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Koresh, Bright and Dark: The Bizarre Charmer

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The strange tale of David Koresh reverberated throughout Southern California Monday as people who escaped his grasp remembered the charismatic yet clearly bizarre nature of the man whose followers held off federal agents near Waco, Tex., for a second straight day.

Koresh spent much time in the last seven years in California, enticing young Hollywood musicians to “play for the Lord,” exercising his strict religious beliefs in San Bernardino and encamping with 18 wives in a two-story house in La Verne.

He apparently traveled here regularly, financing his meanderings and various trips to Australia and elsewhere with money given to him by followers who had liquidated property and businesses to fund Koresh’s ventures.

Along his bizarre trail, which was pieced together by interviews with former followers, acquaintances and law enforcement officials, hints of the shoot-'em-up behavior to come emanated from the man who suggested to his followers that he was Christ.

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As early as 1983, he told people that he would die in a mighty martyrdom that would send a signal to his followers--a signal, some said, to kill his opponents. He burned the symbol of a cross, one said, into his chest. He carried a silver automatic pistol on routine errands.

The Waco confrontation was chillingly foretold more than two years ago when Koresh met up with a Los Angeles man, who, like others associated with the cult leader, requested anonymity amid concerns about retaliation by Koresh supporters.

“The night I met Koresh . . . he asked me, ‘Would you die for Christ?’ I said I guess so,” the young man said.

“He said, ‘Would you kill for him?’ I said no. He turned to my friend and said, ‘Hey, you just brought me another weak Christian.’ ”

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Interviews conducted by The Times Monday suggested that Koresh lived in at least three homes in Southern California over the last several years and that the now-besieged religious leader led a multifaceted life.

In San Bernardino, where Koresh lived for some time in 1986-87, he observed biblical nuances so strictly that he forbade smoking inside the home, cautioned a friend against laughter and observed a Friday night-through-Sunday night observation of the Sabbath.

Yet a few years later in West Los Angeles, the same man was hot rodding to music clubs astride fancy Harley-Davidson motorcycles and in expensive cars, gaining easy access to places like The Whisky a Go-Go, Gazzarri’s and the Roxy with his fellow musicians.

About the same time, however, Koresh was also spending time in La Verne, where his habit of taking multiple, underage “wives” led police to instigate a still-pending investigation of child molestation.

In a press conference Monday outside the La Verne Police Department, one of the women who left Koresh several years ago said that about four cult members still live on White Avenue in La Verne, down from the high of 18 women several years ago.

The woman, Robyn Bunds, had accused Koresh of stealing their son, now 4 years old. The boy was returned to his mother after police intervened.

Like virtually everyone interviewed about Koresh, Bunds described him as “charismatic.”

“Unless you get on his bad side, he’s a very nice person,” she said. She added that Koresh--who until several years ago used his given name of Vernon Howell--was “verbally abusive. Nothing physical.”

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Mary Jane Smith, 73, of Donvale, Australia, said she too spent time in the La Verne house when Koresh was in residence. But she described a man who appeared to be growing more and more irrational as time went on.

When she first met Koresh, in Australia, “he was quite gentle and mild-mannered.”

“But the last time I saw him (in La Verne) he was ranting and roaring and hitting a bed with a boat paddle.” Smith said that the cult leader would use the paddle to spank both adults and children.

“He claimed to be the reincarnation,” she said. “His claims got more and more bizarre.”

According to sketchy accounts of Koresh’s life, he was raised in Tyler, Tex., and until the mid-1980s took part in a sect called the Branch Davidians, headquartered on the 77-acre plot of land near Waco where Sunday’s shootings occurred.

But Koresh had a rocky relationship with the Roden family, which led the sect, and it later escalated into a full-blown battle for control. At one point in the late 1980s, Koresh split from the group and took his followers to Palestine, Tex., where they lived in buses and primitive shacks, according to a former associate.

Later, however, Koresh returned to stake his claim on the Waco property, engaging in a gun battle with then-leader George Roden and ultimately taking over, along with his followers.

Throughout, he maintained a sporadic traveling schedule that repeatedly brought him to California, at least until mid-1991.

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Doug Mitchell, a Santa Ana carpenter who was a member of the Branch Davidians before Koresh’s takeover, said that the cult leader began talking in cataclysmic terms in the early 1980s.

“I remember distinctly in 1983-84 he was always teaching that he was going to be killed and going to be a martyr,” said Mitchell, who strongly disapproves of Koresh. “That’s part of his thing: If he’s martyred . . . that’s the sign (for followers to heed his commands).”

According to La Verne police, among those commands was an order that if Koresh were killed, his enemies were to die as well. Because of that, Bunds and her family are under police protection, officers said.

While Koresh appeared to have insisted upon an ascetic lifestyle for his followers--who were shielded from the outside world in their primitive Texas compound--he seemed to follow no such restrictions himself.

In San Bernardino, Koresh was surrounded by followers from Australia and Hawaii who supported him with their savings and with money earned from baking bread, one acquaintance said. Several people told The Times that Koresh reported having brought a Hawaiian millionaire--and his bank account--into his fold.

While there, Koresh spent time largely with his legal wife, Rachel, whom he married in 1984 when she was 14, and their infant son, Cyrus, the acquaintance said.

Yet several years later, in both La Verne and Los Angeles, Koresh made no secret of his multiple wives, whose presence appeared to be a tenet of his religious beliefs. In addition to the houseful of “wives” in La Verne, Koresh lived with three women in a home off Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, one would-be follower said.

“What they tell you is that after Judgment, every man, just like Adam, is going to have his perfect woman created for him, and all the women are going to be Christ’s wives,” said one Los Angeles man who dealt extensively with Koresh’s followers and met him repeatedly as well.

“And he’s Christ, so what the heck?”

But music appeared to be the governing force for Koresh when he was ensconced in Los Angeles. A talented guitar player by several accounts, Koresh sought out musicians with the call that they come to Texas to “play for the Lord,” according to one acquaintance.

The Los Angeles man, who demanded anonymity amid concerns for his own safety, said Koresh was charmingly appealing to young musicians, since he supplied many necessities--like clothes, money and musical instruments--and never demanded their money.

“This guy does have a very magnetic quality to him,” he said of Koresh. “When you first see him . . . you think, ‘Who’s this guy kidding?’ But when he’s talking, it’s like something comes over you and you get swept up with it.

“A little bit of charm and you get to the point where you believe this, you believe that, and you come so far, it’s just that you believe all of it.”

Even those who fully disagreed with Koresh’s actions found him appealing. “Very personable,” said Doug Mitchell, the Santa Ana carpenter. “He could get you laughing and crying in 30 seconds.”

But there remained a troubling suggestion of violence, which Koresh himself seemed to feed.


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