Waco: What Happened Next

The Branch Twenty years ago, in rural Texas, 53 adults and 23 children were incinerated after a firefight with the FBI. The tiny sect of the Branch Davidians, and its charismatic leader David Koresh, was suddenly world famous. And, dead. Or was it? 20 years on Daniel Kalder revisits Mt Carmel, the notorious “cult compound” nine 9 miles east of Waco, and finds the Davidians reborn, and awaiting a fresh apocalypse…

It’s almost as if somebody doesn’t want you to know it’s there. Certainly in Waco’s tourist office they’d rather you admired the local Dr. Pepper Museum than Mt. Carmel, the dusty scrap of land where on April 19th, 1993, the leader of the Branch Davidian sect David Koresh and his followers were consigned to the fiery death heretics have suffered since time immemorial.

That day was the culmination of a fifty-one day standoff between the FBI and Koresh. Fifty-three adults and twenty-three children died in the flames that consumed their communal home; two unborn kids burned up in their mothers’ wombs.

Twenty years later even my GPS seems equally reluctant to direct me to the spot, sending me straight past. A few years back, a proposed highway would have wiped Mt. Carmel off the map completely. For the moment, though, you can still visit, and this is what you’ll find: a handful of trailers, a small chapel, a memorial, some horses and a cluster of ducks.

They used to have a commemorative grove too, and on my first visit ten years ago, I walked through it and was stopped in my tracks by the plaques bearing the names of the dead. I remember a baby, whose name was “Little One Jones”. Was it a he? A she? I didn’t know.

I was a student in Scotland in 1993. I watched the Waco siege on TV. The media narrative went like this: CULT + GUNS + PAEDO PROPHET + CRAZY YANKS = DEATH. But what Koresh’s instant infamy obscured was that the initial raid had absolutely zero to do with the fact that he and his followers had hundreds of guns—in Texas you can own as many as you like, and besides Koresh ran a business kitting out survivalists with gear. Nor did the raid have anything to do with his Jimmy Saville-style predilection for young girls, about which rumours had been circulating.

No, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms suspected that Koresh might have converted some semi-automatic rifles to automatics without paying the necessary tax. And even though Koresh had a history of cooperating with law enforcement, the ATF decided to conduct a raid with seventy-six heavily armed agents plus a few helicopters to find out if he owed the government money. Then when Koresh learned about the raid, they went ahead anyway—and, brought along some TV cameras for the occasion. The result was a gunfight that left four agents and five Branch Davidians dead.

After that initial fiasco, the FBI took over, and their handling of the siege remains controversial to this day. Many books and films have been dedicated to answering the questions “who shot first?” and “who started the fire?” No real consensus has been reached, although the government did exonerate itself in an official report. For two decades religious scholars have criticized the FBI for using psychological warfare tactics that fulfilled Koresh’s prediction of an End Times war with “Babylon”, confirming for his followers that he really was a prophet; they suggest it would have been better to wait the Branch Davidians out. And of course, many, many people think that using teargas and tanks to rescue babies is a catastrophically stupid idea, worthy of a World War I general.

These are all important issues. However what really fascinates me about Mt. Carmel—and the reason for my return—is a different set of mysteries. After the fire, the messiah’s body was found, riddled with bullet holes and burned to a crisp. You’d think that would be enough to kill anybody’s faith. But Branch Davidians still exist, and you can find them at Mt. Carmel, in Waco, and all over the world. The question is—what do they believe now? How do they interpret the disaster that befell them? How many still believe in David Koresh, the self-proclaimed Sinful Messiah, and why?  

Meet The New Boss

Charlie PaceCharlie Pace, a “Teacher of Righteousness”, December 17th, 2012

I was nervous about meeting Charles Pace, the new leader at Mt. Carmel. I’d first read about him a few years ago, in an article in The New York Times that said he was a homeopathic doctor from Canada who had come down to Texas to revive the Branch Davidians. He now led his own sect on the property, and had declared Koresh a false prophet.

Fair enough, you might think—but that wasn’t all. Matthew Wittmer, an archivist who documents the history of Mt. Carmel, told me that Pace had been “trying to live at Mt. Carmel since the 1960s” but had been repeatedly ejected by the prophets who had run the sect before Koresh’s arrival on the scene.  He’d settled permanently at the site during the mid 90s, and had successfully driven out a group of Koresh loyalists, hacking down their messiah’s memorial tree and smashing its name plaque as an “abomination”.  Not only that, but he wanted to erect billboards featuring “images of burned up kids” to convey to visitors the “full horror” of what the FBI had done. Then there was some crazy stuff about building a multimillion dollar health centre at Mt. Carmel. Would the good folks of Waco want to get their “naturopathic” healing at the site of a giant funeral pyre? I doubted it. In short, Pace sounded like one intense dude.

