In the Line of Fire

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.

Essentially branded an accomplice in the murder of the four agents, he was left with only one way to restore his reputation. He turned to the courts for relief, suing the two media outlets -- WFAA-Channel 8 in Dallas and the Houston Chronicle -- who he claimed had defamed him. After years of legal wrangling, the courts ruled against him in September, holding that by doing his job, he lost his status as a newsman and became a newsmaker. For libel purposes, he was no longer a private person but became a public figure.

And the story that he broke ultimately broke him.
John McLemore can't remember a time he didn't want to be a journalist. After graduating from high school in Houston, he attended Stephen F. Austin College for a year and hoped to become a newspaper reporter. With his clean-cut good looks and affable manner, one of his professors suggested he would be a natural in broadcast journalism. He transferred to the University of Texas and almost immediately snagged a coveted paid internship in the Austin bureau of Dallas's WFAA-TV(Channel 8).

Mentored by the well-respected political reporter and Austin bureau chief Carol Kneeland, McLemore worked as an intern for two years, spending all his weekends and vacations at the station. The first in his class to be hired, McLemore landed a job at the Temple bureau of Waco's KWTX-TV and commuted there on weekends until graduation. A year later, he was transferred back to Waco, where he worked first as a sports reporter, and then as a general-assignment reporter. At the same time, he attended Baylor University and received his master's degree in rhetoric and mass communications.

Tall and slender with the sharp features that are perfect for television, McLemore had a commanding on-air presence. "He was spunky and had an attitude -- he wouldn't take no for an answer," remembers cameraman Mulloney. "He had a good voice and was a good writer and reporter."

As a general-assignment reporter, he covered the typical gamut of stories, from murder and mayhem to the quirky feature. And he had a flair for them all. In an award-winning investigative story he did on police brutality in Marlin, Texas, he discovered that several of the officers had been fired from other departments for excessive force. He brought a sense of whimsy to another piece he did on a high school football player who led the marching band at half-time.

The traditional career path for ambitious and talented broadcast journalists is an itinerant one and begins in small cities like Waco, which has a population of about 100,000. After a few years, they move to either a mid-size city or a major market like Dallas. If they're lucky and exceptionally good, they'll make it to the networks. McLemore had paid his dues in Waco and was hoping to leave. All he needed was a big story. He thought he found it at the Mt. Carmel siege and wasn't about to let go of it.

That's why he and his colleagues remained at the scene, sleeping in shifts, not daring to leave the vicinity of the compound for fear of missing any fast-breaking news. Late on the second night of the standoff, someone from his station beckoned him to a trailer, where a TV was tuned in to ABC's Nightline.

"You're not going to like what you see," the reporter warned him.
McLemore watched in sickening disbelief as Houston Chronicle reporter Kathy Fair told Ted Koppel that the ATF was blaming the local media for what went wrong during the raid.

In response to Koppel's question about the media's role in the tragedy, Fair said: " ... [ATF agents] think they were set up ... by at least one reporter and, perhaps, a local law enforcement official ... They were aware of the raid, tipped off the sect about it, and that is how they got permission to be on the grounds before federal agents arrived."

Fair didn't name McLemore, but she might as well have. McLemore was the only reporter on the grounds during the raid -- a fact not lost on Waco viewers. For the next several days, they flooded the Waco TV station with calls condemning McLemore for, in effect, causing the death of four federal agents.

"They wanted me fired and threatened not to watch the station if I wasn't," says McLemore. "One caller said, 'The blood of these ATF agents is on McLemore's hands.' "

The next night, WFAA-Channel 8 reporter Valeri Williams aired a similar report, this time actually naming McLemore on the air.

After re-broadcasting most of Kathy Fair's Nightline interview, Williams added that Fair's ATF sources saw TV reporters hanging from the trees at the compound before the attack began. After running footage of McLemore reporting from the scene of the raid, Williams added: "The only reporters at the scene Sunday morning were John McLemore and a television photographer from KWTX-TV in Waco and one or two reporters from the local newspaper."

