Waco case prosecutor enters plea

Johnston says he's not guilty; January trial set

Dallas Morning News/November 14, 2000
Associated Press

St. Louis - A former government prosecutor pleaded not guilty Monday to charges of obstructing the investigation into the 1993 siege at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco.

Former assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Johnston was charged with two counts of obstruction of justice and three counts of lying to investigators and a federal grand jury.

The indictment was returned last week as Waco special counsel John C. Danforth released his final report absolving the government of wrongdoing in the siege. The case was filed in St. Louis because Mr. Danforth, a former U.S. senator from Missouri, based his investigation out of his law office there.

At the hearing Monday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Mary Ann Medler set a trial date of Jan. 2. Mr. Johnston is free on personal recognizance bond. He was present at the arraignment but did not speak other than to acknowledge that he understood the terms of the bond.

Attorney Michael Kennedy has acknowledged that Mr. Johnston made mistakes in his dealings with the special counsel. But he called the charges baseless and unfair.

Mr. Johnston helped draft the search warrant that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms tried to execute on Feb. 28, 1993, at the Waco compound. The botched raid turned into a gunfight in which four federal agents and six Branch Davidians were killed.

The shootout sparked the 51-day standoff that ended on April 19, 1993, with a fire that consumed the compound, killing sect leader David Koresh and about 80 followers inside.

Mr. Johnston in 1994 helped convict nine Branch Davidians during their criminal trial. In 1999, federal Judge Walter S. Smith Jr. ordered the government to give him all records and evidence connected with the standoff. Mr. Johnston then complained publicly that the Justice Department was covering up evidence showing FBI agents had fired pyrotechnic tear gas at the compound.

Justice Department and FBI officials denied for years that the government had used anything capable of sparking fires when they employed tanks and tear gas to try to end the standoff.

The FBI's subsequent confirmation that some pyrotechnic tear gas was used prompted Attorney General Janet Reno to ask Mr. Danforth to investigate.

In July, Mr. Danforth, in a preliminary report, absolved the government of blame in the blaze. A week earlier, an advisory jury hearing a $675 million wrongful-death lawsuit brought by surviving cult members and the victims' families reached the same conclusion.

Mr. Johnston left the U.S. attorney's office in February. He admitted in July that he had withheld several pages of notes from 1993 dealing with the FBI's use of pyrotechnic gas.

"It's completely irrelevant and immaterial to the investigation," Mr. Kennedy, speaking of the withheld notes, said after the hearing. A congressional report issued last week praised Mr. Johnston for helping reveal the use of pyrotechnics but condemned his failure to surrender the notes, which indicated he was told in 1993 that FBI agents fired several incendiary military tear gas grenades.

Mr. Johnston said he withheld the notes out of fear that hostile colleagues might try to use what he had written to discredit him. He added that he didn't reveal the notes to Mr. Danforth because his investigators "treated me with the same loathing and hostility that I had encountered from the Justice Department."

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