The Dallas Morning News
BYLINE:Lee Hancock

Memorial honors ATF agents
Washington ceremony recognizes cult- raid sacrifice

WASHINGTON -- One month after Branch Davidian leader David Koresh and more than 70 followers died in a massive fire, federal agents gathered Thursday to honor colleagues killed and wounded in a raid on the cult.

Officials with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said the hourlong ceremony at the National Law Enforcement Officers' Memorial, attended by Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, ATF Director Stephen Higgins, Arizona Republican Sen. Dennis DeConcini and U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, extended national support to families of the four agents who died, the 16 who were wounded and the other agents emotionally scarred by the bloody Feb. 28 raid.

"They left us doing what they have devoted their lives to, that of serving their country,' Mr. Bentsen said of the four slain agents. "We come together today to honor them, and we come to remember them for standing up to a violent criminal who was ready to harm anyone in his way.'

More than 100 agents from the ATF's Houston, New Orleans and Dallas divisions who participated in the Branch Davidian raid attended.

The service, held under cool, windswept skies and capped by an emotional performance by the New York City Police Department's bagpipers' band, was attended by more than 1,000 people.

As agents sat in the oval surrounded by walls inscribed with the names of every U.S. law enforcement officer killed in the line of duty, ATF officials unveiled wreaths bearing the badge numbers and names of the dead agents: Conway Le-Bleu, Todd Mc-Keehan and Robert Williams of the New Orleans division and Steven Willis of Houston.

Names on wall

Next year, officials said, their names will be carved on the memorial walls, joining those of 178 other ATF agents killed in the line of duty.

The four agents' names were also inscribed Thursday on a Treasury Department memorial to its law enforcement agents slain since 1907.

After the ceremony, families of the dead and wounded agents were presented with crosses of valor from the Waco Police Department and then went to the White House for a private meeting with President Clinton.

ATF officials, other federal law enforcement agencies, residents of Waco and other private citizens also have donated about $125,000 to a fund to be used by families of the slain agents.

"This sort of puts it behind us,' said Agent Kenny King of New Orleans, a 17-year ATF veteran who was shot six times and almost bled to death during the 45-minute firefight.

John Willis, father of Steven Willis, said the Washington memorial service was perhaps the most meaningful to the slain agents' families because it was their first opportunity to meet one another and all the agents involved in the February raid. He said the families were especially touched by an hourlong visit to the White House during which they met in the Rose Garden with Mr. Clinton, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.

Mr. Willis added: "We hope this is the end. We hope we're finished. We've all grieved a long time. We've all been to a lot of memorials. We've all cried.

Support shown

"I think not only for us but for all the ATF people, there needs to be this ending,' he said. "There's been enough grief.'

In a brief speech, ATF Director Higgins praised the support extended by the slain agents' families to people in the bureau.

"They were amazed at how much support they actually drew from you,' he said.

He also thanked the agents involved in the raid.

"We know how heroically you responded. We can only imagine how difficult and how much self-restraint must have been needed to maintain the . . . discipline as federal agents. And while, thankfully, some children were later released from the compound, it now seems tragically clear that you cared more for the safety of the children than they did.'

It was one of the few references to Mr. Koresh and his followers during the memorial service.

At least 17 children were believed to have been killed in the April 19 fire that consumed the cult's compound near Waco, ending a 51-day standoff with federal agents.

The siege began with the Feb. 28 raid. The fire broke out after FBI agents tried to force the cult's surrender by injecting tear gas into the compound. Federal authorities and an arson investigator say that cult members set the fire; surviving cult members say it was set accidentally when lanterns were overturned during the FBI assault.

Authorities say four children suffered gunshot wounds as the fires swept through the compound. Also shot in the standoff's final minutes were Mr. Koresh and his chief lieutenant, Steve Schneider.

Report filed

On Wednesday, ATF agents in Waco filed with a federal court a 300-page report detailing evidence found in the ruined compound after the fire. Agents discovered more than 1.8 million rounds of ammunition and more than 200 firearms, including at least 50 illegal automatic weapons and 13 silencers, law enforcement officials said.

The ATF's actions during the February raid are being studied in a four-month independent review by the Treasury Department, parent agency of the ATF.

Ronald Noble, the assistant secretary for law enforcement overseeing the inquiry, made brief reference to the investigation during the memorial.

"We will learn from this tragedy. The best memorial for a fallen officer is for us all to learn from the past, to make the future safer for law enforcement officers everywhere,' he said. "These outstanding young men and courageous agents will not have died in vain.'

In his first interview since the day of the raid, the ATF agent who led the Waco action said he and his fellow agents welcome the review.

Phillip Chojnaki, special agent in charge of the ATF's Houston division, said there are lingering concerns among those who conducted the raid that the Treasury inquiry could be "a witchhunt' aimed at pinning blame on the agency or its managers for the incident.

But he said he and his subordinates welcome "a legitimate shooting investigation where people first determine the facts and then look at the facts to determine what we can do in the future.'


He said he and other agents remain frustrated that ongoing investigations of the agents' deaths and of extensive firearms violations by the cult have severely limited the agency's ability to respond to critics of the raid.

"We know we've got the answers. I feel confident with that. We've begged from the very beginning to be able to come forward with some of these issues that are being questioned, but we've been told we have to wait,' he said.

Agent Chojnaki said he and other ATF commanders who led the failed raid have repeatedly reviewed their decision to proceed with the raid after an undercover agent inside the compound just before the action reported that Mr. Koresh was telling his followers that he knew federal agents were on the way.

He said he cannot discuss what he and others were told by the undercover agent because of the pending investigations, which include an inqury focusing on whether Waco news media employees were the source of the leak to the cult.

Texas Rangers are completing a 125-page report detailing how the cult was tipped off to the impending raid, a report that includes several hundred pages of exhibits, officials said. The report, to be finished this week, will be sent to the U.S Justice Department for further review, officials said.

Agent Chojnaki said he has considered his decision to execute the raid "probably 100 times a day for 80-90 days.'

"I don't know how you could change the decision. You have to look at it from the perspective of, "Would I have made the same decision given the information I had at the time?' ' he said. "I think any rational person would have made the same decision given the information we had.'

Agent Chojnaki added that the Feb. 28 losses were his division's first casualties of any kind since 1985.

"Our job is to go into the situations where people have illegal firearms, illegal destructive devices, and the potential to be violent,' he said. "The one thing I hear over and over from my people is that we are the experts in that area. We do more of those kinds of raids than anybody in this country. We did everything we did right. We acted properly. There are a lot of agents male and female both that put their lives on the line, and that's been forgotten.'