Who was the Mississippi ATF agent killed at the Waco siege?
BRANDON, Miss. (AP) — Kelley Williams wears a tiny replica badge pendant around her neck.
The number on the bottom of the badge — 2933 — corresponds with the inscription on the back: “In memory of Rob.”
She doesn’t remember when she got it, exactly, but she’s pretty sure it was about 15 years ago, on the 10th anniversary of the death of her older brother, Robert J. Williams, a special agent for the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives. He was killed 25 years ago on Feb. 28 one day short of his 27th birthday in a shootout outside Waco, Texas, as he and his fellow agents on a specially trained team attempted to execute federal warrants at the Branch Davidian compound.
The operation was compromised when a television station got wind of it and a cameraman asked the mailman where the Davidian compound was. The mailman, as it turned out, was a Branch Davidian and rushed back to tell David Koresh, leader of the sect that had separated from the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Rob, who was from Brandon and was working out of Little Rock, was one of four agents killed in the raid. Special Agents Todd McKeehan, Steven Willis and Conway LeBleu were also killed, another 20 were shot and eight more were otherwise injured.
Rob was three years older than Kelley. Their parents, Tim and Trish Williams, who now live in Pelahatchie, were the source of a lot of Rob’s nurturing and protective personality, Kelley said.
When Rob was 3 years old, he “gave everyone heart failure” when he came down the stairs carrying then baby Kelley after retrieving her from her crib. He was the kind of big brother who, instead of picking on his little sister, took care of her.
“He always protected me. When we lived in Tampa we were always swimming and playing kick the can, and he was always just a good, warm person, even as a little boy,” she said.
Rob was an artist. He went to Hinds Community College on an art scholarship, and drew detailed pictures that after his death a friend made into a comic book in his memory. He is memorialized in many ways by the ATF with an illustration of a Razorback drawn by Williams and combined with the agency’s shield logo, including on a sweatshirt Kelley has.
There are so many memories, Kelley said. Poignant ones like how Rob comforted and stood strong for her when her grandfather died, and comical ones like how the two siblings would turn their couch on its back and sit on it while listening to “Bad Bad Leroy Brown.”
“I guess we thought we were rebels sitting on that upside down couch,” she said.
Kelley is 48 now, almost 20 years older than her brother was on the day he died.
“Thankfully he still feels like my big brother. He was grown enough that he always feels like my big brother, no matter how old I am,” she said.
Kelley said she knows her brother wants her to continue her artwork, but she also knows as she attends nursing school that he would be so proud of her choice.
“He would be proud that his little sis was keeping going. I’m just trying to stay positive,” she said. “I’m not nearly as outgoing or strong like he was, but if I can keep on trucking through life and thinking about our family and trying to be more like him, I think that’s the best I can do as far as memorializing him.”
Before Rob left for Texas, he told his family he was going on a dangerous assignment. His birthday was March 1, the day the operation was scheduled to go down, and always the joker, Rob said, “I’m going to Texas, and it’s a big thing and it’s dangerous, so I might get killed on my birthday.”
“They ended up going the day before,” Kelley said, the sadness still thick in her voice 25 years later. They would later find out that 10 years before on Feb. 28, Rob had been baptized.
“Somehow that let us know it was a day God had always known he would take him home. It was a comfort,” she said.
In spite of Rob’s words before he left, that was the farthest thing from Kelley’s mind as she worked in her first art studio on Millsaps Avenue the day the operation was carried out. She saw two friends of her father’s from his 30 years as a Secret Service agent at the door, and “I thought they had come to see my artwork.”
“I said, ‘Hey! Come in!’” she said, and then noticed their solemn faces as they said they weren’t there for a visit.
In the car, Secret Service Agent Randy Melvin told Kelley that Rob had been killed.
“I hardly remember driving,” she said. “They took care of me. I just remember all these different agents and friends and neighbors taking care of us and family coming in.”
It was as if Rob’s life spent being a protector and his dying sacrifice had brought things full-circle in many ways. As the family just tried to make it through the initial grief, people came out of the woodwork to tell them of Rob’s kindness, courage and bigger-than-life personality.
There was a girl he had talked out of suicide in high school, and she told the Williams family that she thought about him every day because she had lived to have children and a life. There were guys who said Rob, who was 6-foot-4, had stuck up for them when they were bullied. Agents told of the funny caricatures he drew of his friends, or the silly T-shirts he had made that people talked about long after he was gone.
“People talk about this warm, fun, everybody-loved-him kind of guy, even a counselor in his own way. He just had a really big heart,” Kelley said.
Some of that may have come from his deep faith, his sister said.
“He had a strong faith long before I really understood what that was, and after college he wrote my parents a letter and said how thankful he was to them, and he said, ‘Next to my Lord God, I love you and Baby Sister more than anything in the world,’” Kelley said. I never knew you could love something more than your parents.”
That came back to her a few years later when she was in a portrait painting class in New York, and she found herself wondering what it looks like where Rob is. When she found a church she connected with, she thought, “If I had a church like this, I’d go all the time.”
She would later find out that her church was planted by First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, which is now just a few blocks from where she lives — a home she bought from a former pastor at the same church.
It all seemed like an answered promise — something Rob had said years ago — had come to pass.
“In college, he said, ‘I just want me and Dad to buy you some land and build you a house. I want us to do this for you,’” Kelley said. “It was such a natural thought. He left me some money, and I feel like he did that, and now me and dad work on it together.”
While her parents were Texas for the Feb. 28 commemoration of her brother’s death at Waco, Kelley was at Brandon Memorial Gardens for a Mississippi ceremony. Years ago when Rob was laid to rest, he was not given a 21-gun salute.
“That’s a big deal in military and law enforcement funerals. Even though it’s 25 years later, we’re going to give that to them,” ATF Supervisory Special Agent Joseph Frank said.
Frank was in high school when Rob and the others were killed, and remembers discussing it with his father, who was a warden at Angola State Prison in Louisiana, and some law enforcement friends of the family.
To this day, it’s still a subject of conversation, Frank said. He’s been with the ATF for 17 years, but the Waco standoff is one of the first things some people bring up when they learn who he works for.
That Williams, McKeehan, and Willis were all from the New Orleans Field Division provides a reminder of how tomorrow is never promised, he said. The other agents or prosecutors or other law enforcement officers who worked with Williams and the others have told stories of how they couldn’t realize that it would be their last conversations.
“It’s like, ‘OK, when you get back we’re going to go indict this gun case or arrest these Bandido motorcycle gang members,’” Frank said. “Life is moving on. But then they don’t come back home. So it gives me perspective on enjoying every day because you never know.”
Mississippi Public Safety Commissioner Marshall Fisher was serving with the DEA out of San Antonio during the Waco standoff. There had been intelligence that there might be a meth lab inside the compound, so he sent a truck and a couple of agents to the scene and checked on the situation daily.
He recalls friends whose lives were forever changed by the entire chain of events.
“I didn’t know Williams, but to me it’s most important that we don’t let any day go by that we don’t remember these people. It’s incumbent on those of us here to honor their lives,” he said.
In discussions about Rob and the others, David Koresh’s name is rarely mentioned.
“He can’t hurt anyone ever again,” Kelley said. “He can’t manipulate lives, tear families apart, hurt young girls, stockpile weapons; he can’t do anything to anyone anymore.”
Frank said the ATF focuses on the agency’s history among the things they teach their agents in training as a way of instilling the legacy in them and letting them know that like Rob, they have a higher calling.
“It’s not about us, we’re just here for a short time and then we’re going to pass that on to someone else,” he said. “Very much like what Rob and Todd and Steve did that day.”