Part 7: WacoAshes to Ashes: “Showtime”
by Tanya Metaksa
The ATF is not your friend
The tragedy in Waco, TX, that ended with vivid television coverage of an “assault” by the federal government against men, women and children on April 19, 1993 began many months, if not years, before that fateful day. It is a story of blunders by Americans who work for the federal government in positions of power and influence. Most of those government employees worked for the then-Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), the FBI and the Texas National Guard. Yet, the people responsible for the original decision to serve a search warrant by attacking the Mt. Carmel complex on Feb. 28, 1993 were ATF.
As with most government agencies, ATF is required to go to Congress with their hat in hand on a yearly mission to justify its budget and request new appropriations for the coming year. In 1993 ATF thought they needed some help in getting their budget passed after allegations of racism and sexual harassment had rocked the agency. In October 1992, several African-American special agents accused ATF superiors of assigning them to dangerous jobs and thwarting their opportunities for advancement. In addition, female workers alleged sexual harassment with resultant punishment for whistleblowers. ATF had announced late in 1992 that an investigation into these charges would be forthcoming.
The charges of racism and sexual harassment were enough for CBS’ 60 Minutes to do an expose on the employee morale at ATF. According to James Bovard’s book, Feeling Your Pain: The Explosion and Abuse of Government Power in the Clinton-Gore Years, the reporter on 60 Minutes stated, “Almost all the agents we talked to said they believe the initial attack on that cult in Waco was a publicity stuntthe main goal of which was to improve ATF’s tarnished image.” It’s easy to understand why the apprehension of one David Koresh in Waco could become a good public relations (PR) event that ATF could use for their upcoming hearings; however, their methodology was and is very questionable.
The arrest of Koresh had a PR code name: “Showtime.” Special Agent Sharon Wheeler was in charge of producing “Showtime.” Her local collaborators were two journalists for the local newspaper, the Waco Tribune Herald: Mark England and Darlene McCormick. In 1994 these two journalists were among the finalists for a Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism. Their seven part series began with its first installment on Feb. 27, 1993. The first installment of “Sinful Messiah” was prescient because it outlined the charges that ATF would allege against David Koresh.
England and McCormick’s prescience was no accident. In June of 1992 former Branch Davidians wanting to inform about Koresh’s sexual activities with underage girls met with the reporters. As a result McCormick had talked with federal authorities about their proposed series, leading to discussion between ATF and executives at the Waco newspaper. In fact, one of their sources was none other than ATF Special Agent David Aguilera. The other sources were members of the Mt. Carmel community that were also Aguilera’s sources.
Aguilera was the driving force behind the raid. He was in charge of the investigation of David Koresh on weapons charges. The McLennan County Sheriff’s office had been alerted to Koresh’s involvement with firearms when a United Parcel Service driver had reported a delivery of dummy grenades to Mt. Carmel. Following this lead ATF discovered that powdered aluminum and gunpowder had also been delivered to Mt. Carmel. None of these items were or are illegal to purchase, but the combination of powdered aluminum, gunpowder and dummy grenades could indicate the making of grenades, which are classified as “destructive devices” and illegal to make or own under federal law without proper licenses.
Further ATF investigations led to information that Koresh and some of his followers had purchased over 100 upper receivers for AR-15 rifles as well. ATF being always suspicious surmised that someone in Mt. Carmel might be constructing fully automatic rifles from AR-15 parts, although there were no records that showed the purchase of parts necessary to make such conversions.
The “Showtime” raid, also known as “Operation Trojan Horse,” was based on an affidavit that Aquilera had used to obtain a search warrant for the Davidians at Mt. Carmel. The affidavit was flawed not only because the purchases were legal, but, more importantly, it failed to show any intent.
According to Treasury Department’s investigation after the raid, ATF made numerous errors in planning their delivery of the search warrant. Among these “errors” was the establishment of an undercover house adjacent to Mt. Carmel, a direct assault, bad intelligence information, stopping surveillance ten days prior to the raid, lack of communication and just bad planning or, more correctly, no written plan. The Treasury Department investigation was known as the “Blue Book.”
The delivery of the warrant by the assault team was to have been a “surprise,” but it is very hard to plan a PR event without telling anyone. Of course, the reporters for the Tribune-Herald knew it was coming, but many more had figured it out. A cameraman from a local television station had been informed by an employee of the local ambulance company that ATF had hired, John McLemore, a local TV anchor, got a tip, and finally the arrival of helicopters and many personnel on the evening of Feb. 27 led to a growing suspicion among the townspeople that something was about to happen. Special Agent Wheeler was working the phones to ensure that the press would attend her Feb. 28 press conference. It was obvious on Feb. 27 that there was no secrecy. Still the attack was on the schedule.
Special Agent Robert Rodriquez had spent months developing a relationship with David Koresh. Only ten days earlier Rodriquez, known to Koresh as Robert Gonzalez, had instigated a shooting get together at Mt. Carmel’s makeshift range. Rodriquez had brought along his own AR-15, that Koresh had called, “a sniper rifle.” So on the morning of Feb. 28, Rodriquez paid a visit to Mt. Carmel to assess whether Koresh was suspicious. In fact, Rodriquez had brought a copy of Sinful Messiah to show to Koresh. As they were talking Koresh was called inside to answer a phone call. Instead, it was his brother-in-law, David Jones, informing him about the pending raid. When Koresh returned to Rodriquez he told him, “We know they are coming.”
