Operation Trojan Horse came to a bloody close on a chilly Central Texas morning when the supervisors of a federal assault force passed along the code word “Showtime.”

Immediately more than 100 ninja-clad federal police officers stormed out of two cattle trailers to serve no-knock search and arrest warrants on a delusional messiah at his heavily armed Ranch Apocalypse religious compound 10 miles east of Waco.

Tragically, the supervisors of this federal police force knew they were ordering their brave young men and women into an assault against a gun-loving, paranoid psychopath and his scores of followers who had been forewarned.

Within two minutes, it was evident that “Showtime” was a debacle, the worse in the history of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Four ATF agents were killed and 16 were injured in the 45-minute gun battle. Six Branch Davidians died in the assault. The Lamb of God, also ninja-clad in all black, was among the wounded Davidians.

Pieced together from published reports and recently released federal documents, ATF officials made a dreadful decision to assault the branch Davidian’s’ Mount Carmel (Ranch Apocalypse) compound, particularly when they knew cult leader Vernon Howell, also known as David Koresh, had been alerted to the raid. Investigations of the ATF’s planning and execution of the raid should determine where mistakes were made and who made them.

Mishandling by officials

ATF judgment errors may be troubling — they certainly were tragic — but they are more understandable than the way ATF officials handled themselves following the failed raid. ATF officials repeatedly stood in public and said one thing one day and another thing another day. To a great degree, our government is built on trust. This is particularly true of law enforcement. Once citizens lose their trust in their law enforcement authorities, the entire system threatens to come apart.

It’s one thing for an Agriculture Department bureaucrat to mislead the public, but quite another for a law officer. Special protections were built into the Constitution to protect citizens from abuses by government law officers.

After the Feb. 28 raid ended in tragedy, top ATF officials repeatedly said that their well-planned, super-secret raid failed only because a telephone tip-off to Howell cost them their critical element of surprise. ATF officials said they would have called off the assault had their undercover agent who witnessed Howell take a telephone call the morning of the raid known it was a tipoff. “That would have been a suicide mission,” ATF Chief of Intelligence David Troy told a national television audience on CBS-TV’s April 1 “Street Stories,” which featured a disguised ATF agent who said his supervisors knew they had lost the element of surprise.

A different story

In a sealed affidavit released this week, the same ATF undercover officer said cult member David Michael Jones (a U.S. Postal Service mailman) entered the compound early that Feb. 28 morning “after learning that the compound might be raided that day.” The cult leader was summoned to another room and returned saying the ATF and the National Guard were coming to get him. “They are coming; the time has come,” the agent quoted Howell, who said he would never be taken.

Even after ordering their agents not to talk to the press about the botched raid, many disgruntled ATF agents have contradicted official ATF versions of events despite threats to their careers. The anonymous ATF agents don’t trust their officials to tell the truth or their parent Treasury Department to conduct a thorough investigation into the disaster.

ATF officials who purposefully mislead the public hurt more than their agency; they instill public mistrust in government and law enforcement. And that’s much more serious, even dangerous.

Rowland Nethaway’s column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.

Read the Tribune-Herald's 7-part investigative series on the inner workings of the Branch Davidians. Hours after Part 2 appeared in print, the ATF raided the group's compound.

Read the Tribune-Herald’s account of the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound on Feb. 28, 1993. Four ATF agents and six in the compound were killed in the gunfight.

Read the daily news accounts of the 51-day siege at the Branch Davidian compound near Elk, which began Feb. 28 and lasted until April.

April 19 and beyond: FBI agents began inserting canisters of tear gas into the Branch Davidian compound in the early morning hours. By noon, it was on fire.

Federal officials left the compound site in late May 1993. As identifications of bodies continued, questions about the survivors, the compound and the cult itself began to emerge.

As the world began to take a critical look back at the events and legal proceedings continue, the ATF's bombshell report forces a shakeup at the top after the raid gone "tragically wrong."

In 1994, the surviving Davidians went on trial in San Antonio. Over six weeks, more than 140 witnesses testified, with the verdict coming just two days prior to the anniversary of the ATF raid.

The Rodenville shootout and the 1988 trial, the end of the world in 1959 and more stories from deep in the Trib archives.