Ursula Gehrmann cried as she held her little sister in her arms Monday,

Gehrmann, who is 25 and lives in Hawaii, came to Waco to try to get custody — at least temporarily — of her 7-year-old half-sister, who was released from the Branch Davidian cult March 1.

A custody hearing on 21 children released from the Mount Carmel-based cult will be held today in State District Judge Bill Logue’s court. About 17 more children are believed to be in the compound, which remains under siege by authorities.

Gehrmann, an easy-going woman with a quick smile, said it is the first time she has seen her sister since she was a baby, though they have talked and written to each other. She asked that the Tribune-Herald not use her sister’s name.

She blames that on cult leader Vernon Howell, also known as David Koresh, who has held reign over her mother and step-father, Margarida and Neil Vaega, and her sister for the past six years.

“You know what?” she said after the hour-long visit with her sister. “She’s the most beautiful little girl I’ve ever seen.”

“I was, like, really nervous, and I think my heart was going 272,” she said while describing the meeting. “You could see the sweat drop off my hands.

“I saw her and picked her up in my arms, and I just held on to her,” Gehrmann said.

“She seemed fine — kind of withdrawn,” she added.

The sisters played with toys Gehrmann bought for her, Gehrmann said.

Gehrmann said she is putting all her efforts into helping her sister.

An account already has been set up in Hawaii for her sister, she said. So far, people have contributed $831.

Gehrmann said her sister seemed happy at the news that they would go shopping to buy her “anything that you want.”

“I really feel close to her,” Gehrmann said. “I really do.”

Gehrmann, who isn’t married but has a fiancé, said she can support her little sister, and she has considered the idea carefully.

“I’ve really put a lot of thought into it,” she said.

Gehrmann said the child’s niece, Nese Vaega, of New Zealand, also wants custody of the child. She said the two were not at odds and would work out an agreement if necessary.

In a telephone interview from New Zealand, Nese Vaega said she, too, has kept in touch with the little girl.

“I definitely, 1,000 percent, want her,” Vaega said. “We get along pretty good. I write to her. I’ve been around her since she was 3.”

Vaega said she wants what’s best for the girl — whether that means living with her or Gehrmann.

Vaega said she is married and has no children of her own.

Gehrmann said she misses and loves her mother, Margarida, who got involved in the group because she was searching for meaning to the Bible.

Gehrmann said she met Howell — that he even held Bible studies at her home when she was a teenager.

“At first they were saying he was a prophet,” she said. “I listened because my mom really believed, and she didn’t want me to burn in hell.

“The thing is he knows the Bible, but I remember reading in the Bible that the Devil knows the Bible backward and forward.

“She just dropped everything, sold everything and gave it to everybody” in the group, Gehrmann said, adding she and her father estimate it was about $30,000.

“And she sold the car she gave me for graduation,” she added.

Gehrmann said she confronted Margarida at one point about Howell’s tactics.

“Is he going to drive around in a Mercedes while you guys suffer?” she asked her mom.

Gehrmann rejected what Howell had to say, driving a wedge between her and her mother for a while. In the end, though, the two came to an understanding that they would not talk about religion, but continued to have a relationship.

Margarida was caught up in the idea that salvation lay with Howell, Gehrmann said.

Her mother would say to her: “What’s a little bit of suffering now when I can be in heaven for eternity?”

But Gehrmann said her mother wanted to leave the cult as recently as eight months ago. Gehrmann said she slowly began to figure out things weren’t quite normal at the compound and that her mother was one of Howell’s “wives.”

Once when she was talking to her little sister, she found out Neil had hurt his back. Gehrmann said she told her sister to rub Neil’s back before he went to sleep that night.

“And she said, ‘I can’t. He’s on the boy’s side.’“

Gehrmann said Margarida “got sucked in” by Howell to such an extent that Margarida left her mother’s death bed.

Gehrmann said Margarida was with the mother until she called Howell, and he told her to come back to the compound.

“My grandmother died the next day, and she wasn’t there, and she wasn’t at the funeral,” Gehrmann said.

Gehrmann said she is concentrating all her efforts on helping her sister now because she fears her mother may be beyond help.

“I’m glad thinking that it’s over,” she said. “But I really think it’s over, over. I never really think I’ll see my mom again.”

Read the Tribune-Herald's 7-part investigative series on the inner workings of the Branch Davidians. Hours after Part 2 appeared in print, the ATF raided the group's compound.

Read the Tribune-Herald’s account of the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound on Feb. 28, 1993. Four ATF agents and six in the compound were killed in the gunfight.

Read the daily news accounts of the 51-day siege at the Branch Davidian compound near Elk, which began Feb. 28 and lasted until April.

April 19 and beyond: FBI agents began inserting canisters of tear gas into the Branch Davidian compound in the early morning hours. By noon, it was on fire.

Federal officials left the compound site in late May 1993. As identifications of bodies continued, questions about the survivors, the compound and the cult itself began to emerge.

As the world began to take a critical look back at the events and legal proceedings continue, the ATF's bombshell report forces a shakeup at the top after the raid gone "tragically wrong."

In 1994, the surviving Davidians went on trial in San Antonio. Over six weeks, more than 140 witnesses testified, with the verdict coming just two days prior to the anniversary of the ATF raid.

The Rodenville shootout and the 1988 trial, the end of the world in 1959 and more stories from deep in the Trib archives.