Skip to comments.ATF agent tries to put Waco ghosts to rest
Posted on 10/13/2003 2:22:37 PM PDT by Stew Padasso
ATF agent tries to put Waco ghosts to rest
By Guillermo Contreras San Antonio Express-News
Web Posted : 10/12/2003 12:00 AM
Images of the shootout and siege, scenes that once gripped viewers around the globe but which long since have faded from the public consciousness, still streak through Aguilera's mind.
He was the ATF agent whose firearms investigation of the Branch Davidians led to a raid on their compound near Waco on Feb. 28, 1993.
The ill-fated raid claimed four U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents and six Davidians and sparked a 51-day standoff that ended in the deaths of 76 Davidians including the religious sect's leader, David Koresh.
"These are scenes I relive every day, especially at that time of year," said Aguilera, 47. "Although I've been able to control it somewhat, it's something you never forget."
Memories of the tragedy have tormented Aguilera, causing emotional trauma, feelings of guilt and failed relationships, and in 1994 he left Texas for another job.
The move enabled him to further his career while escaping the past and the negative publicity surrounding Waco.
But now, in a new twist on an old story, Aguilera has returned. He's heading the ATF field office in San Antonio, the latest stop on a road that has taken him to agency jobs in Mexico and supervisory posts in New Jersey and Washington.
In coming home to Texas, the veteran federal agent who was shot at in Waco finds himself in another challenging confrontation: facing down his own past.
"It was something painful I had to go through in life," he said of Waco, "and I had to come back and face it, just accept it."
Aguilera hopes his homecoming will facilitate the healing process and help bring the Waco chapter of his life to a close.
"It's an experience you don't want to ever experience again," he said. "What could have been an easy resolution turned out be a tragedy."
What happened that day brought a firestorm of criticism.
"It was the biggest disaster in law enforcement history," said Dave Hardy of Tucson, Ariz., a lawyer involved in an unsuccessful wrongful death suit against the government over Waco.
"Foul-up is far too mild. In a situation where you have 10 possible decisions, they consistently picked the worst. It's just, 'My God, what were they thinking?'"
Critics took the ATF to task for the way it handled the initial raid and questioned Aguilera's investigation. They blasted the FBI for its handling of the ensuing siege.
Civil lawsuits, congressional probes and a federal prosecutor's report that dismissed many allegations stemming from the Waco raid did little to quietthe clamoring for justice.
Michael White, president of the American Civil Liberties Union of San Antonio, said a cloud remains over the agents involved.
"I don't know how much responsibility (Aguilera) had, but the way it was carried out was a fiasco," White said of Waco. "It didn't have to go that way."
Aguilera's memories of the raid are vivid. But citing the possibility of further litigation by relatives of some Branch Davidians, he said he "can only reflect on my feelings and what I observed and what's already been made public."
On the morning of the raid, Aguilera and other agents went to the Mount Carmel compound to arrest Koresh and serve a search warrant alleging that Koresh and his followers were stockpiling illegal automatic weapons and explosives.
Aguilera boarded one of three helicopters what he said was part of an airborne diversion while agents rode cattle trailers and headed for the compound's doors.
Versions from critics and the government differ on the encounter, disagreeing even on who fired first.
Aguilera said bullets from the Davidians struck the helicopter he was in, forcing it to make an emergency landing.
Critics charged that ATF agents shot from the choppers at the Davidians first, and that the FBI knocked down the walls with tanks in the subsequent siege to hide evidence proving that theory.
In his measured account of what happened, Aguilera said the investigation was warranted and that the numerous illegal firearms and rounds of ammunition found show the probe was on target.
"We didn't do anything wrong," Aguilera said. "The media just made it look like we were the bad guys, when in fact we were doing what warranted the execution of that warrant."
But Aguilera acknowledged he has struggled with his feelings over the results.
"Initially, I felt guilty because I had opened up this investigation. I thought, 'If I had not opened this, people would have not gotten killed or wounded or hurt by this,'" Aguilera said. "I have come to understand now that this had to be done because who knows what these people had in store for the local community down the road, or in the future."
ATF agent Roland Ballesteros, whose thumb was partly shot off after he approached the compound's doors and spoke briefly to Koresh, said Aguilera made the right calls in his part of the investigation.
"He wanted to step aside and take a look to see if it could have been handled differently," Ballesteros said. "To be honest with you, I don't think it could have. He did the job that he was supposed to do, and he did a good job."
