Tribune-Herald reporters Mark England and Darlene McCormick accepted a national public service award Thursday for “The Sinful Messiah,” the series about Branch Davidian leader Vernon Howell.
They were in Minneapolis, Minn., to receive the award, the Associated Press Managing Editors’ annual award for public service to the community, state or nation. Each year, the APME makes two such awards, one for newspapers with more than 50,000 circulation and one for newspapers with less, which includes the Tribune-Herald.
The Miami Herald of Miami, Fla., earned the public service award for newspapers with more than 50,000 circulation for efforts during and after Hurricane Andrew to produce and distribute the paper, with extra editions and extra pages of information to help those hardest hit by the destruction.
The APME is an association of news executives from the 1,551-member newspapers of the Associated Press.
England and McCormick wrote “The Sinful Messiah” to detail how Howell, also known as David Koresh, abused people in the name of religion. Part one of the series appeared in the Tribune-Herald Feb. 27, the day before federal agents tried to arrest Howell on weapons charges and 10 months after England began working on it. The Tribune-Herald printed part two Feb. 28 and the remaining five parts in the March 1 edition.
“This award means a lot because our paper has had to weather a lot of accusations and criticism for publishing the series,” England said. “But the series itself has stood up through it all. Even Vernon Howell ended up verifying parts of it.
“Darlene and I, along with Assistant City Editor Becky Gregory, worked hard to fashion a story that not only got the truth out but compelled our subscribers to read it. I think the award says that our efforts were appreciated. But, more than that, it says the series stood up to all challengers.”
Tribune-Herald Editor Bob Lott agrees.
“It’s gratifying to know that the APME, representing the leaders of the newspaper field, have singled out Mark England and Darlene McCormick for top national recognition against significant competition.
“Their reporting was a public service. They told the public what it had a right to know about Howell/Koresh and how the system and those in charge had failed to react. That’s the essence of the public service aspect of newspaper work.”
Persistence pays off
The series was the fruit of England’s and McCormick’s persistence and resourcefulness in pursuing the story through sources in Texas, Michigan, California, Hawaii, New Zealand and Australia.
England began looking into the Branch Davidian cult in April 1992 after receiving reports that the group planned a mass suicide during Passover. The suicides never happened, but England discovered some unsettling facts:
- Howell, who had changed his name to David Koresh, had begun claiming he was the Lamb of God, the Messiah.
- He had begun sexually abusing girls as young as 12 years old.
- He had dissolved marriages among the cultists and had begun taking other men’s wives as his own.
McCormick joined the project in May 1992. She and England worked at night and on weekends through the summer and into the fall, piecing together the story from former cult members, legal records and relatives of cult members. Gregory advised them on some of the investigation and directed their writing, which used a magazine-style approach.
She also helped balance the personalities and techniques of the quiet, introspective England and the brassier, outgoing McCormick.
A study in contrasts
“Mark and Darlene are truly the ‘odd couple’ of reporting partnerships, very different in working styles,” Gregory said. “However, they shared an overriding commitment to accuracy and great concern for the people who were vulnerable to Howell. I think their months of nail-it-down reporting and superb writing represented journalism at its best.”
They finished writing the series in early January. Although illegal weapons eventually brought Howell’s downfall, England and McCormick believed the bigger story was the way he abused people in his cult.
A non-traditional writing style allowed them to better explain Howell’s hold over his followers and his ability to manipulate them in even the most intimate of ways, the reporters believed.
“To me, this wasn’t a story about guns,” England said. “It was about people. Decent people who had their lives torn apart by a charming — but ultimately selfish — man, Vernon Howell.”
‘Something has to be done’
“Many people write off the adults in the cult as nuts. I don’t agree, but I do think they were responsible for their decisions — although it was wrenching to learn how Howell used their beliefs to steal their wives. When young girls are programmed to become wives for a cult leader, though, something has to be done.
“A lot of people who knew what was going on turned away. None of us could, not after we got to know the people involved.”
After several weeks of intense work, editors decided to print the story with minor changes to its original form.
“After eight months of work, I think the series was about as good as we could make it,” McCormick said. “I wish we could have gotten into Vernon Howell’s head more than we did. But he was very evasive, crafty and sly during the interviews. He denied allegations of multiple wives and physical and sexual child abuse, so we had to look elsewhere for the truth of his character. I think we found it.”
The serried was edited and ready to print in January, but the Tribune-Herald delayed publication because of security reasons.
In late February, executives chose Feb. 27 as the publication date.
The next day, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms raided the Branch Davidian enclave at Mount Carmel, and the cultists joined them in a gunfight that left at least five cultists and four ATF agents dead.
Suddenly, the Branch Davidians were the international news story of the hour, and “The Sinful Messiah” became required reading for the horde of reporters and television crews pouring in to cover the resulting siege.
“There’s no question, the series helped all the reporters who came in from out of town get a quick understanding of what was going on and the background,” said Michael Holmes, an Associated Press reporter from Austin who arrived in Waco on Feb. 28 to cover the siege.
“The background was invaluable. Anyone who dropped in there on a Sunday afternoon had no way of knowing all that had gone on and how big the problems had been through the years. The series opened our eyes to that very quickly. Everything you needed to know about Mount Carmel was in that series.”
England has worked at the Tribune-Herald since July 1986. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a history degree and later studied journalism at the University of Texas at Arlington near his hometown of Dallas.
McCormick came to the Tribune-Herald in December 1989. She grew up in Kingsport, Tenn., and graduated from the University of Houston.
There are nine other finalists in the under-50,000 category competing with the Tribune-Herald entry:
- Albuquerque (N.M.) Tribune, for an extensive package on drunken drivers who are allowed to return to the roads despite numerous convictions.
- The Southeast Missourian of Cape Girardeau, Mo., for an in-depth look at the growing local crack-cocaine problem and its impact on the community.
- Carthage (Mo.) Press, for an investigation into brutality in a local police department that led to the firing of several officers and the resignation of the mayor and two council members.
- Charlottesville (Va.) Daily Progress, for revealing an alarming racial disparity in sentencing local criminal defendants; the project examined two years of cases.
- The Leader-Telegram of Eau Claire, Wis., for a project exposing blatant racial discrimination in housing rentals.
- Muskegon (Mich.) Chronicle, for a series showing how the founder of a local chemical plant made millions while knowingly exposing his workers to a cancer-causing chemical.
- The Day of New London, Conn., for a five-month project examining how other states and countries with a military-industrial economic base like southeastern Connecticut’s are adapting to economic changes brought by the end of the Cold War.
- The Olympian of Olympia, Wash., for exposing extensive illegal spending of state tax money on legislative leaders’ campaigns.
- The Tribune Chronicle of Warren, Ohio, for an in-depth look at racism in the community, including stories about an independent study of the paper’s content for racism and on the paper’s hiring practices.