In 1990, the Australian breakaway group of Branch Davidians succeeded in getting charges against cult leader Vernon Howell across an ocean.

But they failed to get them across to U.S. authorities.

More than two years have gone by, but authorities have done little. Howell still presides over a group of about 75 followers at Mount Carmel, the cult's base 10 miles east of Waco near the Elk community. At that compound, he is the unquestioned leader.

His leadership was questioned last year in a legal setting, however, for the first time — inside a Michigan courtroom.

Three former cult members flew from Australia last February to testify that Howell had sex with underage girls; abused children, whipping babies as young as 8 months old; turned Mount Carmel into an armed camp; and split apart the families of his followers, declaring himself the only perfect mate for the women in the cult.

Cult members allowed Howell's actions because they consider him Christ, testified Marc Breault, who is American; his wife, Elizabeth Baranyai, an Australian; and Jean Smith, also an Australian.

The St. Joseph, Mich., case involved David Jewell's effort to get custody of his then 11-year-old daughter, Kiri Jewell. The girl, along with her mother, Sherri Jewell, was a cult member and lived at Mount Carmel. A joint custody agreement was signed by Sherri Jewell and David Jewell, who never belonged to the Branch Davidians.

But after hearing three days of testimony, Judge Ronald Taylor on Feb. 28, 1992, ordered Kiri Jewell kept away from Howell.

It was the first taste of success for the Australian group, which broke away from the Texas cult in 1989-90 and has since spent thousands of dollars and traveled thousands of miles lobbying authorities to take action against Howell.

The Australians, who still have relatives and friends in the cult, say they are concerned about the mental and physical well-being of members — especially the children.

Their worst fear, they said, is that someone will die in connection with the cult.

"Must we wait also for Vernon's followers to take lives?" asked former cult member James Tom.

In the summer of 1990, they began alerting authorities in the United State to what they believed was the danger presented by Howell's leadership of the cult.

Group hires detective

Pooling their money, the former cult members hired Australian private detective Geoffrey N. Hossack for $6,000. His mission was to warm local, state and federal authorities in this country about Howell's activities in Texas and also California, where the Branch Davidians have satellite operations.

Hossack met with federal, state and local law enforcement officials in Waco on Sept. 18, 1990. He brought along nine signed affidavits notarized by a U.S. consul in Australia for authorities to read. The affidavits laid out the charges later made public in the Michigan courtroom.

Officials at the meeting, held in Waco's Federal Building, were Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Johnston; then-McLennan County District Attorney Paul Gartner; his top aide, Ralph Strother; Sgt. Terry Lee, an investigator with the Texas Department of Public Safety; and Lt. Gene Barber of the McLennan County Sheriff's Department.

Their lack of response made Hossack's journey to America a frustrating one.

"To my knowledge, nothing further was done about it," he said.

Gartner said authorities weren't given enough hard evidence.

"The consensus was there was not enough information at that time to pursue a full-scale investigation," he said.

Strother said officials, though, gave Hossack a sympathetic hearing.

"Oh, it got my attention," Strother said. "I could see this sort of thing happening. To tell you the truth, the thing that went through my mind is you've got a cult like Jonestown . . . I do not remember ever coming to a determination this is just a bunch of nonsense, and it's not worth my time.

But law enforcement officials needed evidence instead of allegations, Strother said.

"We did not have anything we could rely on to make an arrest," he said. "As a I recall, none of these people on these affidavits ever came in or would come in to ever actually tell us these things."

Hossack, however, disputes that claim.

"I also indicated that these people were willing to come over to the United States and appear in any court and give any evidence that was necessary," he said. "And they were."

'Sour grapes'

Barber wondered why members of the breakaway group had not gone to authorities before they left America.

"I considered it sour grapes," he said. "It doesn't make any sense to me."

Hossack found the attitude of authorities puzzling.

"In fact, the whole attitude I found there as an investigator was . . . it would be after the fact, that if a killing or shooting or something came to light, that's when they'd do something, which is generally what I guess police departments are all about," Hossack said.

Local authorities are well aware of the Branch Davidians, whose history includes a shootout and the attempted resurrection of a dead woman.

The admit monitoring the cult, but only as a protective measure.

For one thing, authorities know cult members have weapons and plenty of them at the Mount Carmel compound.

'Hell-fire' switches

The Branch Davidians make no secret of having guns. After neighbors complained about weapons being fired, cult members visited the McLennan County Sheriff's Department. They voluntarily told deputies that they had put "hell-fire" switches on their semi-automatic weapons — keeping them legal but deadly. Law enforcement officials said it comes close to making them automatic weapons, which must be registered to be legal.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Johnston said that people can own as many weapons as they want as long as they are legal.

"It's not against the law to have assault-type weapons," he said. "It is against the law to have assault-type weapons without having them properly registered."

A spokesman with the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms in Washington, D.C., said "gangster-type" weapons such as machine guns, silencers and explosives must be registered with the bureau to be legal.

The bureau conducts a background investigation on the person attempting to register such a weapon, and the chief law enforcement officer in the area must approve ownership of the weapon before it can be registered, he said.

