On Feb. 28, 1993, agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives raided the Texas compound of the Branch Davidians religious group after accusations that their self-proclaimed doomsday prophet, David Koresh, had been sexually abusing minors and stockpiling weapons.
In an ensuing shoot-out, four federal agents and six Davidians were killed — though their deaths were only the beginning.
That gun battle 10 miles outside of Waco sparked a 51-day siege that ended on April 19 when a fire erupted, leaving 75 Davidians dead, including 25 children and Koresh. The FBI maintains the sect’s followers set the blaze, which began after authorities pumped tear gas into the compound.
One survivor described a heat so intense it peeled his skin and melted his clothes.
Twenty-five years later, a new branch of the Davidians controls the 77-acre site of the former Mount Carmel compound. The group’s leader, Charles Pace, espouses conspiracy theory and says God chose him to “rebuild a purified church and community.” He now lives on the property with his wife and two adult children.
“God wants us to gather people that believe in the truth as it is in Christ,” Pace tells PEOPLE. Of the Davidians under Koresh, he says, they thought he “was God. That was a cult.”
Pace — whom cult expert Rick Ross describes as “a relentless fundraiser” — lived at the group’s compound in the ’80s but wasn’t present during the deadly standoff. He says the inferno was an act of the Almighty to punish Koresh for “perverting our teachings.”
The exact number of Pace’s followers is unclear and he admits most of them are online, via an internet ministry: “I have more of a cyber church and a cyber following.”
Pace says he moved back to the Texas property after the fire to spread the “true Branch” message. That includes building a museum on the site dedicated to those who died and hawking videos of the Clintons’ alleged connections to the “murder” at Waco.
No matter how many supporters flock to the site of the Davidian compound, the chances of it becoming the cult it was under Koresh’s leadership seem dim. Parnell McNamara, the county sheriff, tells PEOPLE authorities “haven’t had any problems” with Pace.
Still, some surviving Branch Davidians who remain loyal to Koresh aren’t swayed by the new minister’s rhetoric.
Clive Doyle, who lived on the property for close to a decade after the fire, says Pace thinks he is “the prophet, and I haven’t bought in to what he is promoting.”
Despite this criticism, Pace plans to stay and is inviting both potential converts and the curious to visit.
“The Lord has me here for a reason,” he says.
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