Mother and father of slain ATF agent still grieve but are not bitter

John Thompson • Updated Feb 27, 2018 at 11:40 PM

ELIZABETHTON — Tony and Jane McKeehan were busy Monday afternoon preparing for a trip to Waco, Texas. But they agreed to spend a few hours talking about the event that changed their lives 25 years ago.

It was on Feb. 28, 1993, when their oldest son, Todd, and three other special agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were killed during a raid on the Branch Davidian compound in McLennan County, near Waco. The others three agents were Conway LeBlue, Robert Williams and Steven Willis. Seventy-six people died on April 19, when the ATF shot tear gas into the compound in an attempt to drive the Branch Davidians out.

The trip to Waco is one of many trips Tony and Jane have made over the past 25 years for ceremonies honoring their son and the other fallen agents. They have often been asked to speak at such occasions. Although they say they are not polished public speakers, they always speak from the heart and always cause many in the audience to shed tears when they talk about their son.

Tony and Jane still grieve, but less as time goes on. Jane said she cried for Todd every day for two years. When she realized she had not cried for a whole day, that made her cry.

They grieve, but they have not allowed themselves to become bitter. They both say that their Christian faith teaches them that every life will have hardships, but a Christian trusts in God’s plan.

“He is in control,” Tony said. Whenever they speak of their son’s death, their focus is on how much they still love him after 25 years.

“All those years just mean we are that much closer to seeing him in heaven,” Tony said.

From the very first day, they did not seek to blame anyone for the deaths. They never became involved in controversies that spread about the raid and the deaths on both sides. Instead of casting blame, they have supported the ATF.

“I remembered how much Todd loved his job and how proud he was to be serving in the ATF,” Jane said Monday. “How could I go against something that meant so much to my son?”

She also remembered something Todd had told her during his last visit home. “He told me ‘I know what I do is dangerous, but I am proud to be doing what I am doing. If I get killed, I want you to know that I was doing what I wanted to do.’ ”

The leadership of the ATF were always welcomed into the McKeehan home, beginning with Stephen Higgins, who was ATF director at the time of the Waco incident. The directors reciprocated by making the McKeehans welcome at the agency headquarters and during ATF ceremonies honoring its fallen agents.

The high point of that relationship may have come during the 20th anniversary event, when Jane was asked to speak at a gathering attended by 200 special agents. She said a lot of those rough, tough-looking men were shedding tears when she finished.

Jane has also been invited to discuss her son and the Waco tragedy with the next generation.

Alex Campbell teaches history at Elizabethton High School, where Todd graduated. He has had Jane speak to his class for four years, during the time they are studying Waco. This year, on March 9, there will be a special ceremony in the gymnasium at 12:30 p.m.

He said the ceremony is private, but Todd McKeehan’s friends and family are welcome. He has invited Chuck Hustmyre, who worked with Todd in the ATF field office in New Orleans. He said Todd’s favorite teacher, Ed Alexander, will also speak.

A photograph of Todd hangs in the Commons Area of the school. He was a receiver on the Cyclones football team and a swimmer who still had school swimming records standing many years after his death.

A bridge on U.S. Highway 321 in Happy Valley is named the Sgt. Todd McKeehan Bridge. The sergeant refers not to his rank in the ATF, which was special agent, but to his rank in the Marine Corps Reserves. Todd served on active duty during Desert Storm. Tony said Todd was part of a recon team that was behind enemy lines before the Battle of Khafji, which was fought before the ground phase of Desert Storm began.

Inside Tony and Jane’s home, they have turned one wall of their living room into a small shrine to Todd’s memory. More intimate memories of Todd are stored downstairs.

In a large room in the basement, Jane has packed all of the items Todd left behind into a cabinet.

Old notebooks, toys, Boy Scout uniforms and books tell the story of how Todd became a patriotic little boy and grew to be a Marine and ATF special agent.

A small paddle on the wall tells a story of what else might have happened. The paddle with two badges attached was given to Tony by Navy SEALs after Todd’s death. Tony said Todd had been scheduled to begin SEAL training in March 1993.

The most touching are two large displays presented to Jane by Todd’s widow, Leslie. One is a large quilt made from Todd’s clothes. The second is a very large display case containing photographs of Todd from the time he was a baby.

But Jane and Tony are most proud of the fact that five children now bear Todd’s name.

The first child to receive the name was Emily Todd Hustmyre, the daughter of Todd’s friend in the ATF, Chuck Hustmyre. Then came Todd David Sullivan Meadows. Todd’s childhood friend, Mark LaPorte, named his son Brandon Todd LaPorte. One of Todd’s brothers, Brad, named his son Colby Todd McKeehan. And Todd’s other brother, Wade, named his daughter Camille Todd McKeehan.

In addition to these living memorials, Jane and Tony say they have been protected from becoming bitter by the evidence of love they still find around the country for the four ATF special agents who died 25 years ago today. One of the most touching they found in a small church located on a dusty road in McLennan County, Texas, not far from the Branch Davidian compound.

Tony said that small church so close to ground zero built its own memorial for the four agents.