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In interviews, his relatives frequently returned to the rejection they said he encountered from older males and father figures. "Vernon seemed to be always wanting to be accepted and loved by the men in his life and it never seemed like he got what he was looking for," said one relative.

By 1978, Vernon was 18 and facing an uncertain future.

At that time, he was dating a waitress named Debbie Owens, then 16. Never, Owens said, not once in the seven months they dated, did she ever hear Vernon talk about the Bible or religion. What she did discover was that he was seeing another girl in Dallas, a girl who family members said eventually became pregnant.

In the months that followed, Howell headed into what family members and friends described as a pivotal emotional crisis.

When the girl's father refused to allow him to marry his pregnant lover, Howell returned to live in Chandler and, with Sharon, began going to the Tyler Seventh-Day Adventist Church.

"He was going through a chastising," Sharon said, seeking atonement for the guilt he felt over his sexual appetite.

From the first day he walked into a midweek prayer meeting, said Bob Bockmann, now an elder in the Tyler church, Howell commanded attention.

The Tyler congregation was delighted to have a young, apparently fallen-away member return to the faith. Bockmann and his wife, Maggie, befriended Howell, and Bockmann said the young man seemed to be burning with guilt over his former devotion to playing rock'n'roll, with what he felt was its "satanic influence," his past sex life, and resentment that he had not been permitted to marry his ex-girlfriend.

In a church with strict moral values, the reformed Howell suddenly became everyone's judge, especially when it came to the conduct of women. "He became very strait-laced," Bockmann said. Adding to the tension was the fact that Howell seemed able to command the rapt attention of younger members.

And whatever his feelings of sexual guilt, he used the church to develop relationships with women, both platonic and sexual. "He alluded that he was attracted to me," recalled Bockmann's wife, Maggie, who was much older than Vernon.

His younger aunt, Sharon, said she believes that this period was the last, best chance for anyone to have interrupted Vernon Howell's transformation into David Koresh. His life might have turned out differently, she said, had Howell not been captivated by a powerful series of revival meetings sponsored by the church.

They were called Revelation Seminars and were conducted by evangelist Jim Gilley of Arlington, Texas, a rousing speaker. They featured dramatic, even frightening, images in a multimedia portrayal of the Apocalypse as foretold in the Book of Revelation. Howell felt he could expand on Gilley's teachings. Gilley said in an interview that Howell approached him one night and offered to reorganize the show and change its message. Gilley said he rejected the offer.

"That's when it took off," Sharon said. "That's when he really became serious.

"Vernon said that even Mr. Gilley had a piece of the puzzle missing," she said. It was the Seventh Seal, something that could be opened only by a new prophet. The Seven Seals, as described in the Book of Revelation, bind a scroll held in God's right hand that foretells the calamities that precede the Apocalypse.

Sharon said Vernon was convinced that it was time "to have a new prophet and a new light" in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, and that he was quite possibly that person.

Vernon tried hard to bring his message to the Tyler congregation, but by that point, they had had their fill of him. Following his formal rejection from the church, he took a high-speed turn into the insular world of the Branch Davidians, a group formed 60 years ago by a man named Victor Houteff, another disaffected Seventh-Day Adventist who quit the church after becoming convinced that he was a prophet. Since then, the Branch Davidians always had had a prophet living in their midst, someone who could convey the "message."