And when I finally meet him, the burly, short, bearded 62 year old insists on making both an audio and a video recording of our interview (“in case my words get twisted”). But after about an hour, the tension subsides. He has a message for the world, and wants me to help spread it.

First though, we talk about Koresh, who Pace met in the early 1980s, when he was a handyman known by his birth name, Vernon Howell.

Pace is surprisingly complementary. “You couldn’t hate Vernon,” says Pace (throughout our interview he insists on calling Koresh “Vernon”). “Vernon was the most loveable perfect guy and he knew the Scriptures, so they (the Branch Davidians) all thought he was the Word of God manifested in the flesh.”

Pace was not so easily fooled, however. He tells me about an epic, three and a half hour long Bible study he led in 1984 during which he denounced Koresh for bringing: “…a Luciferian movement within the Branch.” Pace foretold this would lead to “…slaughter—of men, women, maids and little children.”

Here’s the strange thing: Koresh agreed: “He looked at me, and he smiled, and he came up to me and he put his arm around me and he said, This Brother’s teaching truth…. And that was it- he went back and sat down.”

While Pace may recognize Koresh’s personal charm, his scorn for his theology is profound.  The grandmother of five of Koresh’s children (who all died in the fire) is now in his group and once told him that:

“…what David Koresh was focused on all the time was his penis. And how he would talk about it was “The Rod” and when the head is anointed the honey comes out… he believed that all women belonged to him, he even told them that the singer, Madonna was gonna be his! I said: “Are you serious?” and she says “Yes.” “Did you think it was disgusting?” And she says…. “But HE WAS GOD!”

Pace is more modest. He does not claim to be a prophet, but rather a “Teacher of Righteousness”- consolidating revelations before the arrival of God’s Kingdom.

Excitedly Pace starts unfolding his own End Times scenario for me, the latest of many eschatological visions to have blossomed in the fertile apocalyptic environs of Mt. Carmel. It is much too complex to go into detail here, but it involves the Bible, the writings of Seventh Day Adventist prophets, the Jesuits, the Pope, Islam, Zionists, the Khazars, the Hueco Indians (from whom Waco gets its name), the New World Order, Texas secessionism, Barack Obama, “Chrislam”- a diabolical mixture of Catholicism and Islam allegedly taught by “Vernon” – and a fourth member of the godhead, the Holy Daughter. Strikingly, Pace grants Koresh a key role in the salvation of mankind. He had to do evil, because the Branch Davidians had to go astray and suffer for all mankind, as Christ did 2000 years ago. This time, the church was crucified. The good news is that all of humanity will be resurrected to live in paradise, even Hitler.

“Even Koresh?”  I asked. 

He tears up: “You get it man!”

Listening to Pace is exhausting, but also stimulating. My favourite aspect of his theology is its rampant Texas nationalism. Waco, not Israel, is now the place where the Lord’s Righteous will gather at the End of Time. Hey, I like Texas too, but even so I am struck by the freewheeling spirit with which he has ejected 3000 years of Jersusalem-centric salvation theory. Meanwhile I can’t help but admire his tenacity and creativity. For decades, he waited to seize his moment- and then he did. And now he is synthesizing a vast and elaborate system to explain all things in this little patch of wasteland in central Texas.

After our interview Pace takes me on a tour of Mt. Carmel, recently remodelled using money from his wife’s inheritance. He has spent $15,000 clearing away old debris and is experimenting with aquaponics and “traditional farming.” He has completely redesigned the memorial, replanting all of the trees along the road away from the chapel. He has even erected a monument to the government agents who died in the conflict. The most significant change however is the large kitchen he has added to the chapel, built to accommodate the Lord’s righteous, coming to Texas any day now.

And yet as I get into my car, Pace sounds uncertain. He was vague when I asked how many followers he had, but there were only about fifteen or twenty seats in the chapel, and some of those would be for visitors as Mt Carmel still gets a lot of them—five cars stopped by during our interview alone, while a few years back, John Lennon’s piano even showed up, as part of a world tour of trauma sites. But Pace doesn’t evangelize to the gawpers and so talking to me has provided him with a rare chance to discover how his system sounds to outsiders.

