Congress should appoint a special prosecutor to conduct the investigation into the Feb. 28 deadly shootout between federal agents and the Branch Davidian religious cult outside Waco.

A licensed gun dealer called to voice that opinion. He felt the public may never learn the truth without a truly independent investigation of the events that occurred before and during the botched Feb. 28 raid. That morning a 100-strong assault team of Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents engaged in a 45-minute firefight at the cult’s heavily fortified compound.

The caller, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of ATF retaliation, said the public would support the appointment of a special prosecutor in the case as long as Congress put a time limit on the investigation. Most special prosecutors, he felt, had been appointed by Democrats to investigate Republicans. This time, he said, a special prosecutor could conduct a fair and impartial investigation without the hint of political motivation.

Many callers and letter writers have expressed their concerns to the Tribune-Herald about the potential for abuse when the government investigates itself, not unlike parents investigating wrongdoing charges lodged against their own children.

Certainly the ATF has left itself open for legitimate criticism. Many law enforcement experts and tactical assault specialists have criticized the ATF’s tactics. Also, after maintaining for weeks that drugs had nothing to do with the raid, ATF officials suddenly backtracked when it was reported that Texas National Guard helicopters and other military equipment could not have been used in the ATF raid unless there was convincing evidence that drugs were involved.

A belated thank you

Gov. Ann Richards, who is in charge of the Texas National Guard, was reportedly steamed for not being told about the raid. ATF officials quickly gave the governor a belated thank you for her assistance and made their surprising revelations of a possible methamphetamine lab inside the cult compound.

ATF officials said an aerial infrared scan of the compound revealed a hot spot consistent with a methamphetamine lab, which also is consistent with space heaters or any number of things. Speed labs stink to high heaven and often can be smelled for miles around. Neighbors, visitors, local and state officials who occasionally dropped by, and even the ATF’s undercover agents should easily have smelled a working speed lab. No such reports.

Disputing ATF line

Perhaps one of the best arguments for an investigation by an independent prosecutor comes from ATF agents involved in the raid who have talked anonymously to the press. They have disputed the official ATF line that the super-secret raid was blown by a last-minute tipoff to cult members. They have said that not all agents were trained for the assault and not all were aware of what they were facing.

The logical conclusion is that these agents, who best know their own agency, don’t trust their officials to reveal the truth. ATF officials have warned their agents to keep it in the family. They say the Texas Rangers, who are deputized as U.S. Marshals, are conducting an independent investigation of the incident. The agents who are speaking anonymously, however, are evidently unconvinced.

The ATF typically responds to critical news stories with ridicule and sarcasm, including news stories published by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek and the Tribune-Herald.

It must not be forgotten that the ATF suffered a devastating loss during the bungled Feb. 28 raid. Four ATF agents were killed and 26 wounded. An unknown number of cult members were killed and wounded. An independent investigation by a special prosecutor should remove any coverup concerns held by the public or the anonymous ATF agents.

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.