The Dallas Morning News
Agents return to Waco to mourn slain comrades
ATF seeks end to sad episode
WACO -- For the emotionally battered agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, a return Saturday to the scene of their agency's bloodiest day was a time for private mourning.
"It's part of the healing process, to go out there and recall what happened that day,' said Ted Royster, special agent-in-charge of the Dallas ATF office. He was among 100 ATF agents who faced an intense firefight Feb. 28 when they tried to serve search and arrest warrants at the Branch Davidian compound.
He and other agents from Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arkansas and Louisiana visited the ashes of the religious sect's compound Saturday morning east of Waco. Accompanied by counselors, they received a briefing from federal prosecutors and were given time to grieve for the four agents killed during the raid. Sixteen agents were wounded.
"They got together. Some cried. They thought about what happened. I wouldn't call it difficult. It was something that had to be done,' Agent Royster said.
It was an effort, some ATF officials said, to begin closing a horrific chapter -- a standoff that began with the worst loss of life in ATF history and ended in a fire that left cult leader David Koresh and 72 of his followers dead. Five cult members were killed in the initial raid.
The raid and its aftermath has brought ATF under scrutiny, including congressional hearings and -- by order of Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen -- an independent review of the raid. The Justice Department has begun a separate review of actions by the FBI.
The FBI took over direct negotiations with the cult leaders. The fire -- which arson investigators say the cultists set -- began April 19 after FBI agents used tear gas in an attempt to force cult members to surrender.
Prosecutors are developing cases against many cult members who left the compound during the 51-day standoff or escaped the fire.
Saturday's ATF visit, together with an afternoon church service and evening dinner, were planned to give the agents involved in the raid a symbolic way to put the ordeal behind them, ATF officials said.
To mark the end of ATF's presence at the lonely expanse of windswept prairie that cult members called Ranch Apocalypse, Texas Department of Public Safety officials lowered three flags they had raised over the compound after the siege ended, Mr. Royster said.
One, a U.S. flag, was given to Dallas ATF district agents. The second, a Texas state flag, was presented to Houston district agents, who lost one colleague in the raid, he said.
The third flag, a white banner emblazoned with ATF in gold letters and a gold star for each of the four dead agents, was presented to New Orleans district agents, who lost three colleagues during the raid, Mr. Royster said.
News media representatives were kept away from the compound during the 2 1/2 hour visit, and agents were met with only low, gray skies and a cool, intermittent drizzle eerily similar to the dismal weather in Waco on Feb. 28.
Some residents along the road leading to the compound strung yellow and black ribbons and balloons to honor the visiting agents. The colors were those worn by ATF and FBI officials as symbols of mourning during the standoff.
Skies cleared Saturday afternoon as about 350 agents and local police gathered at a Waco Baptist church for a private memorial service.
ATF Director Stephen E. Higgins delivered a eulogy for the dead agents, Steven Willis, 32, of Houston; Robert J. Williams, 26, of New Orleans; Conway LeBleu, 30, of New Orleans; and Todd W. McKeehan, 28, also of New Orleans.
The service was highlighted by a 21-gun salute by a Texas Department of Public Safety honor guard and the playing of taps by two DPS troopers. As ATF agents left the church, a lone bagpiper in Scottish dress played a mournful tune.
Reporters were not allowed to enter the church, and local police stood guard to keep outsiders away. Several ATF agents openly cursed television cameras.
But most agents attending the service simply declined to comment, citing orders not to discuss the raid or its aftermath.
"We're human. You really can't express yourself when the cameras are around, the media is around,' said Agent Royster, one of the few agents willing to talk Saturday. He also was the first ATF official to tell reporters what had happened after the ill-fated raid.
"It was a time for us to come together and remember them and never forget what happened,' Agent Royster said. "I think after it's all over, we'll be a lot stronger.'
The Dallas Morning News
JPs in spotlight after cult deaths
Fiery disaster haunts judges who lead aftermath inquiry
WACO -- For James Collier, it's the children and the thought of how they died. David Pareya says he just can't understand "why they did what they did.'
Judges Collier and Pareya are the McLennan County justices of the peace who, with state investigators and medical examiners, have been going through the rubble of the Branch Davidian complex east of Waco.
They searched for bodies of the estimated 72 people -- including 17 children -- who died in the fire that destroyed the cult's headquarters April 19 after a tear-gas assault by the FBI.
