Inside Cult Leader David Koresh's Tragic Childhood

In 1993, CNN lit up with stories of the demise of a violent and deadly cult tucked away in the otherwise nondescript Texas town of Waco. Over 51 excruciating days, people watched horrified as the situation degenerated into an ugly stalemate, a violent standoff, and ultimately, the deaths of 76 men, women, and children, as Waco History says. Twenty-five years later in 2018, Paramount brought the story of that cult and its leader — the Branch Davidians led by David Koresh — to life. Five years later in 2023, Netflix did the same in the docuseries "Waco: American Apocalypse." There's something captivating and intriguing about this disturbing and bizarre chapter of the recent past, from the protracted and badly bungled FBI sieges to the dangerous, charismatic, and mulleted man at the heart of it all, David Koresh. 

Casual and devoted fans of the series, as well as those who watched the live events of 1993, might have been left wanting deeper answers to the same question: who is David Koresh, exactly? Does he have some sort of tragic origin story? What drove him and the absolute power he seemed to exert over his followers? Like anyone else, Koresh's life could have taken a variety of paths. From his early, parentally-neglected years full of bullying and unnecessary remedial classes, to his love of music and eventual Bible-thumping teens and adulthood, Koresh's early life was tragic not only in its eventual outcome, but inasmuch as it could have gone so, so differently.

A teenage mom and abusive, alcoholic stepfather

David Koresh was born Vernon Wayne Howell in Houston, Texas on August 17th, 1959 to a single mother, Bonnie Sue Clarke. Many reports, like those on The Famous People, Men's Health, and All That's Interesting place Clarke at 14 years old when Howell was born. Others claim that she was 15 at the time of his birth, like PBS and History Engine, while yet other sources opt for the "we don't really know" approach and merely say that Clarke was a teenager at the time of her son's birth, like Biography. Regardless, all sources agree that Howell didn't have the easiest time growing up, which is understandable simply by knowing that his mother was a partner-less teenager.

The excellent YouTube channel Biographics picks up the story from here. Howell's father was Bobby Howell, a carpenter and "20-year-old drifter" who ditched Clarke for another girl when Clarke got pregnant. And because this story's spiral couldn't angle anywhere but downward, Clarke moved in with an abusive alcoholic after her son was born. The two eventually got married, but the marriage only lasted two years. There's no telling precisely how old Howell, the future Koresh, was at this time, but he was apparently old enough to later remember early "torturous" years under the thumb of his stepfather. Howell's biological father never reappeared in his life, and his stepfather's name appears lost to history.

Settling into a stable home environment

After separating from her unnamed husband and son's stepfather, Bonnie Sue Clarke passed her son along to her mother Earline Clarke for a bit. It should be noted that some sites like Biography, PBS, and History Engine state that Howell landed in the hands of both his grandparents, not just his grandmother. 

The YouTube channel Biographics says that Howell had a bit of a better time with his grandmother, at least for awhile. He wasn't a badly behaved kid, but had some out-of-control energy. He was such an errant rogue, in fact, that his grandmother nicknamed him "Sputnik" in reference to history's first orbital satellite. But by age 6, however, Howell's time with his grandmother was done. He passed back to his mother, who — to add further complications — had remarried a man named Roy Haldeman and was pregnant with another child. In 1966 Clarke gave birth to Howell's younger half-brother, Roger. Haldeman, interestingly enough, was also a carpenter like Howell's own biological, estranged father.

The Famous People says that Howell got along well with his younger brother, and more or less settled into some version of a stable home environment. And yet, perhaps either by innate disposition or earlier trauma, Howell seems to have suffered some kind of soul-deep damage by that point. PBS quotes him as describing his childhood as lonely, and from there the gateway was open to all future inclinations, preoccupations, obsessions, and violence.

Severe bullying and the refuge of music

Howell's teenage years marked his story's true turning point towards tragedy. He was dyslexic at a time when the condition was largely poorly understood, as the YouTube channel Biographics describes. His grades were consequently poor, and he ended up in remedial classes despite being fully capable of completing normal school curricula. Other kids — in a typical tale of banal childhood cruelty — nicknamed him "Mr. Retardo." Later on he recalled, "I mean, you're, you know, 'here comes the retarded kids.' And it's like I stopped in my tracks." But far, far beyond such name-calling, Howell also claims to have been raped by a gang of boys one day, per Murderpedia.

Like many young adults, Howell took refuge in music. In fact, he had a natural ear for music, and such a love of it that he dropped out of high school his junior year at age 17 to become a "rock star," as The Famous People puts it. In pursuit of this dream, he took off for Los Angeles, where he worked as a carpenter just like his father. And to illustrate how differently things could have gone, the YouTube channel HRPoodersmith has posted some of his actual tracks archived at Texas State University. The music is surprisingly good, and wouldn't have sounded out of place on the radio in the 1980s, especially the prophetically named "Mad Man in Waco." The songs also illustrate Howell's other blossoming preoccupation: the Bible.

Diving into the church

As PBS tells the story, Howell had already memorized whole sections of the Bible by age 12. It's unknown whether this is because the Bible was the only book hanging around the house, or legitimize curiosity on the part of Howell for Biblical stories, characters, and ideas. Biography says that as Howell went to church with his mother, and the YouTube channel Biographics says that he was generally raised Seventh Day Adventist, and that his entire family was Seventh Day Adventist. 

There's no word on Howell's involvement with the church after he dropped out of high school and high-tailed it to Los Angeles. However, History Engine tells us that he officially joined the Seventh Day Adventist church by age 20. During this time Howell's sexual hang-ups — the type on full display in his future, polygamous Branch Davidian cult — took firm root. The YouTube channel Biographics describes the teenage Howell torn between idealized Biblical chastity and watching peers party and have sex. 

Either way we cut it, Howell hit some tipping point and gave up on his music to head back to Texas in his early 20s. Details differ depending on the source, but at 22 years old he got his 15-year-old girlfriend pregnant, just like his father before him, per the Famous People. He also visited the Southern Baptist Church, where he claimed that God told him to marry the pastor's daughter. The church swiftly kicked him out. 

A self-destructive end

As All That's Interesting says, Howell had already gotten involved with the cult he would come to lead — the Branch Davidians — by the time he'd gotten his girlfriend pregnant at age 22. At 21 he'd wound up in Waco, Texas in the fold of the Branch Davidians, a Seventh-Day Adventist splinter group that proved a fertile breeding ground for all of his unfulfilled ambitions, teenage frustrations, and early childhood abandonment issues. 

In the summer of 1981 (Howell would have been 22 or 23) he looked "lost," "disheveled," "kind of a drifter," poor obviously," and clearly didn't have "a regular job," as former Branch Davidian David Bunds told ABC News. Howell officially joined the Branch Davidians in 1983, who in accordance with their fundamental ideology separated themselves from the world. It was in this secluded, cut-off society of no running water, electricity, or heat that Howell pushed his messianic message and claimed that God deemed him His "chosen one."

In 1990 Howell changed his name to David Koresh, having never experienced any other way of living, thinking, or being other than his life's very narrow track of choices. It's at this point — as a veritable "King David" of the Branch Davidians with full sexual access to whatever women he wanted — that he turned to militarism and preparation for the Biblical "end times." By 1993 the Branch Davidian compound burned to the ground, and Koresh was dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.