The Dallas Morning News
BYLINE:Lee Hancock

Private memorial service today for ATF agents killed in cult raid

A Saturday memorial service for agents involved in the Feb. 28 Branch Davidian raid will be restricted to law enforcement officials, federal officials said Friday.

The service will be closed to the public and to the media because the 90 agents involved in the raid and the families of the four agents who died need private time to grieve, said Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms chief spokesman Jack Killorin in Washington.

Among the ATF officials who will be in Waco to observe the service marking the agency's bloodiest action will be ATF Director Stephen E. Higgins and Dan Hartnett, the agency's deputy director for law enforcement.

"This is not a media event,' Mr. Killorin said. "This is very much a part of the wellness process for the agents who were in Waco on the 28th -- part of the grieving process -- and most of all to seek closure.

"It's important to go to the place where it began for them, and see that it is over. It is a very important step in putting this behind them as individuals and going forward,' he said. "This is after all a very private moment for them as human beings, and we're sure that people will try to respect their privacy.'

The agents will visit the compound's ruins Saturday morning to be briefed by assistant U.S. attorneys investigating the Branch Davidian case, officials said.

After a walk-through of the raid, they will be given time to view the ashes of the compound, which none has seen since they left Waco after the raid.

The compound was destroyed by fire April 19 after FBI agents began filling it with tear gas in an effort to end a 51-day standoff with the cult. The bodies of 77 Branch Davidians -- including five believed killed during the initial ATF assault -- have been recovered from the rubble.

As of Friday, officials said 49 bodies had undergone autopsies and 28 victims tentatively identified. The names of six victims, including cult leader David Koresh, have been released. A news briefing has been scheduled for Tuesday.

Authorities have said that at least 15 bodies of cult members who died April 19 had gunshot wounds, and FBI officials have reported hearing gunshots inside the compound just after the fires erupted. Despite some survivors' reports that the fires were touched off when FBI tanks used to insert the tear gas knocked over kerosene lanterns inside the compound, arson experts investigating the fire have released preliminary findings that it was deliberately set in three different places by cult members.

Nine cult members escaped from the fire. One, 17-year-old Misty Ferguson, was released Friday from Parkland Hospital in Dallas, where two cult members remain hospitalized, a hospital spokesman said. Five are being held by authorities either on federal charges or as material witnesses and one has been released on bond.

ATF officials said only officers with badges and their families will be allowed into the Saturday afternoon memorial service at Highland Baptist Church in Waco.

To ensure the agents' privacy, officials said, they will not stay in Waco motels but will be housed in neighboring Bell County. Ironically, the members of the raiding party also stayed in Bell County the night before the Feb. 28 raid in an effort to keep word of their plans from circulating around Waco.

It is a stark contrast to Wednesday's highly orchestrated public visit by FBI Director William Sessions, who came to Waco to present a plaque to local officials in a public ceremony and to tour the ruined compound. While in Waco, he conducted a news conference about the FBI's actions during the standoff.

A number of ATF agents who participated in the raid have voiced bitterness that their agency has not been allowed to answer intense criticism of its Waco action, which was aimed at arresting Mr. Koresh and searching his heavily fortified headquarters for illegal weapons, some ATF officials said.

Treasury officials have issued an order barring ATF officials or agents from publicly discussing the Branch Davidian case or the raid.

And federal prosecutors also have asked ATF officials to refrain from discussing the case, even asking senior officials not to respond to recent questions from the House Judiciary Committee about how the cult was tipped off to the raid. That was a request that left ATF Director Higgins unable to defend himself or the agency against scathing criticism from several committee members, officials said.

An investigation into the leak is focusing on an exchange between cult members and members of the Waco media who were present during the raid, law enforcement sources have said. The investigation is also attempting to determine whether the media were tipped off to the planning and timing of the raid from local emergency medical personnel who accompanied the ATF.

In the search that followed the April 19 fire, investigators recovered grenades and several hundred firearms -- including a number illegally converted to automatic weapons with machine gun replacement parts.

Sixteen agents were wounded in the raid, and many are still recovering from their injuries, officials said. For many of the injured who remained hospitalized for more than a week after the siege, it will be their first opportunity to grieve with their peers in a formal memorial service since the raid, officials said.

The loss of four agents has been particularly difficult for many in the ATF, some officials said, because the agency is relatively small. It has about 2,200 sworn agents and about 4,000 employees.

"It's like losing family,' one agent said. "We will pull together, but it has been hard. These were people that many of us were very close to.'

An independent investigation of the raid is under way at the Treasury Department, which oversees the ATF. Ronald K. Noble, assistant Treasury secretary for law enforcement, will meet with ATF agents in Houston and Dallas on Tuesday to answer questions about the probe and seek to ease concerns voiced by some agents that Treasury officials have sought to distance the department from the tragic Waco operation, officials said.