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The Branch Davidians are making a comeback. The sect became infamous in 1993 when federal agents raided their compound to try to arrest David Koresh and some of his followers on gun charges. What ensued was a 51-day siege that ended with the deaths of more than 80 members of the sect and four federal agents, and also left the Branch Davidian compound in flames.
As NPR's Dina Temple Raston reports, the group has resurrected itself from the ashes of the siege with a new leader and new confrontations.
DINA TEMPLE RASTON: No signs mark the way to the Branch Davidian community on Mount Carmel but tourists find it anyway. The home of the Branch Davidians sits just 10 miles outside of Waco in central Texas - off Farm Road 2491 and Double EE Ranch. Charles Pace is the new leader of the group, and he watches tourists walk around the ruins.
CHARLES PACE: I believe that the Holy Spirit leads them here. They come here to learn something and they will take whatever they came to learn - take it with them. But they are coming to find out what in the world did happen here. I want to know. I want to know if this was really true - and if it was true, why did this happen? And that gives me a chance to explain it to them. This was a judgment of God.
TEMPLE RASTON: A harsh judgment indeed.
PACE: My children are still finding bullets and spent casings here, still.
TEMPLE RASTON: There isn't much for the visitors to see. After the fire, government bulldozers came in and razed what was left of the buildings. There's only the vague outline of a foundation, 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. But even that grove has been a source of conflict. Last year, Pace chopped down David Koresh's tree.
PACE: To honor him, David Koresh, in this way would be an abomination to God. So God told me to take his stone marker and break it up in pieces and to chop his tree down. I'd like to show it to you if you want. Right, let's see here.
(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD CHIRPING)
PACE: The stone is right here. You can actually see - see, there's an O there and an R for Koresh.
TEMPLE RASTON: You can imagine Pace's plan did not sit well with survivors at the siege, like Catherine Matteson.
CATHERINE MATTESON: He never believed in David. He thinks he's the next one to David. How can he be the next one if he didn't even know what David taught? Charlie is teaching Charlie, what Charlie believes. David was teaching the Bible.
TEMPLE RASTON: Matteson is 91 years old, and a true believer. She lived on Mount Carmel for 40 years and left after the siege. When I visit 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 says Koresh is the Lamb of God and Charles Pace is a fake.
MATTESON: He wasn't a prophet. Never has been, he never will be. He has his own message now and he thinks he's Jonah; and he thinks he's - he thinks he's so many things, you know?
TEMPLE RASTON: Following a conversation with the Branch Davidian isn't easy. They preach a mixture of interpretations from the Book of Revelations and conspiracy theory. 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 so they could be used to enforce martial law. Pace said the government wanted to cover up their plot.
With that in mind, it isn't too surprising that when the Texas Department of Transportation announced that it would build a super highway that might run right through Mount Carmel, the Branch Davidians saw conspiracy written all over it.
PACE: It's going to go right through where all our buildings are - where we live. Right through this place I am standing right here. It's going to be a swath that goes right through kitty-corner right through our wellness center, our museum and even our cemetery. It is going to miss that neighbor's house over here. It's going to miss the neighbor's house over there, but it's going to go right through our property. And I think that was pretty strategic.
TEMPLE RASTON: 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 Trans-Texas Corridor would gobble up more than a half-million acres of private property under something called eminent domain, which allows the government to seize land for the public good. Still, the news of the highway plays into the Branch Davidians' worst fears.
Byron Sage, the FBI's chief negotiator during the 1993 siege knows the group well.
BYRON SAGE: This type of a project could easily play into some of that paranoia even though, you know, hopefully they'll be able to check public records and so forth to determine that it wasn't specifically diverted to go through their property.
TEMPLE RASTON: But the public records, which show the highway banking left when it gets close to Waco, only seem to confirm Charles Pace's belief that this highway is another test for the Branch Davidians.
PACE: This is where the Lord puts an end to it. He's going to judge this nation once and for all. And this is where the judgment begins, right here. And that's why we were judged here, the government is going to be judged here too. That's what God is saying. And that's what I believe God is trying to say too.
TEMPLE RASTON: Whether that judgment has to include violence is unclear. Former FBI agent Byron Sage.
SAGE: Are they dangerous? I don't personally feel based upon the limited knowledge that I have, that the current group would be characterized as, quote, "dangerous" but there are individuals that may well seize upon the notoriety of the group based upon this tragedy in 1993 to kind of try to get their 15 minutes of fame at the expense of others.
TEMPLE RASTON: The FBI declined to be interviewed on tape for this story, although they did say they weren't keeping any special eye on the Branch Davidians. That won't happen unless they see signs of criminal activity. 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. Governor Rick Perry said he will veto the moratorium. But for the Branch Davidians, the bill might be a reprieve.
Dina Temple Raston, NPR News.
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