How the Horror in Waco Unfolded — Killing Dozens — and the Rise of a New Group Leader Years Later
The Battleground: Mount Carmel
This year marks the 25th anniversary of one of the deadliest law enforcement altercations in American history, when members of the Branch Davidians, a religious group under the leadership of self-proclaimed prophet David Koresh, clashed with agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives at the cult's Mount Carmel Center compound outside Waco, Texas.
A gun battle on Feb. 28, 1993, led to a 51-day siege that ended when an inferno erupted at the 77-acre property. In total, four federal agents were killed along with more than 80 Branch Davidians, including 25 children and Koresh.
Here is a look back at how the horror unfolded.
Who Was David Koresh?
Koresh, a Houston native whose real name was Vernon Howell, came to Mount Carmel in the early '80s with an enduring fascination with the Bible that traced back to his boyhood.
By 1987, the dyslexic high school drop-out had taken over the Davidians. Koresh took power in the group following a struggle with the previous leader's son.
"He made the scriptures harmonize," Clive Doyle, a Branch Davidian, tells PEOPLE of Koresh. "He made them come alive. I believe the spirit of God spoke through him."
"He was rational," adds David Thibodeau, who was at Mount Carmel during the siege and who wrote A Place Called Waco. "He would listen to you, tell you how he saw things and he was a fascinating individual."
Koresh claimed he could talk to God and unlock the Seven Seals in the Bible's Book of Revelation. He prophesized about Jesus Christ's second coming and that one day he and his followers would be attacked by the U.S. government.
"He had preached that forces of evil were coming to get them and they would all be killed in a fiery ending and come back as the chosen, and our actions sort of validated his prophecy among his followers," former FBI negotiator Byron Sage tells PEOPLE.
The Branch Davidians who fell under Koresh's sway included people from the U.S., Canada, Australia and the U.K.
Group member Doyle, an Australian, says Koresh's followers were drawn to him because of the lessons he taught. "Some of them were hard to accept, but they learned that this guy spoke like no other prophet or no other preacher that we'd experienced in our whole lifetime," says Doyle (seen at right with Koresh, left).
From the outside, however, Koresh's appeal looked different.
"He was kind of a village idiot," McLennan County, Texas, Sheriff Parnell McNamara tells PEOPLE. "I couldn't believe that people would look at that guy and want to follow him anywhere. He was the local goofball."
Koresh's Right-Hand Man
Steve Schneider, pictured at left, was a graduate of religious studies at the University of Hawaii who acted as Koresh's music manager and during the 51-day stand off handled many of Koresh's negotiations with the FBI.
When Koresh told his flock that God told him to take all the women at Mount Carmel as his wives, Schneider's spouse, Judy, became one of them, giving birth to a daughter, who died along with Schneider, Judy and Koresh in the blaze.
"He was not a stupid man," Sage says about Schneider. "He was educated. He was articulate, but he didn't have an independence of thought or the ability to do anything without the blessing of David."
February 1993: a Raid Turns Deadly
On Feb. 28, 1993, agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives raided the Branch Davidian's compound outside Waco after reports surfaced that Koresh had been sexually abusing minors and stockpiling weapons.
Four ATF agents and six members of the group were killed in the ensuing two-hour gun battle. Koresh sustained a gunshot wound to his side. A 51-day standoff followed.
The Siege Drags On
In the weeks-long stalemate between the Davidians and the government, 52 FBI negotiatiors had dozens of conversations with Koresh.
About Koresh, former FBI negotiator Sage says, "This guy was totally different than anyone that we had faced before, certainly than I ever faced. This whole thing was horribly unprecedented as far as the nature and scope, the dynamic and deadliness. The average length of a hostage situation in the United States is usually sometime around six to eight hours. This went for 51 days."
The Nation Watches
The standoff became daily newspaper and television fodder. News trucks lined the streets and enterprising citizens tried to make a fast buck. No one was happier about the TV time than Koresh himself, says Sage.
"David was enamored with the fact that he had captured the world's attention and was on the cover of Newsweek and TIME Magazine," he says. "He was just relishing the notoriety."
The End Draws Near
During their impasse, the FBI used a variety of tactics to try to draw out the Branch Davidians from their compound, including blaring music in the middle of the night.
By mid-April, when negotiations with Koresh started to wane, tanks began to move in, ramming the compound, and military tear gas was deployed.
Soon afterward, the property went up in flames.
The Deadly Blaze
The truth of who started the fire on April 19, 1993, has been a major point of contention between authorities and the Branch Davidians.
The FBI maintains that the religious group's followers ignited three fires simultaneously, a finding reportedly agreed upon by outside investigators, though some survivors still point their fingers at federal agents.
Doyle, who was one of nine people to escape the compound fire while his daughter was killed, says law enforcement tried to pin the fire on him.
"They wanted scapegoats to blame for this incident," he says.
After the inferno swept through, Koresh and 74 other Davidians, including 25 children (some of whom Koresh had fathered), were found dead.
Koresh and some others had suffered fatal gunshot wounds. Sage, the former negotiator, says Koresh was shot once in "the center of his forehead."
Schneider, Koresh's lieutenant, was found nearby. He died from a gun shot to the palate. "Nobody knows how David died or who administered the coup de gras or anything like that. But I can tell you absolutely without hesitation that it was not us," Sage says.
Koresh was 33 when he died on April 19, 1993 and his body was found among the rubble at the Mount Carmel compound.
Cult expert Rick Ross tells PEOPLE that to this day, some of Koresh's followers remain loyal and await his resurrection, beliving he was "truly a prophet even though he prophesized that when he died, the world would end and that the world would be judged and that it would be the end of time."
"That did not happen," Ross says. "His prophesies failed repeatedly. But people who sacrificed their families, their lives, for David Koresh have chosen to continue to believe and kind of support each other in this belief in order to move on. The alternative for them is that all their sacrifices were made for nothing."
"David came to give us a message and a hope," Koresh follower Sheila Martin said last year. "We hope to see him again. Our regret is only that we didn't serve God better. "
The Church's New Leader
Twenty-five years after the tragedy at the Mount Carmel Center, a new branch of the Davidians controls the site of the group's former compound outside Waco.
Their leader, Charles Pace (pictured here in 2007), espouses conspiracy theory and tells PEOPLE 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 says. Of the Davidians under Koresh, he says, they thought he “was God. That was a cult.”
The Return of the 'True Branch' Message?
Pace — whom Ross, the cult expert, describes as a "relentless fundraiser" — says he moved back to the Texas property after the fire to spread the “true Branch” message.
This 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.
Pictured at right are some members of Pace's congregation in 2007. (Pace no longer holds regular church services.)
While to many Waco is synonymous with the deadly gunfight, siege and massive fire at the Branch Davidians' compound in 1993, local sheriff Parnell McNamara says the small town has been misunderstood.
"I was born here and grew up here and to have that goofball [Koresh] put such a black eye on such a wonderful place is really maddening to all of us," he tells PEOPLE.
Waco is a beautiful place, he says. "We are home of Fixer Upper, one of the biggest TV shows in the country."
Survivors say the memories of the standoff have not faded.
Says Sage, the former negotiator: “It’s not like I haven’t lived this every day of my life since then.”