Turmoil and eccentric religious beliefs were the bricks that built the Branch Davidians.
The roots of the religious sect date back to 1934, when Victor Houteff, a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, formed his own group in Los Angeles and later moved to Waco.
The late Houteff intended the location near Waco to be the worldwide headquarters for the General Association of Davidian Seventh-day Adventists, says Baylor University religion professor Bill Pitts, who has written several papers on the Branch Davidians.
In 1935, the group established the original Mount Carmel Center near the present Mount Carmel Water Treatment Plant. It sat on 189 acres of land, with its location being based on scripture interpretation, according to Pitts' research.
The road that led Houteff to Waco was a long and troubled one.
Houteff, born in 1886 in Bulgaria, grew up as a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church. He disassociated himself from the church after a disagreement with church leaders, according to Pitts' research.
He emigrated to the United States, eventually settling in Rockford, Ill., where he operated a small hotel.
His association with the Seventh-day Adventists began under a tent.
In 1918 he attended a tent meeting and joined the religious group. He later moved to Los Angeles, where he became the assistant superintendent of a Seventh-day Adventist Church Sabbath school with about 200 students, Pitts wrote.
Different view of Revelation
Houteff's theological views — especially his interpretations of the book of Revelation — did not fit the views of the Seventh-day Adventists, Pitts said.
Once again Houteff found himself at odds with as religious groups. Conflict broke out between Houteff and church leaders, and he was charged with disrupting the Sabbath school.
Several who followed him saw him as an "inspired prophet," Pitts wrote.
Despite the conflict with the Seventh-day Adventist church, Houteff continued to embrace some of its teachings, such as keeping the Sabbath on Saturday and believing in the imminent return of Christ, according to Pitts' history.
In Waco, Houteff's following as well as his holdings grew. In 1940 the group had 64 residents and increased its holdings from 189 to 377 acres.
In 1942, Houteff changed the group's name to Davidian Seventh-day Adventists. Houteff's belief that the restoration of David's kingdom in Palestine was imminent prompted the change, according to Pitts' research.
Houteff expected the Second Coming of Christ, believing life at Mount Carmel would last less than one year. But the years passed, and the community continued to grow despite the group's limited association with the outside world.
Commune had its problems
Marrying a non-believer was strictly forbidden. Many spouses had divorced those who came to live in the commune, according to Pitts' research.
The commune had its share of problems.
The schoolmaster seduced many of the girls in the school, causing it to close, Pitts wrote. Thereafter, children went to public schools.
Then in 1955 Houteff died, though many members didn't think he would. Some thought he would be the king of the new kingdom or at least Elijah announcing the kingdom. His death resulted in a major crisis within the group.
His wife, Florence, assumed power. That same year, she came out with her own religious predictions which would later fracture the group.
In 1955, Florence Houteff sent out a message that April 22, 1959, the Jewish Passover, would be the establishment of the kingdom. Hundreds of followers joined the group, disposing of their property and businesses.
With the expanding city of Waco encroaching on the Branch's property, the land was sold off in lots to individuals and groups in the mid-'50s and the Branch bought the present property, near Elk about 10 miles east of Waco.
Waiting for a sign
Meanwhile, the group waited for a sign. Leaders hinted that it might be the resurrection of Houteff, their Elijah, who was to return just before the Lord, Pitts wrote.
Members fasted and prayed. And believed.
The deadline came and passed.
Total membership in the Branch Davidians was about 1,400 members during Florence Houteff's leadership.
But by May 5, 1959, only 450 of the 900 or so devotees who showed up at Mount Carmel remained, the Waco News-Tribune reported. Three weeks later, a month after the April 22 deadline, most of the people had left.
The Davidians splintered, the largest group going with a rival prophet, Ben Roden.
Roden's group was known as the Branch Davidians, according to the News-Tribune.
When Roden died in 1978, his wife, Lois, took over leadership. She led the Davidians until another split in 1984.
That year, the Davidians were torn between Lois Roden's son, George, and an up-and-coming leader, Vernon Howell, who later took most of the members with him.
Howell, who later changed his name to David Koresh, married 14-year-old Rachel Jones in 1984. He was 24. She was the daughter of Perry Jones, a high-ranking Branch Davidian member.
Houteff did much the same in his day. At 51, he married Florence Hermanson when she was 17. She was the daughter of the group's treasurer.
Moving into a new era
After 1984, the Branch Davidians, which Seventh-day Adventists emphasize are not a part of their church, found themselves moving into a new era. They became involved in a number of events, with some drawing media attention.
- In 1985, a rivalry between Howell and George Roden for leadership of the group culminated in Howell's group being forced off the property near Elk at gunpoint.
- Lois Roden died in 1986.
- In 1987, Howell and seven men engaged in a gun battle at the property, now called Mount Carmel, with George Roden.
- Howell and the others involved in the shootout were charged with attempted murder in November of 1987.
- A jury in 1988 found the seven men with Howell innocent.
- A mistrial was declared in the case of Howell. Charges against him were later dismissed.
- In 1989, George Roden was charged with the murder of a 56-year-old Odessa man.
- In December of 1990, Roden was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sent to Vernon State Hospital.
Things quieted down until April of 1992.
At that time, rumors of a possible mass suicide at Mount Carmel began to circulate, apparently starting in Australia, a country Howell visited to gather new followers.
Relatives of cult members said Howell had interpreted the book of Revelation in the Bible to say a certain number of people must become martyrs before the Second Coming of Christ.
Howell, now going by the name of David Koresh, called the rumors "all lies."