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Cult planned sham marriages for members: Former wife says Howell forced her to ‘wed’ member so he could stay in U.S.

Cult planned sham marriages for members: Former wife says Howell forced her to ‘wed’ member so he could stay in U.S.

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It’s safe to say Robyn Bunds was a reluctant bride when she married fellow Branch Davidian Cliff Sellors at a Las Vegas wedding chapel in September 1989.

For one thing, she already was one of the many “wives” of the cult’s charismatic leader, Vernon Howell. She had become part of the House of David — Howell’s harem — after several sessions of Bible study and a night of sex.

“I was just like sick to my stomach,” Bunds said earlier this week of exchanging vows with Sellors. “I would never have dreamed of marrying Cliff.”

However, Sellors, an accomplished artist valued by Howell, was a British citizen whose visa was about to expire. The easiest way to keep Sellors in the United States, “Howell said, was to arrange a “sham” marriage with Bunds.

Bunds said there was never any real chance that she would defy Howell, who, at times has claimed to be Jesus Christ. After a last-minute phone call back to Texas, Bunds and Sellors were married, making it legal for Sellors to stay in the United States.

“I was scared that if I left the group, that my soul would be lost,” Bunds said. “I wanted to do the right thing and, at the time, it was the right thing.”

Later, Howell also arranged at least four other such illegal unions between Americans and foreign nationals in the cult, according to former Branch Davidians.

“He just had people get married so they could stay here,” Bunds said. “I was single, and he thought Cliff and I would make a good couple so he told us to get married.”

In all, more than 10 adults from Australia, Canada, Great Britain, Israel and New Zealand are still with Howell, also known as David Koresh.

Except for Bunds, all of the players in the shams are still believed to be holed up at Mount Carmel.

The crafting of the phony marriages, ex-cult members said, is another example of the preeminent role Howell plays in the lives of his followers.

“People are under his control, so he would tell them to do this,” said Marc Breault, a former top lieutenant of Howell’s.

Said Bunds, “Everybody feels what he is doing is in their best interest.”

In January 1992, Sellors, represented by attorney and cult member Wayne Martin, divorced Bunds, who had broken with the group in the summer of 1990.

After leaving the Branch Davidians, Bunds and other former cult members, some using Australian private detective Geoffrey Hossack as a go-between, told U.S. immigration and other officials about the sham marriages.

“They apparently got a hold of a couple of couples,” Hossack said.

One report came from a 72-year-old Australian woman who said that in 1990 Howell had unsuccessfully tried to get her to marry one of the American cult members so she could stay in this country.

“This ruse has been carried out, to my knowledge, with four other members to achieve the same purpose,” said Jean Smith in an affidavit made for a Howell-related child-custody case in Michigan last year.

Other successful law-evading marriages set up by Howell included those between Nicole Gent, of Australia, and Jeff Little; Aisha Gyarfas, of Australia, and Greg Sommers; Novelette Sinclair, of Canada, and Peter Hippsman; and Ruth Houtmann, of Canada, and Jimmy Riddle.

But in the eyes of Howell, all the women — some of them mothers of his children — belonged to him.

“We couldn’t end it, but there were several times when we were threatened,” Bunds said. “He would divorce us, but his way of divorcing us was not to have sex with you. You couldn’t marry anyone else.”

In the Bunds-Sellors union, Bunds lived in one of the cult’s California houses, and Sellors stayed in a room next to the garage.

“There was no sex involved,” Bunds said. “It was a marriage of convenience, and, well, I didn’t want to do it, but I had to because I wanted to make Vernon happy.”

To make the scam work, Bunds and Sellors worked out stories, Bunds said, to use if they were questioned by officials of the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service.

“We would make up things so that when we went in for an interview at the INS, people would believe that we were a married couple,” Bunds said.

After breaking with the Branch Davidians in 1990, Bunds said, she told INS officials in Los Angeles about the sham marriages, including her own.

As far as she could tell, the INS took no action, Bunds said.

INS spokesman Rico Cabrera in Los Angeles said the Tribune-Herald would have to file a request under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act to review agency files on Bunds and Sellors.

To legally marry here, a foreigner must have entered the country legally and without a prior intent to wed.

Verne Jervis, and INS spokesman in Washington, said INS agents are at Mount Carmel, but cult members will not be prosecuted for immigration violations until after they serve any prison terms in connection with the shootout.

After leaving the Branch Davidians, Bunds said, she was hoping to get a divorce but had no idea how or where to get one. She didn’t find out until last year that Sellors had beaten her to the punch two years earlier.

Cult members had left behind divorce papers and other documents when they abandoned a house that had been given to them by Bunds’ parents.

“I was so happy. I threw all the papers up in the air because I didn’t know how to do it,” she said. “I was happy. Man, I was so happy.”

Tribune-Herald staff writer Mark England contributed to this story.

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