Mr. Retardo

"...The sad reality is this: they wanted a big one. They wanted a spectacular one."

-David Koresh

As the morning sun inched into the rain clouds over the blackland prairie on Sunday, February 28, Special Agent Sharon Wheeler braced herself for the raid that was about to begin. Her agency, the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), was launching the biggest and most important operation since the days when it had been the Bureau of Prohibition. If the raid on Mt. Carmel went as planned, it could make the acronym of Wheeler's agency as well known as that of the FBI.

Raiding is the expertise of the ATF, and statistically, it's not as dangerous as one might think. In the 36 months prior to the Waco mission, the agency had called out its SRT-- or SWAT--teams 578 times, executed 603 search warrants, mostly against dope dealers, and had seized some 1,500 weapons. It had encountered gunfire on only two of its raids, and the only fatalities (three of them) had been among suspects. During the prior decade, it had lost only one agent in the line of duty, and he was destroying fireworks at the time of his demise.

On this occasion in Texas, thorough preparations had been made. "Support Coordinators," the ATF called them--had been in Waco, about 100 miles south of Dallas, for more than a month. They had set up a command post at an airstrip northeast of downtown. More than 50 agents and helicopter crewmen had moved into town the night before, and for the evening of the 28th, the agency had reserved 150 rooms for its troops in Waco's three leading hotels.

The ATF had also contracted an ambulance service, told hospitals to make ready, and enlisted sheriff's deputies and Texas Highway Patrolmen for back-up duties. The Support Coordinators had ordered coffee and doughnuts, and even portable toilets, for the men and women who, within a few minutes, at about 9 a.m., would rally at the Bellmead Civic Center, some 10 miles from their target, off in the countryside.

Fresh from training and a sunup briefing at the Army's Fort Hood, some 60 miles southwest, the raiders were moving north on Interstate 35, in an 80-vehicle convoy more than a mile long. A half-dozen snipers--"forward observers," the ATF called them--had already taken up positions, both in front of and behind Mt. Carmel, and the leadership of the burgeoning assault was converging on the command center, to suit up in combat gear.

Much of this movement was being filmed, because documentation of the event was as important to the ATF as the action itself. The agency faced congressional budget hearings on March 10, less than two weeks away. Televised film of the raid--"a dynamic entry," the ATF called it--would, at the very least, establish a counterpoint to the sprinkle of bad publicity that its director, Stephen Higgins, had received a few months before. Dramatic footage of the raid might even air in a documentary serial like "Cops." A raid on cultists would make a titillating episode; the ATF's routine work, such as enforcing the Contraband Cigarette Act, was far from that.

Wheeler had already planned a news conference for the operation's close. Days earlier, she'd telephoned several television stations to find out who would be available for a February 28 conference.

ATF preparations to film the assault had been so intensive that they'd inspired a code name for the operation. The brass called it "Operation Trojan Horse." But the grunts had named it "Showtime."

The young Messiah
"My mother always thought I was a strange one."
-David Koresh

The target of the government's extraordinary efforts was, of course, David Koresh. Born Vernon Wayne Howell, he was the illegitimate son of Bonnie Clark, a young woman who had been only 14 when she'd brought him into the world in 1959. Her turbulent affair with Vernon's father, Bobby Howell, had produced no lasting relationship, though it did give the infant a moniker, "Sputnik." His parents chose the nickname because of the child's apparent hyperactivity.

Bonnie, who had dropped out of school in Houston, Texas, because of her pregnancy, married another man as soon as her affair with Bobby Howell was over. But her marriage collapsed almost as soon as it began. Her new man, Bonnie said, beat his 2-year-old stepson.

After her divorce, Bonnie left Vernon in Houston with her mother and father, whom she refers to as "an alcoholic." She began a new life in Dallas. Her son didn't join her until he was 5, after she had married Roy Haldeman, a former seaman and lounge operator. His mother recalls that at the lounge Roy operated, "...there was a lot of prostitutes that hung out around there, but they didn't work out of there."

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Dick J. Reavis