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30 Years Later: How We Lost Our Friends to David Koresh


At the time of the 51-day-long siege orchestrated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Branch Davidian compound, otherwise known as the Mount Carmel Center, in Waco, Texas, was home to around 120 followers of the self-declared prophet and messiah David Koresh, whose real name was Vernon Howell.

At the end of the longest siege of its kind in the US on April 19, 1993, more than 80 people, including four federal agents and at least 20 children, were dead as a result of two violent encounters involving federal law enforcement and the Branch Davidian sect.  Debate still goes on if the deadly fire was caused by the Branch Davidians or the FBI’s action.

Some of the living survivors remain loyal followers of David Koresh, believing that one day they will see him return victoriously in the clouds of heaven to defeat the enemies of God and to reign in Jerusalem over the entire world as the new King David. For example, Graeme Craddock, an Australian who was the longest imprisoned survivor of the 1993 Waco siege, continues to believe that “David Koresh will one day return to Earth as the son of God.” So does Livingstone Fagan, a British survivor, who continues to promote the teachings of Koresh on social media.

The more I read about Vernon Howell, who assumed his “prophetic” name David Koresh in 1989 and was believed by his followers to be a prophet and the Son of God, the more I am disgusted by his controlling, deceiving, sociopathic, and toxic personality. One wonders how he was capable of building a following of fanatically loyal people, willing to go as far as to surrender their own wives and daughters to him—and eventually their lives too. One wonders how was he able to deceive people with sophisticated levels of education. Some of them were teachers, nurses, business people, and retired military men. Others were theology students, professors, musicians, and artists.

On the other hand, I find almost equally unacceptable the methods the US government used against David Koresh and his followers during the long siege, and especially on the final hellish day. Their use of psychological warfare and excessive deadly force against a community of people looked more like an out-of-control war scene than a police action on American soil. Even now, 30 years later, I am remaining unconvinced that it was necessary for the ATF to attack the compound, and for the FBI to use brutal militarized force that ultimately led to the deaths of more than 80 people, many of whom were children.

But my focus is on the people caught up in the cultish environment that led them across the line of no return. Some of the people who died a horrific death at the end of the Waco siege were people I knew. They were my college friends who had five years earlier embraced David Koresh as their prophet and messiah. I remember them as good and devout people, in many ways not unlike many of us. Most certainly, they did not have criminal intentions. Nevertheless, they all paid a heavy price for their gullibility and for falling for a deadly deception. Five years earlier, we studied together at Newbold College in England.

Ever since, I’ve been asking a question: What makes a good and devout person embrace a dangerous religious or political ideology? I agree with one review of the latest Netflix documentary on the tragedy, Waco: American Apocalypse, which suggests that “the seeds of political polarization that roil our culture today were planted at Waco.”

An Ominous Visitor

I first heard about David Koresh in the summer of 1988. At the time, he was still known by his real name, Vernon Howell. Steve Schneider, Koresh’s right-hand man and liaison officer, visited Binfield, a tranquil English village close to the town of Bracknell. He was on a recruitment mission to England, and his plan for the summer was to bring the “new truth” about “the prophetic and messianic call” of Vernon Howell (David Koresh) to the students at Newbold College. Since those were the summer months, free from any academic activities, only a small group of unsuspecting students, professors, and staff members remained on the college grounds. I was there, too, working several summer jobs in anticipation of securing some income that would help me move on with my education.

Steve Schneider also used to study at Newbold College, fifteen years earlier, but was expelled due to some behavioral issues. When the college administration realized that Steve did not come back to Newbold for a brief nostalgic visit—a common practice among many former students—but for a recruitment mission, they denied him the privilege of staying and “evangelizing” within the college boundaries. Steve was then welcomed into the home of a sympathizing staff member. The home of an assistant college cook became his teaching sanctuary and the base for all his outreach activities on behalf of David Koresh.

