Profile: Sharon Wheeler
Sharon Wheeler was a participant or observer in the following events:
The day before the BATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) raid on the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco is slated to happen (see 5:00 A.M. - 9:30 A.M. February 28, 1993), BATF public information officer Sharon Wheeler calls editors at the ABC and NBC affiliates in Dallas to alert them to the impending raid. Gary Nichols, assignment editor for the Dallas ABC news affiliate, will later recall, “Sharon said, ‘We have something big going down.’” [New York Times, 3/27/1993]
Waco Tribune-Herald headline for its ‘Sinful Messiah’ series, with a photo of Davidian leader David Koresh. [Source: Pyreaus (.com)]The Waco Tribune-Herald begins what it calls the “Sinful Messiah” series of articles on Branch Davidian leader David Koresh, formerly Vernon Howell (see November 3, 1987 and After). Based on interviews with former members of the sect, the series accuses Koresh of being a “cult leader” who physically abuses children and takes underage brides, even raping one of them. [Waco Tribune-Herald, 3/3/1993; XTimeline, 7/2010] Two weeks into the standoff, Newsweek will publish an article on Koresh and the Davidians that draws heavily on the Waco Tribune-Herald series. [Newsweek, 3/15/1993] An August 1992 investigation by the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services (DPRS) found no evidence of such claims (see April 1992).
Sexual Abuse Claims - Koresh, the series claims, advocates polygamy for himself, declaring himself the husband of multiple females of the community. The articles say he claims to be entitled to 140 wives or more, can legitimately claim any of the women in the community, has fathered at least a dozen children, and that some of his brides are as young as 12 or 13. The sources claim that Koresh annulled all the marriages among the Davidians, and told the men that they would receive their “perfect mates” in heaven. For the time they are on Earth, he told them, only he would have wives. Koresh keeps the men and women rigidly separated except during Bible studies. [Waco Tribune-Herald, 3/3/1993; XTimeline, 7/2010]
Physical Abuse Claims - The articles claim that Koresh beats children as young as eight months of age. Former Davidian Michelle Tom testified in a Michigan court custody case that Koresh beat her daughter Tarah Tom with a wooden spatula until the girl’s bottom was bruised and bloody. The girl had cried when placed on Koresh’s lap, Tom testified. A former Davidian who refuses to be identified confirms Tom’s story, saying that the little girl’s “bottom was completely black and blue.” During the same court case, Tom and other former Davidians claimed that Koresh was particularly harsh with his own son Cyrus. When Cyrus was three and living with Koresh (then Howell) in Pomona, California, Koresh once tied him to the garage for the night, after telling him that there were rats in the garage who liked to eat children. Tom and others recall hearing Cyrus scream as his father beat him.
Bringing the Apocalypse - Koresh, according to the articles, claims to be the Lamb of Heaven whose mystical task it is to open the Seven Seals of the Biblical Apocalypse, thus bringing about the end of the world. The Davidians, according to the articles, intend to slay all non-believers (whom Koresh calls “the Babylonians”) once the Apocalypse begins, and Koresh’s male children will rule at his side thereafter. Koresh says: “If the Bible is true, then I’m Christ. But so what? Look at 2,000 years ago. What’s so great about being Christ? A man nailed to the cross. A man of sorrow acquainted with grief. You know, being Christ ain’t nothing. Know what I mean?… If the Bible is true, I’m Christ. If the Bible is true. But all I want out of this is for people to be honest this time.” The sources say Koresh uses “mind control” techniques to indoctrinate his followers, including marathon sermons and Bible study sessions lasting up to 15 hours at a stretch. One former member who refuses to be named says of the sessions: “You don’t have time to think. He doesn’t give you time to think about what you’re doing. It’s just bang, bang, bang, bang, bang.” Other methods employed by Koresh include confusing, rapid-fire discourses about abstruse Biblical topics, and a propensity to force community members to listen to sermons at odd hours of the night. Another former member, also refusing to be named, says: “You felt like you were in the know. Others in the world might consider you average. Let them. They were unbelievers. But you knew something they didn’t—something that put you into the ultimate In Crowd, the ones who wouldn’t be taking a dip in the Lake of Fire.”
