Twelve of the 17 children who died at Mount Carmel were fathered by Vernon Howell, said two former Branch Davidians who had sons by the cult leader.
Dana Okimoto, who left the cult in 1992, said she knew that Howell, also known as David Koresh, would keep his children by him if he stayed inside Mount Carmel. They died with him April 19 when the compound burned to the ground. None of the 21 children released during the 51-day siege of Mount Carmel were fathered by Howell.
“I didn’t think he would ever let any of his children go,” said Okimoto, who only recently acknowledged that she had two sons by Howell. “I just couldn’t see him giving them up to the world. He knew they would probably be placed in foster care. The chances of them being given back to their mothers was small. He was afraid they would be polluted by the world’s ideas.”
According to former cult members, Howell’s children at Mount Carmel ranged in age from 1 to 4. Six cult members other than his legal wife bore the children.
One of the women was Judy Schneider, the wife of Howell’s top lieutenant, Steve Schneider, according to former cult members.
Schneider, 41, and her child, Mayanah, 2, died in the Mount Carmel fire.
Two girls bore children for Howell while underage. One was Michele Jones, Howell’s sister-in-law, who had three children. Serenity Sea was born in 1989, when Michele was 14. She had twin daughters in 1991.
The other girl, Aisha Gyarfas, had a daughter, Startle, when she was 16. FBI officials said Gyarfas confirmed that Howell was the girl’s father in a phone conversation with negotiators during the siege. Gyarfas was pregnant with her second child when she died in the compound fire.
Four children fathered by Howell who were not at Mount Carmel will be listed as his legal heirs, according to attorney Kathryn Gilliam, appointed to represent the interests of any children surviving the cult leader.
Okimoto took her two children — Sky Borne, now 4, and Scooter, 2 — when she fled the cult. Bonnie Haldeman, Howell’s mother, confirms that the boys are her grandchildren, according to attorney Percy Isgitt of Houston. Two other of Howell’s children are also alive: Shaun Bunds, 4, and an approximately 12-year-old girl who lives in a Dallas suburb with her mother.
But Isgitt said Haldeman doesn’t agree that she had 12 grandchildren die in the April 19 fire. She said Howell only had three children die that day, Isgitt said. They were Cyrus, 8, Star, 5, and Bobbie Lane, 2, his children by Rachel Howell, his legal wife.
“I would think a lady would know who her grandchildren are,” Isgitt said.
But Robyn Bunds, a former cult member and the mother of Shaun, said Haldeman confirmed to her in several phone calls the identities of the women having Howell’s children.
“Bonnie told me who had who,” Bunds said. “That was before all of this stuff. He had kicked her out for awhile, and she was calling me to be consoled, I guess.”
Bunds said her mother, Jeannine, delivered some of Howell’s children, including all three children born to Michele Jones.
Michele Jones’ mother, Mary Jones, a cult member who was not inside the compound during the siege, said in April that Michele’s children were fathered by Howell.
The cult leader’s children were accorded a special status by Branch Davidians, Okimoto said. After all, he taught that they were destined to rule the earth with him. The hours of Bible study devoted to the children’s future accomplishments left Okimoto shocked when she first faced disciplining her son, Sky.
“There was a lot of irony in it,” Okimoto said. “Here we were supposedly having these perfect children, and they acted like every other child. When you have a screaming 2-year-old, it doesn’t matter who he is. Reality eventually sets in. You tell him to shut up. Our kids were just kids.”
Bunds, who left the cult in 1990, noted during the siege of the compound 10 miles east of Waco that none of the children released were fathered by Howell.
“It would have been a good sign if he sent out one of his children,” Bunds said. “It would have meant something. These were God’s children. Vernon would quote Scripture saying that, saying that he had godly seed, that he would plant it in these women, who would have God’s children, righteous children born in the name of God.”
Bunds said Howell predicted his children would be killed by the Assyrians. But he also said some of them would live, walking around and talking to the soldiers that killed their father.
“He used to quote from the Apocrypha, which talk of children speaking,” Bunds said. “He said they would say things, like, ‘Why did you kill my daddy?’ Well, Shaun did that, while he was watching TV. He also turned around to me and said, ‘Mommy, if I was there I would beat them up.’ I’m not saying I believe, mind you. Too many things Vernon predicted didn’t come true. But it was kinda like Twilight Zone time.”
The Apocrypha include early Christian writings, which Protestants reject and do not include in their New Testament.
Howell could be generous at times to all the Branch Davidian children. Okimoto recalled a time when Howell bought red wagons for all the cult’s children, thinking the toys they had were “just awful.”
Howell did not favor his children over other children, she said, except for Cyrus, his first-born son, who was treated like the heir apparent.
“For one thing, he was his spitting image,” Okimoto said. “He represented many things to him — a time when his life was simpler, for one thing. Cyrus definitely thought he was special. At 8, he had a pierced ear and a leather jacket, just like his dad. He was spoiled in his own way. He got to go places other children didn’t, like the bars that David went to.”
But the heir apparent sometimes suffered his father’s wrath in his earliest years.
Former cult members recalled several instances of Howell severely punishing Cyrus. For example, Howell once denied the boy food for two days and banished his son, at the age of 3, to a garage in Pomona, Calif., for refusing to call Nicole Gent “mommy.” Before having Cyrus taken to the garage to spend the night on a hard bench, Howell told the boy that large rats prowled the garage and ate naughty boys, according to former cult member James Tom.
“Cyrus was the original guinea pig,” Okimoto said. “He was the first to be disciplined at eight months. It didn’t start out with us beating their butts, but by the time they were two and saying “no” to everything, it was pretty much spankings every day.”
Both Okimoto and Bunds expressed anger at the government’s dealings with the Branch Davidians.
Bunds is particularly caustic. She said she told officials for both the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the FBI how Howell felt about his children and his special bond with them.
It disturbs her that tear gas was shot into Mount Carmel on the assumption that mothers would flee the compound with these children. Instead they stayed inside, clutching the children, and died.
The government, Bunds said, blundered into fulfilling many of Howell’s prophecies.
“They gave him what he wanted,” she said. “The children should have been their priority. They told me that they were. But their actions spoke louder than words. I told them to be careful. They didn’t listen.”