Records are not open to the public.

But McLennan County Sheriff Jack Harwell said to his knowledge he has not approved an ATF registration form for Howell.

A former cult member, who said he is too afraid to be identified, said the group has .50-caliber weapons, AK-47s, AR-15s, Israeli assault rifles, 9mm handguns and at least one starlight filter for night patrol. Other sources confirm the group has military-type assault weapons.

Sources say Howell and his followers could be manufacturing "grease guns," a type of machine gun, and that the Davidians are building an underground firing range. Former members who left the cult as long as two years ago report that members practiced firing weapons, including M-16 rifles.

"We were thought of as God's marines," a former cult member said. "If you can't die for God, you can't live for God."

Building a 'fort'

Authorities have watched warily as the small houses that dotted Mount Carmel have been torn down and replaced by a central compound, which one local law enforcement officer calls a "fort."

The compound is a rambling L-shaped building.

Part of the building is higher than the rest of the compound. Law enforcement officials believe part of its purpose is to serve as a lookout tower.

A cult member told relatives that Howell has vowed that authorities won't take the cult's children without a fight.

Welfare workers visit

Welfare workers from Children's Protective Services visited Mount Carmel at least twice last year to talk to the children there, according to a former cult member and authorities.

Howell also confirmed the child welfare workers' visits.

Sources said the children interviewed by the child welfare workers talked about a bus being buried next to the compound to serve as an underground shelter and gave workers some information on the cult's apocalyptic vision of the future.

Director Bob Boyd of Children's Protective Services said he could not discuss the specifics of any case.

Sources said the agency reported finding no evidence of child abuse and took no action.

The agency, however, may have undermined its own investigation.

Prior contact?

Lt. Gene Barber, of the sheriff's department, and a former cult member who fears harm if identified, said child welfare workers called Mount Carmel to announce their visits.

Boyd denied the accusation.

"The policy is we try to contact the child before seeing anybody," Boyd said. "But we do not call a family and let them know we have received a report and that we are coming out."

Howell also denies that he was tipped off to the visit.

Barber, however, said child welfare workers told deputies accompanying them to Mount Carmel that they called the Branch Davidians before both visits.

The former cult member said that after the call from child welfare workers, Howell hid some of the children at Mount Carmel as well as some of the underage girls that the Australians said he had sex with.

David Jewell, Kiri's father, said the found workers at Children's Protective Services sympathetic but unresponsive when he called from Michigan last summer to discuss filing a statutory rape charge against Howell.

'Big dog, no teeth'

Jewell said a child welfare worker told him that the agency did not think law enforcement officials would pursue the case. The worker said it would be difficult to find people to corroborate the allegation. Also, Kiri Jewell was no longer exposed to abuse.

"I was frustrated," Jewell said. "I came to the opinion on a personal level that they wanted to help. But within the framework in which the law was interpreted and carried out, they didn't feel a great deal could or would be done. Big dog, no teeth, basically."

Children's Protective Services did ask for the names of girls who might still be in danger of sexual molestation at Mount Carmel, Jewell said. He gave them names after talking to his daughter.

"I was told at that point that it still seemed unlikely they'd be able to do much," Jewell said. "Even if they went in, it would be difficult to make the charges stick. They were of the feeling that the children would end up testifying for him rather than against him."

Boyd defended his agency.

"If a child tells us a story about how they were abused, and it's believable and they're consistent, we don't demand that there's got to be other evidence," he said.

Immediate danger

His agency deals only in civil matters, Boyd said. It can't remove children based on past reports of abuse. Before acting, child welfare must gind evidence that a child's physical health or safety is in immediate danger, he said.

"We haven't shirked any duty or responsibility," he said. "Some of these affidavits and these letters that these people have done are listing things that occurred in 1986, 1987, 1988. Lots of them occurred in locations other than Texas."

Like La Verne, Calif.

The Branch Davidians have a house there at 2707 White Ave. La Verne police visited  the house in the summer of 1990 after former cult member Robyn Bunds filed a charge of kidnapping against Howell. He had sent her son, Shaun, who was less than 2 years old and whom Bunds says was fathered by Howell, to Mount Carmel.

La Verne police gave Howell 48 hours to return Shaun Bunds, which he did, but they didn't question Howell about Robyn Bunds' charge that he regularly had sex with a 14-year-old Australian girl at the house.

Chief Ron Ingels said the safe return of Shaun Bunds was the police department's priority. After the boy was returned safely, police went back to the La Verne house and asked to speak to the girl, Ingels said.

Both she and Howell had flown to Mount Carmel.

"If they had detained her that first night, this would all be over," Robyn Bunds said.

Hossack, the Australian private detective, said his clients are still ready to cooperate with any investigation of the cult by authorities.

"I still do believe it's got some very, very dangerous overtones," he said.

Despite Hossack's concern and former cult members' nightmarish allegations, Howell continues at Mount Carmel doing what he considers the work of the Lord.

His followed continue to consider him the Lord.

Ex-followers continue to worry.

And authorities continue to watch.

Sinful Messiah — Read the next part:

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.

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