Robert Rodriguez’s memories of that fateful Sunday morning at the Branch Davidian compound in February 1993 are seared in his psyche.
“You never forget,” said Rodriguez, who has lived in San Antonio since 1993. “You try to put them aside, but they’re always there with you.”
Rodriguez, a football standout at Texas A&I in the early 1970s, was an undercover agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms at the compound near Waco when an ATF operation investigating alleged firearms violations by the Branch Davidians ended in disaster.
Four ATF agents and five Branch Davidians were killed when the ATF tried to serve a federal search warrant, sparking a 51-day standoff that ended when the FBI stormed the compound.
At least 75 Branch Davidians, including leader David Koresh, died in a fire that raged shortly after the final assault began.
“I feel badly that it ended like it did and when I say that, I mean the initial raid when the agents died,” said Rodriguez, who retired from the ATF in December 1999. “I feel badly because it changed me inside, changed my life for many years, and I didn’t get to finish my career.
“I don’t feel badly about how the final assault ended because I know the truth about what happened.”
The FBI and ATF came under criticism after the siege ended.
Koresh, Rodriguez said, ordered his followers to set the compound on fire.
Rodriguez, who grew up in Falfurrias, will visit the remnants of the Mount Carmel compound this weekend to tell his story for a TV documentary.
Rodriguez, 54, credits his experience as a football player at A&I for preparing him to cope with the challenges of working in law enforcement.
“Football taught me discipline, how to stay cool under pressure,” he said.
Rodriguez was a starting cornerback as a freshman in 1970, when the Javelinas won the NAIA Division I national championship, and was named the team’s most valuable defensive player his senior season.
Recruited by defensive coordinator Freddy Jonas, Rodriguez bought a used pair of boots from a friend for $5 and hitchhiked to Kingsville for his recruiting visit.
It didn’t take long for Rodriguez to learn that head coach Gil Steinke and Jonas ran a tight ship and demanded much from their players.
“They were very tough on us, but they were always fair,” said Rodriguez, who graduated from A&I, now Texas A&M-Kingsville, in 1974.
Said Willie Crafts, who coached the defensive line when Rodriguez played: “Robert was tempered, just like you temper steel. He endured the pressure and the heat that made him a better person and a better player.”
Rodriguez coached in San Antonio for two years before applying for a job as a state trooper with the Department of Public Safety.
“We had some very tough instructors at the DPS Academy,” he said. “Some people couldn’t take it, but I was used to it.
“Playing for a national champion gave me confidence when I was at the academy. I felt like I could run and fight with anybody.”
Rodriguez worked with the DPS for eight years, including more than four as a narcotics investigator, before going to the ATF in 1984.
“Everything I did through the years, even working undercover, I had that confidence that I was unbeatable,” he said.
That confidence was badly shaken the morning of Feb.28, 1993 ó when the ATF raid fell apart.
Rodriguez managed to walk out of the compound only minutes before the shooting began ó but it wasn’t easy.
His last few minutes with Koresh, the leader of the religious sect, still haunt him.
Koresh and his followers started preparing for the raid immediately after Koresh received a tip from someone in Waco that morning.
With the element of surprise gone, Rodriguez knew it was critical that he leave the compound and warn his fellow agents.
“David got a phone call and when he came back he was real nervous,” Rodriguez said. “He just went to the window and said, ‘They’re coming, Robert. They’re coming, Robert. The time has come.’
“I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to get out of here.’ I was cool on the outside, but I was shaking on the inside.”
Rodriguez said he told Koresh he had to leave because he was having breakfast with some friends.
Koresh, Rodriguez said, responded by shaking his hand and saying, “Good luck, Robert.”
“I said, ‘OK, David,'” Rodriguez said. “Then I walked toward the door.”
Still, Rodriguez wasn’t sure he would make it out alive.
“I thought, ‘Man, they’re going to shoot me,'” he said.
Rodriguez kept his composure until he got in his truck.
“I was shaking so hard I couldn’t put the key in the ignition,” he said. “I had to steady my right wrist with my left hand.”
Rodriguez rushed back to the ATF’s command post and told his supervisor that Koresh had been tipped off. But Rodriguez’s warnings went unheeded and the operation went forward.
Rodriguez sued his supervisors and the ATF in 1995, claiming that they defamed him and conspired to make him a scapegoat. The suit was settled out of court.
The ATF awarded Rodriguez its distinguished service medal in May 1994.
“Robert’s courage was always there, even when he was a young football player,” Jonas said. “It’s part of his makeup. People like that don’t crack.”
Rodriguez and his wife, Cynthia, his high school sweetheart, have two children. He works part-time as an instructor for disaster response and is working on a book about the raid on the compound.
“There’s no such thing as closure when you go through something like this,” he said. “You just deal with it.”