Charles Giarrusso drove back to New Orleans alone.
For Giarusso, an ATF agent involved in the Feb. 28 raid of Mount Carmel, the ride to Texas had been a spirited one. It helped that Conway C. LeBleu, his best friend and fellow agent, was in the passenger seat.
LeBleu, 30, was one of four agents killed in the shoot-out against cult leader Vernon Howell and his Branch Davidian followers.
As national scrutiny of the ATF and the Feb. 28 raid continues, at least two agents support the bureau’s decision to go through with it. However, they said it was the worst raid they’ve ever experienced.
Giarusso, 28, is with the ATF’s New Orleans field division. Agent Michael Russell, 46, is based in Fort Worth.
Russell, who fought in the Vietnam War, compared the Mount Carmel scene to a war zone.
“I was in Vietnam,” he said bluntly. “This was worse than Vietnam.”
Because of a gag order placed on agents by the ATF, U.S. Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen and the U.S. attorney’s office, they declined to reveal specifics about the raid.
“We lost some very close friends and don’t want to jeopardize what their lives were lost for,” Giarusso said. “Conway was my best friend.”
Like any friends, Giarusso and LeBleu talked virtually nonstop during the 600-mile drive to Fort Hood, where ATF agents met before the raid.
“We talked a lot about sports,” Giarusso said. “Conway liked the Saints and so do I. We talked about what players they should be going after.”
Mostly, they talked about the future. LeBleu had hopes his 1 ½-year-old son would play football in high school, Giarusso said.
They even stopped in LeBleu’s hometown of Lake Charles to buy lottery tickets.
“We had both just built new houses and needed fences,” Giarusso said. “We made a deal that whoever won the lottery would pay for the other’s fence.
And they made another deal.
They vowed that if anything happened to one of them, the survivor would look after the other’s family.
Unlike the ride to Texas, Giarusso drove home in silence, making it home in time to attend the funerals of fellow agents.
“I had to drive back with all his stuff in my car,” Giarusso said of LeBleu. “I had to unpack his belongings.”
“I wish someone else could have driven my car back,” he said, a gentle laugh tinged with sadness.
Both Giarusso and LeBleu knew the danger of the pending raid against the heavily armed cult outside of Waco. Giarusso has been a special agent with the New Orleans firearms group since 1987.
Before the raid, his thoughts focused on the children inside the compound, he said, noting he had heard of the child abuse allegations.
“Sure, I’m an ATF agent and my responsibility is automatic weapons, but don’t think I wasn’t thinking about the child molestation because I have kids, too,” he said. “I was thinking a lot of the children were still young enough to where their lives could be turned around.”
A sports buff, Girarusso used an athletic analogy to describe his preparation for the raid.
“Like anything else, like an athlete prepares for a game,” he said.
The real thing
Except this was not Monday night football. This was, as Giarusso put it, the equivalent of a playoff game.
Giarusso, who was not injured in the raid, said agents were briefed on the cult’s stockpiling of firearms.
“Basically that they had been obtaining and building an arsenal of automatic weapons,” he said. “I knew this was a large-scale operation.”
So special agent Giarusso, veteran of some 250 raids, prepared himself.
He triple-checked his gear. He meticulously studied plans for the raid.
He spent every possible second with his wife and four kids.
“I basically told my wife I was going on a very dangerous mission,” he said. “I prepared her for the worst. I told her I loved her. I tried to spend a lot of time with my family.”
Prepare for the worst
Russell, a 15-year veteran with the ATF, always prepares with a prayer.
“I ask the Lord to look after me, my wife and three sons,” he said.
Russell was one of the 16 agents injured in the gun-battle. He was grazed on the back of his left shoulder by what he believes was a fragment of a grenade.
On Feb. 28, Russell woke up at 6 a.m. at Fort Hood. He drove to a nearby Whataburger for a quick cup of coffee and a breakfast taco.
By almost 10 a.m., he was chugging down a road to Mount Carmel, riding with other agents in one of two cattle trucks.
Russell described the mood in the truck was upbeat, with agents pumped up about the raid.
“There was a lot of adrenaline,” he said. “A lot of joking and carrying on. That’s just a stress release.”
Russell said he carried a side arm pistol and a short-barreled shotgun.
“If I had gotten inside the building, it would have been adequate,” he said. “I was expecting to make entry and possibly to have some physical confrontation. And if any gunplay occurred, it would have been one on one or two on one.
Russell blames the media for the raid’s outcome.
“The direct cause of us being ambushed was the news media,” he said. “If it hadn’t been for the media, they would not have been ready for us. They would not have been standing in the windows with guns.”
Giarusso is less quick to place blame on anyone.
He also said he doesn’t believe high ranking officials led agents into the raid to boost the agency’s image or increase its budget. Director Stephen Higgins also disputed that idea during his testimony before a House panel.
Like Russell, Giarusso says the raid was the bloodiest he has ever seen.
“I realized it within the first five minutes,” he said. “It was the extent of the amount of gunfire. I wasn’t expecting for it to be so violent of a resistance.”
Giarusso said he spotted three cult members firing at agents.
“They looked like they were prepared to fight,” he said. “They were well armed. They were tactically trained and ready to do battle. They were serious.”
In retrospect, Russell wonders if agents should have gone in earlier.
“If we would have hit them at 6 a.m., we would have gotten in that place,” he said.
Despite the outcome, Russell defended the ATF’s decision to attempt to serve an arrest warrant on Howell.
“We’ve got a job to do,” he said. “It’s in our job description to take chances.”
Meanwhile, Giarusso said, he and his family have tried to comfort LeBleu’s family. They have been to the zoo and on picnics.
He still asks himself why his best friend had to die.
“But no matter what we would have done, there would have been casualties,” he said. “I think obviously it turned out the way it did because of the cult members themselves. They were willing to die.”
Some ATF officials have contended that the agents still could have had the element of surprise on their side despite a possible tip the cult may have received.
“You can believe they know you’re coming, but they might not have time to prepare,” he said.
He expressed outrage at remarks made by U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., during televised sessions between the House Judiciary Committee and Attorney General Janet Reno.
“He basically came on and said the ATF and FBI should be disbanded,” he said. “He was really hard on Ms. Reno. Oh God, I just wanted to take my TV set and throw it outside.” He also said he believes Higgins has been hampered somewhat during the hearings and is not able to answer questions because of pending investigations of the four agents’ deaths.
He blasted reports that the ATF agents only trained for two weeks for the raid.
“It wasn’t two weeks,” he said.
“We train for these kinds of things all the time.”