The followers of Vernon Howell aren’t mourning his death.
They’re simply awaiting his return.
About 40 disciples remain. Most are still devout and believe that Howell and God are planning a return to form their own, special earthly kingdom.
“We see his departure as a sign from God,” said Janet McBean, a California-based follower who has spent the last two weeks in Waco visiting other Branch Davidians.
“It was a loss to the world . . . but we know the world will be getting a second chance. He’s doing the work right now.
Howell, also known as David Koresh, and as many as 85 followers died April 19, either during or before a fire swept through their Mount Carmel compound.
The blaze ended a 51-day standoff with federal authorities, who earlier that day pounded the cult’s home with tanks and injected tear gas in hopes for a peaceful resolution.
The conflict began Feb. 28 when federal agents tried to search the home for illegal weapons and arresting Howell for possession of illegal firearms. The raid resulted in the deaths of four agent and six cultists.
More than a month after the fire, the surviving followers whom McBean has spoken with have retained their faith in Howell and his message.
“This is just a waiting period, something God wants us to go through before he delivers,” said McBean, a follower since 1988.
Mary Jones, Howell’s mother-in-law. Also remains a faithful devotee, despite her personal tragedy. In addition to her son-in-law’s death, her husband was killed in the initial firefight and two daughters, a son and four grand-children died April 19.
“I just find great relief in the prophecies of the coming kingdom. It’ll bring peace and good will toward all,” said Jones, who lives in Waco but didn’t live in the compound.
The continued devotion is not surprising to a University of California at San Francisco psychology professor who has followed the Branch Davidians for more than a year and a half.
“You will basically see a core of people who will continue to maintain their affiliation and belief system over time,” said Chris Hatcher, who has studied cults for 12 years.
Dr. Marc Gallanter, author of Cults: Faith, Healing and Coercion, also said he expected the followers to remain entranced by Howell.
“I definitely think for some people, it would be embedded in their psychology and they won’t be shaken,” said Gallanter, a psychiatry professor at New York University Medical Center.
Howell’s magical message revolved around the “seven seals” he said are hidden in the New Testament’s book of Revelation. When unleashed, he taught the world will end.
“Every time we open the Bible, the seven seals just stare at us. We see them over and over again. It’s not a faith we can lose,” McBean said.
“Another person opening the Bible doesn’t see them because they don’t know what they’re all about. But every time we read it, it’s a renewing of our faith.”
A week before the fire, Howell told his attorney he was writing a manuscript to explain the seals and he would surrender to authorities when he was finished.
The FBI said he was lying and accused him of using the manuscript as a stalling tactic.
McBean says that since Howell was prevented from completing his work, the seals can no longer be revealed.
“We cannot teach people the seven seals because God didn’t give us the message he gave David,” she said. “All we can do is tell people about the kingdom and the spirit. The kingdom will be set up so people can come and learn.”
McBean said the group is now playing “a waiting game” until God and Howell are ready to establish the new Kingdom.
“Before that is set up, we believe we who are here are going to travel somewhere. The next meeting point for all of us is in heaven. Then, we’ll come down and we’ll set it up.
“When that kingdom is set up, the whole world will know about it. Exactly when that will be, we’re not sure,” she said.
‘I went numb’
The remaining followers — whom McBean calls a family — are mostly in Texas, including eight in the McLennan County Jail and five in local halfway houses. Some are in California and others are in England, she said.
One of those remaining followers is Stan Sylvia, who lost his wife, Loraine, and daughters Rachel and Hollywood in the fire.
Although he says he “understands the prophecy,” he’s still having trouble dealing with the loss of his family.
“When I saw the fire and I knew my wife and children were burning to death, I went numb. I couldn’t cry. Now, that’s all I do,” said Syliva, who has filed an $18 million wrongful death lawsuit against the government.
Syliva, a sect member for almost 40 years who also lost many close friends in the fire, said he’d like to reunite the survivors so they can plan for the future.
But, according to McBean, the remaining Branch Davidians will remain scattered until they all are called to heaven to join the other followers they believe are already there.
Once gathered, they will be reborn spiritually and physically, she said.
“You will see David and those people who were burned and the rest of us who leave. . . . People . . . are laughing at it, but it is going to happen.”