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ATF’s Cavanaugh Talks About The KKK, Obama, Church Burnings in the South and David Koresh

James Cavanaugh/ticklethewire.com photo

James Cavanaugh/ticklethewire.com photo

DENVER— Inside the cavernous Colorado Convention Center here at the recent International Chiefs of Police Annual Conference, veteran agent James M. Cavanaugh, an affable and personable man, who heads the ATF’s Nashville Division, took time out to talk to ticklethewire.com editor Allan Lengel.

Cavanaugh, whose territory includes Tennessee and Alabama, touched on such subjects as hate groups in the South, church burnings and President Obama — who he doesn’t believe has become much of a rallying point for recruiters in the white supremacist world. “I see if differently,” he says.

In March 2010, after 33 years as an ATF agent, Cavanaugh plans to retire. With that in mind, he also talked about his career and some of the intriguing cases he’s worked, including the D.C. Sniper investigation in 2002, the Unabomber and the conversations he had with David Koresh, the head of the Branch Davidian religious sect, during the 1993 shootout in Waco, Tex.   “Ninety-nine percent of him thought he was David Koresh, but the 1 percent of him really knew he was Vernon Wayne Howell, just a two-bit thug from the country in Texas.”

Eventually, during the shootout, four ATF agents and 6 Davidians were killed. “We just walked into an ambush,” he recalled.

The FBI  took command of the standoff  and eventually the compound caught fire, killing 76 Branch Davidians and the  rest they say, is history.

The following answers were condensed and the questions were edited for clarity.

How big a deal are the hate groups, the skinheads, the Klansmen down south?
We have a lot of it, because we have Klan, we have Aryan Nations, we have neo-Nazis. We have skinheads, we have the Council of Conservative Citizens and the reason they’re active is because the roots are deep there. It’s not that there’s necessarily more of them there. You could look on the data charts and you’ll see a lot in California, you’ll see a lot in populated states. But the roots are so deep in the South. When you look at the history of the civil rights era, so much of it is Alabama and Mississippi. The South is not that way now. So it’s unfair to characterize it that way. But the roots are there. The roots haven’t died.

Is the younger generation looking for alternatives, something cooler than the KKK, something a little more relevant?
The KKK now, a lot of times the membership is old and fat and slow. The hate is just as deep. But if they’re old and fat and slow, the 20-somethings, they’re young and skinny and full of vinegar. They want to go hurt somebody. And so they gravitate toward these skinhead groups. They do merge, they do support each other. It’s not to say all the Klansmen are old and all the skinheads are young.

How do they reconcile this: They hate the Jews and they don’t care for the Muslims.  But I once covered a rally at the Israeli Embassy and the white supremacists said they  supported the Palestinians and they were chanting all these Anti-semtic things.
That’s an interesting phenomenon. I think their hate is so deep they can’t even reconcile it with themselves. They hate everybody so much. We just got our final guilty plea on the firebombing of the Islamic center in Columbia, Tennessee. They painted swastikas on the Islamic center to firebomb it. They hate everybody.

Do you have a lot of active investigations into these groups?
It ebbs and flows. We don’t work the group because of their beliefs, of course, because it’s free speech and it’s protected,  as disgusting as it may be and as evil as it may be. But if we get information that the Klaverton (a group of Klansmen) has machine guns, that group’s making hand grenades, pipe bombs, that’s a whole other game now. We’re going to really aggressively pursue you.

Can you penetrate these groups? Is it easy?
It is. We use to make jokes years ago in the federal service, saying if you pull out all the federales out of the Klan there wouldn’t have  been anybody left because we had all infiltrated them. They’re always trying to recruit because they need members and the members pay dues to keep their organization going. They’re not hard to infiltrate.

Do they get much financing? Are there some wealthy folks who help them out or are they just scraping?
I’d say mostly they’re scraping. They like to brag and put up anybody that they have in their movement that has means or had means, they’ll always feature those guys. The guy who started the National Alliance is William Pierce and he was a physicist. And so he was intelligent and of course they would always feature Dr. Pierce . But that’s more the exception than the rule that they have education and wealth. That’s not to say there’s not other groups, that are sort of the white-collar Klan. They’re not really doing bombings or anything, they’re just bigoted, hate speech and so forth. But we don’t have much work with them. They exist, and we know they’re there. They don’t do things that ATF investigates.

