Seconds after stepping out of a cattle trailer on a cold, rainy Sunday morning in 1993, then 29-year-old Clay Alexander began hearing gunshots and thought to himself, “Why are they shooting at us?”
Working as a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent, Alexander saw the white gravel around him “popping up” off the ground and quickly realized, “They are not only shooting at us — they are shooting at me.”
He ran for cover but fell, lying there for what seemed like minutes and watching the gravel dancing around him as bullets whizzing from the walls of the Branch Davidian compound struck the ground.
“It was very bizarre. At that point, I had never heard a gun fired in anger,” Alexander said, who now lives in Tyler. “I had never been in a gunfight in law enforcement or otherwise. If it would have only lasted a couple of seconds, that would have been one thing, but it lasted about 45 minutes.”
Alexander, in an interview with the Tyler Morning Telegraph, spoke of the beginning of the Waco siege, where Vernon Howell — more infamously known as David Koresh, the self-described messiah of his group — the Branch Davidians — and his members had the largest gun battle with law enforcement in U.S. history.
The siege, which began as ATF and other government entities tried to serve an arrest and search warrant for Koresh, after it was learned he was stock-piling weapons.
Investigations started when a box of hand-grenade casings and machine gun parts fell from a UPS truck.
The ATF practiced for days at nearby Fort Hood, but what happened was unexpected.
Minutes after ATF agents pulled up to the compound nine miles outside Waco, four ATF agents and several Branch Davidians were dead from the ensuing gun battle. More than 15 agents and several Davidians, including Koresh, were injured.
The ATF retreated and set up a perimeter, and a siege that would last 50 days began. It ended when fire consumed the building, killing 76 men, women and children.
Soon, he and other ATF agents had taken cover and began returning fire.
“I crawled around to the front of the compound and got behind, I remember … a red Honda Accord,” Alexander said. “We were taking a position of cover and concealment from that area until the end of the incident.”
While hiding behind the car, Alexander realized that his legs hurt badly. A fellow agent, Steve Willis, of Houston, lie dead next to him.
Alexander had taken bullets to both legs. All around, agents pinned down behind various vehicles and farm equipment returned fire, but someone inside the compound was firing a .50-caliber rifle at the agents.
“They had the upper hand on us,” he said. “They had positions of cover. They had more firepower. They had bigger weapons. We were at a big-time disadvantage. They were actually firing a .50-caliber rifle at us. There is no way to hide from that or get behind something that is going to stop that on a farm.”
ATF and other law enforcement agents attempted multiple times to reach a cease fire with the Davidians. Both sides eventually stopped firing.
ATF agents gathered their wounded and dead and retreated.
While Alexander and other injured agents were treated in area hospitals, the families of Robert J. Williams, an agent out of Little Rock, Conway C. LeBleu, stationed in New Orleans, Steven Willis, stationed in Houston, and Todd McKeehan, also of New Orleans, were told their loved ones had been killed in action.
It was the agency's darkest day.
News of the situation spread, and it became clear the standoff would not end easily.
Alexander said one report indicated more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition had been fired on Feb. 28, 1993.
“It was, and is still, the worst law enforcement-involved shooting in American history,” he said. “It lasted for more than an hour. I thought it would never end.”
Davidian leader Koresh addressed the media and warned a fight brought to his door would be met with retaliation.
At a cost of $1 million per day, law enforcement agencies kept the perimeter and negotiated with the Davidians. Some 35 people eventually left the compound.
But Koresh and most of his flock remained defiant until April 19, when the FBI, under orders from then U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, assaulted the compound.
Hours later, three fires broke out almost simultaneously in different parts of the building.
The government maintains the Davidians deliberately started the fires, but some survivors say the assault teams accidentally or intentionally started the blazes.
FBI officials contend some Davidians were shot by other members in order to keep them from escaping the fire.
Autopsies later indicated some died as a result of smoke inhalation, but others had been shot or even stabbed.
20 YEARS LATER
“My partner was killed that day. Fellow agents were killed that day. It was tough,” he said.
Alexander said it was later revealed the ATF supervisors knew the element of surprise had been lost before the Feb. 28 raid, but the raid continued.
Alexander said that decision led to the shooting.
“As a supervisor, I'll tell you what I learned. There are no bad guys out there worth getting a hangnail over,” he said. “We don't take hill 42 at all costs. It doesn't happen.
“My goal as a supervisor over men in this office is that they go home at night. That is my goal, that's my plan and thank God they all have since I've been here.”
Alexander said that since his tenure in Tyler, ATF agents have not used force on any “bad guys,” and no one has been injured.
“Possibly what I learned more than anything is why didn't someone say, 'We've lost the element of surprise. We're not going' I don't care how much it costs,' but no one did,” he said. “Today, me and a whole lot of others would be saying 'it ain't happening' and that is what we learned, and I think we are a better agency for it.”
Alexander said he is aware that Koresh, whom he'll only refer to as Howell, is buried in Tyler, but he has never seen the grave.
“I know he's buried here in Tyler, but I have no desire to go there,” he said.
Alexander said his wife of 27 years continues to stand behind him and has stuck with him through some pretty “dark times.”
His family and faith in God have helped him through his career, he said.
Alexander has worked other high profile cases such as the East Texas church arson cases, the pipe bombing case, the Atlanta Olympics bombing.
But it was the Waco raid that will be at the forefront of his mind — a subject he doesn't even talk about.
“They were shooting at me,” he said. “I was shot. It just so happens that they didn't hit me in the right spot to kill me. They tried.”
Alexander said the interview with the Morning Telegraph marked the first time he had opened up about the Waco incident. The interview came just days before he and his wife returned to Waco for a 20-year memorial service.
People who might meet me on the street might see this interview and say, 'I had no idea,'” he said. “I don't talk about this. I'm doing this because I am about to retire.
“This has been 20 years and it and will probably be one of the last times I talk about it. I don't mind looking back at my career, but I refuse to stare.”