“What do you think?” he asks. “About my message? I mean, does it sound believable?”

I paused, thinking of a truthful reply. 

“It depends who’s listening.” I replied.

Resurrection Man

Clive DoyleClive Doyle at home in Waco, December 9th 2012

Pace never accepted David Koresh’s authority as a teacher or messiah, and so it has been easy for his vision of the Branch Davidian faith to survive- indeed the fire that killed the Koresh loyalists vindicates his original assessment of the would-be Messiah as a dangerous fraud. But Clive Doyle was in the building for the duration of the siege, and staggered out of the inferno on April 19th twenty years ago, one of only nine survivors to do so, and he still believes. Today he sits on his couch, listening without enthusiasm as I explain why I’ve come. As the survivors’ official spokesman he’s given countless interviews over the last twenty years.

“People say to me- what, are you still hanging onto that religion? I say: I choose to. It offers me more than anybody else is offering.”

At age 72, Doyle retains his Australian accent after almost fifty years in America. Religion, it seems, is in his blood. At age 10, he joined the Seventh Day Adventists, a religious group with a strong apocalyptic tradition to which Dr. Kellogg, inventor of Cornflakes, and Christabel Pankhurst, the legendary suffragette also belonged.  But the young Doyle was unimpressed. The Adventists, he tells me were: “… bending over backwards to be recognized by the government … changing a lot of their doctrines, de-emphasising the fact that they were basically started by a prophet.”

Doyle wanted the hard stuff. So in 1956, aged 16, he joined the Texas-based Davidian sect. The founder, Victor Houtef was an ex- washing machine salesman from Bulgaria turned prophet who believed fervently that the End was Nigh. But Houtef died, Jesus did not return, and by the time Doyle moved to Texas in 1965 a new prophet named Ben Roden was leading the 40-odd remaining faithful still at Mt. Carmel. They crowned Roden “Viceregent of the Most High God” in 1970, but still Jesus did not return, and when he died in 1978, leadership duties passed to his widow Lois who had recently revealed that the Holy Spirit was feminine. In 1981 however a 22 year old handyman arrived at Mt. Carmel and impressed Lois with his vast knowledge of the Bible; the 76 year old also took him up on his suggestion that they should have sex to fulfill Isaiah 8:3 (“I went to the prophetess and she conceived”).

Lois and many other Branch Davidians—including Doyle—began to think the handyman was the next prophet, and that the arrival of God’s Kingdom was really, really imminent now.  But Lois died and the handyman changed his name from Vernon Howell to David Koresh, after two figures the ancient Jews had described as messiahs—King David, who founded Jerusalem, and the Persian Emperor Cyrus, or “Koresh”, who let the Jews return to Jerusalem in 536BC after a period of exile in Babylon. We all know what happened to David Koresh.

Doyle, then, has seen many prophets come and go, but nobody ever persuaded him like David Koresh.

“Most of us believe he’s going to be resurrected,” he says.

I know this, but it is startling to hear it spoken aloud. Doyle is just so damn normal, you see. He speaks with robust Aussie directness, and after the siege held down a number of ordinary jobs—first in a health food shop, then in a thrift store. He was, by all accounts, a good worker. Thinking this, though, I catch myself. Why shouldn’t he seem “normal”?  In 2005 I spent a week in a Siberian religious community where the members worshipped an ex-traffic cop as the Messiah. They too were nice, “normal” people, many of whom were much better educated than I am, and like the followers of David Koresh the adults had joined by choice. Their conversion stories were similar to those of people who join any religion. The experience erased my faith in pat formulae about brainwashing and all-powerful cult leaders forever. Meanwhile I can think of lots of “normal” people who believe completely bizarre things. Until his death last year EJ Hobsbawm, one of the greatest English historians of the 20th century believed Stalin was rather spiffing. In the 1930s and 40s, millions of Germans thought it would be an excellent idea to follow a monotesticular, frothing anti-Semite to national disaster, etc. In short, “normal” people believe strange things all the time.

And so as Doyle sold vitamin pills to the ladies of Waco, he was returning in the evenings to a trailer on Mt. Carmel, where he led Bible studies with a handful of survivors and maintained a museum that, among other things, featured photographs of FBI agents posing triumphantly amid the ruins of the compound. In 2006 Pace’s increasingly aggressive intrusions into his services drove him away, but he is still engaged in an epic struggle to understand the universe and his place in it via Koresh’s theology:

“When David was alive you were expecting things; everything seemed imminent… now that he’s gone my understanding is that David was only preparing the way. Most of what he talked about, instead of happening at that time, he was preparing us for the future.”

