Feb 23, 2017

The Raid on Mount Carmel

St. John Barned-Smith
Houston Chronical
February 18, 2017

ATF agents keep Branch Davidian raid close to the vest

Bullet holes mark the vest’s dark blue fabric, still caked with red earth and sand. Blood has eaten through the nylon, leaving a spot of Kevlar visible through a small hole ringed by a maroon stain.    

Nearly 25 years after the standoff at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Eric Evers doesn’t know what to do with the armor he once wore. His wife can’t bear to see it. The government doesn’t want it. For now, he keeps it at the office, wrapped in gray plastic.

He might give it to a museum someday.

“What do you do with it?” said Evers, a special agent in Houston with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “It’s not like I’m going to frame it and hang it on the wall.”

For Evers, the vest stirs memories both sacred and taboo: of four colleagues who died doing their jobs, of his own survival, and of a fateful encounter that began with the best intentions.

Agent Gary Orchowski keeps his helmet – visibly damaged by a hail of bullets – on a small coffee table in his office, next to the mangled radio that once broadcast his death.

The agents rarely talk about the raid that kicked off a seven-week siege at the cult’s compound, ending in a blaze that killed more than 70 people. They’ve kept quiet about the worst loss of life in ATF history and the challenges that followed.

But the government’s decision to return their gear last year brought it all back. Now, more than two decades later, the agents say they’re ready to share the experiences that have largely gone untold amid a slew of documentaries, books and news coverage.

“I’ve decided I’m never going to forget, and I owe it to the guys who were killed to tell their story,” Orchowski said. “We owe it to the people who made the ultimate sacrifice to be honest with each other. … I want everybody at the end of day to go home alive, to go home to their families.”

It was Feb. 28, 1993, a cold and drizzly Sunday morning just outside of Waco.

Evers lay bleeding in a ditch as bullets whizzed by.

He’d already been shot five times, but his armored vest had stopped three rounds. A rifle round smashed through the webbing, however, boring deep into his shoulder; another bullet struck his forearm.

“This isn’t a game,” the special agent thought. “They’re putting real bullets down. They’re going to drop one in your head.”

Just yards away, Orchowski lay sprawled in cold, muddy water, with his radio crackling from its perch on his back. He heard reports of his own death, but before he could respond, another round zipped past his ear and hit the radio head-on.

The gunfire bombarded the agents so heavily that branches on nearby trees began to fall.

“I’ve learned the meaning of sheer terror,” said Evers, now 52.

Evers, Orchowski and more than 130 other ATF special agents and support staff had traveled from Houston, Dallas and New Orleans to execute search warrants on the Branch Davidians for illegal stockpiles of automatic weapons and explosives.

They had also been ordered to arrest the group’s leader, David Koresh, a 33-year-old from Houston who stood accused of having sex with his followers’ children, some as young as 11 years old.

The agents had heard stories that the youngest of Koresh’s followers had never been allowed to leave the compound.

“We were more or less looking at it like a humanitarian mission,” said Orchowski, 55, a former police officer in Georgia who is now the assistant special agent in charge of the ATF’s Houston field office. “That meant they had never had a candy bar. A bunch of us had gone to Walmart ... In our vests, there were candy bars we planned on giving to the kids.”

The plan had been to drive up to the compound in two cattle trailers, to surprise the Davidians, fan out, search for illegal firearms and arrest Koresh.

But that plan went stale before the agents ever drove up to the compound; Koresh and his followers had been tipped off they were coming.

Even after learning they’d lost the element of surprise, however, the agents’ superiors pressed forward.

They approached the compound expecting to find workers outdoors; instead, they saw only curtains fluttering at the windows.

Then the air filled with bullets, as cult members opened fire with automatic weapons from dozens of posts.

“It was Fallujah before Fallujah,” said Robert Elder, 56, a now-retired ATF agent who also participated in the raid, comparing it to Iraq.

Elder looked up and saw a man atop a water tower, training an AR-15 at him.

“I remember looking up and thinking, ‘He’s got me,’” Elder said. “The next thing I recall, I see the rifle fall and I see him fall back into the water tower because one of our snipers took him out.”

For hours, the agents and the Branch Davidians traded fire, broken up by ceasefires.

Orchowski remembers the surreal sounds of chirping birds when the gunfire halted.

“I almost wanted to start shooting at the birds,” he said. “Like, ‘Shut up, this is not funny.’ It was like they were almost laughing at you.”

During the third and final ceasefire, ATF agent David Opperman moved in to pull Evers from the ditch, just feet from the man who’d shot him.

“Dave never stopped,” Evers said, choking up slightly. “He kept coming on: ‘I’m just coming to get my guy, I’m just coming to get my guy, I’m just going to get him. It’s a ceasefire.’ ... I thought for sure he’d smoke us in the back but he didn’t.”

Four ATF agents did not survive: Steven D. Willis, from the Houston field office, and three New Orleans-based agents: Conway C. LeBleu, Todd W. McKeehan, and Robert J. Williams. Six Branch Davidians also died in the firefight.

“Knowing what we were up against, there was no way we were going to succeed,” Orchowski said. “As long as someone makes up their mind they’re going to go down in a blaze of glory, there’s not much you can do about it.”

The ensuing stand-off and fiery conclusion to the siege on April 19, 1993 became a lightning rod for controversy over religious liberty, personal freedom and federal overreach.