McLemore was outraged. That just wasn't the way it happened. He hadn't hung from any trees, and at no time did he tip off any Davidians -- intentionally or by accident. He and Mulloney didn't enter the compound until after the ATF agents arrived. They had parked their Bronco, heard the hail of gunfire, and somehow managed to get their camera on the ground and rolling. McLemore even risked getting shot to help wounded ATF agents by running back to the Bronco to call for an ambulance.

Each time McLemore had tried to get back to the bus and Mulloney, the shooting started up again and trapped him in the car. He crouched down behind the steering wheel, where he remained for the duration of the 45-minute battle, feeding his station live reports via cellular phone. He tuned in the police scanner and listened to a Davidian and an ATF officer negotiate a cease-fire. The ATF agreed to retreat, provided they could collect their dead and wounded.

Finally ambulances pulled onto the compound and began carrying off the agents -- four were dead, 20 sustained serious injury. Gunfire had immobilized one ATF truck, and there weren't enough ambulances to rescue all the agents.

Twice, McLemore offered to ferry the remaining officers to safety, but they declined. He made a last offer before deciding to leave. When it was clear no more help was on the way, they finally agreed to go with him. An agent with a leg wound and another with an injured collarbone got into the Bronco along with several other agents. When the truck was full, they wrapped an agent with a bloody chest wound in a blanket and placed him on the hood of the truck. Another agent stood on the truck's floorboard and hung on to the open door while directing McLemore out of the compound.

Disregarding orders from the newsroom, McLemore refused to go on the air until he had delivered all the agents to the medical triage area. Finally, McLemore broadcast live a detailed and composed account of a federal raid gone horribly awry. Moments later he was interviewed live by WFAA-Channel 8 in Dallas, KWTX's sister station.

After he filed his story, reporters on the scene surrounded him and began interviewing him about what he had seen and done during the raid. Throughout the afternoon and evening, journalists from across the country streamed into Waco; many of them also sought out McLemore for his eyewitness accounts, which appeared in newspapers and on news shows worldwide. The next day, ATF Director Steve Higgins called to personally thank him for his bravery and assistance.

Only now, rather than publicly expressing gratitude, it seemed as if the ATF was accusing him of complicity. With these two damaging broadcasts, McLemore's reputation would become one more casualty of the Mt. Carmel siege.

In a mere 48 hours, McLemore went from fearless reporter and good Samaritan to pariah, hounded by viewers who blamed him for the bloodbath at Mt. Carmel, investigated by state and federal law enforcement officers, and viewed suspiciously by other members of the press.

But once his integrity came under scrutiny, he was at a loss for what to do. "A few days after the stories aired on Nightline and Channel 8, I called Carol Kneeland, almost in tears, and asked her what I should do," says McLemore. Kneeland, he says, believed him and encouraged him to come out and make a statement defending himself.

But his station threatened to fire him if he spoke publicly about the media reports. (Nick Bradfield, KWTX's news director, did not return calls for this story.) Its management issued a statement denying its reporter was on the grounds of the compound before agents arrived and asked Nightline for a retraction. Neither ABC nor WFAA retracted the allegations. Nor would they bother to report that a U.S. Treasury Department investigation of the raid exonerated McLemore.

The report, issued more than six months after the bloody ambush and the resulting carnage of the Davidians, concluded that McLemore's colleague, photographer Jim Peeler, had inadvertently tipped off the Davidians when he got lost on his way to the compound. Seeing Peeler on the side of the road, a mail-truck driver stopped to offer assistance. Peeler asked him for directions to Mt. Carmel and chatted briefly with him about his assignment. Peeler was unaware that the mailman was, in fact, a member of the Branch Davidians who immediately sped off to report the encounter to his leader, David Koresh.

Months after the raid, when word leaked out that Peeler had been the inadvertent tipster, the cameraman told The Dallas Morning News that he regretted the news reports that repeatedly blamed his colleague McLemore for compromising the raid.