A new future
Aguilera, who assumed his current post in July, is the first Hispanic to hold the ATF title of resident agent in charge in San Antonio, part of the agency's Houston division.
The son of immigrant parents, Aguilera said his father, who labored in steel mills in Indiana and later became a contractor in Joliet, Ill., called for his 10 children to better themselves. Aguilera was the middle sibling of seven boys and three sisters.
"He would take us to work. The intent was to stress the importance of an education," Aguilera said of his father. "He would say, 'It's either this or something better.' I was the first one out of there."
Aguilera joined the Marines to help pay for college, earning a bachelor's in history at the University of Illinois while working as a police officer in his native city. Stints followed later with the Border Patrol in South Texas and the ATF.
He said his training and experience helped him "keep my head above water" and move forward, even when bumps emerged.
Aguilera is unmarried, though he has two daughters April, 22, and Miechaela, 12 who live elsewhere but with whom he has frequent contact.
"It's just been really difficult to establish a relationship," Aguilera said of his reasons for being single.
He attributes that to his passion for the job, and frequent moves. He also acknowledges Waco had a hand in his lifestyle.
"I was seeing somebody at the time, but this was so much pressure, it was such a significant emotional event, that (the relationship) didn't materialize," he said.
Now the head of a 10-agent office, Aguilera enthusiastically talks about his plans to make the ATF more recognizable for its assault on crime rather than how it's seen in some circles synonymous with Waco.
He said he plans to increasingly push federal initiatives like the Safe Streets program, which attempts to keep guns out of the hands of felons, and the Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative, a collaboration with state and local law officers that aims to disrupt the flow of firearms to juveniles.
He said he plans to be more involved with local and state agencies in the 20-plus counties surrounding San Antonio that his office covers. Furthermore, he wants to reach out to the community, partly by pitching the agency to college students as a career choice.
"I'm hoping to help reduce crime and take some guns off the streets," Aguilera said. "I'm coming here to make a positive impact on the community."
Ballesteros, who has known Aguilera since their days at the ATF training academy in 1987, sees Aguilera's perseverance and determination as a breath of fresh air for others who might want to abandon their professions during difficult times.
"I was afraid that all of the fallout from (Waco) would have changed his attitudes about his career," Ballesteros said. "He'll tackle that role, as a resident agent, as he did as a street agent, basically just immerse himself into it and do the best job anybody can possibly do and run a course until justice is done. That's the kind of guy he is, and I respect him for it."
Aguilera thinks putting Waco behind him will take time. Talking to Ballesteros and other agents who were part of the investigation looking to them for support is part of the healing process.
"It's been 10 years and really, I've just begun to heal," Aguilera said.
"Life has to go on. I have to put this behind me and I have to go forward."
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It is in the breaking news sidebar!
I wonder if he hears the children scream while they burned to death as he's trying to sleep in his safe bed..
I'm more concerned about what the ATF has in store for us.
Yeah, whatever. Tell that to the kids you helped incinerate.
Houston lawyer, DeGuerin (sp ?), who defended the Davidians, said he saw bullet holes in the ceiling that had come from above.
He explained, for those who do not know, that the exit hole has splinters and is easy to see.
You mean like selling LEGAL weapons at gun shows? That is all the Branch Davidians were "guilty" of.
Yeah, like maybe one of the children growing up and finding a cure for cancer.
That's what got the ATF in trouble in the first place, ambition, not law enforcement. They wanted to impress their new President and AG. So with three Army helicopters, they went to serve a warrant on civilians. The Constitution weeps.
This is what happens when police agencies have too much power and too little oversight.
With the Homeland Securities Act it is only gonna get worse.
Now there is a great start for 'putting ghosts to rest' after 'advancing (his) career" and returning as 'the first hispanic resident in charge of San Antonio ATF...'
I also liked "Images of the shootout and siege...that once gripped viewers around the globe but which long since have faded from the public consciousness, still streak through Aguilera's mind."
He assumes that we - the public - have forgotten, so now's the time to come back and turn murder into victimhood.
Mr Agulara screwed that up too!
Proof positive booze and guns don't belong together.
Try this one instead.
April 19, 1775. Armed farmers and villagers of Lexington and Concord stood up to the Red Coats and began the war of Independence.
April 19, 1943. A small band of Jews armed with a few dozen rifles decided they wern't in the mood for Hitlers final solution. They held off the SS for several weeks, before being killed.
April 19, 1993. Eighty men, women, and children were shot, gassed, and burned alive by jack booted thugs of the ATF armed with tanks and helicopters. They were members of an unapproved religion and were made into examples during clintons war on guns.