For several weeks, a group of curious students, some staff members, and a few locals gathered every day, in the late evening hours after they had finished work for the day, to listen to Steve Schneider. His teaching sessions went on for many hours, reaching into the early morning of the following day. While initially most attended the meetings out of sheer curiosity, some were undergoing a steady and visible process of conversion.

Roger Flalokken, a Newbold theology student from Norway, was invited to attend Steve’s Bible study meetings. He later described his memories of the meetings he had attended:

I was invited to listen to Steve Schneider. It happened in the late evening, going on for hours. Schneider said he had new light on important biblical truths. He introduced himself as a messenger, a prophetic voice, preparing a group to meet the leader of the movement at a later stage. It was impressive to hear how he knew so many Bible verses by heart. He would talk and talk, intensely, painting his picture of this important new light, always quoting the Scripture to validate his claims. Questions from the listeners were not answered, but he said he would come back to them. For me it was frustrating that questions were not answered. It must have been after two or three gatherings I stopped attending. I also questioned the fact that we had to meet so late at night, going on till well after midnight.

The rumor about the unusual visitor from Waco spread quickly within the Newbold community. The fact that the overnight meetings lasted for many long hours every night, and that almost all attending went without adequate sleep despite having to work early the following morning, was a good enough warning for me that a cultic-style brainwashing was in progress in our neighborhood. One day, we heard that “the prophet” Vernon himself had arrived with his guitar to harvest the fruit of Steve’s labor.

The Lesser Light 

Although I did not have any desire to join the group, I remember having several conversations with a few who could not hide that the conversion of their hearts and minds was very much in progress. I was the most directly aware of a serious shift in the life of a college friend, Cliff Sellors, a recent convert to Adventism. A video production project for a communication class had brought us closer a few months earlier.

Even before Cliff met Steve Schneider and David Koresh, I knew that he had an exaggerated passion for the writings of Ellen White. Her dreams and visions had a crucial role in shaping the identity of the emerging Seventh-day Adventist Church, and in traditional Adventist circles, she has been called “the inspired pen,” “the Lord’s messenger,” “the lesser light leading to the greater light,” and the most often, “the Spirit of Prophecy”.

On several occasions, Cliff and I discussed various topics related to the inspiration of the message and writings of Ellen White. We were good friends who did not share the same conviction about the importance of the Adventist prophetess. Cliff was a very good, modest, and humble young man, who in the writings of Ellen White constantly sought to find “more truth” and “new light.” I believe he read her writings more than he read the Bible.

Cliff was a genuinely gifted artist. In those days, he was painting a beautiful mural named “Genesis,” depicting the seven days of creation on the front wall of the college Science Room. Whenever he worked on the painting, he would listen to audio recordings of White’s prophetic messages. He was deeply dissatisfied with his spiritual condition and imperfections, as well as with the “backsliding” of his church. In the writings of Ellen White, he sought the truths that would elevate his obedience to the Law of God ever closer to the perfection that had been eluding him all the time. In his eyes, the truth of God was progressive, and there was always room for “the new light,” granted only to God’s “faithful remnant.”

A former Newbold student, Pastor David Neal, currently the communication and media director at the Trans-European Division of the Adventist Church, recently recounted Cliff’s spiritual restlessness in The Messenger magazine.

In the few conversations I had with him in the college cafeteria, it wasn’t long before he would express disappointment about the college environment. He wondered why we played five-a-side football in the college gym when Ellen White, in his opinion, condemned competitive sports. He suggested that some of the teachers were not as fervent as he was about proclaiming the Adventist message, the perilous condition of the world, end-time events, and the very soon return of Christ. He was questioning why some of the theology staff seemed to be teaching a “new theology” of salvation, one that emphasized the love, grace, and mercy of God. In his opinion, it was judgment time, a time when our actions, both personal and corporate, would demonstrate whether or not we were ready for Christ’s soon return.