"I feel sorry for John," Peeler was quoted as saying. "He's been the main guy that's been taking all the heat, and he didn't do anything but do his job."

McLemore felt trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare, accused of a crime he did not commit, but punished for it nonetheless.

In the year following the raid, he tried in vain to get a job in a bigger media market. He applied to 50 stations and did not get a single interview, despite his Emmy nomination and a handful of regional reporting awards for other stories he'd done. No one told him outright that the allegations leveled against him were the reason they wouldn't hire him, but he suspected that was why he was being shunned by his peers.

"I'm not saying I'm God's gift to reporting, but I believe the taint of the story had something to do with it," says McLemore. "I'm in my fifth year at a station, and I break a national story. That should have had me out of there."

Instead, he watched as at least 10 of his colleagues with less experience and fewer accomplishments moved on to bigger, better-paying jobs. "John had a promising career," says Mulloney. "But I believe he was blackballed in the industry. What happened to him wasn't right, and he had a chip on his shoulder because of it. It was like a cancer; it slowly ate him up."

With a baby on the way, McLemore couldn't afford to stay in his $20,000-a-year TV job in Waco, but he couldn't get hired anyplace else. With his career hopelessly stalled and with no way to clear his name, a depressed and defeated McLemore felt he had no choice but to commit the ultimate journalistic sin: Almost a year after the botched raid, he filed a libel suit against WFAA-TV and the Houston Chronicle. He asked for $15 million in damages.

McLemore knew that filing suit against the media would be the end of his career. He also knew he would be ridiculed and labeled a traitor.

Some people might think it hypocritical or ironic that a reporter who employed the First Amendment to do his job would take offense when the tables were turned. But McLemore doesn't see it that way. The First Amendment, he says, does not entitle reporters, in their pursuit of the public's right to know, to practice shoddy journalism.

"Kathy Fair went on Nightline with an unconfirmed rumor that basically said I had set up the ATF," he says. "She didn't check it out at all. She broke the very first rule of journalism. It would have been so easy to check out who I was and where I was. If she had done just that, mistakes would not have been made."

If Fair had checked out the rumor, she would have learned that McLemore was not on the compound grounds before the ATF arrived, thus the premise of the allegation -- he tipped off the Davidians in exchange for access to their property before the agents arrived -- was totally unfounded. And if she had done any real reporting, she also would have discovered that the accusation that TV journalists were hiding in the trees was absurd. There were no trees on the sprawling, barren compound.

McLemore charges that Williams was equally irresponsible. Despite denials from McLemore's station that the accusations were not true and the refusal of federal officials to lay public blame, Williams proceeded to repeat Fair's unconfirmed rumor about a setup. Neither Williams nor Fair responded to the Dallas Observer's phone calls.

"Williams didn't check her sources, and at every juncture she was told the information was flat-out wrong," fumes Greg White, one of McLemore's attorneys. "You don't impugn someone's conduct or accuse them of illegal and unethical behavior unless you have someone telling you you're right."

But McLemore's lawsuit ultimately would not deal with the media's mistakes, because the courts found he had no right to be protected from them.

After McLemore sued for defamation, a trial court dismissed the suit against the Houston Chronicle, because Kathy Fair did not identify McLemore by name in her report. But it refused to dismiss the suit against WFAA-TV, a decision that was later affirmed by an appellate court.

Then, in September, the Texas Supreme Court dealt McLemore another blow. Initially, the court considered whether, under libel law, McLemore was a private citizen or a public figure. If just a private citizen, McLemore would only have to prove WFAA acted negligently toward him -- that it failed to exercise reasonable care in attempting to discover the truth or falsity of the story. If the court ruled he was a public figure, McLemore would have to prove that WFAA acted with malice (a reckless disregard for the truth or knowingly lying) in broadcasting its story -- a much higher standard that is applied to politicians, celebrities and other newsmakers. Oddly, the court held that McLemore had become a "limited purpose" public figure by thrusting himself to the forefront of the controversy surrounding the failed ATF raid. And absent malice, WFAA would not be held liable.

