In the Grip of a Psychopath

Time Magazine/May 3, 1993

By Richard Lacayo; Reported by Wendy Cole and Richard Woodbury

There were occasions when David Koresh enforced discipline among his followers the hard way. One of his handpicked lieutenants would paddle the rule breakers with an oar on which were inscribed the words IT IS WRITTEN. Most of the time that wasn't necessary. In the manner of cult leaders before him, Koresh held sway largely through means that were both more subtle and more degrading. Food was rationed in unpredictable ways. Newcomers were gradually relieved of their bank accounts and personal possessions. And while the men were subjected to an uneasy celibacy. Koresh took their wives and daughters as his concubines.

All of it just confirmed his power in the eyes of his flock. And for anyone who though it odd that a holy man lived out a teenage boy's sexual fantasy, Koresh had a mangled theological rationale. He was Jesus Christ in sinful form, who because he indulged the flesh could judge mankind with insights that the first, more virtuous Messiah had lacked. Or as he put in one of his harangues to the faithful: "Now what better sinner can know a sinner than a godly sinner? Huh?"

Equipped with both a creamy charm and a cold-blooded willingness to manipulate those drawn to him, Koresh was a type well known to students of cult practices: the charismatic leader with a pathological edge. He was the most spectacular example since Jim Jones, who committed suicide in 1978 with more than 900 of his followers at the People's Temple in Guyana. Like Jones, Koresh fashioned a tight-knit community that saw itself at desperate odds with the world outside. He plucked sexual partners as he pleased from among his followers and formed an elite guard of lieutenants to enforce his will. And like Jones, he led his followers to their doom.

Psychologists are inclined to classify Koresh as a psychopath, always with the reminder that such people can be nothing short of enchanting on a first encounter. "The psychopath is often charming, bright, very persuasive," explains Louis West, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California at Los Angeles medical school. "He quickly wins people's trust and is uncannily adept at manipulating and conning people." David Jewell, whose former wife died in last week's fire, had a brief phone conversation with Koresh five years ago that left him in shock. "In 20 minutes, he took my entire Christian upbringing and put in such a tailspin, I didn't know what I believed.

Once in the cult, Davidians surrendered all the material means of personal independence, like money and belongings, while Koresh seemed to have unlimited funds, much of the money apparently from his followers' nest eggs. The grounds around the compound were littered with old automobiles that the faithful cannibalized for parts to keep their clunkers running while Koresh drove a black Camaro muscle car.

At lengthy sessions of biblical preaching that cult members attended twice a day, Koresh underlined his authority by impressing upon them that he alone understood the Scriptures. He changed his interpretations at will, while his unsteady flock struggled to keep up. In a tactic common to cult leaders, Koresh made food a tool for ensuring obedience. The compound diet was often insufficient, varying according to the leader's whim. Sometimes dinner was stew or chicken; at other times it might be nothing but popcorn. On their infrequent trips to Waco, cultists could be seen wolfing down packaged cheese in convenience stores. Household and dietary rules at the compound were as changeable at the theology. Koresh established strict bans on sugar and ice cream, then reversed them without explanation. He told his disciples they could buy chicken hot dogs, but exploded in anger when they brought home chicken bologna instead.

Having convinced his followers that he was the messiah. Koresh went on the persuade them that because his seed was divine, only he had the right to procreate. Even as Koresh bedded their wives and daughters-some as young as 11-in his comfortable private bedroom on the second floor, the men were confined to their dormitory downstairs. Behind the mind games and psychological sadism lay the threat of physical force. In addition to the paddlings, administered in a utility area called the spanking room, offenders could be forced down into a pit of raw sewage, then not allowed to bathe.

No amount of adulation seemed to satisfy Koresh, whose egomania apparently disguised an emptiness at his center. Fallenaway follower Marc Breault, who sometimes played bass in the rock bank Koresh organized at the compound, says that even practicing together was difficult because Koresh threw tantrums when he hit a wrong note in front of the others. "It's very difficult being in a band with God's messenger," says Breault.

As the Davidians stockpiled guns and ammunition, Koresh's theology centered more obsessively upon the coming Apocalypse, binding Koresh and his followers in a vision of shared catastrophe in order to maintain their focus and resist the overtures of the authorities outside the compound. "Koresh would say we would have to suffer, that we were going to be persecuted and some of us would be killed and tortured," recalls David Bunds, who left the compound in 1989.

As Koresh and his followers heightened the melodrama, their ties with the outside world became irretrievably broken. "The adulation of this confined group work on this charismatic leader so that he in turn spirals into greater and greater paranoia," says Murray Miron, a psychologist who advised the FBI during the standoff. "He's playing a role that his followers have cast him in." In the end, Koresh and his flock may have magnified one another's needs. He looked to them to confirm his belief that he was God's appointed one, destined for a martyr's death. They looked to him to bring their spiritual wanderings to a close. In the flames of last week, they all may have found what they were searching for.

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