A Tough and Successful Prosecutor
In the realm of Texas law enforcement, few prosecutors can match the tenacity and success of Bill Johnston. For the past twelve years, as an assistant U.S. Attorney in the Western District of Texas, Johnston has sent over 1,500 criminals to federal prison with an extraordinary 99.6 percent conviction rate. His hands-on approach to the law has been unparalleled. Often accompanying law enforcement officers on drug raids and manhunts, he even took part in the search for buried victims in the notorious case of serial killer Kenneth McDuff. Respected for his integrity and admired for his promising career, Johnston’s sudden resignation in February shocked the law enforcement community.
A Clash of Convictions
Johnston’s reason for leaving his post was the belief that high-ranking officials in the Justice Department had withheld crucial evidence from Attorney General Janet Reno regarding the 1993 Waco standoff. This evidence implicated the FBI in firing pyrotechnic tear gas grenades, which could have ignited the fire that consumed the Branch Davidian compound. Despite Johnston’s strong conviction that the Davidians, not federal agents, started the fatal fire (a belief supported by a ten-month investigation), he felt compelled to confront his superiors for publicly denying the use of pyrotechnics when they were aware of the truth. Johnston’s boldness in expressing his dissent ultimately led to his resignation.
A Man of Integrity
Johnston’s departure hit the law enforcement community hard. His colleagues describe him as a person of unwavering integrity and unwavering fearlessness. Respected Texas Ranger Matt Cawthon remarked, “He should be eight feet tall and bulletproof.” Johnston’s friends and admirers believe he had no alternative but to resign. Deputy U.S. Marshal Parnell McNamara commented, “Bill Johnston suffers from a terminal case of honesty. It’s in his genes, his heart, his soul.”
A Lifetime Shaped by Law and Order
Johnston’s connection to law and order runs deep. Raised by his father, Wilson Johnston, an assistant district attorney for Dallas County under Henry Wade, he was immersed in the world of criminal justice from an early age. His father, a close associate of legendary sheriff Bill Decker, became the young Johnston’s caretaker after his mother’s death when he was just seven years old. As a result, the courthouse and criminal trials became Johnston’s playground. He watched with fascination and learned the art of lawyering from his father’s example.
A Maverick Rising to Prominence
Johnston’s rise in the legal field was swift. He completed his studies at Texas A&M in just three years and earned his law degree from Baylor in only two. At the age of 23, he prosecuted his first murder case. Johnston’s commitment to his craft led him to ride along with law enforcement officers, gaining hands-on experience and knowledge. After becoming a federal prosecutor, he continued to join late-night raids and manhunts, fully invested in the work that demanded the same dedication and sacrifice from his team.
A Force Against Drugs
At 28, Johnston became the pioneer federal prosecutor solely dedicated to the thirteen-county region stretching between Dallas and Austin. In this role, he made a significant impact by putting hundreds of drug dealers and manufacturers behind bars. His message was clear: drug dealers were not welcome in the area. Deputy U.S. Marshal Mike McNamara acknowledged, “People in this area cannot fathom what this community would be like if not for Bill. He had a tremendous impact.”
The Pursuit of Justice: The Kenneth McDuff Case
One of Johnston’s most noteworthy cases involved the capture and prosecution of Kenneth McDuff, a sadistic serial killer paroled to the Waco area in 1989. Suspecting McDuff’s involvement in a series of new murders, Johnston obtained a warrant for his arrest based on information from an informant. He played a crucial role in the six-week manhunt that led to McDuff’s capture. Reflecting on the case, Johnston grimly remembered the horror and terror of McDuff’s actions.
The Weight of the Branch Davidian Siege
The Branch Davidian siege became a defining moment in Johnston’s career. From the beginning, he was deeply embroiled in the case, drafting the affidavit that alleged the stockpiling of weapons by the Davidians. This document served as the basis for the ATF’s ill-fated raid on February 28, 1993. As the events unfolded, Johnston watched helplessly from the ATF command post, realizing the catastrophic failure of the raid. The ensuing shootout between Davidians and ATF agents resulted in the deaths of four agents and the injury of twenty others, marking the deadliest law enforcement battle in U.S. history. The tragedy weighed heavily on Johnston’s conscience.
Fighting for Truth and Accountability
In the aftermath of the siege, Johnston noticed the mishandling of crucial evidence, which led to his insistence on involving Texas Rangers in collecting evidence and conducting an independent investigation. Johnston understood that the integrity of the case rested on unbiased scrutiny. When he encountered resistance from the FBI commanders hindering the Rangers’ efforts, he felt compelled to write a letter seeking assistance from Attorney General Janet Reno. Though reluctant to take such a step, Johnston believed it was necessary to regain control of the situation. Reno responded swiftly, ensuring closer cooperation between the FBI and investigators. Johnston’s intervention saved the government’s murder case against the Davidians.
Keeping the Truth Alive
Despite testifying in congressional hearings about the Waco siege in 1995, Johnston found himself drawn back into the case three years later. Filmmaker Michael McNulty, whose documentary challenged the official narrative, sought Johnston’s help in gaining access to evidence. Johnston, recognizing the need for transparency, secured permission from the Justice Department to show McNulty the evidence. Despite disagreeing with McNulty’s film, Johnston believed that stonewalling would only deepen mistrust in the government. McNulty’s examination of the evidence yielded troubling results, confirming the use of pyrotechnics during the siege.
The Battle for Transparency
In the face of mounting evidence, Johnston urgently informed his superiors throughout July and August about the use of pyrotechnics. Yet, the Justice Department continued to deny their usage, prompting Johnston’s growing alarm and frustration. He persistently called for transparency and openness. When he received a fax of a memo implicating his own involvement in a meeting discussing “military rounds,” Johnston felt that it was a veiled threat to silence him. The revelation that pyrotechnics were indeed used finally came to light through media reports in August 1999. Johnston took the bold step of writing directly to Attorney General Reno, fully aware of the potential consequences of his action.
The Fallout and Decision to Resign
As a result of his actions, Johnston was removed from the Branch Davidian case in September 1999. He was marginalized by his superiors and excluded from district-wide staff meetings. Feeling disillusioned, he knew it was time to leave. After fulfilling his commitments to two pending murder trials, Johnston submitted his resignation in February, stating that he found it difficult to work for people he did not respect.
The Pain of a Just Departure
Months after his resignation, Johnston still feels the weight of his decision. He discovered that a Justice Department employee had covertly downloaded files off his computer, raising questions about the system’s integrity. Johnston expressed his sadness and disbelief, questioning whether the system had stooped so low. Others lament the loss of such an exceptional individual. Mike McNamara commented, “To lose a man of this stature is a tragedy—not just for Bill, but for this country.” Johnston’s office in Waco, adorned with awards from law enforcement agencies, serves as a poignant reminder of his career. Johnston speaks candidly of his regrets, acknowledging the mistakes he made during the Davidian case. As the Branch Davidian saga continues to haunt him, Johnston hopes for an end to personal destruction and the restoration of justice.