The Story Of Branch Davidian Cult Members Steve And Judy Schneider

It was a twisted path that led Steve and Judy Schneider, described by a relative as the "all-American dream couple" (via Cox News Service), to their deaths at a heavily armed compound near Waco, Texas, on April 19, 1993. They and her 2-year-old daughter were among the 76 Branch Davidians — an extremist sect of Seventhd-day Adventism led by David Koresh — who died in a fire, the culminating event of a 51-day siege by federal agents that began on Febraury 28.

The couple met in 1971 in Madison, Wisconsin, and married a decade later in a ceremony at Steve's parents' home near Green Bay, Wisconsin. They seemed destined for a typical life together. Judy's brother, Wayne Peterson, described Steve as "a people person." Judy Peterson had been her high school's prom queen and was "a sunny girl — sweet, always smiling and cheerful," her mother, Shirley Puttkammer, told the Cox News Service in 1993. But when Steve was introduced to the teachings of David Koresh — a musician, and charismatic religious leader — in 1986, both his and Judy's life would take a drastic and ultimately tragic turn.

They were passionate about their studies 

Steve Schneider was born in Merrill, Wisconsin, on October 16, 1949, and was a typical kid — he loved animals and sports — and grew up as a Seventh-day Adventist. At the Wisconsin Academy, an SDA boarding school, he found an abiding love for the Bible. But he also struggled with darker impulses. At 19, police in Columbus, Wisconsin, arrested him for vandalizing a high school. Trying to get back on track, he began attending Newbold College near Nottingham, England. "Adventism hadn't scratched where it itched," a college friend, James Coffin, recalled in Spectrum. "But neither had the more libertine life to which he'd turned. So he was trying to find a spiritual formula that worked." Steve was kicked out of the college for drunkenness.

Meanwhile, Judy Peterson was living in Madison, Wisconsin, sharing an apartment with a friend, working as a typist, and attending a nearby technical college majoring in fashion design. After she and Steve married, she put her career plans on hold, and they moved to Hawaii. There, she worked two jobs in order to support them while he attended the University of Hawaii, graduating with a Ph.D. in comparative religion in 1986.

Steve was fiercely devoted to David 

In Hawaii, Steve Schneider first came into the orbit of David Koresh (born Vernon Howell in Houston, Texas in 1959) when their mutual friend, Marc Breault, began espousing Koresh's teachings. "To start off, I doubted David," Schneider told David Thibodeau, another Branch Davidian, per "Waco: A Survivor's Story." "I plagued the man with questions, argued the hell out of him, trying to catch him out." Schneider eventually succumbed to Koresh's beliefs and moved to California to become his music manager, religious recruiter, and second in command. "When Steve believed in it, he did it with his whole heart, whatever he did," his sister, Shelly Ausloos, told the Associated Press in 1993, calling him a "zealot."

At first, Judy Schneider didn't want to be involved with the sect. Koresh allowed her to sing in his Christian rock band and convinced her he would make her a star. Between the pressure exerted by her husband and Koresh's smooth-talking, Judy eventually succumbed. Judy's mother, Shirley Puttkammer, felt Schneider held undue sway over her daughter. "I liked Steve, but he was pretty controlling," she told Cox News Service. "He led Judy around."

Judy became one of David Koresh's wives

By 1987, David Koresh had gained control of the Branch Davidians — which had been around for more than 50 years — and resided with his followers at a compound named Mount Carmel near Waco. There, Koresh tightened his control, taught an apocalyptic message, and ordered all the men (except himself) to become celibate, even those who were married. He then began taking "spiritual wives" as young as 10. Koresh chose Judy Schneider to be one of these wives in 1989.

Steve Schneider told a former Branch Davidian that he allowed Koresh to take his wife because "of what they were going to accomplish in the kingdom," per Cox News Service. Steve's friend James Coffin believed Schneider would have viewed any "qualms he might have had" about Koresh and Judy's relationship as "spiritual weakness," he recounted in Spectrum. Koresh and Judy, who began using the name Judy Schneider-Koresh, had a daughter, Mayanah, although Steve continued to claim he was the child's father. Other former sect members said Steve hated Koresh for stealing his wife.

They died during the siege at Waco 

On February 28, 1993, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) raided the Mount Carmel compound looking for illegal weapons, and an ensuing firefight left six Branch Davidians and four federal agents dead. The raid kicked off the nearly two-month-long standoff. Steve Schneider acted as an intermediary between the FBI and David Koresh. At one point during the negotiations, he told the agents Koresh "has powers we are not aware of, and for us to even challenge him, we're making a big mistake," according to The Washington Post. One of the FBI negotiators, Byron Sage, would later tell People that while Schneider "was articulate ... he didn't have an independence of thought or the ability to do anything without the blessing of David."

After the negotiations broke down, the combined force of federal agents, the U.S. military, and Texas law enforcement moved in with tanks on April 19, 1993. A short time later, the compound went up in flames. Among the 76 dead Branch Davidians — including 25 children — who died in the fire, the authorities found Steve Schneider in the compound's communications room dead next to Koresh's body. An autopsy found Steve died from "smoke inhalation with possible traumatic head injury from either a blast or gunshot," according to The New York Times. Koresh died from a gunshot wound to the forehead. Judy and her daughter also died in the fire. The Schneiders are buried in Portage, Wisconsin.