In contrast to Cliff, I was satisfied that all truth and light that mattered for my salvation was contained to the fullest in the person of Jesus, and that no relevant truth existed outside him. I wanted Cliff to also see that the beauty and simplicity of the Gospel of Christ did not require complicated doctrinal or prophetic gymnastics. I shared with Cliff that I believed the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus gave complete meaning to the whole prophetic ministry of the Old Testament, and there existed no other truth that would ever reach beyond or outside Jesus.

Cliff Sellors was a good, modest and humble young man.

When, in the summer of 1988, Steve Schneider began his mission of indoctrination in the UK, Cliff became hooked by his message almost instantly. He would share with me the fragments of what was happening at the meetings. I thought for a moment that his commitment to Ellen White would keep him away from the prophetic claims of anyone else. But this was not to be. He, and a few other Newbold students, were impressed with Steve’s apparent ease for “interpreting” the Old and New Testament Bible prophecies and blending them with the writings of Ellen White. For his Newbold audience, mostly made of traditional Adventists who revered their prophetess, Steve prepared a familiar, irresistible platform. He quoted Amos 3:7: “The Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets.” Steve knew that his audience would be willing to receive a “new light” only if it appeared to be Ellen White-friendly.

“They believe in Ellen G. White!” These were some of the very first remarks Cliff shared with me after one of the first of Steve’s classes that he attended. To Cliff, it mattered that this “new truth” he was hearing from Steve affirmed the prophetic authority of Ellen White. And Steve worked hard to impress upon the emerging disciples that Ellen White was very much revered by both, Vernon Howell (David Koresh) and himself.

For Steve, however, setting a common ground was only a means of moving into new, uncharted territory. He argued that if “God hand-picked” Ellen White to fulfill a special prophetic mission in the 19th century, he certainly did not stop there. Steve reasoned that just as God appointed White as his “special messenger,” God had now chosen another inspired vehicle to upgrade his “last message.” And sure enough, the name of the prophet was Vernon Howell, soon to be revered by his followers as David Koresh. It did not take too long for Cliff and a group of other converts to feel reassured that believing in the prophetic mission of a new prophet would not contradict their faith in the prophetic gift of Ellen White.

The Mind-Blowing New Truth

But the followers’ arrival at this “new light” only meant the beginning of a journey that would be filled with one surprise after another.

Steve proceeded to teach that David Koresh was more than a prophet. He was soon to be received by the new converts as the “antitypical David,” “the antitypical Cyrus,” and “the Son of God”—the only one to whom the mysteries of the seven seals of the Book of Revelation were given. Since the first Jesus was the spotless and sinless Lamb of God, the reasoning followed, Jesus could not have completely identified with the human race. To complete his saving work, God had to send another Messiah, the second Jesus—namely David Koresh—to complete the work of redemption by radically indulging in the sins of the world. Salvation now required that one believed not only in Jesus Christ but even more in David Koresh.

Each time Steve was stepping onto a new, more preposterous ground, he would enthusiastically declare, “This truth will blow your mind!” Whenever anyone in the attending group would dare ask a critical or disagreeing question, Steve would respond, “You are not ready to receive this new light yet!”

Consequently, one of the “mind-blowing truths” Steve delivered to the new converts was that David Koresh would have to marry many virgins to bring into the world a new race of God’s perfect children, who together with him would reign in Jerusalem over the new world. Another “mind-blowing truth” I remember Cliff sharing with me was that David Koresh, as the new messiah, was going to be killed in 1993 by the wicked people, and like the first Jesus 2,000 years earlier, he would be raised from the dead three days later.

As the summer weeks of 1988 were advancing, I remember that several of us concerned for our friends caught up with David Koresh were warning them that their newly discovered prophet and messiah was a charlatan, one of those false Christs whom the real Christ warned us against when he said, “Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Christ, and will deceive many’” (Matthew 24:4 NIV). Although we knew next-to-nothing about Branch Davidians at the time, what we heard about the character of Steve’s “Bible studies” was enough to make us see the gravity of deception that was claiming the hearts and minds of our friends.