Rodriquez left and fled back to the undercover house and called his supervisor, Charles Sarabyn, the raid commander. He told Sarabyn, “They know.” Rodriquez then jumped back into his truck to go to the command post to stop the raid. He arrived too late; everyone had gone.
Description of the actual raid events varies depending on who is recounting their experiences. The surviving Branch Davidians told of helicopters firing upon their residences, while members of the National Guard and ATF told a different story. The government’s story doesn’t come close to what John McLemore and his cameraman, Dan Mulloney, testified to during the trial of the 11 survivors in 1994.
The two journalists had been driving about one-half mile from Mt. Carmel. According to Dick Reavis’ book, The Ashes of Waco, “The two telenewsmen say that they saw the helicopters make first one, then another pass, not at the faraway intersection of Highways 84 and 31, but directly behind Mt. Carmel, at low altitude.” Stopping their car, the two men “captured the third pass of the helicopter on film: the footage shows a ’copter passing along Mt. Carmel’s ‘north’ side, within inches of the building’s roof. As the pair finished recording the swoop on film, two cattle trailers loaded with agents passed by, speeding down (Farm-to-Market Road) 2491, then turning onto EE Ranch Road. McLemore and Mulloney tailed the raiders into Mt. Carmel.”
The raid on Mt. Carmel that fateful Sunday was a “no-knock” surprise raid, although the search warrant issued did not authorize a “no-knock” assault. Yet, the ATF agents that took part in the raid had rehearsed their entry tactics at Fort Hood, TX, many times. According to David Hardy in his book, This is Not an Assault, 80 agents took part in the raid. The group with the search warrant was to leave the trailers, neutralize the dogs, run towards the front door of Mt.Carmel and then batter down the front door.
And that’s what they began to do.
The leader of the raid, Special Agent Ron Ballestros, was assigned to “clear the front porch of any obstruction” while two other agents were assigned to “breach the door with a ram, a tool.” Ballestros’ pretrial testimony was that as he exited the cattle trailer with his shotgun he saw a man open the front door. It was Koresh and according to Ballestros he appeared unarmed. Ballestros shouted, “Police! Search Warrant! Lay Down!”
Ballestros maintained that after Koresh said something, Koresh pulled back into the building and closed the door. Ballestros explained that as he reached the porch he tried to open the front door and then he saw something exiting the front door. He assumed they were bullets as he was subsequently wounded in his left hand.
The Branch Davidians alleged that the shots fired were from outside and penetrated the large front door that had two panels, opening much like a French door.
Yet the frontal attack wasn’t the only attack planned. There was an attack on the second story of the building, on the “gymnasium” and on what was known as the tornado shelter, but would later be called the “bunker” by both ATF and the FBI during the siege. These three ancillary skirmishes were the most problematic for the agents as at each of these locations the Davidians were seen fighting back.
While the frontal attack was going, seven agents were assigned to scale the roof and do a dynamic entry into the second floor. This segment of the ATF plan was a disaster for the federal agents. As they climbed up a ladder they found themselves under attack. TV Cameraman Dan Mulloney was with one of the teams assigned to breaching the second floor. He captured their entry on film.
And at the same time another group was to attack the “bunker” in order to keep any Davidians who might have been working there from returning to the building to get weapons. When ATF agents arrived they found that their attack wasn’t any surprisethree armed men lay in wait for them foiling their plans.
Finally, there was the ATF group that entered the gymnasium. They were to rendezvous with the second floor group. This is the group that saw Koresh appear above them and wounded him. However, they failed to meet any other ATF agents.
After the raid began it become very evident that there was a huge communications problem during the ATF attack. No one in ATF had made arrangements for a method of communication with the Branch Davidians. The telephone number of Mt. Carmel was not available to the ATF agent in charge. No one in ATF had planned to have a way of communicating with Koresh or others at Mt. Carmel. This lack of on site communication was one of the findings of the Treasury Department’s investigation that was highlighted in the Blue Book.
However, Douglas Wayne Martin, an attorney and a resident at Mt. Carmel, called 911 within minutes of the attack’s start. For approximately two hours while the raid and shooting was going on Martin and Lieutenant Larry Lynch of the Waco Police Department carried on a conversation to try a bring about a cease fire. Lynch wanted to be able to contact ATF during the raid so he arranged with an ATF technician to monitor the sheriff’s band radio that Lynch would use. Despite Lynch’s use of the sheriff’s band radio to issue repeated requests to talk to the ATF commander on the ground, no one from ATF ever responded. Lynch finally established some communication that went to ATF Agent Comealong who then contacted the team leaders at Mt. Carmel by radio. It wasn’t until around eleven-thirty in the morning that a cease-fire was arranged allowing ATF to bring out its casualties: four dead, twenty wounded.
What had started out as a PR extravaganza, turned into an ATF nightmare. The press conference that was to be held on the afternoon of Feb. 28 was, instead, held on March 1 when the excuse given by Special Agent Sharon Wheeler was, “We were outgunned.”
The botched ATF raid on Mt. Carmel was the precursor to a greater tragedy that was to occur 51 days later. On the afternoon of Feb. 28, 1993, ATF was removed from the investigation and replaced by the FBI, who again brought in their Hostage Rescue Team (HRT). “Showtime” had become an even bigger PR disaster for ATF than anyone could imagine.
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