From nobody to famed cult leader in 24 hours

Twelve years ago today — Feb. 28, 1993 — the phone rang in my Dallas apartment.

The caller was a colleague at the Associated Press office in Dallas, telling me I needed to get to Waco as soon as possible. I looked at the clock. It was shortly before noon on a Sunday morning.

“You know the guy you talked to yesterday, David Koresh? More than a hundred law officers tried to arrest him today. A gun battle erupted, and four agents are dead!”

A couple of hours later, I was at a juncture of two farm roads 10 miles east of Waco, about a mile from the home of the Branch Davidians, thinking everything would be wrapped up and done by the end of the day.

After all, a farm house full of religious folk wouldn’t be any match for two truckloads of heavily armed federal agents with warrants to search the compound for guns and explosives and to arrest their leader, Koresh.

I couldn’t see the residence from where authorities had set up a barricade, prohibiting the media from going any farther. A “media city” began to form in the middle of the “Y” of the two farm roads. I was the first AP reporter to arrive, but TV crews were beginning to pull up from Austin, Fort Worth, Dallas, Houston and, of course, Waco.

I was wrong, thinking everything would be over by nightfall. Koresh and his followers — who called themselves Branch Davidians — also were heavily armed.

A standoff at their conclave was to go on for 50 days before the farm house would go up in flames, killing Koresh and almost 90 others as agents moved in with a tank to end the episode. The FBI, which was monitoring conversations inside the house with surveillance equipment, said the Branch Davidians set the fire as agents moved in.

I had talked to Koresh for an hour early in the afternoon of Feb. 27. He had called the AP office after reading an AP story that we had written about him and his group. The story said we had been unable to reach him for comment.

I had picked up the phone, and the voice on the other end said, “This is David Koresh. I understand you’re trying to reach me.”

For the next hour, I talked to Koresh, although it was not easy to get in a question. He was quoting scriptures, almost nonstop and mostly from the book of Revelations.

He told me he had been sent of God to open the seven seals spoken of in the Bible and to reveal the mysteries thereof.

I asked him if it was true that he claimed to be Christ.

Koresh answered: “I claim my father sits on the throne. Doesn’t yours? Isn’t your father God? I claim my father gave me a book. The reason God gave me the book is He wants me to show it to you.”

When the Waco Tribune-Herald had asked him the same question, Koresh had said: “If the Bible is true, then I’m Christ. But so what? Look at 2,000 years ago. What’s so great about being Christ? A man nailed to the cross. A man of sorrow acquainted with grief. You know, being Christ ain’t nothing.”

Koresh grew up in the suburbs of Dallas, where he attended special schools.

“I was told I’d never make anything of myself,” he said. He dropped out of school in the ninth grade.

He said his mother associated with the Seventh-day Adventists, but he said he didn’t share their belief.

“They treat you nice, take you to church and feed you vegetarian baloney,” he said.

Cyril Miller, a regional leader of the Seventh-day Adventists, said in Fort Worth: “He was a kook. A genuine religious fanatic that was almost totally irrational.”

A former member of Koresh’s group testified at a child custody hearing the previous year that Koresh fashioned a harem from the women in the cult and turned the men into virtual eunuchs sworn to guard the secret. Koresh was also said to be sleeping with many of the young girls among his flock.

Koresh denied that when I asked about it. He told me he and his wife, whom he had married nine years earlier when he was 24 and she was 14, had two children. In later interviews with other media in the first days of the standoff, he admitted it, however.

I also asked Koresh if it was true he and his followers were building up a storehouse of automatic weapons to use against perceived enemies of his group.

He didn’t answer directly, saying only, ”Wouldn’t that be silly to think I could do that?” He said he bought guns for speculation purposes, to help finance the needs of the Branch Davidians. He said he had bought an automatic weapon used during a mass murder at a McDonald’s in California, and it had doubled in value since he bought it.

When I talked to David Koresh, he was a virtual nobody, except for the community in which he lived. Twenty-four hours later, the whole world knew of him. He would be a household word around the world for a long time to come.