Thursday, Jul 15 at 4:32 PM
San Antonian Robert Rodriguez has learned to live with the memories of that horrific day near Waco 17 years ago, when his job as an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms thrust him into a maelstrom that changed his life.
But while Rodriguez has accepted that he’ll forever be linked with the ATF’s ill-fated raid of the Branch Davidian compound, he rarely talks about the events that led to one of the biggest calamities in U.S. law enforcement history.
That’s perfectly understandable.
Four ATF agents were killed and 20 were wounded on Feb. 28, 1993, when the ATF tried to serve a federal warrant to search the Branch Davidian compound for illegal firearms. Six members of the religious sect were killed or wounded.
The bloody firefight sparked a 51-day siege that ended when David Koresh, the leader of the sect, and more than 70 of his followers died in a fire that started when the FBI stormed the compound with tanks and fired tear gas into the buildings.
The controversy that followed was a tough blow for Rodriguez, who played football at Texas A&I and started as a freshman cornerback on the Javelinas’ NAIA national-championship team in 1970.
Rodriguez, now 59, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress order after the botched raid and was granted disability retirement in December 1999.
“Waco and what happened afterwards put a lot of stress on me,” Rodriguez said this week. “It took a toll on me. It changes your life and it stays with you forever. You don’t get over it. You just try to live with it.
“I don’t like looking at TV programs about it or talking about what happened, because it takes me about two weeks to get over it again. It’s tough to think about.”
Rodriguez, who grew up in Falfurrias and has lived in San Antonio since 1993, infiltrated the Branch Davidian compound as an undercover agent after the ATF began an investigation into the alleged firearms violations.
Rodriguez went into the compound on the morning of the raid to assess the situation one more time before the ATF launched its raid. Much to his consternation, Rodriguez discovered that Koresh had been tipped off.
He left the compound under the guise that he was going into town to meet friends for breakfast, hurrying back to the ATF command post to warn raid supervisors that the agency had lost the element of surprise.
But Rodriguez’s warning went unheeded.
“I still think about that and it still bothers me,” Rodriguez said.
ATF officials went into spin control in the aftermath of the fiasco, some even suggesting that Rodriguez had not warned the raid supervisors that Koresh knew was what going down.
Rodriguez sued his supervisors and the ATF in 1995, claiming that they defamed him and conspired to make him a scapegoat. The suit was settled out of court and Rodriguez received nearly $2.3 million in damages, but his career in law enforcement was over.
“The main thing that hurt me is that they said I didn’t try to warn them,” Rodriguez said. “But it was proven a thousand times over that I did warn them. I loved working for the ATF, and it hurt me badly to see the agency almost destroyed by what happened in Waco.
“The years that I was with the ATF, we tried to do what was right. We had good people. I still think of the guys who were killed and wounded.”
The ATF awarded Rodriguez its distinguished service medal in May 1994.
Rodriguez said he always comes to the same conclusion when he reflects on the disastrous consequences of the raid on the Branch Davidian compound and Koresh’s messianic rants.
“We fell right into the hands of Koresh and all those nuts,” Rodriguez said. “This is what he wanted, to make it appear that the government was going to kill his people. He wanted Armageddon. Our biggest mistake was that we made it so easy for him.”
While Rodriguez said the ATF made critical mistakes in Waco, he scoffs at claims that the government set the fires that turned the Branch Davidian compound into an inferno.
“Koresh and his people set those fires,” he said. “Don’t blame it on the government. Blame it on those fanatics.”
Rodriguez was a teacher and coach in the San Antonio Independent School District for three years after graduating from Texas A&I, now Texas A&M-Kingsville, in December 1974.
A standout athlete at Falfurrias High School, Rodriguez considered joining the Marines before A&I defensive coordinator Fred Jonas recruited him to play for the Javelinas.
“That changed my life,” Rodriguez said. “I’ll always be grateful to Coach Jonas for seeing something in me.”
Rodriguez still has a copy of the national letter of intent he signed with A&I in 1970, neatly tucked away in a scrapbook.
Rodriguez started his freshman season on the scout team, but it wasn’t long before his grit and tenacity caught Jonas’ attention.
“I’ll never forget the day Coach Jonas took me off the scout team at practice and took me over to the defense,” Rodriguez said. “He told me I was going to be a cornerback. I remember him saying, ‘Learn that position.’
“All of a sudden, there I was as a freshman, playing with all those All-Americans who were winners and believed in teamwork. It rubs off on you.”
A&I went 11-1 under legendary coach Gil Steinke in 1970, capping its season with a 48-7 rout of Wofford (S.C.) College in the NAIA Division I title game.
Rodriguez was outstanding in victory, helping shut down the Terriers’ wishbone attack with his punishing tackles. He credits Jonas, who lives in Canyon Lake and sees Rodriguez regularly, for helping him develop into a solid college player.
“I talk to Coach Jonas all the time and I’m still learning football from him,” Rodriguez said. “He was so good at adapting his defenses to his players. He was very disciplined and precise. We always were prepared. We knew what to expect when we went into a game.”
Years later, as he tried to make sense of life again after the tragedy in Waco, Rodriguez cried on the phone when Jonas called to encourage him and offer his support.
“I hadn’t spoken to Coach Jonas in a long time, but I recognized his voice right away,” Rodriguez said. “It was very emotional for me.”
Rodriguez left teaching in 1977 to become a state trooper with the Department of Public Safety.
“I needed a change,” he said.
Rodriguez worked for the DPS for eight years, including more than four as a narcotics investigator, before going to the ATF in 1984.
He credits his experience in football for helping prepare him for a career in law enforcement, and the adversity he faced after Waco.
“I made it through two very tough academies,” Rodriguez said. “The DPS and ATF training was very tough, mentally and physically. A lot of guys couldn’t take it and quit. The instructors at the DPS academy yell at you and cuss you out pretty good, but I took it with a grain of salt.
“Coach Jonas used to yell at me worse than that. You just have to learn how to take it and keep on going.”
Life’s trials and tribulations, plus a bad back, have slowed down Robert Rodriguez’s step, but he hasn’t stopped yet.