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

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."

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