In the annals of Texas law enforcement, it would be hard to find a tougher or more successful prosecutor than Bill Johnston. As an assistant U.S. Attorney in the Western District of Texas for the past twelve years, he sent more than 1,500 criminals to federal prison and earned a remarkable 99.6 percent conviction rate. His hands-on approach to jurisprudence was unprecedented: He often accompanied law enforcement officers on drug raids and manhunts, and in the case of serial killer Kenneth McDuff, he tracked down several of the buried victims himself. Known as a straight-arrow, Johnston had a squeaky-clean reputation and what many felt was one of the most promising careers in the Justice Department.So it was with considerable astonishment that the law enforcement community learned of his abrupt resignation in February. His reason: He believed high-ranking Justice Department officials had failed to inform Attorney General Janet Reno of critical evidence pertaining to the 1993 standoff in Waco. That evidence indicated the FBI had fired pyrotechnic tear gas grenades, which were capable of sparking a fire, hours before the Branch Davidian compound was consumed by flames. Johnston also believed his superiors were trying to silence him. Though he was certain that Davidians, not federal agents, had started the fatal fire—a belief upheld by a recent ten-month investigation by special counsel John Danforth—he insisted that his superiors stop publicly denying the use of pyrotechnics when they knew otherwise. He told Reno as much in a now-famous letter in the summer of 1999, following the FBI’s admission, after six years of denials, that the bureau had indeed used pyrotechnics. It was an extraordinary move that broke rank with his colleagues and set loose the forces that would eventually lead to his resignation.
That resignation was taken particularly hard by the legions of lawmen who believe Johnston is in the right. “He has integrity beyond question, and he’s fearless,” said Texas Ranger Matt Cawthon. “He ought to be eight feet tall and bulletproof.” As for his decision to resign, they believe he had no other choice. “Bill Johnston suffers from a terminal case of honesty,” said deputy U.S. marshal Parnell McNamara. “It’s in his genes; it’s in his heart; it’s in his soul.”
For the 41-year-old Johnston, it was another chapter in a case that has dogged him for much of his career, one whose deadly end still haunts him. Broad-shouldered and intense, the maverick attorney cuts an imposing figure at six four, though his tremendous physical presence is undercut by his genial mannerisms. He shrugs off anyreferences to his success in the courtroom with considerable embarrassment and a “well, golly.” Friends say Johnston is a straight shooter who adheres to a deep moral code, a man whose keen sense of right and wrong recalls another, less cynical time. (He counts Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders among his heroes and is perhaps the only federal prosecutor to have ever written books for his children on the Texas Rangers and the Alamo.) The grandson of a Methodist minister, Johnston once taught Sunday school and refrains from using profanity: His coarsest language to date has consisted of referring to one particularly loathsome criminal as a “creep” and a “rat,” much to the amusement of his friends in law enforcement. At his Waco office, where Johnston is now in private practice, he straddled the back of his chair and spoke animatedly about his self-described “corny idealism”—a belief that law enforcement and the courts “can make a noticeable difference in the quality of life.” It was a notion shaped by his father, Wilson Johnston, an assistant district attorney for Dallas County under Henry Wade. “I understood that name as well as my own,” said Bill Johnston. “We even had a dog named Henry Wade, so my dad could boss him around.” Johnston was too young to remember his father’s most famous case—prosecuting Jack Ruby on appeal—but his childhood was steeped in law and order: His father often spent evenings riding shotgun with Dallas’ larger-than-life sheriff, Bill Decker, and houseguests included a Texas Ranger who had helped shoot down Bonnie and Clyde. When Johnston was seven years old, his mother died of cancer; his father, and by extension the other lawmen who hung around the Dallas County courthouse, became his caretakers. Criminal trials were to him what television was to other children of the sixties and seventies. The future prosecutor often watched, rapt, as the dramas of the city played out before him, learning the craft of lawyering by his father’s example.
Johnston was a quick study. After finishing Texas A&M a year early and then earning his law degree at Baylor in only two years, he prosecuted his first murder case at the age of 23. As a prosecutor for the McLennan County district attorney’s office in Waco, Johnston adopted his father’s habit of riding with lawmen, hoping the experience would make him a better trial lawyer. (“If we were talking about a meth lab,” he said, “I wanted to see what a meth lab looked like.”) He went on more than one hundred drug busts in those early years, serving as a legal adviser to the arresting officers. When he became a federal prosecutor, he rode along on late-night raids and manhunts in a more limited legal capacity. “If I’m asking people to work for me at one or two in the morning, why should I be asleep?” he said. “I can’t justify staying at home while they’re out there putting their lives on the line.” His commitment to working in the trenches earned him the respect of area lawmen, said Secret Service agent Robert Blossman. “When Bill put out a call, everyone answered.”
At the age of 28, after local politicians lobbied for a U.S. Attorney’s office, Johnston became the first federal prosecutor to serve exclusively the thirteen-county area that stretched between Dallas and Austin. Three years later, in 1990, he was appointed chief drug prosecutor for the Western District of Texas, the second-largest jurisdiction in