Is it common to have cross burnings.
Yeah. They have one in Kentucky called Nordic Fest that the skinheads sponsor. They have different rally days.
What they do is (rail) against something that gives them legitimacy. The Klan takes Christianity for legitimacy. They’ll talk about Jesus while they’re burning the cross. So what they do is they sort of hijack Christianity, which is not a religion of hating and killing of people. It’s the complete opposite. The violent government militia men, they hijack the Constitution. David Koresh,  he hijacked the book of Revelation, the book of Revelation allowed him to kill our agents, do what he wanted, rape little girls.

All the groups try to get legitimacy from another cause besides the main hijacking of religion or constitution. Or the Koran. They try to tie their wagon to something that’s legitimate in the public. Let me give you an example. Eric Rudolph. Eric Rudolph wasn’t really about abortion clinics. That’s just a lie. He was a bigot, he had went to the Aryan Nations church in Missouri.

He railed against television, the Jewish interests. But yet, when he writes his public treatise  after he’s arrested, it’s now ‘I was against abortion.’  Now why is he trying to do that? There’s a legitimate debate in America about abortion, about sanctity of life, about whether the government should be involved. That’s why he attacked the gay club, that’s why he attacked the abortion clinic.


Is Obama one of those rallying points for white supremacist groups or has that been overplayed in the media?

It’s really been played a lot in the media. I see it differently. I may be alone on that. He, to me, seems to have changed the country where everybody’s more together. I don’t know if you remember the feeling right after he was elected president; you could go into a store, certainly you saw a person of color, it was just a different feeling. Everybody was walking on air.

That feeling doesn’t help white hate groups recruit. I just don’t think that’s bringing in new blood. I think what’s bringing in new blood is the economy. Three things. The economy, immigration and the Internet. Those are the three legs of the stool for the white hate.

All the hate groups, they hate every president. There’s never been a president they liked. They don’t like any president, because they’re all in charge of the ZOG; the Zionist Occupation Government. I don’t know that it helps their recruiting. But that’s just me.

Are you seeing growth in these groups?
The private research and intelligence anti-hate groups like ADL (Anti-Defamation League) and the Southern Poverty Law Center, they track the groups. They say they’re growing quite a bit. We don’t really do that. We don’t try to track people who just hate. That’s not our mission. We don’t have a like-a-jerk section. You got to violate the law with us.

In the last year or two, have there been any plots that you’ve uncovered that you saw as scary?
We have the one in Tennessee and the skinheads Nazis, we arrested and charged with the plot where they were going to break into gun shops … and they had a plot to shoot 88 school children and then they wanted to go on and attack President elect-Obama.

How serious of the plan was that?
Well,  it’s pending trial so I can’t say much about it. I think there’s more to come out of trial, but I’m kind of limited on that. We did say originally that 88 in the white hate world, is the eighth letter in the alphabet and it means “Heil Hitler.”

Is there one particularly group that’s growing more than others.
It’s sort of sporadic. I guess the good thing is they’ve never been able to ever cement themselves together probably because they’re such a bunch of loons. In the civil rights era, the Klan was very organized. And they could make things happen and make some people get killed and hurt. It was stronger, it had more money, it was more organized. It’s not been that way.

You mentioned David Koresh. Did you work on that case?
Yeah. I was at the shootout there and I talked to Koresh for a week.

What was your impression of him?
Ninety-Nine percent of him thought he was David Koresh but the 1 percent of him really knew he was Vernon Wayne Howell,  just a two-bit thug from the country in Texas. He was raping those little kids, he planned it, nobody was ever going to get away from there. We made a lot of mistakes there, certainly, and walked into an ambush and all that. Nevertheless, he was going to do it no matter what happened and he was going to make it happen. On the phone he used to say, you know Jim I’m 33 and I’m a carpenter (Jesus died at 33). He would never say he was Jesus.

You said you had conversations with him. Did you call him by phone?
We were in the shootout that morning and they fired 13,000 rounds at us that morning in three hours. A lot people don’t know that. They see a little clip on TV and they think that was the shootout. The shootout was three hours. And all these machine guns, they were shooting our wounded on the ground, they were throwing hand grenades out the windows at our agents. It was a brutal thing; I was there in the shootout. I was in the house at the end of the driveway with some long rifle teams and we were watching the compound from there. When the long rifle teams started shooting at the towers, the towers would start shooting back at the walls in the house. We were in  better shape than our guys who were up in the front. They were getting really hurt. We had enough cover. We were all pinned down, we were all shot up.