Koresh is still an overwhelming presence in his life. Doyle’s speech is peppered with frequent references to “David”, and he loves to discuss the bewilderingly complex web of theology Koresh constructed. I am curious to see if any of it makes any sense; will I be able to see why Doyle was so impressed with a guy who in school acquired the nickname “Mr. Retardo”?

Some of it is certainly ingenious, to say the least. Take the arsenal, for instance. Says Doyle: “People ask me, if you’re Christians, then why did you Branch Davidians have all those guns?” He replies with Koresh’s answer, delivered in a Bible study long ago. Koresh pointed out that not only did Christ urge his disciples to buy weapons (Luke 22:36) but when he was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, the apostle Peter cut off a guard’s ear. Recalls Doyle:

“David says, ‘Peter didn’t go home and get a weapon- because they’re going out in the dark now for protection, or something. He’s had it on him all the time. He’s been wearing it in church!’”

“But Christ healed the ear,” I reply.

Doyle chuckles, and a Koresh joke echoes down the decades:

“David said, ‘Christ’s trying to talk to these people and all Peter did was make it harder for the guard to hear… so he had to heal him so he could listen!’”

Doyle talks theology for hours. His faith is clearly the most important thing in his life. But as darkness falls, my eye keeps returning to the photograph of his daughter Shari above the fireplace. The only time Doyle shows discomfort during our interview is when I ask about her. Koresh “married” her when she was 14. At the time, he laid claim to all the women in the Branch Davidians since he believed he had a mission to father the 24 elders mentioned in Revelation who he believed would help judge the world. He only got about halfway there; as for Shari Doyle, she died in the fire.

Doyle has a stock answer for journalists regarding the marriage: if God commands something, no matter how painful, you obey. And Doyle believes Koresh was God: “When David first started teaching we believed he was a prophet. As he went on we believed he was more than that…. that God took on flesh.” 

The Audacity of Hope

Portrait of David KoreshInside the chapel, December 17th 2012

But “God” died; or at least that’s what most of us think. It wasn’t the first time The Supreme Deity had let the side down either. Disaster and disappointment have dogged the Branch Davidians in all their manifestations for decades. In 1959 an earlier leader announced the End of the World and the sect met with national ridicule. Victor Houtef, Ben and Lois Roden and David Koresh all spoke and acted as though they were living in the End Times, but all of them died, their prophecies unfulfilled. Total membership has never exceeded 1000, but still a hardcore of the faithful has always persisted in hoping that next time, the prophecies will be fulfilled.

How many currently believe? Both Pace and Doyle were vague when I asked about membership numbers but I don’t think either group reaches into double figures; Doyle’s group in Waco definitely doesn’t, although worldwide there are between twenty and thirty survivors “most of whom” he says, “still cling to a hope.”

Is this tenacity in the face of so much disappointment something peculiar, a perversion unique to the Branch Davidians? Not at all, says Catherine Wessinger, a professor at Loyola University New Orleans and an expert in new religions who has studied the group for nearly two decades:  “The history of religion shows that when a prediction fails, believers reinterpret it… You also find that when one person claims that God speaks through him, somebody else will make the same claim and a power struggle will occur. Sometimes too you find a lineage of teachers, following on from one another, and the Branch has this also, from Houtef through the Rodens to David Koresh.”

And if you think about it, it’s not that strange. For truly committed religious believers, faith in God’s coming kingdom lies at the core of their identity. To abandon that belief would require a radical reassessment of almost every aspect of their lives, and besides, it is such a beautiful hope. The cliché label “doomsday cult” obscures the fact that all apocalyptic believers anticipate a paradise to come after the End; they are waiting for God’s Kingdom. Meanwhile The Bible, and especially the prophetic books, Daniel and Revelation, are so accommodatingly pliable when things go wrong.

Since most Branch Davidians continue to believe in Koresh and await his return, the movement has remained essentially leaderless. However following Koresh’s death a disciple named Renos Avraam did stake his own claim to prophetic status, declaring that he was the “Chosen Vessel”, and Koresh a mere prelude to his own magnificence. Doyle tells me that this British-Greek businessman turned messiah at one point attracted around a dozen followers, but since he was in Federal Prison throughout the 1990s he couldn’t return to Mt. Carmel, and after he got out he was deported. Avraam has predicted the End of the World a couple of times, and runs several websites with no contact details. He has at least two disciples in San Antonio, but now most survivors don’t talk to him.

