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Koresh, Bright and Dark: The Bizarre Charmer

March 02, 1993|CATHLEEN DECKER and MIKE WARD | 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.

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.' "

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."

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.

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.

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