There really wasn’t any way out. I was a trained negotiator and I called into the compound, during the middle of the shootout. I remember they answered the phone and the guy’s screaming. He said ‘Hello, hello’ and I said ‘This is Jim from ATF and I want to talk to David.’ I found out later it was a pay phone in the hall in the compound, the guy who answered the phone, he just dropped the phone. Of course it was the middle of a shootout, I think he was surprised to be called from ATF.

Anyways, he dropped the phone and he ran. I could hear him running down the hallway and of course all our windows were open. And we’re all shooting. I’m hearing the shooting over the phone and I’m hearing the shooting out the window. It was just sort of a surreal thing and Koresh picks up the phone and he’s screaming. You know, very animated.

‘You got to get off the property, I’m David Koresh, the Lamb of God’.  He was wounded. We had shot him on the side. He was just screaming, sort of out of control. When you’re a negotiator what you’ve got to do is try to drop the emotion, you just talk in a slow voice, a calm voice. You don’t yell back. You try not to hurry. David this is ‘Jim and you know we’re going to have to talk about this. Why don’t you try to calm things down for a minute and stop the shooting and see what we can work out.’

What did he say?
‘No’, of course no. It took a long time. The cease-fire broke off four or five times. We’d agree to a cease-fire and when people started moving they’d open up from the tower and fire a few hundred rounds and we’d fire a few hundred back. We’d try to get the cease-fire again, it was really kind of tough to get it to happen because there were so many people shooting. Anyways, then we negotiated the wounded out. And got the ambulance in there.

And I remember telling him: I said ‘David, here’s what we’re going to do.’ I said: ‘We’re not coming in, but you’re not coming out.’ I said because ‘we’re all over out here.’ Of course we were pretty thin because we’d been shot up so bad. But he didn’t know where we were. I said ‘I’m going to call you back at this number at 2 o’clock. EXACTLY at two o’clock and you need to answer the phone.’ And he said ‘OK’ and so then when we called back at 2 o’clock. We started to negotiate for the children. We got six children out by playing his message on the AM radio. It was about figuring out what he wanted.

He wanted national publicity. He was preaching to us, preaching the Bible, the book of Revelations, it was clearly a need to preach, get his word out.

I remember saying ‘David what if I told you we could get your word out to the whole world.’ ‘Well how could you do that?’ I said ‘Well, what if we could get it put out on the radio?’
‘You can do that?’ I said ‘what if I could?’ He says, ‘yeah’. I said ‘will you send the children out?’ And then he said ‘two by two’; Noah’s Ark, the symbolism of Noah’s Ark. We made an agreement that we’d play this rambling thing that he read to me. ‘I’m the lamb of God.’ It was just a bunch of gibberish and I read it back to him and he agreed that was it. And the Christian radio played it and then we picked up the first two kids and then we played it again, we got two more, and played it again and got two more. We got 21 people out the first week.


This was through your negotiations?

Yeah, the FBI came in that night and the negotiations are never one person, it’s a team. I was the primary negotiator that week on the phone. At night there would be another negotiator, it was teamwork throughout. It’s a law enforcement process, it’s not one person.


Do you look back and wonder whether it could have been done differently by ATF?

Oh yeah, sure. I mean hindsight is always 20-20. And we made plenty mistakes. Of course we were castigated for many of those.

What do you think the biggest mistake was?
The ambush, we just walked into the ambush.

And when the compound burned down?
Oh yeah, that was later. He set it on fire.

Were you there?
I wasn’t there when it burned down. You know he named the place the Ranch Apocalypse. And after it burned down one of the members had come out and told us that they had practiced lining all the cars up in front of the compound before we ever went there with this group — Koresh’s sort of elite bodyguard he called the Mighty Men, which was eight or 12 of the top  men, and they would practice running out and jumping in these cars with rifles, and their plan was to go to the McDonald’s in Waco and kill everyone and come back to the compound so law enforcement would have to come.

Because it was Ranch Apocalypse. He was 33. So he was going to fulfill the destiny. You know, we just interrupted the destiny. There was a lot of anti-ATF sentiment in Washington at the time.

That was an era when we got the brunt of a lot of that because we enforce the gun laws. So all the lunatics, they’ve got to have their bombs and machine guns, so obviously they’re not going to like us. So there was that. That was the era where there was an NRA advertisement in a Washington newspaper, a full page, claiming ATF was jackbooted thugs. That caused President Bush 41 to resign from the NRA. The NRA later apologized.

