Bonnie Haldeman—the mother of the infamous Branch Davidian leader David Koresh—was found dead last Friday at her sister’s home in the East Texas town of Chandler. The 64-year-old nurse had been stabbed to death. Her sister is being held without bail.
I interviewed Haldeman last year when I compiled an oral history about the 1994 Branch Davidian siege, fifteen years after the fact. We had several pleasant phone conversations, which I have included highlights of below. None of this material made it into my final story, but it provides some interesting insights into who David Koresh was. As for Haldeman, she was gregarious and funny and disarming; she called me “honey” and “sugar”. She was only sixteen when she had her son (born Vernon Howell), and she told me that she had tried to be the very best mother that she could be. Here are some excerpts of our conversations.
On her son as a child:
He was a very inquisitive kid. I would buy things, and he would end up taking them apart to see how they worked, especially electronics and stuff. He was a very curious person. He taught himself how to fix lawnmowers and how to roof a house when he was just a kid. Growing up, he had a hard time in school. The first few grades, they said he had a learning disability. He was in special classes when we lived in Richardson. But he was always wanting to learn and explore. He asked a lot of questions. He used to say he stuttered, but I never heard him stutter. He was too much of a talker. He loved to tell stories. If we were sitting around the campfire or something—we used to camp out a lot—he would tell stories, made-up stories, you know, and ghost stories. When he was twelve or thirteen, he started reading the Bible and listening to radio preachers.
He had a lot of friends. He’d get out and work in the yard and climb trees and run around with his dog and ride his bike. He wasn’t a sit-in-front-of-the-TV kind of guy. He taught himself how to play the guitar, and he went through a stage as a teenager where he wanted to be a rock star. We bought him the guitar and the wah wahs and the speakers and he nearly drove us crazy. We’d come home in the evenings, and he’d be blasting that music so we had to move him out to the barn. The neighbors complained but, you know, that’s typical. He said he was going to be a rock star. In those years he was a little bit rebellious. He didn’t want to cut his hair and all that sort of stuff.
On the beginning of his spiritual transformation:
He met and fell in love with this girl named Linda. About that time, I guess, that’s when he really started thinking about the Lord. Linda’s dad had always approved of him and let him stay over at their house and stuff. And then Linda comes up pregnant, and all of a sudden, her dad didn’t want him to have anything to do with her anymore. And that sort of devastated him. And I can understand; she was just fifteen and he was nineteen. Sort of like my story, but that’s another story. So he was living in his car, and he started praying. He was going to graveyards and praying and going to all the preachers around the area and asking questions. He was really going through a lot of changes and things.
Well, he started studying the femininity of the Holy Spirit. He found that in the Bible, you know. He said, “Hey, the Holy Spirit is not male or part of the Godhead.” And he presented that at church. He had made a diagram of the big-breasted woman that is talked about in Revelation and in Genesis. It didn’t go over very well.
On the Branch Davidian encampment that Koresh briefly maintained in Palestine, Texas:
I went there several times to visit. I fell in love with the people. It was a very small group—simple, kept the Sabbath, ate healthy. They had no running water, no electricity. We did get a phone, and we ran it—the cord—all the way through the woods. We had one phone. We’d go to the town and fill up all these jugs and have water. Boy, you can take a good shower with a gallon of water.
On her son’s 51-day standoff with the federal government:
One time I talked to—I believe it was Brian Sage, or one of the other negotiators. He said, “Miss Haldeman, do you think if you got inside that you could talk David into coming out?” And I said, “No, I don’t. Because David doesn’t listen to me, David listens to God.” I said: “I had been in many situations when David said God told him to wait and—even if we were supposed to go somewhere—we waited. Because, you know, if God told David to wait, we’re not going anywhere. So if God tells David to come out, he’ll come out, but he’s not going to come out just because Momma says to come out.”
On the day that the Branch Davidian compound burned to the ground, with her son and, by her estimation, approximately thirteen of her grandchildren inside of it:
I was taking care of my patients. I had worked all night, and it was real early in the morning. I was giving my patient her medicine, and I had the TV on real low. I watched the tanks start pounding into the house there. I thought, “Oh my God, what’s going on?” Later, when I start seeing that smoke, I kept looking for people who were coming out. Of course, we couldn’t see very well. But I kept thinking as the fire went on, “Well, maybe they went down underground” and maybe this and maybe that. Now don’t ask me too much about that day. I just know Connie Chung from A Current Affair called me and said, “What are you feeling right now, Bonnie?” How do you describe it, you know? I kept thinking, well, “Maybe David got out,” or “Surely the kids got out.” You keep hoping even after you see nothing but ashes.