The judges' faces have become as familiar as those of federal agents who briefed reporters during the 51-day standoff between the sect and authorities surrounding the complex.
The fire ended a siege that began Feb. 28 when agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms raided the compound to serve search and arrest warrants involving alleged weapons violations. Five cult members and four ATF agents were killed, and 16 other agents were wounded in an ensuing gunbattle.
The spotlight in the aftermath of the fire is something Judges Collier and Pareya were not accustomed to.
"You get a little nervous when you're on televison,' Judge Collier told The Dallas Morning News last week. Ordinarily, "It's not something that you do every day.'
Judge Collier, 65, is hardly the type of man who draws attention, except in his rural community of Mart, near Waco, where he is on a first-name basis with many residents.
The soft-spoken, gray-haired judge works in a tiny office that is next to some abandoned buildings and across from an auto shop. His working area consists of an old wooden desk, two chairs and a telephone.
Twenty-four years younger, Judge Pareya lives and works in West, a town of 2,500 north of Waco that is well known for its Czechoslovakian heritage.
'Mules of the county'
Although they're not strangers to tragic death in their job, their duties consist mainly of issuing certain warrants and handling traffic fines, small claims disputes and marriages.
"I like to think that we are the mules of the county,' Mr. Pareya said. "We're the guys who get called at 2 in the morning to answer death calls. . . . We hear all kinds of cases. . . . We're the people's court.'
"We're just small-town politicians,' he said last week.
Since the compound fire, things have been different. It is they who officially identify the bodies of the cult members recovered from the ashes of the compound and issue the death certificates. That includes Branch Davidian leader David Koresh, who apparently died of a gunshot wound in the head, authorities said.
If the local justices of the peace have been nervous, no one seems to have noticed.
"They are doing a great job,' observed McLennan County Judge Jim Lewis, who presides over the commissioners court. "They're both highly qualified and professional individuals.'
John Cabaniss, another McLennan County justice of the peace and a longtime friend of Judges Collier and Pareya, agreed.
"They were put in a very difficult position,' he said. "But they have handled it really well because they're top notch.'
Judge Collier, who spent 40 years in the funeral business before being elected in 1987, said that nothing he had experienced compares with what he saw at the burning site of the compound.
"The whole thing has changed my life,' he said of the blaze. "Your biggest sadness is for the children who had no choice on it.'
Judge Pareya, who has been a justice of the peace since 1977, said that for him, the most difficult thing is figuring out what the fire victims went through in the final moments of the siege.
"I just can't understand why they did what they did,' he said.
The blaze started as FBI agents in armored vehicles punched holes in the compound buildings and pumped in tear gas. FBI and arson investigators say the compound was set on fire by cult members; survivors say it began when lanterns were overturned by the shock of the armed vehicles' knocking holes in the building.
Judge Collier, in whose precinct the compound was located, said that as soon as he heard of the fire, he asked the other three justices of the peace in McLennan County to help with identifying the bodies and dealing with dozens of journalists.
He also designated Judge Pareya to be his spokesman.
Judge Pareya, who is the secretary treasurer of the Justices of the Peace and Constables Association of Texas, an organization of more than 3,000 members, has a broadcasting journalism degree and worked briefly in radio after graduating from college.
Because McLennan County has a small population and does not have a medical examiner, the remains of all 72 fire victims of the Branch Davidian fire, plus the bodies of five cult members who were killed during the Feb. 28 ATF raid, have been taken to the Tarrant County medical examiner's office.
As of Friday, Judge Pareya said, the medical examiner had performed 49 autopsies and tentatively identified 28 fire victims. However, only the names of six victims -- including Mr. Koresh -- have been released because most of the surviving family members have not been contacted.
At least 15 cult members had gunshot wounds, but the medical examiner has yet to determine whether they were self-inflicted.
Returning to normal
Judges Collier and Pareya said their lives and the Waco area are gradually returning to normal.
Judge Pareya said that since April 22, the first day he was called to the site of the burned compound, things have been hectic for him and his staff.
"I have not seen my family in a week or two,' Judge Pareya said of his wife and two daughters.
Judge Collier's wife, Geraldine, said her husband has endured the devastating scene of bodies and what is left of the burned compound because he is a strong person.
"What has moved him the most is that it was a waste of lives,' Mrs. Collier said of her husband. "I think the hardest part of him seeing the remains of the children who had no say on all this.'