A crazy man's dream becomes a nightmare

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The Independent Online
IT WAS A scene more suited to the start of the Gulf war than a mild spring day in the middle of Texas farming country. In the distance a dark-coloured flag bearing the Star of David fluttered defiantly over the cluster of buildings which a bizarre religious cult had made into a fortress, complete with an arsenal of weapons and its own watchtower overlooking the fields.

Surrounding the makeshift headquarters was an army of some 300 heavily armed police, US marshals and FBI agents, supported by armoured personnel carriers and Bradley fighting vehicles, waiting to bring justice to whoever killed four federal agents in a 45-minute gun battle on Sunday. Overhead, helicopters made the occasional cautious pass, mindful of the cult's firepower.

For years the man at the centre of it all - a charismatic 33-year-old would-be the rock 'n' roll musician called David Koresh - had been living out an apocalyptic fantasy in which he cast himself in the role of the second Messiah. His crazed self-drafted script bestowed him with the sole right to have sex with dozens of women in his 70-strong cult, a group he dubbed 'God's Marines'. But, for all his fantastic beliefs, he convinced followers from around the world, including some Britons. Even his mother believed him.

Until Sunday, Mr Koresh (who is, in reality, a long-haired Texan dropout called Vernon Howell) and his associates were generally regarded as religious eccentrics who lived in exclusion outside Waco, a rural town 80 miles south of Dallas. The area is no stranger to outlandish faiths: it has at least 200 churches, many of which are Baptist, but including a plethora of little heard-of denominations.

The sect, known as the Branch Davidians, are believed to be vegetarians and include at least a dozen of Mr Koresh's 'wives' with whom he has fathered a troupe of children. There had been trouble before: an internal leadership battle in 1987 led to a shoot-out after which Mr Koresh was tried for attempted murder. But the court declared a mistrial, and he was allowed to return to his secluded life within his remote, armed headquarters.

But the true, mad nature of his convictions only finally became clear when agents of the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms descended in force on the cult's outpost at the weekend. They acted after being tipped off that the sect possessed an arsenal of weapons and was conducting paramilitary exercises which appeared to bear little resemblance to the normal requirements of worship. Its hardware included a machine-gun capable of shooting down aircraft.

The agents, who arrived concealed in cattle trucks, were intercepted before they could storm the building. They were met with hundreds of rounds of gunfire, which killed four agents. Afterwards the agency admitted that its raid, planned for months, was botched, even though they sent 150 officers to the scene: 15 were injured. It was, officials said, for one reason alone: they were simply outgunned by the cult's automatic weapons.

Several hours afterwards, there was another skirmish when three Branch Davidians tried to shoot their way out of their compound. One was killed.

As the world yesterday tried to piece together the true identity of the cult, said to be an offshoot of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, former school colleagues of Mr Koresh painted a portrait of a nervous, slow youth who became involved with drugs and was eventually expelled. But his mother recalled how he learnt the New Testament by heart when he was only 12 years old. After an erratic career, which took him to Australia and California, he moved to Waco and wrested control of the group, which had been based there for almost 60 years.

As the siege unfolded Mr Koresh spoke by telephone to several television and radio stations, interviews which were largely devoted to his rambling discourses about the 'seven seals', a biblical reference apparently foreshadowing the second coming of Christ. Mr Koresh and his supporters are believed to be convinced that he possesses the power to open the seals, unleashing the catastrophic events that will end mankind.

His finale was late yesterday when he appealed on a local radio station for his followers to give themselves up peacefully, before launching into a 59-minute taped sermon.

Even then, his beliefs remained opaque. 'If the Bible is true, then I'm Christ,' he once told an interviewer. '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. You know what I mean?'

But in some senses, as he gazed at the military hardware which surrounded him for more than two days, the self-appointed deity must have thought his prophetic visions were at last fulfilling themselves: a madman's dream which was everyone else's nightmare.

(Photograph omitted)