”
But Brown, who said the cult had shuffled Karen back and forth between California and Texas, believes her daughter is now being kept on the West Coast against her will.
And as she watches the siege drag on, Brown is growing pessimistic.
“It’ll probably end up with me empty-handed again,” she said. “I feel helpless.”