The Mount Carmel compound of the Branch Davidian cult can be seen in the distance near Waco, March 1, 1993, shortly after the beginning of the 51-day siege.
This is part three of a recent series by Eric Benson. For part one, click here. For part two, click here.
John McLemore wanted to show off his backyard. It was an enviable suburban expanse in northwest Houston—a pool, a patio, short palm trees, a manicured lawn made brittle by winter, and an offset smoker that he was still trying to figure out. “See, John McLemore didn’t die penniless,” he said. “He’s not just crawling in gutters like Google says he is. I ain’t living high on the hog, but I’m not crawling in the gutter.”
McLemore is 54 years old and underemployed, and he remains wary of the rumors and false accusations that have dogged him for the last 25 years—of his demise, of his death, of his complicity in the tragedy that has shaped his adult life: the Branch Davidian siege near Waco. When I called McLemore in early January, he told me he’d tended to decline requests from the press, but he said as long as I wasn’t looking for his opinion on conspiracy theories, he’d be happy to talk. “I haven’t done any interviews in a while because I get sick of saying, ‘No, I don’t know who fired first,’ ‘Yeah, Koresh, he wasn’t a very nice guy,’ ‘Yeah, it ruined my career.’ Poor, poor me,” McLemore said when we met in Houston. “I wound up better than I probably would’ve been, but poor, poor me.”
McLemore has spent most of his adult life doing damage control, although most of the time, it hasn’t been personal. As a corporate public relations specialist, he worked for Life Partners Inc., a Waco-based firm that pioneered the practice of purchasing life insurance policies from the terminally ill (“it was easy to portray as ghoulish,” he acknowledges, adding, “we were mainly in the AIDS market”), then he put in 14 years as a big-oil flack at ConocoPhillips. After McLemore got laid off in 2015, he started his own PR agency, but, he told me, “it’s not going so well.”
McLemore isn’t asking for anyone’s pity, but he hasn’t had the career that he wanted and he hasn’t had the career that it looked like he was heading for when he was an upcoming TV reporter at Waco’s CBS affiliate, KWTX, in the early nineties. Since high school, McLemore had been a news junkie, and as an undergraduate at UT-Austin, he’d been single-minded about preparing for his career as a journalist. “When most people were going to South Padre for spring break, I was at the CBS or NBC or ABC in Austin working for free, staying after hours, teaching myself how to edit videos,” McLemore said. He had gotten a job at the Temple bureau of KWTX before he’d even graduated, and quickly got assigned to Waco, where he was covering major stories.
Then, on the morning of February 28, 1993, the 29-year-old McLemore and KWTX cameraman Dan Mulloney followed a convoy of Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives vehicles onto a 77-acre compound west of Waco known as Mount Carmel. The property was owned by the Branch Davidian church and controlled by its leader, a preacher named David Koresh. When they drove onto Mount Carmel, the two newsmen expected to see a by-the-books seizure of illegal weapons. Instead, they witnessed one of the most ferocious gun battles in the history of American law enforcement. Four federal agents and six Branch Davidians died that day, setting off a 51-day FBI-led siege that ended when a fire consumed the Branch Davidians’ multistory compound, Koresh himself, and 75 of his followers who remained inside.
On the morning of the ATF raid, McLemore didn’t have any inkling he was about to play a small role in the beginning of that history. He had spent much of the previous month in Houston covering the trial of serial killer Kenneth Allen McDuff, and as he and Mulloney drove up toward Mount Carmel in the cameraman’s Ford Bronco, the reporter figured he’d be able to write up a story and be home by noon. “I thought the sheriff’s department was probably going to have to kick the door in, and they’d come out with an armful of guns and then maybe somebody in handcuffs.”
Mulloney had been tipped off that some kind of raid was planned, but neither he nor McLemore had any idea of its scope. Instead of watching a modest operation by the McLennan County sheriff’s office, the KWTX duo ended up witnessing dozens of ATF agents in full battle dress jumping out of the back of cattle trailers and preparing for a “dynamic entry” into the compound. Just two minutes after the ATF arrived, bullets started flying. (Both sides say the other shot first.) Mulloney, sitting in the passenger seat of the Bronco, yelled “punch it!” and the reporter, sitting in the driver’s seat, pulled the vehicle behind an abandoned coach bus that was sitting on the Branch Davidians’ grounds. Mulloney set up his camera on a tripod, focused it on the battle, and took cover. McLemore assisted him until an ATF agent yelled out to him and asked if he could call for help.
“I’m going, ‘Man, I’ve got this Greyhound bus protecting me, you want me to run through this gunfire to call for help for you?’” McLemore remembers. He decided he needed to anyway, running twenty yards to the Bronco, hopping into the front seat, and calling the newsroom.
“Get every ambulance in the county out here. It’s like Vietnam,” McLemore remembers saying. His news director informed him that every ambulance in the county was already nearby and paramedics were setting up a triage center just up the road.
For the rest of the ninety-minute firefight, McLemore narrated the action, with Mulloney occasionally pivoting his camera away from the building and training it on the young reporter. After a cease-fire between the ATF and the Branch Davidians had been brokered, McLemore stayed on the scene, and he and Mulloney volunteered their Bronco to transport three wounded agents, including one who had been critically injured and was laid across the front hood.
