WASHINGTON — Federal agents who died in the Feb. 28 gunbattle with cult leader Vernon Howell and his followers were eulogized in an emotional memorial services Thursday as courageous men who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
"We come to remember them for standing up to a violent criminal who was ready to harm anyone in his way," Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen said of the four slain Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents.
"These were the good guys just wanting to go after the bad guys."
Speaking to a hushed crowd of several hundred at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, Bentsen recalled his own experiences in World War II, when comrades fell in battle and he questioned the randomness of their deaths.
"I'll never ever know how deep the losses have hurt you," Bentsen told the families. "I'll never share your emptiness. No one can. But I'll understand when you ask over and over again, 'Why? Why did it have to happen to them?' No matter how many times you ask, I'm sorry, but there'll never be an answer.
"And that's part of the price of serving your country."
The names of Conway C. LeBleu, Todd W. McKeehan, Robert J. Williams and Steven D. Willis will be engraved on the wall of the officers memorial next year — joining those of the 178 ATF agents and 13,078 other law enforcement officers who preceded them on the wall.
"In so doing, we will permanently etch their memories into the hearts and minds of all future generations to come," said Craig W. Floyd, chairman of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
In a letter read by Bentsen, President Clinton told the families that he joined in their grief. "May God bless each of you during this difficult time," Clinton wrote.
Bentsen and ATF Director Stephen Higgins watched as family members walked up to four wreaths of white and yellow chrysanthemums that encircled plaques with the names and ages of the agents: Louisiana native LeBleu, 30, of the New Orleans ATF office; Tennessee native McKeehan, 28, also of the New Orleans office; Maryland native Williams, 26, of the Little Rock, Ark., office; and Texan Willis, 32, of the Houston office.
Perhaps only Cameron LeBleu, Conway's 18-month-old son, remained untouched by the solemnity of the ceremony. The toddler, whose blue sailor jacket was pinned with the black ATF ribbon that most of the participants wore, walked around the front of the dais as the dignitaries spoke, watching the crowd as he sucked on his pacifier.