Waco Is Now a Pilgrimage Site for the Patriot Movement

7 minute read

Antigovernment militias have made “Waco” a code word for federal overreach. Even before the fiery end of the 1993 siege at the Branch Davidians’ compound south of Dallas, where David Koresh and more than 70 of his followers died, Army veteran Timothy McVeigh visited the site. A Koresh supporter, McVeigh sold bumper stickers reading FEAR THE GOVT THAT FEARS YOUR GUNS and A MAN WITH A GUN IS A CITIZEN, A MAN WITHOUT A GUN IS A SUBJECT. Two years later, McVeigh chose the anniversary of the Waco fire to bomb the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

Conspiracist Alex Jones led a fund drive to build a chapel on the site of the compound. “No more Wacos!” he shouted. Mike Vanderboegh, cofounder of the Three Percenters militia, warned, “Waco can happen at any given time. But the outcome will be different next time.” One of the insurgents arrested after the January 6, 2021 U.S. Capitol riots anticipated a battle with police he called “Waco 2.0.”

Thirty years after the siege that helped inspire today’s militias, the site has become a tourist attraction. On a good day, more than a hundred visitors pass through the gates of a property near Waco that Google Maps still labels Branch Davidian Compound. There are families, curiosity seekers, and militia members making pilgrimages to one of the hubs of what many call the patriot movement.

Today’s Mount Carmel is a chapel on a grassy floodplain near the corner of Elk Road and Double-EE Ranch Road. The gravel driveway leads past a row of red and green crepe myrtles. Survivors planted eighty-two of the trees in 1994, one for each Davidian who died during the siege. Today there are eighty-one: the current pastor, Charles Pace, chopped down the tree dedicated to David Koresh.

One Sunday not long ago, a breeze rustled the crepe myrtles’ leaves. Dog-day cicadas chirred. Black Angus cattle grazed on the neighbors’ ranch across the fence. The church, sporting a fresh coat of paint, looked as clean and white as on the day it first opened its doors in 2000. After almost a quarter century, it was still one of the top tourist attractions in McLennan County. The only sign of decay was the Davidians’ cement-lined swimming pool, now half-full of rainwater. Nearby, a placard identified a hole in the ground as the entrance to THE VAULT AREA WHERE MOTHERS & CHILDREN WERE GASSED TO DEATH. This was not a true fact—the vault had been at ground level, not underground, and about ten yards away, and the mothers and children inside had burned to death, died of smoke inhalation, or been buried as the compound collapsed around them. But the empty space in the earth suited the mood of the place.

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Inside the chapel, ceiling fans stirred the heat. A whiteboard cited a verse from Psalm 77: “I have considered the days of old, the years of ancient times. I call to remembrance my song in the night . . . Hath God forgotten to be gracious? Hath he in anger shut up his tender mercies?” The board held a map of the Old City of Jerusalem. Today’sDavidians—thereare a couple dozen in Waco, several thousand scatteredaround Texas and the rest of the world—stillbelieve they are God’s chosen few. Many consider Koresh a false prophet, perhaps the antichrist. Others expect him to rise again in time for the Last Days.

Pastor Pace and his wife, Alexa, greeted visitors. He had a shaved head and a neatly trimmed beard. Her T-shirt read PRAY TO END ABORTION. Pastor Pace had split off from the sect in the 1980s. “I saw through their delusions,” he said in a hoarse voice. He returned to lead Waco’s diminished flock in 2006. Now seventy-two, he gets around in a wheelchair and has a stainless-steel right leg, the result of a tractor accident that mangled his right foot.

The church’s walls held photos of Davidian leaders: Victor Houteff, Ben and Lois Roden, Koresh. Despite his doubts about his predecessor, Pace knows it’s Koresh most visitors want to hear about. Posters show Koresh’s 1988 mug shot and aerial views of the compound before and after the fire. A memory book holds snapshots of the Davidians who died here in the ATF raid on February 28, 1993 and the fire fifty-one days later. Those too young to be photographed are remembered with cards showing their names and nationalities. Two of the cards read, “Trauma born baby, American.”

This small chapel in Waco, Texas, 09 June 2001 sta
This small chapel stands on the spot of David Koresh's Branch Davidian compound that was stormed and subsequently burned to the gound by the FBI and ATF in April 1993, in Waco, Texas, June 9, 2001.Shawn Thew—AFP/Getty Images

The Paces rely on donations. They also sell merchandise: GOD ROCKED FROM WACO T-shirts and postcards showing Koresh playing guitar, Trump flags and shirts emblazoned MR TRUMP YOU ARE MY PRESIDENT 2020–2024. Another shirt reads, PATRIOTS, REMEMBER THE ALAMO? AND FORGET NOT WACO! Posters showed Bill and Hillary Clinton with their fingers to their lips—Shh!—and Koresh wielding a rifle over a line directed at President Joe Biden: SLEEPY JOE, WAKE UP OR WACO! COME GET IT!

Pastor Pace works day and night to maintain the church and the grounds, host Sabbath services, and run a website that blames deep-state conspirators for the siege and fire of ’93, a subsequent cover-up that led to the murder of Vince Foster, and more.

“Koresh may have been a false prophet, but he was onto something,” Pace said that day. Partially blind, he had a gray left eye that wandered while his blue right eye fixed a listener in an iron gaze. “That’s why the Clintons couldn’t let him live. He knew too much about the human trafficking, pedophilia, and gun-and cocaine-running the Clintons and Bushes were guilty of.” The Davidians had built their swimming pool, he believed, “to reclaim a desecrated spot” after Koresh found evidence of a sex-slavery ring based in the cellar, though Koresh never mentioned such a thing.

“This is all proven,” said Pace. A website he built for the church, wacothebranchdavidianpropheciesfulfilled.info, featured a Star of David logo, posts including “Why the Deep State Massacred David Koresh and his Followers,” references to Republicans and “Demonic-rats,” and the QAnon hashtag WWG1 WGA (“Where we go one, we go all”). President George H. W. Bush, he said, “was a pedophile and homosexual. As head of the CIA, Bush built tunnels under the White House. They found fifteen hundred dead children in those tunnels, dead from torture and sexual abuse. When they found out, Donald and Melania Trump cried for hours. And Donald Trump did the right thing: he had Bush arrested for his crimes. George Bush did not die of natural causes in 2018. They executed him for treason. This will all come out in the near future.”

Like Koresh, Pastor Pace knew his Bible well enough to recite much of it from memory. “Prophecy is real,” he said. “I trust in prophecy. That’s what has kept me sane, so to speak.” He was tender with his adult sons, who helped with chores and still found an occasional spent bullet in the acres of grass around the church. Pace said they knew their father might sound unhinged to some, but he was not a hypocrite. He was a believer. He had chopped down the bush dedicated to Koresh “because God told me to.” He thanked God for the militia members who come to Mount Carmel from all over the country. “The Holy Spirit leads them here. The Proud Boys were here, about thirty of them. They say Waco is the Alamo of the modern patriot movement. I told them, ‘If David Koresh were here today, he’d be one of you.’”

Adapted from Cook’s new book, Waco Rising: David Koresh, the FBI, and the Birth of America’s Militias

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