Elizabethton native honored at Waco anniversary

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   On the morning of Feb. 28, 1993, agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms attempted to execute arrest and search warrants at the peach-colored Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas. Gunfire erupted, and a day traditionally set aside for worship transformed into a bloody Sunday.
   An undetermined number of Davidians were killed or wounded. Among the ATF, four agents died, including Elizabethton native Todd McKeehan, and 16 were wounded.
   McKeehan's death was commemorated Friday morning during a ceremony at Happy Valley Memorial Park. Ceremonies also were held at the Law Enforcement Memorial in Washington, D.C., and at ATF offices throughout the United States. Wreaths of red roses trimmed in blue and gold were placed at the graves of the slain officers, including agents Conway LeBleu, Rob Williams and Steve Willis.
   McKeehan, who was 28 at the time of his death, was a Desert Storm veteran and a sergeant in the Marine Corps Reserves.
   The Feb. 28, 1993, event -- the deadliest federal law enforcement operation in U.S. history -- touched off a firestorm of controversy. Branch Davidians -- a heavily armed religious sect which focused on the Bible's Book of Revelation and led by David Koresh -- kept law enforcement officers at bay for 51 days, until finally overcome in a tear gas assault on April 19. Eighty Davidians -- including women and children -- died from fire, suffocation and gunshots during the lengthy standoff.
   The events at Waco spawned three sets of congressional hearings and a documentary, "Waco: The Rules of Engagement," which cost nearly $1 million to produce. The film stunned audiences, and though first screened in January 1997 at Robert Redford's prestigious Sundance Film Festival, played only in a handful of cities.
   Labeled "one of the most disturbing films you'll ever see," by the San Francisco Chronicle, the documentary suggested that the government basically lied about the events at Waco.
   The FBI welcomed the appointment of Sen. John Danforth as special counsel in the Waco matter, hoping that he would answer once and for all, the "dark questions" surrounding Waco.
   On July 14, 2000, an advisory jury found that the ATF did not use excessive force either by firing without provocation or by using indiscriminate gunfire when it attacked the compound. The findings were consistent with findings of a 1993 Treasury Department review which held that ATF agents were ambushed and engaged in a disciplined response to an unprecedented attack on law enforcement officers.
   Following the jury's findings and a report by Sen. Danforth, on July 21, 2000, FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, said in a press release:
   "The simple truth, as the FBI has maintained since April 19, 1993, has been unmistakingly confirmed again today -- the FBI fired no shots on that day and the Davidians started the fires that ultimately engulfed the compound. As was heard during the final days of the civil trial, and as Sen. Danforth specifically noted, agents risked their lives trying to save those in the compound when the fires began and conducted themselves with the proper motives throughout."
   Freeh said that seven years of absorbing unproven allegations and unfounded criticisms had levied a heavy burden on the agents who were at Waco, as well as their families. "Like the jury findings, this report brings great solace to them in that its findings reaffirm that which we have always believed -- they did their best and for all the right reasons."
   At Friday's ceremony honoring McKeehan, a statement from the ATF's Jim Cavanaugh was read. Cavanaugh, who along with Waco Police Lt. Larry Lynch, was involved in Feb. 28 telephone negotiations with Davidians and leader Koresh.
   "Dictators and self-appointed gods will always roam the world and always have. The price of liberty is always paid by heroes and by beautiful families, whose belief in such freedoms runs very deep. Todd, Rob, Conway and Steve were all raised and loved by families who held those beliefs in liberty and in God as cherished foundations of life itself," Cavanaugh said.