If the sworn statement they are now giving attorneys and authorities is true, the fire that destroyed Waco's Mount Carmel in 1993 took David Koresh's followers unaware.
But their fate could not have come as a surprise to Koresh, a longtime rival is saying, because he warned the young Branch Davidian leader of what lay in store.
Charles Pace, who today lives in a mobile home only yards from where Koresh died, is out to convert the dead preacher's following - and anyone else who will lend an ear - by repeating predictions that he made as early as 1984. Pace claims that he, former Davidian leaders and even the Bible prophesied what happened during the 51-day federal standoff in 1993, down to the fatal blaze.
Koresh's rise and fiery fall, Pace claims, "were all part of a divine plan to show the church its sin."
Branch Davidians in Waco have largely rejected Pace's message, and some followers dispute his account of the 1984 events.
Biblical and prophetic references are a matter of interpretation, perhaps - but Pace's warnings to Koresh are a matter of record.
If Koresh accepted Pace's characterization of him, as Pace and his followers claim, then it is likely the Waco messiah believed his own death - and maybe that of his followers - had long ago been foreordained. Pace's view of Koresh, though clothed in biblical allusion and language, is parallel to that taken by spokesmen for the FBI.
"We played right into the hands of David Koresh," Byron Sage, chief FBI negotiator during the siege, declared in a television interview last month.
"He had an apocalyptic end in mind, and he used us to fulfill his own prophecy."
Regardless of their predictive value and biblical basis - or lack of such - Pace's account of his supposed warnings to Koresh provides a window into the mind of the Branch Davidians, a group that still lives in a world of scripture, prophecy and even dream interpretation - a world where everything is an act of God and part of a divine plan.
If Koresh was aggressive, sinful, heedless and even bloodthirsty, Pace said, it may well be because he knew what was in the cards - and lacked the inner strength to turn away.
For the next 12 years, Pace was in and out of Mount Carmel, sometimes its resident, sometimes its missionary.
Roden founded the Branch Davidian Seventh-day Adventist Association, an outgrowth of the Davidian Seventh-day Adventist Association, which was itself a splinter of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
The Davidian sect had settled in Waco in 1934 under the leadership of a Bulgarian immigrant and former Adventist, V.T. Houteff, whose followers split into Davidian and Branch Davidian groups after his death in 1955. By the time Vernon Howell, who would change his name to David Koresh, came to Mount Carmel in 1981, Ben Roden was dead and had been succeeded by his wife, Lois, whose teachings Branch Davidians still extol.
But in the early 1980s Mount Carmel was going through a period of turmoil. Lois Roden's son, George, then in his late 40s, apparently had doubts about his mother's claims to inspiration and openly said that when she died, he should inherit the family's prophetic mantle.
George was a hulking man, more than 6 feet tall, who often threatened other members of the flock - and often carried guns. Not long after Koresh began his rise in the sect, Pace, then living in Canada, had a dream.
"I saw a man coming out of Lois Roden's bedroom, and he looked to both sides, to see if anybody was watching. Then he went back inside," he said. The dream's meaning was a mystery to him, Pace said, until the spring of 1984, when he visited Mount Carmel for Passover observances.
"Vernon had cut his hair. He didn't have a beard anymore, and he had changed his glasses," Pace said. "I recognized him as the man in my dream." By this time even regulars at Mount Carmel, including George Roden, suspected that despite the age difference, Howell, then 24, had seduced the matronly Lois, then 67. The camp was alive with rumors, rivalries and jealousies.
Pace addressed the church for more than three hours, delivering what he dubbed "The Holy Ghost Message." His sermon was many-sided and obscure, having to do with such arcane matters as the number of figures in the godhead, but it also spoke, in a prophetic and theological way, to Mount Carmel's factional turmoil.
The Branch Davidian Seventh-day Adventist Association, Pace said, was prophetically destined to enter a period of disrepute, when it would be lead by "an apostate prince" who would in its name commit "every sin of the church since the Crucifixion."
The Branch's "Laodicean," or corrupted condition, would bring out a "persecution," followed by a "purification" that would be wrought through the "cleansing" of its apostate elements.
Turning toward his rival, Pace said that from what he had seen, Howell was destined to become the Branch's apostate prince.
He and at least one other Branch Davidian who was present, Tom Caldwell, now of California, said that following the address, Howell rose, put his arms around Pace and said, "It's true, it's all true."
"Vernon accepted the message," Pace claims. "He knew who he was, and he knew what prophetic role he had to play."
In support of this claim, Pace circulates a letter that Howell, the future Koresh, afterward wrote to the Davidians.
"The young men will abuse My kindness," the letter said. "They will take My life, but I will arise and take theirs forever more."
Howell penned the letter from an encampment in Palestine where he and his followers in 1985 had taken refuge from the gun-toting George Roden. Pace had by then abandoned Mount Carmel, and soon, Lois Roden died. George Roden found himself in charge of the property and declared himself head of the sect, a move both Pace and Howell challenged, at first, only from a distance.
Pace fell back, confined to the edges of the movement, conducting his ministry to fellow members by letter and telephone.
On Feb. 28, 1993, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms raided Mount Carmel. When it did, Pace believed the predictions he had made in his 1984 Passover address were being confirmed.
He called the FBI, offering to speak to Koresh's flock. But the FBI declined his help, so Pace wrote to Koresh, hoping to get through. His 11th-hour admonition to his old rival contained lines that, hauntingly, would come true.
"If you refuse the fire of purification - the Holy Ghost Message," Pace's missive said, "you will receive the consuming fire of judgment that will destroy you and your followers root and branch. ... The Lord will have to purify Mount Carmel by fire."
His letter never was delivered. Mail service to Mount Carmel had been suspended, and Koresh's attorney, Dick DeGuerin, to whom Pace sent the message, chose not to show it to his client.
"I was getting quite a lot of mail and faxes and such at the time, and quite a lot of it was what I'd call 'nut' mail," DeGuerin explained.
Houteff's works are still in print, several Web pages keep his interpretations alive, and there are at least three Davidian enclaves that call their headquarters "Mount Carmel Center." One is in New York, one in North Carolina, and one - not associated with the Koresh movement - in Waco. Instead of pursuing the Houteff followers, Pace in 1998 moved back to Koresh's Mount Carmel to be near the some two dozen believers who live in the area or visit at Passover time.
But his missionary work has produced no converts, at Mount Carmel or elsewhere. When he tries to take his message to the former co-religionists, they rebuff his teachings.
Teresa Moore, who still considers herself the rightful successor to Lois Roden, now disputes Pace's 1984 claims from Pennsylvania.
"Vernon Howell," she said, "was at the other end of the camp and wasn't there when Pace spoke. Charles is a liar. As long as I've known him, he's been looking for honor, glory and what have you." Koresh follower Clive Doyle is equally skeptical.
"Now that David is gone, he's trying to pick up the pieces of the old church," Doyle observed. "I don't accept his doctrines."
Doyle also lives at Mount Carmel, some 300 yards from Pace. "As far as him as a person," he added. "I kind of like Charlie. We cooperate on secular things, like plumbing and hauling rocks."
Even from the grave, Koresh dominates Pace's life. Despite his death and defamation, he still has a following that outnumbers that of his old rival, who predicted the demise of the Sinful Messiah and his church.
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