What are some of other things you’ve dealt with?
Gun traffic. Last week we charged a solider from Fort Campbell with stealing an anti-tank rocket and four hand grenades. He wanted money for it. A long rocket will penetrate one foot of steel and two feet of reinforced concrete. Also last week we did a gun trafficking case (tied) to Guatemala where we indicted five people. One of them was a Metropolitan Nashville police officer. We identified two drug cartels that they were going to.


Does it hit a nerve when you’ve got a law enforcement officer involved in gun trafficking?

Oh yeah, that always hurts. That hurts everybody. It just makes us sick to see it. The metropolitan police were working with us on the case. When it surfaced,  I talked to the chief. Of course they’re a 1,000 percent with you on that. They don’t want the guy in their department.

We have arsons, church arsons. We did a bombing last month, a remote-control bomb put on a car in Alabama. The bombers actually tracked the victims with a GPS tracker and they were hired killers. They detonated the bomb, remote control.

Did they kill him?
No, the guy’s the luckiest guy in the world. Serious injury.  A  hole was blown right through the bottom of the truck under his seat.

What was the motive?
Sort of narcotics-involved and a whole lot of intrigue.
But we were able to catch them in about a week. We charged two men in that case, making the bomb, planting the bomb.

Do you feel some of the anti-government sentiments in some parts where you are?
I think it’s picking up a lot.

Are you seeing any difference in guns out there?
The guns haven’t changed much

Has the price changed much?
A good quality handgun still cost you $500 to $800, could be even a little more or less. When you have drug cartels involved, they have so much money that they’ll pay for any gun. They want high-end guns. Sexy guns, camouflage painted guns, guns with laser sites. These guys aren’t looking for a cheap throw-down Saturday night special as we used to call them.

What are some of the other interesting cases you’ve come across?
I was the original case agent on Unabomber when he sent a bomb to Vanderbilt University in 1982. I was involved in that case on and off for all those years.

Did you ever think they’d solve it?

Like an FBI friend said one time, if he was an only child, he’d still be out there because his brother gave us the letter.

About the D.C. sniper case. Did you think from the very beginning that there was a white box truck they should be looking for when in fact the real car was totally different?

I think when you go back and look at some of the public statements that were made by the leadership there, you’ll find many times there was the caveat given publicly; Don’t just center on the white truck. Once it’s out in the world, it’s hard to make anybody realize that.

Talk about some other things we did wrong with the sniper. When the man was shot down there in Virginia at the steak house, there was a note found in the tree. And of course we went into the American police forensic mode. And now without being sarcastic here, but we put on a moon suit and eight pair of gloves and we go take this letter at 6 a.m. and we take it to the lab because we’re going to get DNA and fingerprints and we’re going to get all this microscopic evidence and when we open it up at 10 a.m.,  it says ‘I’m going to call this pay phone at 8 o clock. And you better be there or there’s going to be more bodies.’

So by us going into our paradigm of CSI, we missed the message. Luckily they didn’t kill anybody in the meantime. What we then did, was once we got the letter, we crafted a public message, we wanted to talk to the sniper, get the message out.

If you put the phone number out — we were getting 15,000 tips a day — you’re going to get people calling from Belgium saying ‘I’m the sniper.’ So the way we did it, we crafted a careful message that said ‘call us on the phone number that you provided.’ Then we knew that only us and the sniper knew it.

There were so many agencies out there working the case, there was so much information circulating,  good and bad. Was it a hindrance or did it work well?
It was a like a war. Information is flowing everywhere. What you’re trying to do is make organization out of chaos.

I still think it’s a miracle we were able to catch these guys in 3½ weeks. I mean these guys were two ghosts floating around the capital area. They had no connection to any of the victims. A stranger-murder is the hardest murder to solve. Most homicides, there’s some connection.

Was it also a little harder since most assumed it was an ex-military white guy?
No, it didn’t hurt us because what we did at the command desk there, we worked from a foundation of facts. It’s OK to speculate in your investigation, in fact I would say it’s a requirement. If you don’t speculate you’ll never get ahead of the criminal. You’ve got to know  where the foundation of facts are. You can’t ever leave those.

