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