Twelve-year-old Benjamin Pace is clearly enjoying himself as he steers the family riding mower in lazy arcs around the lawn under a hot Texas sun.
His mother, Alexa, sweeps clippings from the nearby sidewalk. Family friend Ophelia Santoyo waters rose bushes alongside the yard. The scent of the grass and the drone of the mower complete a scene of domestic tranquillity repeated thousands of times a day in towns and suburbs across America.
But this is no ordinary American home. One of Benjamin’s favorite pastimes is digging up spent shell casings in the yard, remnants of a ferocious gun battle 14 years ago.
Charred timbers, buried in weeds, can be found nearby. The Pace family lives at Mount Carmel, the infamous land outside Waco, Texas, where David Koresh and his Branch Davidian followers went down in flames in 1993 after a 51-day standoff with the federal government.
Charles Pace brought his wife and three children to this bloodstained land in the hopes of revitalizing the Branch Davidian faith and preserving the memories of those who died here, including four federal agents.
“We believe that this place is full of the Holy Ghost,” said Pace, “because this was a church community, and we all worshipped the Holy Spirit here.”
Pace preaches at Mount Carmel in a handsome, recently built chapel. He treats patients with various new-age therapies in a double-wide trailer dubbed a “wellness center.” There’s a memorial with a stone marker for each of those who died on the property in 1993, as well a small, one-room building slated to be a visitor’s museum.
The Branch Davidian sect is a tiny offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventists. Pace has been a Davidian since 1973 but left after a 1984 confrontation with David Koresh.
Pace nonetheless believes the Waco tragedy was inevitable.
“This was prophesied that it would happen,” he said. “We members of the church knew that this was going to happen. He told everyone that he was taking on sin and that he was going to die. And he was going to be basically punished for what he was doing.”
Today, Pace greets a steady stream of curious tourists from around the world.
“There’s a lot people who come to find out if this really happened,” he says. “[They ask] ‘Did this guy really claim to be this, and did he really have these wives?’ and yes, I’m the first one to say yes. But it was allowed for him to do that for a reason.”
What Charles Pace lacks are followers. At a recent Saturday morning service, he preached to his family, three friends and seven members of the news media.
The small audience does not dampen his enthusiasm for his cause, or his indignation at what happened in 1993. Prophesied or not, he still holds the government responsible for the deaths of so many, especially the 21 children who died in the fire.
“They came here to save the children — they slaughtered the children!” he thundered.
Pace’s latest cause may just attract some anti-government types to Mount Carmel. The state of Texas is considering building a north-south superhighway through the Waco area, part of a massive statewide project known as the Trans-Texas Corridor.
One county map, drawn up merely for “guesstimating costs,” the county insists, shows the highway going straight through Mount Carmel.
“I’m getting very militant,” said Pace. “Because I want to vindicate these people’s names — I don’t want them to be forgotten and paved over. They want to put a road through here and just destroy this whole place, basically pave it over. I think that would be a sacrilege.”
Will he fight the highway project?
“Yes, we’re going to fight it,” he said. “They’ll have to carry my cold body off this place. Or bury me here with the rest of them.”
Tough, provocative words from a man occupying the site of one more violent chapters in American history. But Pace said he’s not talking about taking up arms.
The state of Texas says that while Mount Carmel lies within a large swath of land being studied for the project, no decisions have been made about the actual route. The building of the highway, if it ever happens, would be many years away.
In the meantime, Pace continues his lonely ministry, raising his family in a beautiful, if haunted place, fixated on keeping its memory alive.
The few Davidians who survived the siege of 1993 seem not to want much to do with him. They tend to believe that Koresh was a messiah figure who would one day return, and they view Pace as a nonbeliever.
One exception is Ophelia Santoyo, who escaped the compound before losing her daughter and five grandchildren in the fire, and who lives at Mount Carmel with the Pace family.
Santoyo still believes David Koresh was “the Lamb of God” but seems unconcerned about Pace’s views. She says it simply brings her comfort to live at the spot where her loved ones died, including Koresh.
“I’m waiting for them to come back,” she said. “I’m waiting to be able to see them again.”