Williams had sworn in a trial court affidavit that she believed that her reports on McLemore were accurate broadcasts on a highly newsworthy matter. That was enough to convince the justices that she did not act with malice and to dismiss the case.

McLemore's attorneys concede that malice is almost impossible to prove, but they argue that they shouldn't have to because their client is not a public figure.

Exactly how a court decides who is and isn't a public figure is, as a jurist once put it, "like trying to nail a jellyfish to a wall." In McLemore's case, his lawyers claim, the high court overlooked and misinterpreted some crucial factors in deciding he was a public figure. They plan to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The court found that McLemore crossed the threshold of what constitutes a public figure by putting himself at the scene of a breaking news event and injecting himself into a public debate about it. And because he was the only journalist who ventured onto the scene and reported "live from the heart of the controversial raid," the justices wrote, "McLemore assumed a risk that his involvement in the event would be subject to public debate."

"I didn't volunteer; I was assigned to the story," says McLemore. "Being on the grounds was good journalism. And I didn't interject myself into a debate of any sort. I reported the events as they were unfolding."

By coming to the aid of the wounded officers and talking to the media about it afterward, the judges claim, McLemore brought on public attention. They also believed his media interviews showed he had access to the press in order to respond to criticism. That access is frequently what has been used in prior case law to define a public figure. But the court totally ignored that McLemore's employer strictly prohibited him from talking to the press about the accusations leveled against him -- and threatened to fire him if he did.

Being an eyewitness to a controversial event and reporting what you see does not transform you into a public figure, argues Greg White, McLemore's appellate lawyer. "You must invite public attention for the purpose of influencing others, or to influence the outcome of a controversy -- factors the judges inexplicably ignored. On the controversy in this case -- why the raid failed -- McLemore didn't utter a word."

As White sees it, the way the court wrote its opinion, every reporter is a public figure -- as is every person who answers a question posed by the media. Aubrey Wilson, a Waco lawyer who represented McLemore at the trial level, says that the higher court's decision is not a victory for the First Amendment -- it's just the opposite.

"What this opinion means is, shut up. There is no incentive to talk to the media, because if you do, you run the risk of having your reputation ruined, and the courts will protect the media.

"John McLemore went through pure hell, the worst nightmare you can think of," Wilson adds. "He did nothing wrong. In fact he did everything right. The media destroys him, then hides behind the First Amendment and a wall of actual malice. It goes to show you that no good deed goes unpunished."

It's been five years since the deadly ambush at Waco -- and the destructive ambush on John McLemore's career. The sting of disappointment and betrayal has lessened for him over the years, but he still has hard feelings over the way he was treated by the media -- and now by the courts.

Mostly what he feels is a sense of loss. He misses chasing stories, getting scoops, getting at the truth. "Journalism is all I ever wanted to do," he says wistfully. "It's what I went to school for and worked so hard for."

For a while he thought about teaching journalism. He was accepted in a Ph.D. program, but when a teaching assistant position didn't come through, he couldn't afford the out-of-state tuition.

For the last three years he has served as corporate communications director for a Waco insurance company that deals in the controversial area of viatical settlements -- buying insurance policies from people with terminal illnesses.

Instead of covering the news, he now helps feed it. He interacts with the press frequently because of the newsworthy nature of his company's enterprise and because his boss, Brian Pardo, attracts a lot of media attention. In recent years, Pardo has funded several investigations into high-profile capital murder cases. McLemore gets to do some of the research on these cases, and when he does, it feels like the old days. But now when he's done, he has to hand his work over to a reporter.

What frustrates him most about the recent court decision is that through all this arcane legal wordplay and hairsplitting, the real issue has gotten lost.

"What hasn't been addressed is that what the media said about me was wrong, and it was harmful," he says. "When a person is alleged to have caused the deaths of four ATF agents, how much more harmful can you get? I was screwed by the media and now by the courts. All I want is a jury of my peers to clear my name.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Ann Zimmerman