But Mt. Carmel has a powerful psychic pull on would-be prophets who never even met Koresh. According to Doyle “hundreds” have shown up at its gates since 1993; one guy calling himself Jesus Amen even managed to sneak into the compound while it was under siege. A woman named Amo Bishop Roden squatted on the property for years, but succeeded only in getting Boards of Canada to write a song about her. Another would-be leader, Ron Cole, a former militia man turned Hot Wheels and Barbie toy designer converted after meeting survivors in the 1990s, and now runs his own New Branch Davidian Church, which holds virtual meetings via Skype and message boards.

My favourite is Robert Arnold, an ex-con and self-styled Shiite Muslim who renamed himself Andrew X98. He preached that Koresh had been the Mahdi, the Islamic messiah. X98 even visited the main mosque in Houston to give the Imams the good news, or would have if he hadn’t fallen asleep drunk on the steps. Later he showed up at Mt. Carmel with a sword and pig’s head. Doyle called law enforcement: “I didn’t know if he was going to be God’s chief executioner or what.”  X98 died of an AIDs related illness in 2006; Pace, who borrowed several ideas from his theology, buried him under a tree at Mt. Carmel.

The most significant individual to show up at Mt. Carmel in the 1990s however was a young Gulf War veteran- Timothy McVeigh. The future Oklahoma City bomber visited Mt. Carmel twice before detonating a home-made explosive device in a building full of federal government workers, killing 168 and injuring 450. He said it was retaliation for the siege; he timed it to coincide with the second anniversary of the fire. 

The End of the World Comes to Nottingham

Buried school busBuried school bus, December 17th, 2012

“Journalists and TV producers often call me looking to get in touch with the community,” says Matthew Wittmer, the Mt. Carmel archivist. “But somebody needs to talk about how fragmented they all are. There is no community. These people live in cities all over the world. They don’t get along. They’re all doing their own thing.”

“Everybody hates each other,” says Charlie Pace. “I’m trying to bring them together.” Doyle says that while he still chatted on the phone with survivors, and they meet for annual reunions, there is disagreement on many topics- especially the timeline for Koresh’s return. After living through the rise and fall of three prophets, Doyle refuses to set dates. The others, he tells me, do it all the time.

Many Branch Davidians are not Americans. Of the eighty that died, twenty three were British. After the fire, seven Davidians were sent to prison; two of them were British and one was Australian. The foreigners were all deported once they were released, increasing the fragmentation of the group. This is what ultimately caused Clive Doyle to give up on the dream of reuniting everyone at Mt. Carmel, and that is how Livingstone Fagan, Jamaican by birth but English by citizenship, wound up living in Nottingham in 2007 after serving fifteen years in jail.

Koresh held Fagan, one of his most articulate and well-educated followers (he had studied social work and theology), in high esteem. During the siege, he appointed him his theological ambassador, and dispatched him to reveal God’s Will to the FBI. It didn’t work out.

“Have you read the transcripts of the FBI negotiations, Daniel?” asks Fagan over the phone.

“Bits of them—in books on the siege…. it sounds as though Koresh was trying to convert the negotiators.”

“Precisely! And that is why he sent me out: to explain our theology. Unfortunately the significance of this action was lost on the FBI. Their perception of reality was different from ours and they immediately arrested me. This is a pity; perhaps something could have happened.”

If Clive Doyle subverts the cult zombie stereotype with his robust Aussie pragmatism, then Fagan does it with his obvious erudition and remarkable eloquence. Koresh had other followers with high IQs, including a Harvard trained lawyer, but they all burned.  My conversation with Fagan is disorientating; like stepping into the mind of an early Christian desert mystic, striving to access the infinite: “The Spirit of God opens the mind to see the things of God. Outside of that Spirit we cannot see them. We cannot, through human endeavour, conjure that spirit. Believe in him and through him we ascend.”  I’ve read The Bible but I can’t keep up as the references whirl past: Matthew 13, Isaiah 28, Daniel 7, Revelation 9:16…

