Portrait Of Koresh Full Of Contradictions -- Parents Try To Reconcile Memories As Ex-Followers Paint Other Image

WACO, Texas - The family of Vernon Wayne Howell remembers a personable kid with a gift for resurrecting broken machinery.

Some former followers of David Koresh describe him as a disagreeable, profane bully. The Waco Tribune-Herald reports he had sex with young girls in the name of God. And Koresh, the son of a carpenter, claims to be Jesus Christ returned.

Howell, the boy who knocked around Dallas and East Texas with a pooch named Jet Fuel, became Koresh, the cult leader now tied to the death of four federal agents.

Vernon Howell, born out of wedlock, didn't meet his father until he was 17, family members said. David Koresh, an identity born of his religious convictions, is the self-acclaimed representative of God for more than 75 people.

Even his mother seemed confused by the contradictions yesterday. "He is not a vicious person," she said. "He's not the monster experts say he is. He loves children."

His paternal grandmother blamed the government for starting the violence that also may have killed two of Koresh's followers and left 16 federal agents wounded. "I know they did. In my heart, I know they did," Jean Holub said. "Because he was a loving child, wanted to help everybody."

She remembered the infant who lived with her.

"I kept him, rocked him, sang to him," said Holub, a 68-year-old former seamstress.

But a former follower quoted as part of an investigation by the Waco newspaper offered a radically different view.

"He has totally changed," said Robyn Bunds. "He was really nice. He was humble. He was very well-mannered. Over the years, though, he's lost a lot of those qualities. He's become this obnoxious, foul-mouth, pushy person because of the power he has over these people."

Koresh's relatives yesterday recounted childhood stories in a futile attempt to reconcile the person they knew with the carnage near Waco.

His mother spoke reverently of how he memorized the New Testament when he was 12, about the same time he was struggling in grammar school to overcome a learning disability.

"He would come home and go out to the barn and pray for hours," she said. "I've seen him sitting by his bed, on his knees for hours, crying and praying."

His maternal grandmother, Erline Clark, tearfully spoke of the boy who lived with her as a toddler, then returned for a year in his teens. Clark, 68, said young Vernon called her Mama and was "never a trouble-starter." His passion, then and now, was fishing, she said.

"Anywhere he lived, he fished," she recounted. She pulled out a photo of the boy, his dog and a fishing rod.

Young Vernon, his mother and the man she married later lived in the Dallas area, near Chandler and in Tyler. He attended public and church schools but was grounded firmly in Seventh-day Adventist doctrine, his family said.

Clark, a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, speculated why her grandson twisted so far from what he once believed.

Clark said Koresh was passionate about religion by the time he was in his late teens.

He frequently volunteered for different church programs, but grew frustrated at not being invited to participate more often in Adventist activities, she said.

He was pushed away by some members of the church after he developed a romantic attachment to the daughter of an Adventist minister, she said.

"It was mostly the coldness of the church he was in that affected him," she said.

She was troubled by some of what Koresh had told her recently about his life. In their last extensive conversation before the siege, he told her that he had eight wives and 13 children. Even so, Clark doubted published reports that her grandson had sex with young girls.

"Vernon may have had a few young wives, but he would never abuse any children," she said.

Koresh's family said that the young man left school before graduating and started a search for religious truth that eventually led to the Branch Davidians and Sunday's violence.

First, he searched out the father he had never met, said his father's mother, Holub. "He did that on his own," she said. "He came to Houston and started calling Howells until one of them knew where I was, and he came to see me."

She called his father, Bobby, who now lives near Liberty, Texas, and has six other children, and they had a reunion that she still remembers fondly. "Everybody hugged everybody," she said.

But even then, the would-be prophet was deeply into religion, his father recalled distastefully.

"I told him I didn't want to talk religion," Howell said.

Koresh spent the next few years traveling the world, family members say. For a while he was in California and Australia, where he lived with branches of his cult.

In 1987, he and seven of his followers were back in Waco, engaging in a shootout over the very property now besieged by federal agents.

Koresh and his followers were charged with attempted murder and criminal conspiracy for trying to kill George Roden, a rival sect leader who then controlled the compound.

El-Hadi Shabazz was the McLennan County assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case. Though none of the men was convicted, Shabazz said yesterday he could see where Koresh's religious approach was leading.

"It didn't take any special kind of prophecy to predict that just what's happening now was inevitable. You have a man who is considered the Messiah, who was the guru of this group, and who would do anything he asked them to do. Anything," Shabazz said.