ATF agents who led raid at Waco angry at agency

November 10, 1994|By Houston Chronicle

DALLAS -- From the moment he informed Washington that a raid on the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco, Texas, had gone disastrously awry, the commander of the assault sensed that his career was on the line, he said yesterday.

"I feel like right out of the chute . . . when we made the first call to Washington, somebody said, 'Somebody's butt is going to swing for this,' " said Phil Chojnacki, former special agent of the Houston division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Twenty months later, Mr. Chojnacki feels his initial suspicions have been confirmed. He was fired Oct. 26 along with Charles Sarabyn, another raid planner and the former No. 2 agent in the Houston ATF division. In their first public interviews since the raid, both men vowed to fight for reinstatement with the ATF and to clear their reputations.

"Everybody has forgotten that [Branch Davidian leader David] Koresh is the bad guy in this," Mr. Sarabyn said. "We were serving a legal warrant. We had a legal right to do it. . . . In any operation, if someone is willing to give their life and doesn't care, there's nothing you can do about that.

Mr. Sarabyn said the pair accepted responsibility for the decision to go forward with the raid. "But the things we are being accused of are untrue," he said.

Four ATF agents were killed in the Feb. 28, 1993, raid, and more than a dozen were wounded. The standoff that followed ended April 19, 1993, when fire engulfed the sect's compound and Koresh and more than 70 of his followers died.

ATF Deputy Director Daniel R. Black said Mr. Chojnacki failed to supervise the raid properly, lied afterward and tried to shift responsibility to subordinates. Mr. Sarabyn was accused of committing a gross error in judgment in recommending that the raid proceed and of making false, inconsistent and misleading statements afterward.

Their case was reviewed in-house for 20 months. Next, an administrative judge who serves on a government agency outside ATF will evaluate the appropriateness of the firings in a public hearing.

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