Ex-agents recount Davidian shootout

The Dallas Morning News, July 1, 2000
By Lee Hancock

WACO – Retired federal agent Robert White testified Friday that he and other agents wrote their blood types on their necks and begged in vain for more assault rifles because of "worst-case" concerns before the raid that sparked the Branch Davidian siege.

But Mr. White and another now-retired agent wounded that day said they never expected to walk into a blood bath, where unseen gunmen blasted at them for hours through the Branch Davidian compound's windows, walls and doors.

"Not in our wildest dreams did we expect the resistance that we met out there that day," testified Kenny King, retired from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Mr. King suffered six gunshot wounds to the chest, arms and legs during the gunbattle with the sect, and Mr. White was hit in the shoulder and grazed in the neck. A third bullet lodged in Mr. White's Kevlar helmet just behind his ear during the Feb. 28, 1993, firefight.

The two men were the final witnesses in the second week of trial in the Branch Davidians' $675 million wrongful-death lawsuit against the federal government.

Their testimony came during the second day of the government's case, which has so far focused on the ATF raid. Lawyers for the sect have alleged that agents fired indiscriminately when they came to the Branch Davidians' property outside Waco to search for illegal weapons and arrest sect leader David Koresh. Four ATF agents died and 20 were wounded in the gunbattle. Six Branch Davidians also died that day.

Government lawyers have argued that the sect was tipped off and laid an ambush. They have said the agents acted properly in a fight for their lives.

Friday's testimony offered accounts of the chaotic 21/2-hour battle from both ATF agents and a Waco TV newsman.

John McLemore, a former reporter for KWTX-TV, said gunfire "just seemed to start all at once" as he and a cameraman followed the two cattle trailers that took the ATF's raiding party to the compound.

But neither he nor any of the agents who have testified so far have been able to pinpoint where the shooting started.

Although Mr. McLemore broadcast news reports stating that the Branch Davidians had started the battle, he testified in a 1994 criminal trial that he couldn't tell who fired first. On Friday, he repeated that testimony, and unlike in the criminal trial, the government's lawyers did not show jurors footage from his news reports.

Mr. King said the first shots he heard were sporadic "pops" of gunfire that rang out as he jumped from one of the trailers. He said he assumed they were coming from agents assigned to subdue the sect's dogs, since he heard someone broadcast the word "dogs" over the ATF radios.

Under cross-examination, he acknowledged that the shots "could have been [from] ATF agents."

Mr. White said he was in the rear of the first trailer, waiting for 29 other agents to dismount, as he heard "200 to 300 rounds" ring out. He and his Dallas-based team of eight agents had been assigned to go through the compound's front door and clear people from the building's upstairs towers.

But when he turned toward the building, he said, "All the windows that I could see at that point ... every window that I had focused on ... I could see muzzle blasts or barrels coming out of the windows, and knew that we were taking blasts from all sides."

Upper window curtains were jumping from gun blasts, and interspersed with the distinctive crack of AK-47s and AR-15s was the "very deafening roar" of .50-caliber guns, he said.

Most of the Branch Davidian women who testified earlier in the trial said they saw no sect members with guns that morning on the second floor, which housed sleeping quarters for Mr. Koresh and the sect's women and children.

Mr. White said he and four other agents knelt behind a Chevrolet Blazer, and other agents crouched behind other cars and vans in front of the compound. He said bullets smashed through the cars and "rained" window glass on them. "There was no cover to leave or retreat from."

He said he crouched for an hour and 42 minutes behind the Blazer, pinned down by "a continuous stream of gunfire." Two or three explosions rang out near the front door, followed by the racket of metal shrapnel. He said he deduced that they came from grenades, and later learned that his team's leader was hit by multiple grenade fragments.

Mr. White said he fired 40 or 50 rounds, shooting his 9 mm pistol when he could see a muzzle blast or barrel in a window. "I would try to project where the shooter would be,'' he said. "That's where I would fire four or five rounds at a time.''

Under cross-examination, he insisted that he fired only at "threats that posed themselves." He estimated that the 76-agent raiding party shot about 1,400 rounds during the firefight.

Mr. White said he saw Agent Steve Willis sprawled dead nearby and later helped retrieve his body as well as those of two other dead agents, Todd McKeehan and Conway LeBleu, after a cease-fire.

Mr. King, whose New Orleans-based team included Mr. McKeehan and Mr. LeBleu, said they came under fire immediately after climbing onto the compound roof and breaking a window that led to Mr. Koresh's bedroom. Another team managed to get through an adjoining rooftop window into a room where agents believed the sect's guns were all stored, but members were repulsed by compound gunfire.

Mr. King said a heavy spray of bullets through a compound wall hit him four times in the upper arm and chest and abdomen, puncturing one lung and tearing through his liver.

He said he lay down and slid across the roof "to get out of the line of fire." After he took two more rounds in the left thigh and lower buttocks, Mr. King said, he slid off the roof and into a courtyard where he lay for 21/2 hours before other agents could rescue him. He said he never unholstered his gun during any of the firefight.

Mr. King said he was aware that the sect had been tipped off before the raid was launched. "We still thought we had a window of opportunity, that if we went, we could still catch them inside the compound, separated from those guns."

He and Mr. White said the agents believed that the worst reaction they would get during the raid would be a few fistfights. "We knew about the large amount of guns, but we felt that guns would be in a particular area, and it would be sealed off,'' he said.

Mr. White said that he asked the ATF's Washington headquarters for permission to give his agents AR-15 assault rifles because of his concerns about the sect's firepower.

"You always prepare for the worst-case scenario,'' he said, adding that the entire raiding party ended up with six AR-15s. "The use of [more] AR-15s had been denied, so our feeling was that if we could get in fast enough, we wouldn't have the type of a situation where we would need them."

Under cross-examination, Mr. White said many agents also wrote their blood types on their necks with magic markers before going in.

His response prompted questions from two jurors about whether that was standard procedure in tactical operations.

Mr. White said it had never been done before but was done at the Waco raid at the recommendation of "the military."

He and the other ATF agents assigned practiced for the raid at Fort Hood, receiving training from U.S. Army Special Forces personnel. Army documents indicate that the ATF agents were taught how to give each other IVs during their training. The records indicate that the law enforcement agency asked for Special Forces medics to accompany the raiding party because of the threat of civilian and law enforcement casualties.

The request was denied because of a federal prohibition on military involvement in domestic law-enforcement operations.

Under cross-examination, Mr. King acknowledged that a number of the people involved in the shootout were convicted and sent to federal prison.

"You understand that this is not a criminal trial?'' plaintiffs' lawyer Michael Caddell asked. "You understand this is a civil trial for negligence?"

Mr. King then conceded he was one of a number of agents who eventually won a $15 million lawsuit from several Waco media organizations and an ambulance company for the inadvertent tip-off of the sect.

The trial resumes on Wednesday.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.