Circumstances of Death
In May, 1992, ATF commenced an extensive investigation of David Koresh (aka: David Wayne Howell) and the Branch Davidians, a cult group residing on a large and rural property near Waco, Texas. ATF's investigation centered on Koresh and the Davidians being involved in the illegal manufacture and possession of machineguns and the illegal manufacture and possession of destructive devices, including bombs and grenades. In fact, ATF's investigation showed that the group had acquired the following:
- 136 firearms, including assault rifles and handguns
- 700+ magazines for those firearms
- 200,000+ rounds of ammunition
- 110 upper and lower receivers for AR-15/M16 rifles
- Grenade-launcher attachments for AR-15/M16 rifles
- 400+ empty M31 rifle grenades, along with black powder and other explosive chemicals
The investigation involved many different facets, including: interviews with former cult members; inspection and interview of a federal firearms dealer; review of documentation showing the purchase of large quantities of AR-15 rifles, ammunition and inert grenades (which can be readily converted to live grenades); and records from interstate shippers. An ATF undercover agent became an associate member of the Davidians, albeit with limited access to their compound. In February 1993, sufficient evidence had been gathered to allow for the issuance of federal arrest and search warrants, to arrest Koresh and search the compound.
On February 28, 1993, Special Agent Steve Willis was part of a large, specially trained and well disciplined force of ATF special agents from the Dallas, Houston and New Orleans Field Divisions, assigned to execute federal warrants at the Branch Davidian Compound. Unfortunately, the Davidians had been alerted to the impending raid by a local postman, who was also a cult member.
When the agents arrived, the fanatical, heavily armed, cult members were waiting in ambush as the agents disembarked from their vehicles. Koresh was outside on the porch, but as the agents approached, telling him they had a search warrant and instructing him to "get down," he retreated inside the house. When the agents approached, a burst of gunfire was fired through the door, wounding one agent.
A long and difficult gunfight followed over approximately 2 1/2 hours, with agents unable to penetrate the main house and having little natural cover to protect themselves from the Davidian gunfire. The Davidians had excellent cover and the tactical advantage had shifted to them.
Four ATF agents (Special Agents Conway LeBleu, Todd McKeehan, Robert Williams and Steven Willis) were killed; 20 ATF agents were wounded from gunshots or shrapnel, and 8 agents suffered other injuries. Six Davidians were also reportedly killed and four wounded from gunshots, although this could not be forensically proven because of the later destruction (by fire) of the compound. A cease fire followed and Koresh released 24 members (mostly children, but none of his own) from the compound.
A 51-day stand-off ended on April 19th when the Davidian Compound erupted in fire(s) set by cult members, as law enforcement attempted to force them out by introducing tear gas into the building. The fire destroyed the compound and more than 70 residents were killed, many from gunshot wounds apparently inflicted by fellow cult members. Nine cult members escaped the fire and were arrested, while eight of those members were later convicted in federal court on various firearms and/or other charges; all were sentenced to various lengths of imprisonment.
Contrary to popular news reports, the Davidian compound was actually located in the unincorporated area of McLennan County, and not within the city limits of Waco. The people of Waco were very supportive of law enforcement and often brought food to the agents and populated their front yards with homemade signs of support for what law enforcement was trying to accomplish.
A subsequent investigation by the Departments of Treasury and Justice regarding the actions of law enforcement agents during the siege determined that some tactics and decisions were poorly executed; and in fact, certain actions by ATF were criticized. However, the September 1993 U.S. Department of Treasury Administrative Review concluded:
"...the agency is made up of dedicated, committed and experienced professionals, who have regularly demonstrated sound judgment and remarkable courage in enforcing the law. ATF has a history of success in conducting complex investigations and executing dangerous and challenging law enforcement missions. That fine tradition, together with the line agents' commitment to the truth and their courage and determination has enabled ATF to provide our country with a safer and more secure nation under law."
Agent Willis joined ATF on July 1, 1990, and was assigned to the Houston Field Division. He carried badge #3061. Previously, Special Agent Willis was an investigator for three years with the Defense Investigative Service.
Steve was an avid race car driver in his spare time. He finished as one of the top three drivers at championship races (1985-1988) sponsored by the Tri-State Sports Car Council. Steve was a graduate (1986) of Southwest Texas State University, where he received a B.S. in Criminal Justice. During college, he completed an internship with the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Agent Willis was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. He was single and survived by his parents, John and Evelyn Willis and sister, Lisa.