We wanted to help them see that this “new truth” was so preposterous by challenging them with questions like: “What if David Koresh, unable to find for himself so many virgins, decides to make advances on your own wives?” (We did not know that Koresh apparently already had several unofficial wives by that time. Apparently, the “revelation” by which God officially “authorized” him to claim the wives and daughters of his followers came one year later, in 1989.)

We also asked: “What if on the day the wicked people decide to take David’s life, your ‘messiah’ decides that all of you, his followers, would have to share in his sacrifice by giving up your lives too?” We were oblivious at the time that our cynical questions, designed to shake the new converts out of their intoxicating dreams, were unintentional prophetic statements.

But no question, criticism, or joke could make sense to our friends anymore, who were sinking ever deeper in justifying the new teachings they were receiving from Steve Schneider. Their responses were: “Whoever said that we’ve received all the light? More is coming. We need to be open to receiving new truths! Why should we believe that Ellen G. White was the only one entrusted with the present truth?” Such was a comment made by John McBean, another Newbold theology student, in response to a discussion between the critics and the emerging group of followers of “the new light” at Newbold College in the summer of 1988.


By the end of the summer of 1988, my friend Cliff Sellors and another two students, John McBean and Livingstone Fagan, all of them advanced theology students, passionately embraced “the new light.” All three were British students who in the months following the visitation of Steve Schneider and David Koresh decided they would evangelize their families, friends, and local church communities.

Some who attended the summer midnight meetings listened to the advice of friends, or on their own they decided to break their connections with the new charismatic prophet. One of the former students who used to attend the group wrote: “I attended the ‘Bible study group’ that Steve Schneider led at the assistant cook’s home that summer of 1988. I even met Vernon Howell in person. I’m so thankful I was impressed to leave the group study after an experience I had one night after a study, and also after Vernon showed up. Long story, but it wasn’t without much fervent prayer.” But for my friends who embraced the teachings and moved to Waco, this “new light” would turn into hellish darkness five years later.

On April 19, 1993, Cliff Sellors was consumed by the inferno that completely destroyed the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. John McBean died as well.

Livingstone Fagan survived the siege. His wife and mother did not. The casualty toll directly linked to their conversions multiplied several times over since all of them actively recruited others—their family members, cousins, friends. In total, 24 Britons died in the Waco fire. All of them were good and devout people, in many ways not unlike many of us. Most certainly, they did not have criminal intentions. None of them joined the Branch Davidians because they were desperately seeking to kill and die in the pursuit of some violent apocalyptic adventure. Yet they all paid a heavy price for their gullibility and falling for a deadly deception.

But more than for anyone else who died in Waco 30 years ago, I mourn my friend Cliff Sellors. I believe he was sincerely thirsty for “more truth” and “more light.” From the day he left Newbold College and joined Koresh’s cult in Waco until the fatal Monday in 1993, I did not hear anything about my friend. It was only several years later that I started picking up scarce bits of information here and there.

Cliff (second left) and I shared a video project at Newbold College.

Apparently, with the same passion he used to paint the big Genesis mural in the science lab of Newbold College, in the years that followed he used his talent in service to his new-found messiah Koresh. According to David Thibodeau’s book Waco: A Survivor’s Story, Cliff was the official artist at the Branch Davidians’ compound. He artistically customized Koresh’s guitars with his explicit apocalyptic themes. Cliff also painted murals, posters, and other illustrations depicting Koresh’s vision of the Apocalypse.

According to the book Preacher of Death, co-authored by Marc Brault, who in the initial years of Koresh’s prophetic advancements served as his right-hand man (Brault left Branch Davidians in 1989), Robyn Bunds, one of Koresh’s many wives, married Cliff Sellors in a phony marriage arranged by Koresh. Apparently, this became a common practice within the Branch Davidians, intended to create a cover-up for Koresh’s polygamist practices, and for the children born out of Koresh’s polygamist unions. Bunds abandoned the cult in 1990.

