Caught in the crossfire

Denied his day in court, a former Waco TV reporter, falsely accused of setting up federal agents, becomes the last casualty of the Branch Davidian siege

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 last month ruled against him, 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' 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 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.

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