A traumatic chapter in the lives of dozens of federal agents could close this weekend when they return to the burned-out compound where they engaged in a deadly shootout with members of Vernon Howell’s religious sect.
And while plans were laid for Saturday’s walk-through at the compound near Waco to help grieving agents cope with emotional and physical scars from the gunfight, yet more support arrived from Washington.
Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen said the administration has no plans to disband the ATF despite criticism stemming from the Feb. 28 raid that killed four agents and wounded 16.
“There are no such plans,” Bentsen said in response to a question at a hearing before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Treasury Department. ATF is a Treasury agency.
Several members of Congress have recommended that ATF be abolished or merged into the Justice Department, saying ATF jurisdiction often overlaps that of the FBI.
The ATF, which suspected the Davidians of hoarding illegal weapons and drugs in their rural compound, was attempting to serve search and arrest warrants that Sunday morning.
But the raid turned into the bloodiest day in agency history. About 100 agents pulled up on livestock trailers and helicopters as Koresh opened the door, smiled and shut the door. The ATF says the Davidians fired first; Davidians say the federal agents shot first.
Richard Cook, ATF special-agent-in-charge in Kansas City and national coordinator of the agency’s peer support program, said in subsequent counseling sessions, ATF agents have asked that they be allowed to return to the scene. He expects they will relive where they were and what they were doing during the shooting.
“The involvement with the compound is over,” Cook said. “The bodies are out, the evidence is out, that part of the investigation is coming to a close,” Cook said Thursday. “It’s a natural progression to allow them to revisit the scene and deal with some emotions.”
The battle was followed by a 51-day standoff with FBI negotiators. The stalemate ended April 19 when the compound burned to the ground. Seventy-two cultists are thought to have died that day.
“Your mind does funny things when you’re involved in a critical incident — it slows down time, speeds up,” Cook said, “This will put things in perspective.”
Some of the agents are experiencing nightmares or reactions so severe they can’t function on the job, Cook said.
They have had an especially difficult time ending their trauma because the standoff between negotiators and cultists lasted so long, he said.
For 51 days “everywhere you went you were blasted and reminded that the situation existed,” Cook said.
Families of the slain agents also have been invited to a memorial service later Saturday at Highland Baptist Church.
Bentsen estimated Friday that a Treasury-Justice investigation of the ATF raid and ensuing siege will take 120 days to complete.
He said ATF Director Stephen Higgins is free to testify before Congress about actions that he took personally, but lawyers have advised that “if he goes beyond that point, he would be compromising the investigation.”