The church fires in 2005 down in Alabama, tell me about those?
The church fires in 2005, there were about a dozen churches burned in the region at the time, black and white. Of course the black community was all upset because they thought the Klansmen were back. Who wound up doing it were these three college student who were drunk.  The motive in the first five fires was thrill. And then when we put the big command post investigative team out,  they tried to throw us off so they drove 120 miles away and burned another four churches. The only problem is when we saw that, the first thing we thought was they’re trying to displace us.

Why?
Just the way it was. They were trying to put us off the trail. We were able to catch them. We did that through some vehicles and some tire tracks. We actually matched the tire tracks we plastered in the mud to the tires.  We set a thousand leads to that case. And we were cross-referencing the vehicles and the tires and the tire shops.

It got down to really just no phone call, just exploiting the evidence, the manpower. We pulled out all the tire store. We already had thousands of vehicles in the data base and we were sending agents. If you owned a dark-colored SUV in this 12 county area, the feds were coming over with a deputy sheriff or a state trooper and they were going to ask you where you were. Who are you? Where you been? We were just going to eliminate the thousands we had if we had to.

And then we were able to manipulate the plaster cast on the tire, we were able to actually identify the tire. So we went to the tire plant and we said, ‘OK, exactly what is this tire?’ And we said ‘OK, and can you tell  us how worn it is?’ And they were able to tell us how much by the tread depth. So we were able to get an approximate age, we knew the type. So then we identified 120 tire stores. So while we had these thousands of leads on vehicles, we had leads on tire stores, we also had many leads on tips, citizens calling in, he did it, she did it. We had people confess to it.

But then we sent a team to one of the tire stores. Our orders were, if you hit on a dark-colored SUV that bought this tire, the first thing you’ve got to do is call into the command post and have intelligence run that against our data. So this team, a state fire marshal and an ATF agent go to a tire store, they hit on the tire. They call it into the command post in Tuscaloosa, and they say, Hhey we’ve got this tire, it was purchased by this man.’  When the intelligence agent puts it in the computer, hey that SUV lead, that man’s name is in here. Well, we went to the house, it was a doctor’s house.

And we talk to the parents and we asked them about the car and they said ‘Well, our son drives that.’ They called him on the phone and when she said there are some ATF agents here, he just hung up. And he was very abrupt.

What did the parents do?
They were scared. They were very helpful but they were scared. Then we went to the college and got the players involved. Of course we had the evidence. Got some statements. We got them all convicted. Of course they’re all in prison now. Most got seven to 10 or 11 years.

In the late ’90s when we had the big church burning episode,  I had like 55 of those in Alabama, Mississippi. I can remember going to churches driving all night to get to a burned out church in Mississippi. It was the same pastor who the Klan had burned that same church in the ’60s. The same pastor. That was in ’95, ’96.

What did the pastor say?
Well, he was kind of a little standoffish from the police. I mean this happened when the Klan burned it in ’63. The police were members of Klan in ’63 and you weren’t getting much help in the community. I remember saying to him — he was every bit the gentleman — but he was very reluctant to speak with us; I said ‘look we’re here for you. We’re your police,’ and he was a little unsure.

I remember saying ‘I don’t care if a thug down the street did it, the mayor did it or the grand wizard did it, we’re going to catch him and he needs to go to jail.’ And when I said that, I remember he just sort of turned slowly and kind of like (motioned with his hand) and we walked together. You can understand that. We were able to make a lot of arrests in those cases. I had about 55 in my two states, but there were hundreds around the country over two, three years.

The motive?
They were mixed. In South Carolina, the grand wizard had conspired with the Klan to burn churches there.


Were these all black churches?

It was mostly black churches, there were some white churches, there were some mixed congregations. We had bigoted motives, individual bigots, we had volunteer firemen, we had arson to cover burglary, we had embezzlement. It was any and everything. The devil worshiper, one of them had traveled from Indiana through Tennessee and Alabama and Georgia. I think he was convicted of burning more than 50. You had all kinds of motives.

After all this time in the business, have you been able to get a better understanding of the criminal mind?
We don’t fancy ourselves as psychologists, but we do like to go with what we’ve seen in the past behavior. Human beings are limited by gravity, physics, oxygen, and we like to make them sort of super criminals, super beings, but they’re as limited as the police in what they can do. There’s sort of a logic maybe in trying to get ahead of them. You’ve got to be thinking where are they going to be next.

One last question: When you look back at your career, what do you think?
It’s been a great career, it’s been interesting. Sad. Fun. Challenging. I don’t know how I would have done it differently. It’s been good.


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