Longform

In the Line of Fire

Page 3 of 6

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.

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Ann Zimmerman