Children Of The Cult

Freed by fortune from the grip of a false Messiah, they know that their sisters and brothers, their mothers and fathers, died in the flames of Waco. Now comes the hard part: trying to build lives out of the ashes of Ranch Apocalypse.

Late on the last Sunday in February, the first young refugees from the Branch Davidian cult arrived at the Methodist Home for children in Waco, Texas. The staff and extra volunteers were on call, beds were freshly made, snacks at hand if the youngsters needed a comforting cookie or two. But someone had left the television on, and as the first little girl walked into the living room, the image on the screen turned violent. Jack Daniels, president of the home, reached across and snapped off the set. "Oh," said the little girl surprised at his caution. "We watch TV. We watch war movies." Daniels froze in her innocent stare. "We were trying to protect her," he says, still startled two months later, "and she's talking about war movies."

"Platoon," as it turned out, wasn't the half of it. She and the others had stepped out through the looking glass. Away from a world where apocalyptic visions were fulfilled in a deadly fire fight with federal agents. Away from the Orwellian reign of a charismatic, iron-willed prophet who demanded obedience, faith and the sexual favors of 12-year-old girls. And away from a world that, despite obvious deprivation and harsh discipline was also filled with joy and affection and the adults she and the others loved and trusted.

Many mysteries of Branch Davidian life will remain lost forever in the charred rubble of Ranch Apocalypse. But last week stories began to emerge about what life was like for the youngest members of the cult, tales that were by turns horrifying and poignant, tales of beatings and sexual abuse. The children's accounts raised larger questions: Though their bruises have healed, what about the emotional toll? VThat kind of future awaits the children of the cult? Can they ever expect to lead normal lives (page 52)?

The answer is, maybe. Unfortunately, therapists have had a surfeit of experience with children traumatized by war, inner-city life, family abuse and other present-day horrors. Typically such children suffer from flashbacks and nightmares for many years, reliving the early terror over and over again. And, without treatment, they may later repeat the abuse-this time as aggressors.

After the initial shoot-out in February with federal agents, 21 youngsters, age 5 months to 12 years, were released to the custody of the Texas child-welfare agency. They were sent to the Methodist Home. There, psychiatrists and social workers helped them prepare for new lives; all but five children now live with relatives.

In their conversations with therapists, the youngest survivors described a twisted universe completely dominated by David Koresh. Former cult members corroborate much of what the children say. For the children, the ordinary now seems exotic. At the Methodist Home, one 3-year-old was transfixed by the magic of a flush toilet. He kept pushing the silvery lever, watching the water swirl down the bowl.

The children indicate that their life was, at best, spartan. They lived with their mothers in dormitory-like rooms decorated with colorful drawings and paper cutouts. But just below the surface, there was evil. According to ex-followers who have talked to the children, Koresh repeatedly committed statutory rape. He filled his sermons with graphic sexual talk. Corporal punishment was the rule; visitors to the ranch and ex-followers say the beatings lasted many minutes. Lonnie Little, a Michigan man, observed one such beating when he visited the compound in 1990 in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue his son Jeff, who died in the April 19 fire at the age of 32. When a young boy was "acting up," Koresh told his mother to "take care of that." According to Little, she complied immediately, beating her son with a stick for 15 minutes.

Such accounts played an important role in Attorney General Janet Reno's decision to inject tear gas into the compound on April 19. She cited concern about ongoing physical abuse of children as one of her main reasons for agreeing to the attack-although the FBI later backed off a bit. Much of her information came from FBI officials who had read a report prepared by Dr. Bruce Perry, a Baylor College of Medicine psychiatrist who worked with 19 of the children.

They had been indoctrinated to believe that there were only two kinds of people: good and evil, Perry says. All the righteous people were at Ranch Apocalypse; everyone else was bad. "The group was safe but under constant threat," says Perry. The paranoia was reinforced by the Feb. 28 shoot-out in which six cult members and four agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were killed. To most children, that day would have been unmitigated horror-bullets flying, adults they loved lying dead and wounded while helicopters hovered nearby. To the cult children, it was the fulfillment of Koresh's prophecy.

