But Koresh had been controversial from early on. When he arrived at Mount Carmel, in 1981, he was known by his birth name, Vernon Wayne Howell. He was a stuttering wannabe rock star in his early-twenties who quickly seduced the sect’s aging leader, Lois Roden. After Roden’s death, in 1986, Koresh left the property following an internal power struggle, but he returned for good in 1987 after leading an armed attack on his rival. In 1989, fully in charge, he fractured the group by preaching a new doctrine that obligated everyone to be celibate—except for Koresh and the married and unmarried women he chose to sleep with. His goal was to father 24 children, who he believed would sit on 24 heavenly thrones, as described in the Bible. The Davidians who remained with Koresh thought that he was the Lamb of God, the individual foretold in the Book of Revelation who will unlock the meaning of the Seven Seals and bring about the End Times. To the group members who left, he was a false prophet, and they began alleging to authorities that the Branch Davidians, under his control, were guilty of child abuse, tax evasion, and involuntary servitude and that Koresh himself was committing statutory rape (some of his “spiritual wives” were as young as twelve). These charges yielded few results, but in 1992, after a UPS driver discovered inert grenade casings inside a damaged package bound for the Branch Davidians, the ATF opened an investigation into possible federal weapons violations.
Even working at cross-purposes with their fellow agents, the negotiators managed to secure the release of 35 individuals, including 21 children. But the situation wasn’t sustainable. One day in late March, the FBI managed to get 7 Branch Davidians to leave the compound—and then a few hours later the HRT used tanks to bulldoze the group’s vehicles. That night, Koresh declared to Schneider, “No one is coming out. Nobody.”
Almost as soon as the first Ferret rounds came crashing through the windows, FBI bugging devices, which were analyzed after the siege, picked up Branch Davidians making apparent references to pouring fuel. (“Did he pour it yet?” one unidentified male said, at 6:09 a.m. “In the hallway . . . yes,” another confirmed. “David said pour it, right?”)
At this point, agents could see into the building through the gaping holes. It seemed as if the siege was coming to an end. At noon Craddock heard a Davidian shout, “Start the fire!” A minute later, Sage, unaware of what was transpiring inside, announced over the PA, “David, we are facilitating you leaving the compound by enlarging the door. David, you have had your fifteen minutes of fame. Vernon is no longer the Messiah. Leave the building now.”
Branch Davidian Clive Doyle has recounted that just before he exited, he asked another survivor, David Thibodeau, “Do you think if we jump out they’ll shoot us?” Both men took that risk. Only seven others joined them.