Sources - The sources for the article include Australians Marc Breault, described as a former “confidant” of Koresh’s who has spoken against Koresh since 1990; Breault’s wife Elizabeth Baranyi; and Jean Smith. Breault, an aspiring musician, admits to feeling resentment towards Koresh—he joined the group in hopes that he and Koresh, himself an accomplished musician, would form a successful rock band, an aspiration that would not be fulfilled. They are joined by former Indiana disk jockey David Jewell, who was never a member of the sect but who sued his ex-wife, Davidian Sherri Jewell, for custody of their daughter Kiri. Breault and other former members say Sherri Jewell was one of Koresh’s wives. Kiri lives in Michigan with her father, while Sherri remains with Koresh. (In 1995, Kiri Jewell will testify that she was raped by Koresh between the ages of 10 and 14—see July 21, 1995). Other sources include Robyn Bunds, one of Koresh’s first “wives” among the community (married to him at age 17, she says, when Koresh and his small group of followers lived in Pomona and La Verne, California). Bunds claims that Koresh told her he raped the 12-year-old sister of his wife Rachel Howell, who, Bunds says, crawled into bed with him to “get warm” and was forced to have sex with him. Koresh has denied the story, and claims to have had only two children, Cyrus and Star, both with his wife Rachel. However, birth certificates for many Davidian children are incomplete; the sources say that Koresh is the father of many of the children, and routinely has the mothers leave his name off the certificates. Bunds tells reporters: “When Vernon came along, he… said you had to give him all your money. You had to live on the property. You had to give up everything else. You had to give him your mind… your body.” She claims her parents gave well over $10,000 to Koresh’s sect and bought a house in Pomona for $100,000 in Koresh’s name (then Howell). She admits to having been jealous over having to share Koresh with his other wives, and says Koresh is the father of her son Shaun, whose birth name was Wisdom Bunds; she says Shaun is terrified of Koresh because he beat him. (Koresh says Bunds, not him, beat her son, an allegation which she admits, though she says Koresh also beat the child.) She says she left Koresh in Pomona after he began having sex with her mother Jeannine, and when he attempted to kidnap Shaun and raise him among the Waco Davidians. Jeannine Bunds is also a source, having left the Waco community shortly after her daughter left Koresh. (Don Bunds, Jeannine’s husband and Robyn’s father, remains in Waco with the Davidians.) Another source is Karl Henning or Hennig (the article uses both spellings), a Vancouver teacher who lived with the sect for two months. He says Koresh holds a “truly amazing accumulation of knowledge.” Also, the article relies on the recollections of Bruce Gent, a former Davidian who says he allowed Koresh to sleep with his teenaged daughter Nicole. Yet another source is Barbara Slawson, a member during the time of Koresh’s predecessors Lois and George Roden, who says she was never impressed with Koresh and left during the time he was solidfying his grasp on the leadership of the group. Slawson says she has two grandchildren in the group. “My primary reason for trying to help is the children,” Breault says. “They have no one else to help them. If people say we were stupid, well, that may be true. But the children aren’t.” Breault says he finally left the group after Koresh had sex with a 13-year-old Australian girl he had brought to Waco merely for sexual purposes. “I realized it wasn’t a matter of Biblical anything,” Breault later testifies during the Jewell custody case. “He just wanted to have sex with her.” Koresh says that Breault sees himself as a rival prophet attempting to convince his followers to join with him against Koresh, and says that Breault is the source of the stories of his alleged sexual relations with underage girls. Breault admits telling Australian Davidians that he, too, is a prophet, though he says he eventually confessed that he had lied to get the Davidians away from Koresh, and that for a time he attempted to create a breakaway, rival sect of the Davidians.
Emotional Control - Jeannine Bunds says Koresh does not physically restrain his members. “I’m over 21, intelligent,” she says. “I could have walked at any time. I chose to stay. He doesn’t keep you. You can leave. What you have to understand, though, is he keeps you by emotion. When you’re down there, it’s all so exciting. You don’t know what he’ll come up with next. I guess everyone is looking for Utopia, Shangri-La. You don’t want any problems. It wasn’t all bad times, you know. The people in this are great. They’ll give you the shirt off their back. They’re nice, like everyone else in the world. Except they believe this.”
