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Witness to History: The ATF Raid at Waco

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On Thursday, February 7, 2013, the National Law Enforcement Museum hosted the sixth event in its Witness to History panel discussion series, held at the Pew Charitable Trusts Building in Washington, DC, and sponsored by Target®. The event marked the first time that agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF)—on the ground when the 50-day raid began in Waco, Texas, on February 28, 1993—have spoken publicly about their role in this tragic case.

“We were honored to host yet another successful Witness to History event as part of our continuing series,” said National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund Chairman & CEO Craig Floyd, who moderated the panel discussion. “Our excellent panel provided valuable insight, and each panelist shared his unique perspective on this seminal moment in law enforcement history.”

Panel discussion included expert analysis and firsthand accounts from Bill Buford, ATF (ret.) Resident Agent in Charge, Little Rock Field Office; Pete Mastin, ATF (ret.) Special Agent in Charge, New Orleans Field Division; Jerry Petrilli, ATF (ret.) Resident Agent in Charge, Albuquerque Field Office; and Dick Reavis, Author of The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation. A Q&A session allowed audience members to interact with the panelists at the end of the discussion.

Here are a few poignant recollections panelists shared with us at the event:

When asked who fired the first shots, the answer was clear to panelist Jerry Petrilli. “In my mind, [there is] absolutely no doubt they [the Branch Davidians] fired first,” he said. “They opened fire as soon as we got out of the trailers…Our policy is never fire unless fired upon. It’s that simple.”

Under fire, after being shot four times, Bill Buford noticed something in the corner, and suddenly realized what it was. “I remember thinking, I hope a round doesn’t hit that box of hand grenades,” he said.

When asked about thought processes and how they felt after the events of that day, the three agents on the panel had similar responses. All expressed deep remorse for the officers who had fallen, responsibility for mistakes that were made, and also emphasized using their experience to improve upon ATF operations in the future. Jerry Petrilli even noted that after they left Waco, “I was asked to come up to headquarters and immediately restructure our plan.”

When asked about his thoughts on the events at Waco in 1993, Acting ATF Director B. Todd Jones responded, “This was the biggest gunfight involving federal law enforcement in the history of the United States of America. The men who were there that day were all heroes, in my mind.”

Author Dick Reavis posed a question to the other panelists during the Q&A session: Why didn’t you just arrest Koresh at another time, like when he was out getting groceries or out running around the compound?

According to Bill Buford, the Branch Davidians’ leader, Koresh, was not an easy man to track down, and they had no way of knowing where and when he would be somewhere. The compound was surrounded by thick, high walls and layers of barbed wire, and Koresh was always accompanied by his “mighty men.” Buford explained that, after trying to conceive of every possible scenario to arrest Koresh, going inside just made the most sense.

Each of the agents on the panel shared insight into what they felt went wrong, as well as how ATF has improved operations as a result of what happened at Waco.  According to Mr. Buford, “One thing that came as a result of Waco, was a strong contingency plan. We have that for every operation we run now.”