Waco Branch Davidian raid: 25 years later

HOUSTON – Every Feb. 28, Gary Orchowski receives a handful of emails that are only a few words long.

"Those words are, 'It's a good day to be alive,'" Orchowski said.

Twenty-five years ago, Orchowski had been with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for four years. He was one of several agents loaded into cattle trailers and sent to the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco.

PHOTOS: ATF Waco Branch Davidian raid: 25 years later

The target was cult leader Vernon Howell, also known as David Koresh, who was accused of stockpiling weapons and sexually abusing underage followers.

Orchowski recalls the day as rainy and cold.

"Did you have any apprehension about how this would go down when you were on your way to the compound?" Channel 2 Investigator Robert Arnold asked.

"No," Orchowski said.

Orchowski said that, in 1993, the mentality of law enforcement agencies was "Who shoots at the police? Nobody." That mentality, coupled with ATF's belief that many of Koresh's followers were actually hostages, is why agents continued with the raid even after learning they had lost the element of surprise. In fact, Orchowski said, many of agents went to Walmart the night before and bought candy for the children, who, they had heard, were never allowed to leave the compound.

"You really didn't realize how much control he had over his people and how brainwashed they were," Orchowski said.

Orchowski said agents almost immediately took fire after getting off the trucks. He described the sound as "hail hitting a tin roof."

"Very distinct 50-caliber shots were being fired," Orchowski said.

He said many of the agents involved in the raid were only armed with handguns, because the ATF misjudged the level of resistance it would face.

Orchowski said the gun battle lasted 2 1/2 hours, including three cease fires. During that time, he said, he clearly saw one of the Davidians firing at him and fellow agents.

"The radio on my back was shot off and I was wearing a Kevlar helmet that was shot twice," Orchowski said. "I made a promise to myself, in that, yes, I might die today, however, I would not die on that SOB's property."

Making matters worse, Orchowski said, his gun malfunctioned.

There was such confusion during the firefight, he said, he actually heard fellow agents radioing to each other that he had died.

When the gunshots finally stopped, four ATF agents were dead and several more had been injured. Killed in the battle were agents Steve Willis, Conway LeBleu, Todd McKeehan and Rob Williams. Their pictures and Bureau IDs hang in the lobby of the ATF's Houston office and in Orchowski's office.

"The saying after Waco was 'Never Forget.' Never forget the four agents that were killed and those that were injured," Orchowski said.

Six Branch Davidians were also killed in the firefight. Orchowski and the other agents were ordered back to their respective divisions. The FBI took over the scene.

"We felt betrayed that we weren't allowed to go back," Orchowski said. "We were prepared to go back and then we were told no, we would not be going back."

Orchowski said he was eventually ordered back to Waco, but only to collect the autopsy reports of the agents who were killed.

In the ensuing seven weeks that followed the raid, Orchowski and his fellow agents watched the standoff drag on from afar until it ended in fire and the deaths of more than 70 Branch Davidians, many of whom were children. Koresh was shot to death by someone who was believed to be one of his followers.

"That day changed a lot of things," Orchowski said.

A 3-D model of the Davidian compound now sits in the ATF's lobby. The ATF changed tactics and how it gathers intelligence. Orchowski climbed the ranks to become assistant special agent in charge of the Houston division before retiring at the end of 2017. He always keeps close the memory of the four agents who died during the initial raid. Orchowski said he never again had to fire his gun in the line of duty.

He said he still has one question, for a man who can't answer, a man who thought he was the Messiah.

"I would ask him, 'Why? Why was all this death necessary?'" Orchowski said.