The Gospel According to Vernon Howell is a dangerous, volatile swerve out of the mainstream, say two cult experts who have talked to some of Howell's former followers.
They say Howell's brand of religion constitutes a cult and that Howell controls the minds of his followers.
"The group is without a doubt, without any doubt whatsoever, a highly destructive, manipulative cult," said Rick Ross, a cult deprogrammer who works in Phoenix, Ariz. "Vernon Howell is the absolute authoritarian leader of this cult. He controls everything and everyone in that compound, period."
Although he is not a mental health professional, Ross has developed an educational curriculum on the subject of cults and serves on a nation-wide committee on cults and missionaries for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in New York.
He has been involved in more than 200 destructive cult cases, including the deprogramming of one of Howell's former followers, Ross said.
Ross compares Mount Carmel, the Branch Davidians' base 10 miles east of Waco, to Jonestown, a settlement of American cultists in South America's Guyana led by the Rev. Jim Jones. On Nov. 18, 1978, more than 900 people there killed themselves by drinking cyanide or were murdered.
Ross said, "I would liken the group to Jim Jones . . . from the standpoint that it's in a compound; it's isolated; it's extremely totalitarian . . ."
Conditioned to be passive
Priscilla Coates, a 10-year Cult Awareness Network volunteer based at the organization's Glendale, Calif., office, also said Howell's group is "unsafe and destructive." The Cult Awareness Network is a non-profit group with chapters in 21 states that addresses the issue of cults. Coates was national director of the group when it was known as Citizens Freedom Foundation Cult Awareness Network.
Both Ross and Coates said they talked with two people who left the Branch Davidians.
The two cult experts said they believe Howell practices mind control.
Ross says Howell breaks down cult members to where they have little or no sense of self-worth or individuality. They are conditioned to be passive and obedient.
Mind control comes from isolation, control of the environment and setting up doctrines that override an individual's needs, Ross said.
He said Howell twists people's belief in God into a commitment to him.
Ross said most people at Mount Carmel probably would not say they are committed to Howell as their absolute leader. They probably would say they are committed to God. Their commitment to Howell, in their minds, is synonymous to their commitment to God, he said.
Followers become accepting
Ross said he deprogrammed a man who had been with Howell for at least five years. The man said he was afraid to be identified, but he told Tribune-Herald reporters that he attended long Bible studies, sometimes for 18 hours, while in the cult. People go into the cult wanting to learn, so they open up and become accepting, he said.
"You reach a point where you'll see things go on or you'll be told things, and they'll go against your better judgment," he said. "But because you're now starting to doubt that you can trust your own judgment, you can see a conflict start to develop in your mind."
Individuals in the group were broken down, the former cult member said. Every aspect of life was controlled, from finances to food, he said.
Ross and Coates said the man was used for physical labor on various construction projects at Mount Carmel.
He was "physically depleted," Ross said of the man. "There's a rigorous work program going on in there . . . they are essentially a free labor force at Howell's beck and call . . ."
The former cult member said building projects included a pool and a gym. He said followers would often work on empty stomachs.
Working without food
Sometimes it would be torment, he said. Cult members would go without food all day, and then Howell would hold Bible studies late at night, "berating" members for various things. All the while, Howell would be eating, perhaps something as rich and tempting as ice cream, he said. Afterward, they got to eat.
Howell's group was detrimental to the man he deprogrammed, Ross said.
The man said he feels angry over the lost years he spent with Howell. Sometimes, though, he still wonders about Howell's seemingly superhuman knowledge of the Bible.
"When I die, am I going to end up standing in front of this guy-" he asked.
Ross said just about anybody can get involved in a cult — that members are "basically just like anybody else."
Another former member, Robert Scott of Colorado, said Howell's group could recruit anyone.
"I don't care who you are, you could be the strongest person in the world," Scott said. "I don't care who you are because all they need is a foothold."
Exploiting the vulnerable
Scott said Howell freely admitted the group was a cult. But Scott said he never perceived the use of mind control.
"Does the spider ever say to the fly he's going to eat him-" he asked.
Cults exploit people who are vulnerable. Recruits may be suffering from the death of a loved one, experiencing a job change, or starting college, Coates said.
Coates said that Howell probably uses many of the Branch Davidians' past connection to the Seventh-day Adventists to gain easier access to potential recruits.
The religion believes in modern-day prophecy.
She believes the stories of the people who came to her from Howell's cult, Coates said.
"The cults themselves always say these are disgruntled members — that's their standard line and . . . that they're lying," she said. "Our feeling is that they have no reason to lie to us."
Ross said he believes Howell is prone to violence, as he has already demonstrated through a 1987 shootout with his rival, George Roden.
Speaking out and exposing Howell might bring in the authorities or in some way help those "being held in that compound through a kind of psychological, emotional slavery and servitude," he said.
Ross said authorities need to understand that Howell is fully capable of violence.
"You would say that is a very dangerous group," Ross said.