There’s something else about Fagan’s personality that is impressive. It is obvious that he was a will of iron, and that he is a man of immense principle, even if it is channeled in a strange direction. Fagan refused to appeal his prison sentence as that would have been to recognize the American justice system; he would not submit to the strip search that would have seen him released from solitary for one hour a day. As a result he was beaten, chained, shipped from prison to prison and deprived of sleep. “The thought of my Brothers and Sisters in Waco, gassed and burnt alive, made my suffering more bearable,” he says. “But I could bear all this not only because of the fate of the others, but because all was foretold in scripture. At Waco we spent a lot of time in Bible study, like in the prophetic retreats of old. We built a body of perception of spiritual truth, transcending mundane physicality”:

Today Fagan works for a “social enterprise” helping the mentally ill, but at night he returns to his flat where he meditates on the impending fulfillment of prophecy. Whereas Pace nervously expresses doubts, and Doyle is happy to confess to grey areas, Fagan is adamant that Koresh is returning very soon indeed. He has set dates in the past, causing him to lock horns with Doyle, but meets regularly with two fellow Branch Davidians in Manchester who agree with his interpretation of Koresh’s message. As the anniversary of the siege approaches he tells me “there is great anticipation.”

“The Waco event is related to the judgement of the world. Twenty years have passed and that is enough time to become fully persuaded. How people judge this event, so they shall be judged themselves. Then the 6th seal will open and everything pertaining to David will be revealed.”

The sixth seal: according to the Book of Revelation, this is when God will unleash a series of catastrophes upon the earth.

“Will David’s return be a physical resurrection, or a spiritual event?” I ask.

“Let me just say this: you will know him when you see him. The FBI agents and those who killed him will definitely know him.”

The Ghost

Gravestone of Bobbie KoreshThe grave of Bobbie Koresh, one of DK’s many children, killed in the siege at age 2.
December 9th, 2012

It is painful to talk to the Branch Davidians because—as anybody who has spoken to the survivors will tell you—they are nice people. But horrible things keep happening to them. For instance, I would have interviewed Koresh’s mother if she hadn’t been stabbed to death by her mentally ill sister in 2008. Matthew Wittmer had been planning to visit her. He tells me, she was starting to lose faith: “’I’ve been waiting for David,’” she said, ‘but it looks like he might not be coming back.’”

But still Koresh haunts the Branch Davidians, and not only them but America. Koresh’s ghost flickers on old Youtube videos, he appears on documentaries about “doomsday cults”, he turns up in books and in features like this one; and he haunts Bill Clinton to such an extent that in 2005 he described the siege as one of the biggest failures of his presidency: “I think we made a mistake letting the forces go to Waco instead of waiting them out and I will always regret that.” In 2012 a composer even staged an operatic version of the siege in Washington DC. Apparently it was awful, but nevertheless—it existed.

Koresh also haunts the prisoner I met in McLennan county cemetery, a pauper’s graveyard, where many of those who died in the fire at Mt. Carmel are buried. In Texas, convicts are made to work, and he had been sent out to catalogue the dead, since nobody had ever bothered to make a master list of precisely who the county had dumped in the ground there; but now, somebody upstairs wanted to know. Nearby, a sheriff’s deputy kept watch. The prisoner was adding one of Koresh’s children to his list when he told me that his father still owned an acoustic guitar signed by the Messiah. “He used to come round, and teach my dad’s wife how to play. He was a real good acoustic guitar player. Real big manipulator though.”

What is this lure? Why does Koresh still have this power? I think the word “cult” itself is an obstacle to understanding. It obscures the humanity of the people who join groups such as the Branch Davidians, painting them as subhuman, weak-willed saps, objects of derision but also fear.  Fagan told me that people are sometimes scared to talk to him in case he “brainwashes” them; when I told a friend that I was heading out to Waco he warned me to beware of “their influence.”

But if the believers really were weak willed fools, then they would have lost faith when Koresh died. Instead I think groups such as the Branch Davidians offer something like religious crack to those for whom the contemporary churchgoing experience of happy clappy worship songs and charity jumble sales is not enough. Driven by an intense and sincere spiritual hunger, they gravitate towards charismatic prophets who break rules and make grand promises.

And yet though the Branch Davidians may still love their god, their numbers are dwindling. Doyle admits he hasn’t made any new converts since 1993 and none of the children who were in the group still believe- Koresh’s four surviving descendants included. Doyle’s group in Waco is “two to three times smaller” than it was ten years ago thanks to old age and death. “I’m now one of the old ones,” he says. And so he, Pace and Fagan all wait for the apocalypse, a final one this time, to vindicate all the suffering, all the torment, all the loss. They may differ on the details, but on this they all agree: when it comes, it’s going to be wonderful. 

First published in Esquire, March 2013  

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