I remember reading that Cliff had also either left the cult for a period or intended to leave because Koresh’s promiscuity bothered him. While he studied at Newbold College several years earlier, Cliff was known as a person of “high personal morals.” Albert A. C. Waite, a professor in physics and sciences who was also a good friend of Cliff’s—and who tried hard to discourage him from joining Branch Davidians—wrote about Cliff: “He was more interested in showing a young lady the beauty of nature than in holding her hand.”

I wish I was more diligent in trying to persuade Cliff not to join the cult. But at that time, five years before the tragic end of the Waco siege, we (his friends) were all oblivious about the true lethality of the Koresh’s “messianic” cult. To those of us who watched from a distance, the whole summer conversion episode of 1988 looked ridiculous and insane. We saw our friends turning into some weird, but harmless, fanatics. We hoped they would grow out of it eventually. Until, five years later, when we all watched CNN’s live reporting on the blazing Waco fire.

How I wish Cliff Sellors was strong enough to break away from David Koresh completely. Unfortunately, a small plaque that bears his name, next to the plaques of other victims of the inferno that form a modest monument at the Mount Carmel property near Waco, reminds me today that this amazingly gifted artist died too soon in the fires of Waco with, in the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., his “music still in him.”

Lessons to Learn

I share no sympathy for the late Branch Davidian’s deceiver David Koresh. But my heart goes to the deceived, men, women, and especially children who paid the ultimate price for following Koresh’s deception to their deaths. And I empathize the most with the friends I knew personally whose lives ended in the fire at the Mount Carmel compound.

And as I continue to wonder how come they were so gullible, and how come they were not able to see through the deception once they had encountered it, I am being reminded of the millions of Christians today who are professing to be born again and who are falling for all kinds of deceptions, not unlike those embodied by David Koresh 30 years ago. Too many Christians today enthusiastically follow militant forms of Christian nationalism, dominionism, supremacism—and self-proclaimed prophets, apostles, and deliverance charlatans. Too many have blended their Christian faith with all kinds of preposterous conspiracy narratives. We have to ask: Are they not falling for the same kind of deception but on a much larger, and potentially more lethal, scale?

Meanwhile, let’s be shielded from any kind of deception or self-appointed messiah by adhering to the warning of Jesus: “If anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the wilderness,’ do not go out” (Matthew 24:25 NIV).

If a church denomination or movement is not firmly rooted in the truth that God has spoken conclusively through Jesus Christ, it will eventually witness someone opening a Pandora’s box of the most extreme biblical interpretations and beliefs, and its followers will become an easy target for deception and delusion.


Further reading on the Waco tragedy:

We Didn’t Start the Fire but the Tinder Was Ours, May 1993.

Apocalyptic—Who Needs It?, May 1993.

Fundamentalism Is a Disease, a Demonic Perversion, May 1993.

Futuristic Highs at Mt. Carmel, May 1993.

One of David’s Mighty Men, May 1993.

The British Connection, May 1993.

Apocalypse at Diamond Head, May 1993.

God, Guns, and Rock ‘n’ Roll, May 1993.

The Making of David Koresh, May 1993.

My Trip to Waco, December 27, 2012

Death of a Branch Davidian Friend and Other Memories, April 19, 2014

Beware of Wolves Disguised as Sheep, June 8, 2017

Paradise Lost in Waco, February 5, 2018

New TV Series Premieres for 25th Anniversary of the Waco Tragedy, January 24, 2018


Tihomir Kukolja has lived and worked in Yugoslavia, Croatia, the United Kingdom, Australia, and the US. Educated in theology, communications, and radio journalism, he has worked as a church pastor, media professional, radio producer and presenter, journalist, religious liberty activist, and reconciliation and leadership development activist. 

Inline images courtesy of the author. 

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