In the Line of Fire

During the Branch Davidian siege, a Waco TV reporter risked his life to help federal agents -- then was falsely accused of setting them up. Before the compound burned, his career was in ashes.

The last thing John McLemore wanted to do was work another weekend. The Waco TV reporter had spent the entire month of February in Houston covering the grisly murder trial of serial killer Kenneth McDuff, and he was looking forward to some quiet time at home with his wife. So when cameraman Dan Mulloney called on Saturday and asked his colleague what he was doing the next day, McLemore tersely replied, "I'm going to church."

"Oh no you're not," replied Mulloney. "We're going to Rodenville."
In 1993, that's how the locals often referred to the Mt. Carmel compound outside Waco that housed a small religious sect called the Branch Davidians and its messianic leader, David Koresh. McLemore knew little about the Davidians, except what he had gleaned from that morning's Waco Tribune-Herald, which had run the first in a series of articles about the strange group. Titled "Sinful Messiah," these stories claimed Koresh thought he was God, believed in whipping children as young as 8 months old, had fathered children with underage girls living at the compound, and had stockpiled an arsenal of illegal weapons.

Mulloney had reliable information that early Sunday morning, February 28, law enforcement officers, armed with search and arrest warrants, were going to raid Mt. Carmel and seize the Davidians' cache of unlawful arms. A local newspaper reporter had tipped off Mulloney to the raid, and his friend at a local ambulance company, which had been put on alert, confirmed it.

If they were lucky, McLemore thought to himself, they would get some video footage of cops kicking in doors and coming out with armfuls of rifles--not a bad story for the small TV market of Waco, where McLemore, then 29, had restlessly paid his dues for the past five years.

It was cold and wet at 7:30 a.m. Sunday, when McLemore, Mulloney, and another cameraman named Jim Peeler met with their news director at the station, KWTX-Channel 10. From there, McLemore and Mulloney embarked on the 20-minute drive to Mt. Carmel in Mulloney's white Ford Bronco. Peeler went by himself, taking a back road that would bring him to the other side of the compound.

When they arrived near the compound, the reporter and photographer didn't see anyone, so they drove about a mile and a half south and positioned themselves on a hill, where they had a good view of the sprawling Branch Davidian fortress. During the hour that they huddled in their car, they fielded a call from Peeler, who had gotten hopelessly lost. They also watched several carloads of newspaper reporters--the ones who gave Mulloney the tip--arrive on the scene and cruise up and down the road in front of the Davidian compound.

McLemore heard the distinctive whir of helicopter blades in the distance and decided to hightail it back to the compound. While stopping briefly en route to film the National Guard choppers, the men noticed two trucks pulling tarp-covered cattle trailers barreling past them. The trailers were filled with agents from the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, who were clad in flak jackets and helmets.

"This is it," Mulloney yelled to McLemore. "They're going to raid the place. Let's go."

Mulloney waved to the men as they passed, and one of the agents waved back. The duo hopped into the Bronco and followed the trailers. Three carloads of newspaper reporters and photographers had situated themselves outside the compound property, but Mulloney and McLemore decided to take their chances and follow the trailers as far as they could. The Bronco was about halfway down the compound driveway when the agents threw open the tarps and scrambled for position.

Then all hell broke loose.
Pop. Pop. Pop. Bullets were flying everywhere. The two of them were caught in the crossfire.

"Punch it," Mulloney yelled, as McLemore floored the Bronco and headed toward an abandoned Greyhound bus parked on the grounds. While bullets whizzed overhead and bloodied agents fell to the ground around them, Mulloney crawled out of the Bronco, cautiously setting up his camera behind the bus. He caught the whole gruesome scene unfolding 50 yards away -- footage later seen worldwide.

"Hey, TV man and cameraman!" shouted a female agent who was administering aide to a comrade. "Run to your truck and call for help."

McLemore emerged from behind the bus and made a mad 20-yard dash back to the Bronco. As he opened the door, something hard grazed his face. He thought he'd been shot. It was only a piece of metal from his car, struck by a bullet. He dove into the front seat and called the newsroom.

"It's a war zone," he shouted. "Get every ambulance in the county out here."
Before the day was over, McLemore had broken one of the most harrowing and tragic national stories of the decade. His frontline broadcast from the besieged Branch Davidian compound and his valiant actions under fire made him a hero and a celebrity ... if only for the moment.

Two days later, journalists from both national and local TV, relying on unsubstantiated rumors, falsely accused McLemore of setting up ATF agents by tipping off the Davidians to the raid. What should have been the story that catapulted him into a major media market became a death sentence that finished him off professionally. Despite being nominated for an Emmy Award for the story, no other station would hire him, and he was stuck in Waco at the dead end of his career.

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