April 19, 1995. Timothy McVeigh and associates took down the federal building in OKC with a truck bomb. 168 federal workers were killed. None of the ATF agents were in the building at the time.
Maybe the ATF should execute one of those fiery warrants on Mr Aguilera. After all, who knows what he has in store for the local community down the road, or in the future.
Couldn't be more wrong on that ... for starters the FBI was in charge after February the 28th ...
Wouldn't it be fair to air the *other* side this fiasco - here are the opening remarks and comments in Danforth's report ...
On the day that Attorney General Reno appointed me Special Counsel, I said that this investigation would examine whether government agents engaged in bad acts, not whether they exercised bad judgment. It is an important distinction. A free society cannot tolerate a government that commits bad acts such as killing citizens because they pose a nuisance, or because they express unpopular ideas, or even because they are dangerous. While charges of deliberate governmental misconduct justify a far-reaching investigation of this type, there are good reasons why poor judgment? conduct alleged to be careless or imprudent? does not. Established mechanisms, including civil lawsuits, are available and sufficient to resolve such claims against the government.
Make no mistake: the bad acts alleged in this case are among the most serious charges that can be leveled against a government? that its agents deliberately set fire to a building full of people, that they pinned children in the burning building with gunfire, that they illegally employed the armed forces in these actions and that they then lied about their conduct. I took such charges very seriously and began this investigation with my own mind totally open as to the issues before me. I required all members of my investigative staff to affirm in writing their commitment to objectivity. This Interim Report summarizes the exhaustive efforts undertaken to date to investigate every lead and to test every theory.
There is no doubt in my mind about the conclusions of this report. Government agents did not start or spread the tragic fire of April 19, 1993, did not direct gunfire at the Branch Davidians, and did not unlawfully employ the armed forces of the United States.
In fact, what is remarkable is the overwhelming evidence exonerating the government from the charges made against it, and the lack of any real evidence to support the charges of bad acts. This lack of evidence is particularly remarkable in light of the widespread and persistent public belief that the government engaged in bad acts at Waco. On August 26, 1999, for example, a Time magazine poll indicated that 61 percent of the public believed that federal law enforcement officials started the fire at the Branch Davidian complex.
This is a matter of grave concern. Our country was founded on the belief that government derives its ?just powers from the consent of the governed.? When 61 percent of the people believe that the government not only fails to ensure ?life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? but also intentionally murders people by fire, the existence of public consent, the very basis of government, is imperilled.
The readiness of so many of us to accept as true the dark theories about government actions at Waco deserves serious attention by all of us. To that end, I offer the following thoughts. We all carry the horror of the Waco tragedy with us. We have reviewed the events of February 28 and April 19, 1993 so many times, and they will not leave us alone: the sight of ATF agents carrying their dead and wounded from the Branch Davidian complex, the image of that same complex burning against the sky and the sound of the wind whipping the flames.
In the face of such calamity, we have a need to affix blame. Things like this can?t just happen; they must be the government?s fault. We are somehow able to ignore the contrary evidence? never mind the fact that the FBI waited for 51 days without firing a shot, never mind the evidence that Davidians started the fire, never mind that FBI agents risked their own lives in their efforts to rescue the Davidians? and we buy into the notion that the government would deliberately kill 80 people in a burning building.
Ample forums exist to nurture our need to place blame on government. Sensational films construct dark theories out of little evidence and gain ready audiences for their message. Civil trial lawyers, both in the public and private sectors, carry the duty of zealous representation to extremes. The media, in the name of ?balance,? gives equal treatment to both outrageous and serious claims. Congressional committees and Special Counsels conduct their own lengthy investigations, lending further credence to the idea that there are bad acts to investigate. There is even pressure on them to find some bad act to justify their effort and expense. Add to all of this the longstanding public cynicism about government and its actions, and the result is a nearly universal readiness to believe that the government must have done something wrong.
The only antidote to this public distrust is government openness and candor. Instead, and tragically, just the opposite occurred after Waco. Although the government did nothing evil on April 19, 1993, its failure to fully and openly disclose to the American public all that it did has fueled speculation that it actually committed bad acts on that day. Even in their dealings with this investigation, some government officials have struggled to keep a close hold on information.
More important, the government did not disclose to the public its use of pyrotechnic devices at Waco until August 1999? six years after the fact. This non-disclosure is especially puzzling because the use of these pyrotechnics had nothing to do with the fire. They were used four hours before the fire began, 75 feet from the Branch Davidian residence, and in a manner that could cause no harm. Yet the failure to disclose this information, more than anything else, is responsible for the loss of the public faith in the government?s actions at Waco, and it led directly to this investigation. The natural public reaction was that, if the government lied about one thing, it lied about everything.