In their world, weapons and violence were the norm. Scott Mabb, 11, and his brother, Jake, 9, who now live with their father in South Dakota, often talked about Koresh's arsenal. The boys said they used to watch Koresh fire a giant gun that stood on a tripod, and then retrieve the casings to earn privileges, like firing BB guns.

It took a while for the children to feel comfortable enough to talk about one of their big secrets: their belief that the standoff would end violently and that their parents would die. "The kids were quite smug about the concept that they knew what was going to happen and we didn't," says Perry. "They were under the presumption that everybody in there was going to die and that David was going to return from heaven and kill all the evil ones who had killed the members of their community, and then they'd all be reunited in heaven." At the Methodist Home, some of the children were excited when they saw a white van similar to one Koresh had driven. Officials made sure the van stayed away from the children after that.

Koresh's prophecies were his justification for the hardships inflicted on his followers and their children. In 1989, he declared that only he would be allowed to have sex with the female cult members, including mothers and young daughters. At 12, girls moved from the second-floor quarters they shared with their mothers to gender-segregated adult quarters. "It was an intrinsic part of his teachings that he would have sexual relations with young girls," says David Bunds, a former member. Bunds says that when Koresh took up with one girl, he "was having problems penetrating her, because she was so young and little. He told her to start using tampons, the kind that you insert in, to make herself larger."

At least five of the 17 children who died in the fire at the compound were believed to be Koresh's. Three were sired in liaisons with child brides; two others, Cyrus, 8, and Star, 6, were the products of Koresh's legal union with his wife, Rachel, 23, who also died. They married when she was 14.

To many girls, being chosen by Koresh was an honor they eagerly sought. Koresh "wouldn't do it unless you wanted it," says Jeannine Bunds, 51, who was one of Koresh's wives, along with her daughter, Robyn. "It wasn't about sex, but he was a very appealing, sexual person ... He didn't say, 'Oooh, you've got sexy boobs.' He just loved the idea of womanhood ... and he made you feel special." A union with Koresh was spiritual, says Robyn Bunds, who met Koresh when she was 14 and slept with him when she was 17. "You're going to marry this guy and he's God, and someday he will be resurrected as a perfect human being," says Bunds, now 23 and living in California. "He's perfect, and he's going to father your children. What more can you ask for?" In fact, Bunds says she was so committed to Koresh that she left in 1990, nine months after Koresh started sleeping with her mother, because she was tired of the abuse. Her son by Koresh, Shaun, is now 4.

Younger children, boys and girls, were exposed to explicit sexual material in Koresh's "sermons." Perry, the psychiatrist, has an audiotape of one Bible-study session where he says children were present. In it, Perry says, Koresh "talks about stripping off the clothes of a young girl and 'whacking' it to her right there." Lonnie Little heard similar sermons in 1990. On one occasion, Little says, Koresh "went on for about an hour and a half about the evils of masturbation. He used every gutter word and teenage word you could think of in front of this mixed group," which included young children.

At times Koresh did try to control his own sexual impulses toward children--and the impulses of other men in the cult. Several years ago Koresh decreed that no Branch Davidian man could change a girl baby's diapers because they might become aroused. Koresh was proud of this restriction. When child-welfare workers investigated allegations of child abuse last year, Koresh told them about the rule and his reasons for imposing it, according to Perry's report.

In his report, Perry says that all of the children exhibited a "permeating and pervasive fear of displeasing David or betraying his 'secrets'." However, the only evidence of physical abuse he and other child-welfare workers found were small circular bruises on the buttocks of several of the little girls.

Dick DeGuerin, the lawyer for Koresh's mother, contends that none of the activities at the ranch constitutes abuse, although he concedes that the Davidians had a lifestyle outside broadly accepted norms. "At what point does society have a right to step in and say you have to raise your family our way? It's applying Yuppie values to people who choose to live differently. These were loving families." He points out that Perry failed to find any physical evidence of sexual abuse, although the psychiatrist does say that the girls did not have gynecological exams.

Some of the children's more fantastic stories may not be true. In his report, Perry mentions that several children said dead babies were kept in the freezer until they could be buried or burned. Perry says that there's no way to determine the accuracy of these stories.

The next few months will be a crucial test of the children's ability to recover. "These children have many, many strengths," Perry says. "Everyone who worked with them liked them." They adjusted to David Koresh and Ranch Apocalypse. Can living in the outside world be any worse?