AP, Feb. 28, 2003
WACO, Texas (AP) – In a small chapel built on remnants of the burned Branch Davidian compound, about two dozen people gathered Friday to mark the 10th anniversary of the botched raid that led to a seven-week standoff and deadly inferno.
They briefly talked about the six sect members killed in the initial raid. But a decade later, survivors still focus on what they believe is a government cover-up about everything from who fired first to how the siege ended.
Clive Doyle, who survived the raid, said Branch Davidians fired only in self defense. He said the four Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents who also died Feb. 28, 1993, could have been hit accidentally by fellow officers during the shootout.
“Their deaths, just like ours, should never have happened,” Doyle said.
Authorities were trying to arrest sect leader David Koresh, suspected of stockpiling illegal weapons and explosives.
The following 51-day standoff ended when FBI-led military vehicles rammed and sprayed tear gas into the compound, which caught fire and burned to the ground, killing more than 70 people, including nearly two dozen children. Authorities say the sect members started the blaze and shot each other. Only nine got out alive.
Meanwhile, ATF officials placed wreaths on the agents’ graves during private ceremonies Friday. Conway LeBleu is buried in Lake Charles, La.; Todd McKeehan in Elizabethton, Tenn.; Robert Williams in Brandon, Miss.; and Steven Willis in Houston.
“It doesn’t get easier. You just learn to cope,” said Jane McKeehan, Todd’s mother, who lives in Johnson City, Tenn.
“I’ve just made myself go on and be happy,” she said. “I baby-sit my grandchildren a lot, and I didn’t want them to remember me being sad all the time. We try not to dwell on the past and what happened and how it happened.”
Robert Rodriguez, the undercover ATF agent who had been inside the compound until shortly before the raid, went to the Waco site Friday and placed a wreath beside a stone plaque listing the slain agents’ names. He did not attend the memorial service.
Rodriguez has testified in court and before Congress that he warned fellow ATF agents to cancel the raid because Branch Davidians had been tipped off. Authorities maintain that sect members fired first that day.
During the service Friday, Doyle read names of the Branch Davidians killed in the raid: JayDean Wendell, 34; Perry Dale Jones, 64; Winston Blake, 28; Peter Gent, 24; Peter Hipsman, 27; and Michael Schroeder, 29.
Koresh’s mother, Bonnie Haldeman, said the raid was unnecessary because her son would have surrendered if the local sheriff had served the arrest warrant.
“This was a harmless bunch of people,” Haldeman said after attending the Waco service. “(A misperception) is that he was anti-government, collecting guns to kill people. That was an absolute falsehood. David didn’t have a mean bone in his body. David did not believe in murder.”
The ATF also held a private memorial service Friday during a training conference in Houston.
Todd McKeehan, 28, was married. LeBleu, 30, was married with two children. They worked in New Orleans and were among 14 agents from that office who took part in the raid.
Williams, 26, also was married and worked in Little Rock, Ark.
Willis, 32, who worked in Houston, was single. Each Sunday he ate dinner with his parents and sister, just 18 months younger. The family members talked on the phone almost daily.
“We remember him all the time, but I think this day’s going to be harder because it’s been 10 years,” said his sister, Lisa Willis. “It seems forever ago that I’ve heard my brother’s voice, sat down and had dinner with him. We still function – we just miss him.”
Lisa Willis said she doesn’t question the ATF’s decision to raid the compound or methods used that day. She said she never thinks about the Branch Davidians.
“They’re kind of like the original terrorists,” she said. “They were wrong. They were breaking the law, and it was just part of my brother’s job.” Jane McKeehan said her family doesn’t dwell on the ATF’s mistakes or the Branch Davidians’ actions. Instead, they focus on memories of Todd, who planned to start a family with his wife in a few years.
The last time she saw her son was when he went back to Tennessee for his grandmother’s funeral, just two weeks before his own death. While having lunch one day, the mother and son ended up sitting at the kitchen table for five hours, just talking.
“He told me about his job, how he did some undercover work, and it was so interesting,” McKeehan said. “I don’t think any mother wants her child to go into a law enforcement-type job, because it’s scary and has risks. But I could tell his heart was really into what he did.”