William Steele Sessions, who died June 12 in San Antonio at age ninety, is probably best known for two of the low points in his long career as an attorney, federal judge, and head of the FBI: the infamous Ruby Ridge shootout in Idaho in 1992 and the tragic Branch Davidian standoff in Waco the next year. Although he was not directly involved, both law enforcement debacles occurred during his six-year tenure as FBI director. Just as interesting for his fellow Texans, though, is his more successful involvement in two other high-profile cases.
As the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, Sessions brought an end to the notorious reign of George Parr, the all-powerful patron in Duval and adjacent South Texas counties. It was Parr, known as the “Duke of Duval” (and as tacuacha, sly possum), who perpetrated the infamous “Box 13” scandal that sent Lyndon B. Johnson to the U.S. Senate in 1948. The notorious vote-fraud scheme arguably changed the course of American history but was not all that unusual for the Parr family, which relied on mundane bribery, graft, intimidation, and violence to keep its machine running for more than six decades. Sessions finally broke the family’s South Texas stranglehold in 1974 by convincing a federal grand jury that Parr was guilty of income tax evasion and perjury. “The Duke” killed himself before going to prison.
Appointed to the federal bench by President Gerald Ford in 1974, Sessions presided over the trials of four people charged in the assassination of Judge John H. Wood Jr., his predecessor as chief judge for the Western District of Texas. Wood was shot in the back outside his Alamo Heights townhome in 1979. In a so-called trial of the century in 1982, Charles Harrelson (actor Woody Harrelson’s father) was convicted of killing Wood for a $250,000 fee. He was sentenced to consecutive life terms.
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The son of a Disciples of Christ minister, with silver hair and gold-rimmed glasses, the tall, military-straight jurist looked every bit the rectitudinous judge. He was the same in both the courtroom and at home, recalled his son, Dallas attorney W. Lewis Sessions. “He drilled into me honesty; he was very much by-the-book,” the younger Sessions recalled. “He lived by the code.” (Another son, Pete Sessions, is the former congressman from the Dallas area, now living in Waco and seeking to return to Congress.)
Sessions lived by the code in the courtroom too. The late Maury Maverick Jr., a San Antonio ACLU lawyer and outspoken liberal Democrat, told the New York Times in 1987 that when Sessions, a moderate Republican, was U.S. attorney, the two fought “tooth and toenail” over Vietnam War draft-resistance cases. Maverick, representing conscientious objectors, said he found Sessions to be “tough yet fair.” Sessions’s style, Maverick said, “is not to bully, but if you are a crook and stick your neck in a noose he will hang you and smile like Jesus while he’s doing it.”
The Times profile also mentioned that his Alamo Heights neighbors knew him simply as “Bill” and often saw him lavishing attention on his classic ’69 Chevy—a blue Chevelle, his son recalled this week.
President Ronald Reagan nominated Sessions to head the FBI in 1987. The Senate confirmed the nomination by a vote of 90–0 for what was supposed to be a ten-year term. It didn’t work out that way.
In 1992, the FBI’s hostage-rescue team negotiated for eleven days with a fugitive white separatist named Randy Weaver, who had taken refuge with family members and others in a cabin on Ruby Ridge, deep in the Idaho wilderness. A U.S. marshal shot and killed Weaver’s wife and fourteen-year-old son, igniting a fierce public debate about the use of deadly force. Sessions himself did not directly oversee the operation, but it was his FBI, and the agency’s conduct and policies were called into question.
The next year, Sessions had to deal with the Branch Davidian confrontation outside Waco, a city where he had served in the Air Force, attended Baylor University, and practiced law for ten years.
The 51-day standoff at the Branch Davidian compound ended when a tear-gas assault ignited a fire that killed at least 75 people, including a number of children. Again, the FBI’s reputation was tarnished, and Sessions’s management abilities were criticized. He told the Waco Tribune-Herald shortly after the siege ended that the FBI had been made “a scapegoat” for the tragedy. “People expected us somehow to work a miracle, and all I wish is that we had,” he told the newspaper.
By then, low morale within the agency and internal feuds over other contentious issues increased pressure on Sessions to resign. A 1993 ethics probe, issued by then–attorney general William P. Barr (yes, that Bill Barr), accused Sessions of serious ethical shortcomings, among them that he had used a “sham” to avoid paying taxes on his use of an FBI limousine that ferried him back and forth to work. Sessions’s wife Alice told Texas Monthly in 1993 that she believed the old guard who had been with the agency since the dictatorial days of J. Edgar Hoover—she called them “a cabal of Hooverites”—resented her husband’s efforts to modernize, and Barr’s report was their vehicle. Sessions fought back, refuting the report point by point. When he refused to quit, President Bill Clinton fired him. (He was the first FBI director ever to be dismissed; James Comey was the second.)
Sessions never talked about the problems he encountered at the FBI, Lewis Sessions said. He preferred recalling largely successful efforts to recruit more black, Hispanic, and female agents, as well as efforts to modernize the agency’s use of DNA technology and the automation of FBI fingerprint record-keeping and analysis. He was proud of the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, established during his tenure. He also relished the fact that he resisted efforts to politicize the bureau, his son said.
Current FBI director Christopher Wray, who has also dealt with efforts to politicize the bureau, recalled that despite Sessions’s no-nonsense demeanor, he “was known as the ‘employees’ director,’ because he was so often found chatting with folks in the hallways and in the cafeteria at headquarters, getting a firsthand sense of employee morale and their thoughts on the FBI Family.”
Wray added: “We’ll remember him as a man who championed the rule of law, civil rights, and civil liberties throughout his life—as a prosecutor, as a judge, as FBI director, and as a model citizen.”