Newspaper Asked to Hold Off Publishing Stories - Tribune-Herald managing editor Barbara Elmore says the newspaper put eight months of research into the stories, and held off printing them after federal authorities asked her “not to run anything.” The head of the BATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) task force investigating Koresh (see June-July 1992) says the stories did not influence the agency’s decision to raid the Davidian compound near Waco (see 5:00 A.M. - 9:30 A.M. February 28, 1993). [Waco Tribune-Herald, 3/3/1993] After the BATF raid, Tribune-Herald editor Bob Lott defends his newspaper’s decision to publish the story, saying: “We’d been working on this story for eight months. It contained a lot of information the public ought to know. We decided it was time to let the public know about this menace in our backyard.… I’m under siege. There has been the suggestion that somehow we are responsible for this tragedy.” BATF spokeswoman Sharon Wheeler says the bureau has no complaints about Lott or the Tribune-Herald, but an unidentified BATF agent has allegedly said part of the responsibility for the deaths of four BATF agents during the raid rests on the local press. The bureau asked Lott to hold off publishing the series a month before the raid; the newspaper gave the bureau a day’s warning before running the first installment. [New York Times, 3/1/1993; Newsweek, 3/15/1993]
Entity Tags: David Jewell, Bruce Gent, Star Howell, Sherri Jewell, Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services, US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Waco Tribune-Herald, Cyrus Howell, Barbara Elmore, Shaun Bunds, Barbara Slawson, Branch Davidians, Bob Lott, Sharon Wheeler, Tarah Tom, Rachel Howell, Elizabeth Baranyi, Don Bunds, George Roden, Robyn Bunds, Jean Smith, Jeannine Bunds, David Koresh, Kiri Jewell, Nicole Gent, Karl Henning, Michelle Tom, Newsweek, Lois Roden, Marc Breault
Timeline Tags: 1993 Branch Davidian Crisis
BATF agents wait to assault the Branch Davidian compound. [Source: LMPD Arcade]The Branch Davidians and their leader, David Koresh (see November 3, 1987 and After), are warned of an impending raid on their compound outside Waco, Texas, by agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF—see 5:00 A.M. - 9:30 A.M. February 28, 1993). For several days, BATF agents have come into Waco from all over Texas; the day before the raid, BATF official Sharon Wheeler alerted news outlets in Dallas that “something big” was in the offing (see February 27, 1993). The morning of the raid, medical personnel alert Waco-area press and television personnel that the “feds” are preparing a large-scale exercise of some sort; some reporters and producers see evidence of the preparations for themselves. A large number of news reporters begin scouting the area for more information. Jim Peeler, a cameraman for Waco’s KWTX-TV, knows the Davidians are to be involved in the raid; he finds himself on a rural road near Mt. Carmel, the Davidian compound, where he encounters US mailman David Jones. Peeler asks directions from Jones, who, unbeknownst to Peeler, is Koresh’s brother-in-law and a Davidian affiliate. Peeler will later say that Jones seems to be doing some sort of reconnaissance when they stop their cars for their chat. Peeler tells Jones he is looking for Mt. Carmel, and they briefly discuss the “Sinful Messiah” series on Koresh that has been running in the Waco Tribune-Herald (see February 27 - March 3, 1993). Both hear the National Guard helicopters beginning their patrol. Jones asks Peeler: “Are there helicopters out here? Something’s gonna happen out here today. There’s too much traffic on the road.” Jones tells Peeler he is going home to watch television and see what is going on. Instead, he races to the compound and alerts Koresh; Jones will join the Davidians in the compound, and perish in the blaze that kills Koresh and others 51 days later (see April 19, 1993). [Dean M. Kelley, 5/1995; Austin Chronicle, 6/23/2000] Seven years later, the media learns that Peeler had been alerted to the raid by local law enforcement official Cal Luedke (see June 23, 2000). Peeler will later admit to tipping off Jones, but will claim he knew nothing of Jones’s affiliation with Koresh or the Davidians. He will say that he is sent to drive down the road until he encounters a roadblock put up by the Texas Department of Public Safety, and film whatever may happen. He will say he gets lost trying to find the road leading to the compound. Lawyer Richard DeGuerin, who will represent Koresh in the following weeks, will give a different version of Peeler’s words to Jones. DeGuerin will say: “David Jones had been out to get a paper. On the way back he was driving his car and saw someone that looked lost. He saw a newsman. After being satisfied that David was a mailman, the newsman said, ‘Well, you better get out of here because there’s a National Guard helicopter over at [Texas State Technical Institute], and they’re going to have a big shootout with the religious nuts.’” Jones drives to Mt. Carmel and alerts Koresh and his father, Koresh’s top aide Perry Jones, to the impending raid. [Newsweek, 5/3/1993; Dallas Morning News, 8/28/1993; Time, 10/11/1993] Later allegations that the Davidians were tipped off by Peeler’s colleague, KWTX-TV reporter John McLemore, will be disproven. [Dallas Morning News, 8/28/1993] Lieutenant Gene Barber of the Waco Sheriff’s Department will later testify that local police believe another possible source of information for KWTX-TV was an “informant” at the local ambulance company. Barber will say that on several earlier occasions, when police had put the ambulance company on standby, a KWTX-TV camera crew was sent to the