Peter and Nicole Gent died years ago.

Their lifeless bodies in the ruins of Mount Carmel represent only the last step in their deaths. Because once cult leader Vernon Howell captured their minds, they might as well have been gone forever, family members say.

It is something their father Bruce Gent, and stepmother, Lisa, will always agonize over.

They didn’t know it at the time, but the elder Gents’ association with Howell would lead their twins, who died at age 24, into something Bruce and Lisa couldn’t get them out of.

The hurt comes in realizing that no matter how hard or how long the family tried, they couldn’t lead the children out of the cult that eventually killed them.

“If I could turn the clock back. . .” Lisa said in a phone interview last week from Australia, her voice weak and low.

For the Gents, the pain has never gone away — only grown greater with the passing years and the mounting tragedies.

“I guess we will always agonize over that,” Lisa said. “I can’t understand why the authorities didn’t do anything.”

The Gents and other Australians formerly loyal to Vernon Howell hired a private detective in 1990 to come to America and deliver affidavits to authorities in Waco and California outlining allegations of child abuse and a weapons buildup in the cult. They hoped someone would stop Howell.

No one did.

The twins drew their first breath of life together, but they were never close, Lisa said.

They were different, like two sides of a coin. Nicole was bubbly and popular. Peter, though was harsh and aggressive because of a drug problem.

Their lives always touched, but never intertwined.

Perhaps, then, it was only a continuance of fate that Peter died during the initial Feb. 28 firefight with authorities, while Nicole — with her two children fathered by Howell — died 51 days later in a massive blaze at Mount Carmel.

Nicole and Peter’s indoctrination into the cult had been swift and sure.

Back in 1988, Howell seduced Nicole in about three days. He snared Peter in three weeks.

Lisa said Howell pursued them day and night until they succumbed to his brand of apocalyptic religion.

But at the time, it was OK because Howell had mesmerized Lisa and Bruce, too. The elder Gents had become followers of Howell in the mid-1980s when he came to Australia looking for recruits and discovered them through an old Branch Davidian mailing list.

It was during a later visit to Australia, in 1988, that Howell broadened his influence on the Gent family. Nicole was in her second year of college at the time, studying to be a teacher. She came home during a school break only to be confronted with non-stop Bible lectures from Howell, who was visiting Bruce and Lisa.

Like a bloodhound

Howell went after Nicole like a bloodhound, never letting up until he had her pinned, Lisa said. It was a complete turnaround for Nicole, who had not been interested in Howell before, making fun of the way he would strut, Bruce said.

Nicole decided to move from Australia to Mount Carmel outside Waco to study with Howell.

One night before she left, Nicole, who was 19 at the time, went into the Gents’ bedroom.

“Vernon wants me to be his teddy bear for the night,” she told them. “Will you give your permission?”

The Gents gave her their blessing, believing Nicole had been chosen for a holy purpose — to help build the House of David by having children by Howell.

“He said that God has said that he was having Nicole,” Lisa said.

Under Howell’s spell

Peter had been experiencing problems. He had been in a gang fight and came to stay with the Gents, not knowing Howell would be there, Lisa said.

Like Nicole, he had no previous interest in Howell but fell under his spell.

“Peter pretty well got impressed right away,” Lisa said.

“Peter was pretty vulnerable at that time anyway.”

The change in Peter seemed almost miraculous. He quit smoking, drinking and doing drugs, Lisa said.

“He went cold turkey,” she recalled. “You wouldn’t believe.”

Peter, too, went to study with Howell.

Howell sent him back to “watch” the Gents in 1989. He lived with Bruce and Lisa in a reversed parent-child relationship.

“He was in charge of us for probably about a couple months,” Lisa said. “He was our commander. He was our foreman.”

‘Like Nazi youth’

Peter told his father and stepmother “how we should live, what we should eat.” He stopped them from listening to the radio or watching TV. When his parents disobeyed, he would call Howell.

“If people came over, he would sit and listen to the conversations,” Bruce said. “It was a little like Nazi youth. He would ring Vernon up and inform on us.”

Despite the unpleasant situation, the Gents were pleased in the beginning that their children had found Howell.

“We thought it was the right thing,” Lisa said. “We were actually happy. You wouldn’t believe it, would you, but we were.”

At the time, Lisa and Bruce thought the end of the world was near and Howell’s message was the only salvation. So they welcomed their children’s participation, thinking Nicole and Peter, too, would be saved.

Now, though, the family is trying to look back on what good they remember about the twins before they became lost to the cult.

“You know when a person dies, you try to think about the nice things you shared with them,” Lisa said,

Peter’s childhood was a struggle, she said, adding he was torn between his father and mother at an early age after Bruce and the twins’ mother divorced.

And later he turned “wild” with drugs and alcohol.

“All his life, really, he was in the wrong time at the wrong place,” Lisa said.

His struggle continued in school.

“But he was very good with his hands,” she said. “He was so good at athletics. He was a very good runner. He was good at long-jump.”

“And he was a very hard worker. He was very much like Bruce in that respect,” she said. “He was cleaning out everyone’s sewers in Mount Carmel.”

“I did love him, and I think somewhere deep down he did care for me, too,” Lisa said. “I knew him when he was so little, and he couldn’t help it.”

Lisa and Bruce last talked to Peter in March 1990.

Lisa’s daughter, Michelle Tom, who also was once in the cult, said Peter “always had a good heart.”

But he was always a person “who went with the flow,” she said.

Tom said Nicole was like an actual sister to her.

“I think we were very close,” she said, adding she shared a room with her stepsister when they were about 11.

“Michelle and Nicole were always playing together,” Lisa said. “They were always playing dolls together. They basically did everything together.”

High school buddies

And later, they went to the same high school.

Nicole was popular and pretty, with the student body electing her to serve on the student council and as a sports captain, Tom said. Nicole enjoyed games such as tennis, she recalled.

But Nicole was never a scholar, Lisa said, adding she always “just made it.”

“She really had to work for it,” Lisa said. “But she was very intelligent.”

Between high school and college she worked at an upscale shoe store, Lisa said.

“She had more shoes than anyone could describe,” she said. “I remember these boots made out of jean material.”

Tom said she remembers Nicole obsessively disliked having red hair. In high school, she dyed it dark brown to match Tom’s coloring. They tried to pass for real sisters and often fooled people, Tom said.

Final farewell

But when Tom quit the cult, Nicole quit Tom.

“When she found out we’d broken out from the group, she never talked to me again,” Tom said.

That was in October 1989.

Bruce and Lisa were only 10 miles away from Nicole two months ago — they came from Australia to Waco in the early days of the 51-day standoff at Mount Carmel. By then, Peter was already dead, killed in the Feb. 28 raid and buried by cult members on the grounds. The Gents had no way to contact Nicole inside the compound and they returned to Australia within days.

As the siege continued, however, they held out hope that Nicole and her children might come out alive. Lisa Gent said she began collecting children’s clothes, anticipating she and Bruce might care for Nicole’s children while their mother negotiated legal troubles after the siege ended.

But that never came to pass Nicole, her son Dayland and daughter Paige, both fathered by Howell, died April 19 in the fire at Mount Carmel.

The Gents’ last conversation with Nicole was September 1991. The call came at 2:30 a.m.

Nicole told Bruce that she wanted to be left alone. She told him they had nothing in common since he had rejected Howell’s doomsday doctrines and Howell’s claims that he was Christ.

She hung up.

For the Gents, her silence will be eternal.

Tribune-Herald staff writer Mark England contributed to this story.

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.