The issues that remain open in this investigation concern the reasons why the government did not disclose this information. We have not found evidence of a massive government conspiracy. The team of agents who fired the pyrotechnics told the truth about it from the very beginning. Many government officials, including the Attorney General and the Director of the FBI, did not know that pyrotechnics had been used at all. Unfortunately, a few individuals within the Department of Justice and the FBI, including a few attorneys, had this information and did not tell.
Lawyers in private practice often volunteer as little information as possible. But playing it close to the line is not acceptable for people representing the United States government. Government lawyers have responsibilities beyond winning the cases at hand. They are not justified in seeking victory at all costs. A government lawyer should never hide evidence or shade the truth, and must always err on the side of disclosure.
Government lawyers carry on their shoulders responsibility for not only the prosecution of specific cases, but also for public confidence in our system of government? the ?consent of the governed? enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. Indeed, this responsibility rests heavily on the shoulders of all government officials. The actions of these few government employees who failed to disclose the use of pyrotechnics are reprehensible because they undermined the public confidence with which they were entrusted.
In today?s world, however, it is perhaps understandable that government officials are reluctant to make full disclosures of information for fear that the result of candor will be personal or professional ruin. Any misstep yields howls of indignation, calls for resignations, and still more investigations.
Several Department of Justice personnel told Office of Special Counsel investigators that they viewed the 1995 Congressional hearings as a partisan effort to attack Attorney General Reno. An FBI official complained about the ?us against them? atmosphere and said ?when [Congress] started government by subpoena, I stopped sending e-mails.? Reacting to exposés, investigations and lawsuits, government officials develop a bunker mentality and protect rather than disclose information, and in the process do immeasurable damage to public confidence in government.
Breaking this vicious circle of distrust and recrimination is essential if we are to rebuild the consent of the governed on which our system depends. We all have the responsibility to distinguish between healthy skepticism about government and the destructive assumption that government is an evil force engaged in dark acts. Government, in turn, has a responsibility to be open and candid, so that light might dispel all suspicion of darkness.
This is why the Waco investigation is the most important work I have ever done. It was important to unearth the facts about Waco, one way or the other, and to set those facts out as clearly and openly as possible. It is my hope that, in so doing, this investigation will not only resolve the dark questions of Waco, but will also begin the process of restoring the faith of the people in their government and the faith of the government in the people.
John C. Danforth
St. Louis, Missouri
July 21, 2000
Yeah! What a crock Danforth's findings were. I saw the FLIR tapes and the clockwork regularity of those flashes were not a happenstance reflection off some object on the ground. Those were muzzle flashes and I'll forever be convinced that they had those people pinned down in the building while the building burned. To sum it up, they were pissed that the Davidians had outsoldiered them in the beginning and were simply taking revenge. Read that "committing murder."
Up yours, Senator Danforth.
Possession of illegal machine guns was never proved. And there is nothing illegal about ammunition ownership. He is misrepresenting the truth with the intent to deceive. This man deserves to burn in hell for eternity.
I find it a little hard to sympathize for the "torment" this thug is going through when there are still husbands without wives, sons without fathers, and parents without their children because Janet Reno's public relations stunt went badly, badly wrong. To date, not a dime of compensation has been paid to any of the Waco victims or their families. And several are still behind bars.
Get back to me in a decade. Or better yet, swallow a shotgun.
Oh, this is just great isn't it? This scum bucket's attempt to put out damage control over his part in the most outrageous attack by federal law enforcement on innocent civilians that led to the deaths at Waco and OKC hoping to not so much will be made of the fact that JUSTICE as STILL not been served when the likes of him gets promoted to the postion he now dares to hold. He can take his PAIN and shove it where the sun don't shine, he has no business in that office.
In their dreams. It's burned in my memory like it was yesterday.....
He said he plans to increasingly push federal initiatives like the Safe Streets program, which attempts to keep guns out of the hands of felons, and the Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative, a collaboration with state and local law officers that aims to disrupt the flow of firearms to juveniles
Which is why I don't support Exile.......
... your memory is getting cloudy ... things that used to bother you don't seem so important anymore ... the outrage you used to feel is slipping away ... you are becoming a happy, contented sheeple ... sleep ... sleeeeep ... sleeeeeeeeeeep ....