The Dallas Morning News
BYLINE:Lee Hancock

ATF agent says he saw disaster loom
He doubts psychological wounds from raid will heal

Dozens of times each day, Robert Rodriguez recalls the moment he walked out of the Branch Davidian compound for the last time, convinced he was about to die.

The bullet he expected that dismal February morning never came. But Agent Rodriguez, who was assigned to penetrate the cult's compound for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, bears deep psychological wounds from that moment and the ensuing bloodbath. They are wounds, he says, that will never fully heal.

"I think about it constantly -- every day and every night -- everything that happened and why,' Agent Rodriguez told The Dallas Morning News.

"I've come to believe we never stood a chance that day. After learning about all the leaks that we didn't know about, we were doomed from the beginning.'

Agent Rodriguez, a nine-year ATF employee, said he has been ordered not to discuss the details of his three months undercover, the raid or the firefight that left four fellow agents dead and 16 wounded.

But the agent said he is haunted by his colleagues' deaths and the gnawing guilt that he could not stop what happened.

Once the tragedy began playing itself out, he said, he predicted a disastrous end, but the FBI could not grasp his warning.

"What I told them that day, he would never be taken alive. He would never come out,' Agent Rodriguez said of cult leader David Koresh. "Everything I told them, I predicted to them, they just couldn't understand it.'

Agent Rodriguez, 42, has worked in Texas for his entire police career. He asked that his hometown not be identified to protect his wife and two children.

He said he joined the Waco case when a fellow agent and longtime friend asked him to go undercover.

Before joining the ATF, he said, he worked undercover as a Texas Department of Public Safety narcotics officer. But nothing, he said, could have prepared him for David Koresh.

"I never imagined, but it was something I couldn't back out of once I started,' he said.

Took student's role

When he took the role of a college student named Robert Gonzalez, Agent Rodriguez said, he and three partners moved into a house near the compound and began trying to be-friend the cultists.

Although his followers were initially wary, Agent Rodriguez said, Mr. Koresh warmly welcomed the men and quickly began his bizarre biblical teachings, he said.

"I could see everything he was thinking, why he was thinking,' Agent Rodriguez said of the cult leader's apocalyptic beliefs.

Many of the cultists seemed intelligent, but all were completely under Mr. Koresh's sway, he said.

"Let's just say he was very influential,' Agent Rodriguez said. "You sit in a place and all you're subjected to is this man day after day, hour after hour. After a while, it gets to you. It affects you. You sit there and listen, and it made sense.'

He said he often tried to daydream as Mr. Koresh droned on in Bible studies. But he said he had to pay some attention so he could respond to the cult leader's questions.

"Some of it does stay with you,' he said. "And if you look at some of the Scripture that he used to show that what he was doing was right, to prove a point, you could interpret it a thousand different ways. . . . It was a weird place.'

Agent Rodriguez said his fellow agents constantly worried about him and worked to help him maintain a mental distance from the cult because he was spending the most time with Mr. Koresh.

"They would talk to me, bring me back. They would tell me what I was doing there, what we were trying to do,' he said. "They'd remind me that the interpretations David had were just interpretations.'

Asked whether Mr. Koresh ever got to him, Agent Rodriguez fell silent.

"He was close,' he finally said, his voice cracking at the memory. "The thing that probably saved me is I didn't have to stay there. I could come and go as I pleased.'

Last words chilling

The day of the raid, Feb. 28, Agent Rodriguez said, he thought everything was perfect until within an hour of the ATF action.

Citing the pending investigation, he will not say what happened in his final minutes in the compound, but he acknowledges that Mr. Koresh's last words were chilling.

A federal affidavit states that a cult member came in that morning and Mr. Koresh was immediately summoned away from the undercover agent. When the cult leader returned, the affidavit states, he exclaimed that the ATF and the National Guard were coming to get him.

After that, Agent Rodriguez said, "my concern was to get out of there and not give him anything to get the idea that I was a police officer.

"They opened the door for me to get out, and I said to myself, "They were going to shoot me in the back.' But I walked out as calm as could be. I just kept walking. By the time I got back to the undercover house, I was hysterical.'

He will not say what he told superiors who decided to go ahead with the raid. But he said he initially "hadn't the slightest idea' how Mr. Koresh or his followers could have been tipped to the raid.

Only later, Agent Rodriguez said, he and other agents learned that an exchange between the cult member and a Waco TV cameraman waiting to shoot footage of the raid was one source of the leak.

"Now, all I can say is that people in the media will have to answer for this, too,' he said. "There's a thin line between the people's right to know and interfering with the duties of law enforcement and costing the lives of people. I think in this one, they stepped over the line.'

After the brutal firefight, Agent Rodriguez said, he rode back to the compound in the back of an ambulance and helped evacuate the dead and wounded.

In that carnage, he said, he left what had been a deep religious faith behind.

"I was raised Catholic -- altar boy, the whole thing,' he said. "After I helped take out the guys who were hurt and wounded and dead, we came back to the staging area. The Bible that was in my truck, I went and got it and threw it out. I just threw it out. It's been that way since.

"I was very hurt. Why would the Lord allow good men to go through that and lose their families and kids and children? I keep asking myself that, and it's something that I'm going to have to learn to deal with.'

Thought of cultists

During the ensuing standoff, Agent Rodriguez said, he thought often of the cultists he befriended and the children he saw in the compound.

One 3 1/2-year-old girl, who ultimately died when the compound was destroyed by fire April 19, was a particular favorite.

"She fell asleep right beside me while I was getting a Bible study. I remember wondering, "What's going to become of this child? What kind of life could she ever possibly have?' '

But he says he was not at all suprised at the standoff's fiery end.

"I told everybody how it was going to end. I told the FBI the day after our initial raid, and they thought I was crazy. I gave them a whole rundown of the guy's mind and after a while, I just stopped talking because these guys were just looking at me like I was nuts,' he said.

For most of the 51-day standoff, he avoided news accounts of the siege. But on the morning it ended, he said, he awoke from a "really bad night,' capped by an eerily vivid dream about Mr. Koresh.

He said he got up, turned on CNN and saw that the FBI was trying to inject tear gas into the cult compound.

"I saw what they were doing, and I said, "Oh hell.' I sat there the whole morning and I watched it burn.'

Tried to resume life

Since the standoff ended, the ATF agent has tried to resume a regular work schedule but is still dealing with the aftermath of the siege. A crack shot and physical fitness buff, he said, he has lost weight and has little appetite.

He voices some frustration at assertions by some ATF officials that his statements to Texas Rangers and others investigating the raid have been inconsistent.

"They're saying that. That's not true. Every time I told my story, I said it the same way -- every time. The Rangers know that, too,' he said. "There's been no reason for me to go and make up stories.'

He said he is grateful that the Treasury Department, parent agency of the ATF, is reviewing what happened.

"Everything will come out soon,' he said.

But he cannot bear to attend memorial services with other agents involved in the raid -- the very men and women who he says hold his deepest love and loyalty. He skipped a gathering last week in Waco and he will not attend a memorial next week in Washington, he said.

"I'm just not ready. . . . It has eased very little,' he said. "What I feel is way beyond what you can imagine.

"The one thing I want people to remember is that four good people were killed -- four heroes. I just wish there were something greater I could've done.

"Right now, I'm just trying to think about prosecuting the people that did this. When that's over, hopefully, then I can find peace.'