It followed the Ruby Ridge shooting in 1992 that galvanized paramilitary activists, and stirred Timothy McVeigh as he planned the bombing that came two years later at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

But as the public watched lawmakers hold hearings and prosecutors win convictions of some Branch Davidians on manslaughter and weapons charges, Orchowski, Evers, and their colleagues quietly recuperated and went back to work.

ATF agent Roland Ballesteros, 54, who was shot in the thumb that day by Koresh as he confronted the cult leader at the compound’s front door, defends the agency’s preparation for the raid.

“I’m associated with something that is being called a debacle,” Ballesteros said. “There was no flaw in the plan. My only thing is, when we were compromised ... maybe we shouldn’t [have gone through with it] ... But there was a momentum going on this thing, and I don’t know if it was easy to push back at that point in time. It just created a life of its own.”

The incident and internal scrutiny that followed the incident prompted the ATF to retool its intelligence gathering, beef up training and re-assess how it conducts its operations. Ballesteros said decisions might be different today.

“Nowadays, I see things, and we do things, and it’s more like: “Ok, let’s just check ourselves ... Everybody goes home tonight,” he said.

Some of the details still remain fuzzy for many of the agents.

“Every time we hear somebody speak, we learn something new,” Orchowski said. “Because so many moving parts were involved.”

Today, a shrine to the fallen agents marks the entryway of the ATF’s Houston field office.

A large, 3-D model of the compound shows where the men died that day, and their portraits line the wall.

Every year, current and retired agents travel from across the region for a special memorial to remember them and their deaths.

“It’s the biggest personal tragedy our agency has ever suffered,” said Special Agent Nicole Strong, spokeswoman for the Houston field office.

For the agents, the return of their gear – which was almost destroyed by the federal government before being handed back – has provided a different kind of insight.

“They didn’t want to make this part of our history,” Elder said. “It is part of our history, but there are people who want it to go away, and they think if you don’t talk about it, it’s going to go away.”

After the bullet-ridden gear was returned, memories of the deadliest — and still-controversial — day in agency history came flooding back to the agents. Here are the moments they'll never forget.

Evers had been with the bureau for two years before the raid. Prior to joining ATF, he had worked as a firefighter in El Paso.

He was shot five times during the raid. His vest stopped three bullets, but he lost 40 to 60 percent of his blood from two other wounds.

“Everything was a blur. My hearing was muffled. It was like those movies. It was just ... ‘surreal’ is the only word I can come up with.”

While agents who participated in the raid sometimes discussed it amongst themselves, he believes the response to the incident would be much different if it happened today.

“I think all these guys would have been sent to peer support groups, and maybe to psychologists we have on retainer would have been brought out to meet with these guys and whole discussion aspect would have been in play to help minimize some of those stressful emotions after the fact,” Evers said. “First responders, EMS, firefighters all have things in place now for critical incidents they experience. I think it would be the same for us.”

Gary Orchowski’s helmet deflected two bullets. His radio also got destroyed in the firefight.

Orchowski worked at the Gwinnett County Police Department before joining ATF and had been with the agency for five years at the time of the raid. He’s now the Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge in the Houston Field Office. He and his colleagues said their superiors ordered the agents on the ground to proceed with the raid even after discovering they had lost the element of surprise - then denied knowing the Davidians had known they were coming.

That incident stuck with him the rest of his career, he said.

“I made a promise to myself I would be honest. ... If it’s going to hurt your feelings, guess what, it’s a feeling, but it’ll pass. We owe it to the people who made the ultimate sacrifice to be honest with each other.”

When the final ceasefire was called, just before noon, none of the agents were quite willing to move at first, he said.

“We all thought as soon as we got up they were going to start executing us,” he said.

Rob Elder, now 56, was former Special Agent in Charge of the Houston field office before retiring last year. He worked as a cop in St. Louis before joining the bureau. By the time of the raid, he had been an ATF agent for about six years. He remembers looking up and seeing a man training an AR-15 at him from the water tower in the middle of the Branch Davidian compound.

His mission had been to subdue cult members who were working in “the pit.”

When he tried to pull out his pistol, he inadvertently hit his magazine release.

“I hit my magazine release and my magazine fell out into the mud,” he said. “I have one round in my gun now and I remember looking up and thinking, ‘He’s got me.”

He had me, and the next thing I recall, I see the rifle fall and I see him fall back into the water tower because one of our snipers took him out.”

Roland Ballesteros, 54, was tasked with charging the compound’s main entrance. As he ran up the steps leading to the door into the compound, he saw David Koresh and one of his followers. He remembers Koresh yelling and asking him what was happening.

Ballesteros yelled back that they were executing a search warrant and ordered him to lie down.

Instead, Koresh stepped back through the compound’s door, shut it, and he and others began shooting through the door at Ballesteros, blowing half his thumb off.

“You see holes coming, popping through the door,” he recalled. “And part of my thumb, just hanging over my glove.”

These photos occurred during the ATF’s initial siege of the Branch Davidian compound. The conflict the cult members and federal agents kicked off a seven-week siege which ended in a fiery conflagration in April, 51 days later.
Explore our newspaper coverage

These newspaper clippings come from the Chronicle’s coverage of the deadly raid 24 years ago. Explore them in greater detail to see how the events unfolded in real time.
Read the report

After the raid and inferno at the Mount Carmel Center, federal agents came under criticism for their handling of the raid, with critical news coverage, federal hearings, and testimony in trial. The event also prompted the federal government to commission an exhaustive investigation into the agents’ actions and how it all played out.

Read the report to get an even more in-depth understanding of the ATF’s raid and what investigators concluded. Scroll down for maps and charts highlighted in the report.


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