site of the police activity even though the police had not disclosed it to the station. A 1996 House investigation of the Davidian debacle (see August 2, 1996) will conclude that not only were the Davidians aware of the impending raid, but many of them quickly prepared to “ambush” the raiders. [House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, 8/2/1996] After the raid, Virgil Teeter, the vice president of news for KWTX-TV, says he decided to send a camera crew to the Davidian compound only because of the “Sinful Messiah” articles on Saturday and Sunday morning. “We just thought it would be wise to be in the area,” he says. Teeter says no one from the station began videotaping until after the shooting started. “We didn’t go in before the agents,” he says. “We had no live coverage till long after the shooting started. There is no issue of criticizing us for our actions.” WFAA-TV in Dallas will broadcast some live footage from the raid and its aftermath, and that footage is broadcast nationally on CNN. [New York Times, 3/1/1993]
Entity Tags: Sharon Wheeler, Texas Department of Public Safety, Texas National Guard, US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Waco Tribune-Herald, Richard DeGuerin, Virgil Teeter, Perry Jones, Texas State Technical Institute, John McLemore, Cal Luedke, David Jones (Waco), Branch Davidians, KWTX-TV, David Koresh, Gene Barber, Jim Peeler
Timeline Tags: 1993 Branch Davidian Crisis
A cease-fire ends a violent, bloody conflict between the Branch Davidians, a group of religious separatists in their Waco, Texas, compound, and agents from the Bureau of Tobacco, Alcohol and Firearms (BATF, sometimes abbreviated ATF), who launched a raid on the compound to serve search and arrest warrants on Davidian leader David Koresh (see 5:00 A.M. - 9:30 A.M. February 28, 1993 and 9:30 A.M. and After, February 28, 1993). The cease-fire goes into effect after about 90 minutes of the two sides exchanging gunfire. Four BATF agents are dead and 16 are wounded, some severely. The agents retreat to a safe distance, where they mill around aimlessly; the commanders have not given the agents a plan for retreat or failure. The Davidians also withdraw inside their compound. Five Davidians, including a woman nursing her baby, are dead, and several, including Koresh, are wounded; Koresh suffers gunshot wounds in the hand and the side. (Two of the Davidians may have been killed by their fellows after being gravely wounded by BATF fire.) Three Davidians attempting to get to the main building from a warehouse on the property are apprehended by BATF agents; one is killed, one is arrested, and one escapes. In total, six Davidians are killed. [Dean M. Kelley, 5/1995; PBS Frontline, 10/1995; House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, 8/2/1996]
Media Contacts - During the raid, CNN receives calls from Davidian Steve Schneider. CNN producers verify that Schneider is indeed inside the compound, and set up an interview with Koresh for this evening (see 5:00 p.m. February 28, 1993 and After). [New York Times, 3/1/1993]
Negotiations and Implementation - The cease-fire takes some time to implement. Senior BATF agent James Cavanaugh succeeds in convincing Koresh and Schneider to agree to a cease-fire. Schneider has to walk through the main building to tell his people to stop firing; Cavanaugh has no direct radio link to his agents, and has to go through team leaders to tell them to stop firing. The cease-fire has been agreed upon for several minutes before the shooting finally concludes. As part of a 1996 House investigation of the Davidian debacle (see August 2, 1996), Cavanaugh will say: “I called the compound directly on the phone from the undercover house. I reached… Schneider. I told him I was an ATF agent and I wanted to talk to him about this situation. As should be expected, the activity inside the compound was very frantic, people were screaming and yelling, and there was still shooting going on both sides. Steve was very excited and very hostile. I wanted to negotiate a cease-fire, and he [Schneider] was agreeable. I am not going to be good on the time of how long it took, but it took a little while to negotiate that. He had to go throughout the compound, which is very large, telling everyone not to shoot. While he was doing this, there was still shooting going on both sides. I had to get on the command net frequency and tell the commanders on the ground there not to shoot, and they had to relay that to all 100 agents, who were around there, so it took a little time to arrange it. Once I returned to the rear command post I called back in on the telephone to the residence about 2:00 p.m. and I spoke with Steve and David Koresh about what was going on. We had long conversations about the warrant, and we also had a lot of conversations about Biblical passages and Mr. Koresh’s belief that he was the Lamb of God, who would open the Seven Seals. As you might assume, he was very hostile, very angry, and very upset.” [House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, 8/2/1996] In the following days, Koresh will tell local reporters by phone that he is shot in the “gut” and his two-year-old daughter is dead from BATF gunfire. He will also leave a message on his mother’s answering machine in Chandler, Texas, which says in part: “Hello, Mama. It’s your boy.… They shot me and I’m dying, all right? But I’ll be back real soon, OK? I’ll see y’all in the skies.” [Newsweek, 3/15/1993] The body of the Davidian slain while trying to return to the compound, Michael Schroeder, will lie untouched in a gully for four days before authorities retrieve it; those authorities will wait 11 days before informing Schroeder’s parents of his death (see March 11, 1993).
