Branch Davidians See Conspiracy in Highway Project

NPR/May 18, 2007
By Dina Temple Raston

The Branch Davidians are trying to make a comeback.

The sect may be best known for its 51-day standoff that ended in the deaths of four federal agents, and a blaze that engulfed its church and killed 80 members. In the ashes of that debacle, the Branch Davidians have built a new church, adopted a new leader and found a new confrontation: a major Texas highway that threatens their land.

It isn't easy to find Mount Carmel, the 77-acre property in Central Texas where the Branch Davidians have lived for more than 60 years. There are no signs to mark the way, and while the Branch Davidians have been inextricably linked to the city of Waco, the famous compound is actually 10 miles outside Waco – on the corner of Farm Road 2491 and Double EE Ranch Road.

"I believe the Holy Spirit leads them here," said Charles Pace, the new leader of The Branch, The Lord of Righteousness sect of the church, as he watched a handful of visitors walk on the Mount Carmel property. "They come here to learn something and they will take whatever they learn with them. They are coming to find out what in the world happened here and if it is true — and if it was true, why did it happen? It gives me a chance to explain it to them. My children are still finding bullets and spent casings here, still."

The events at Waco remain a piece of unfinished national business. The government has never taken full responsibility for what happened there, and the Branch Davidians, who at the time were following a man named David Koresh, claim the storming of their property was proof positive that the U.S. government is at war with their people. Tourists arrive by the dozens to try to sort that out for themselves.

The fact is, there isn't much to see. After the fire, government bulldozers came in and razed what was left of the buildings. Now visitors can see only the vague outline of a foundation from the original building, a swimming pool filled with brackish water, and a grove of crape myrtle trees, each marked with a marble stone inscribed with the name of a Davidian who died in the siege.

As Pace sees it, this was a judgment from God or, more precisely, a judgment against David Koresh from God. And therein lies part of reason the New Branch Davidians are so divided. Pace never was a Koresh follower, and survivors of the siege think he is trying to hijack the Branch Davidians from their true course.

"Charlie never believed in David," said Catherine Matteson, a 91-year-old Koresh follower who survived the siege. "He thinks he's the next one to David. He doesn't know what David taught. Charlie is teaching Charlie, what Charlie believes. David was teaching the Bible."

Matteson lived on Mount Carmel for 40 years. She was a special assistant to Lois Roden, one of the early founders of the sect, and knew Koresh well. She believes he was the Messiah and is awaiting his return.

At her home, she removes a Ziploc bag from a closet and carefully extracts a painting of Koresh's face. It is hand-painted on the front of a T-shirt. She smoothes it out gently and the features in her face go soft. She says Koresh is the Lamb of God and, in the same breath, that Charles Pace is a fake.

"He wasn't a prophet. Never has been, never will be," Matteson said. "He has his own message and he thinks he's Jonah; he thinks so many things. But God doesn't work that way."

Pace may have earned the animosity of Koresh followers partly because he appears to be dismantling Koresh's legacy. Consider the grove of crape myrtles on the property. They stand in regimental lines just outside the new church. Last year, Pace cut down the tree for Koresh and destroyed the stone marker that bore his name.

"God told me to take his stone marker and break it up in pieces and chop his tree down," Pace said, walking across the tall grass to an empty spot in the grove. He wants to take the rest of the trees down with a backhoe in the fall. Pace also uprooted all the other stones that had marked the trees and set them in a pile at the front of the property. He wants to set them into a memorial wall. His plan does not sit well with Koresh followers and survivors of the siege. They have refused to attend services at Mount Carmel, and have started holding their own prayer meetings in downtown Waco.

Branch Davidians preach interpretations from the Book of Revelations mixed with conspiracy theory. For example, Pace says the government attacked Mount Carmel because Koresh's followers had discovered a secret plan to arm the gangs in the nation's prisons. He says the government was going to use the gangs and call for martial law, and that the government attacked the compound because it wanted to cover up its plot.

With that in mind, it isn't too surprising that when the Texas Department of Transportation announced plans to build a super highway that might run right through Mount Carmel, the Branch Davidians saw conspiracy written all over it.

"It'll go right through our buildings, where we live, right through this place I am standing – going to be a swath right through on this corner that runs right through our wellness center, our museum and even our cemetery," Pace said. "It is going to miss that neighbor's house over here and that neighbor's house over there. I think that is pretty strategic."

This isn't just Branch Davidian paranoia. The Metropolitan Planning Organization in Waco confirmed that the 77 acres that make up Mount Carmel are included in a study for the road — although the Branch Davidians are hardly alone. The highway, known as the Trans-Texas Corridor, could gobble up more than a half-million acres of private property. Texas would obtain the land through eminent domain, which allows the government to seize land for public good. Still, the news of the highway plays into the Branch Davidians' worst fears.

"This type of a project could easily play into some of that paranoia," said Byron Sage, the FBI's chief negotiator during the 1993 siege. "Hopefully they will be able to check public records and so forth to see it wasn't specifically diverted to go through their property."

But the public records, which show the highway banking left when it gets close to Waco, only seem to confirm Pace's belief that this highway is another test for the Branch Davidians. And Pace sees this as an opportunity to correct the harsh judgment his sect endured in 1993.

"This is where the Lord puts the end to it," he said. "God is going to judge this nation once and for all. And this is where the judgment begins, right here. We were judged here; the government is going to be judged here. That's what God is saying."

Whether that judgment has to include violence is unclear.

"I don't personally feel — based on the limited knowledge that I have — that the current group would be characterized as 'dangerous,'" Sage said. "But there are individuals who may well seize upon the notoriety of the group based upon this tragedy in 1993 to try to get their 15 minutes of fame at the expense of others."

The FBI declined to be interviewed on tape for this story, though it did say that it is not keeping any special eye on the Branch Davidians and it won't track them unless it sees signs of criminal activity. So far, it hasn't seen any signs, the FBI said.

Earlier this month, the Texas legislature passed a bill that would put a two-year moratorium on the awarding of contracts for the highway project. Gov. Rick Perry has said he will veto the moratorium. For the Branch Davidians, the bill might be their chance for a reprieve.

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