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David Koresh was born Vernon Wayne Howell in Houston, Texas in 1959 to a 15-year old single mother. He never knew his father and was raised by his grandparents.
In his late night conversations with FBI agents during the siege, Koresh described his childhood as lonely. He said the other kids teased him and called him "Vernie." He was dyslexic, a bad student, and dropped out of high school. However, he had musical ability and a strong interest in the Bible. By 12, he had memorized large tracts of it.
When he was 20, Koresh turned to the Church of Seventh Day Adventists, his mother's church. But he was expelled for being a bad influence on the young people. Sometime during the next couple of years, Koresh went to Hollywood to become a rock star but nothing came of it. Instead, in 1981 he went to Waco, Texas where he joined the Branch Davidians, a religious sect which in 1935 had settled 10 miles outside of Waco. At one time, it had more than 1,400 members.
Koresh had an affair with then-prophetess Lois Roden who was in her late sixties. The two travelled to Israel together. When Lois Roden died, a power struggle began between Koresh and Lois Roden's son George. For a short time, Koresh retreated with his followers to eastern Texas. But in late 1987 he returned to Mount Carmel in camouflage with seven male followers, armed with five .223 caliber semiautomatic assault rifles, two .22 caliber rifles, two 12-gauge shotguns and nearly 400 rounds of ammunition. During the gunfight, Roden was shot in the chest and hands.
He and his followers went on trial for attempted murder. The seven were acquitted and a mistrial was declared in Koresh's case. (Koresh told the jury he and his men went to Mount Carmel to find evidence of corpse abuse by Roden and their shots were aimed at a tree.)
By 1990 Koresh had become the leader of the Branch Davidians and legally changed his name, saying on the court document that the change was "for publicity and business purposes." He said the switch arose from his belief that he was now head of the biblical House of David. (Koresh is a Hebrew transliteration of Cyrus, the name of the Persian king who allowed the Jews held captive in Babylon to return to Israel.)