Death Toll - The four BATF agents slain in the raid are: Conway LeBleu, Todd McKeehan, Robert Williams, and Steve Willis. The six Davidians slain in the raid are Schroeder, Winston Blake, Peter Gent, Peter Hipsman, Perry Jones, and Jaydean Wendell. [Dallas Morning News, 2/27/2003] (Initial reports of the death toll inside the Davidian compound range from seven to 15; those reports are later determined to be wrong.) [New York Times, 3/3/1993]
FBI Takes Control - Within hours of the raid’s conclusion, the FBI will take control of the situation and besiege the compound (see 12:00 p.m. February 28, 1993).
Criticism of BATF Tactics - Soon after, the FBI publicly criticizes the BATF’s decision to storm the compound in a frontal assault. “It’s against our doctrine to do a frontal assault when women and children are present,” one FBI agent says. BATF spokeswoman Sharon Wheeler explains: “We were outgunned. They had bigger firearms than we did.” But former New York City Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward says of that explanation: “‘Outgunned’ is a euphemism for ‘outplanned,’ or ‘unplanned.’ They did it backwards. The accepted way is to talk first and shoot second.” Vic Feazell, a former district attorney for the area, says of Koresh and the Davidians, “They’re peaceful and nonaggressive unless they are attacked.” By going in, guns blazing, the BATF played right into the group’s apocalyptic vision, he says. “They would see this as a holy war provoked by an oppressive government.” [Newsweek, 3/15/1993]
Standoff Will End in Fiery Conflagration - Most of the Davidians, including Koresh, will die in a fiery conflagration after a 51-day standoff with FBI agents (see April 19, 1993). After the site is secured, Texas law enforcement officials will recover over 300 firearms from the compound, as well as numerous live grenades, grenade components, and hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition. [US Department of Justice, 7/16/1995; PBS Frontline, 10/1995]
Entity Tags: Peter Hipsman, Sharon Wheeler, Robert Williams, Steve Schneider, Vic Feazell, Todd McKeehan, Steve Willis, Winston Blake, Peter Gent, Perry Jones, US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Jaydean Wendel, Benjamin Ward, CNN, Conway LeBleu, Branch Davidians, Federal Bureau of Investigation, David Koresh, Michael Schroeder, James Cavanaugh
Timeline Tags: 1993 Branch Davidian Crisis
Lawyers for two of the Branch Davidians currently besieged inside their compound by FBI forces ask a federal magistrate to impound a videotape of the federal raid on the compound (see 5:00 A.M. - 9:30 A.M. February 28, 1993 and March 1, 1993). Officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF, also abbreviated as ATF) say they have already turned the videotape over to Texas law enforcement authorities. The videotape, shot from a National Guard helicopter which served as a BATF “command post” for the raid, may help determine whether the Davidians or BATF agents fired the first shots of the firefight, which claimed 10 lives. The tape has not been made public. BATF spokeswoman Sharon Wheeler says, “All I can tell you is that the tape is in the custody of the Texas Rangers.” The Rangers have been investigating the shootout as a possible prelude to state charges against cult members. Jack Zimmerman, representing Davidian aide Steve Schneider (see March 29-31, 1993), says the BATF “is not a disinterested party,” and may be attempting to edit or alter the videotape. “Should the videotapes and audiotapes reveal shortcomings on the part of the ATF,” Zimmerman says, “it would not be in the interest of the ATF to retain unaltered damning videotapes and audiotapes.” BATF officials say such assertions are groundless. [New York Times, 4/7/1993] Zimmerman and fellow lawyer Richard DeGuerin claim that BATF agents fired first, and that agents fired on the compound from helicopters; the bureau denies both assertions (see April 4-5, 1993).
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