“I couldn’t see over him,” McLemore said. “There were these two guys standing on both sides of the doors, and they’re going, ‘A little to the left, a little to the right.’ We were the last ones off the property. All my life I won’t think of myself as a hero, but I won’t think of myself as a p—- either,” McLemore told me.
After covering the exchanges of gunfire for ninety minutes, McLemore and his cameraman Dan Mulloney volunteered their Ford Bronco to transport wounded ATF agents off the property.
One critically injured agent was laid across the front hood of the Bronco as McLemore drove.
Over the next day, McLemore’s face appeared around the world, as reporters covering what was the beginning of the Waco siege sought him out as an eyewitness authority. On March 1, ATF director Stephen Higgins placed a call to KWTX and thanked McLemore for his bravery in helping to evacuate the wounded agents. McLemore figured this was his ticket to a big career. But on March 2, McLemore’s brief celebrity began to unravel. That night, HoustonChronicle reporter Kathy Fair—who would later serve as Rick Perry’s chief of staff under her married name, Kathy Walt—told Nightline anchor Ted Koppel that, according to her ATF sources, “reporters for, I believe, the TV station allegedly were hiding in the trees when federal agents arrived.” The sources, Fair continued, “have told me they think they were set up by at least one reporter” who had “tipped off the sect about [the raid].”
This early account would prove to be mostly untrue. No reporters were at Mount Carmel before the ATF arrived. No one was hiding in trees. And no one had deliberately tipped off the Branch Davidians. McLemore’s colleague Jim Peeler, a cameraman, had inadvertently aroused the suspicions of the Branch Davidians after getting lost on the way to Mount Carmel that morning and talking with a postman, who turned out to be Branch Davidian David Jones. But it was McLemore who caught the bulk of the early backlash. After Fair’s report and a follow-up segment on Dallas station WFAA, some viewers blamed McLemore for the catastrophic outcome of the raid. Suddenly, it wasn’t Higgins reaching out to KWTX to thank the station’s reporters, but viewers calling to demand that McLemore be fired. One, McLemore told the Dallas Observer in 1998, had said, “The blood of these ATF agents is on McLemore’s hands.”
For the rest of the siege, KWTX more or less sidelined McLemore and told him to refrain from responding to the allegations. “They moved me with a CBS crew on somebody’s property where we could see the compound a mile away,” McLemore says. With his new assignment, he didn’t attend press conferences, but he was an up-close observer of the fire on April 19, describing the scene for viewers as the blaze ripped through the Branch Davidians’ home.
The end of the siege was the effective finale of McLemore’s journalism career. He was nominated for an Emmy for his coverage, but “that stigma never left me,” he says. A group of ATF agents and the families of the agents who died during the raid sued KWTX, the Waco Tribune-Herald, and a Waco ambulance company for negligent actions that caused the deaths and injuries at Mount Carmel. (The case settled out of court for a reported $15 million.) In Waco, McLemore and his family felt unwelcome, with his wife, a receptionist at a bank, getting hounded at work by those who held the reporter partially responsible for the Branch Davidian tragedy. McLemore tried to get jobs in other markets, but he never got a call back from most stations, and others agreed to meet with him only in the hopes of getting a scoop. “I got job interviews in places, and I’d get there and sit down, and they’d say, ‘Hey, do you mind if we turn the camera on?’” McLemore remembers. “And then they’d start: ‘So, did you tip them off?’”
Life Partners, the life insurance policy purchasing firm, was “about the only place that I could get a job,” McLemore says. He attempted to get damages for his tarnished reputation by suing Fair, the Chronicle, and other news organizations for defamation, but he eventually lost the case when the Texas Supreme Court ruled that he was a “limited purpose public figure” and thus had to prove that the reporters and stations had displayed “actual malice” in filing what turned out to be inaccurate stories. Eventually, his marriage broke up, and he left Waco for the ConocoPhillips job in Houston.
Still, in comparison with the two KWTX cameramen who also were assigned to Mount Carmel that day, McLemore made out well. Mulloney died in 2001 at the age of 52, largely as the result of alcoholism. Peeler, who continued to work for KWTX, told the reporter Robert Bryce, “Have you ever seen the movie The Sixth Sense, where a man was completely dead but really didn’t know that he’s dead? Well, that’s me, ya know. My body, physically, doesn’t know that it’s dead, but my heart, my heart really knows that it’s over with. I ain’t ever gonna be the same again.”
Twenty-five years after the Branch Davidian siege, McLemore has more or less made peace with what happened. When Life Partners went public, McLemore got enough money to have a measure of financial security. (“That’s what paid for my daughter to go to Baylor.”) When the company’s CEO, Brian Pardo, became obsessed with proving the innocence of David Wayne Spence, a man sentenced to die for the 1982 stabbing deaths of three teenagers at Lake Waco, McLemore found himself working as an investigator once again. (My colleague Michael Hall reported on the Lake Waco murders in a 2014 story.) When McLemore got the ConocoPhillips job in 2001, he was making a higher salary than he ever would have in local TV news and, he says, he liked the perks of the job. The tarnishing of his name during the siege, McLemore says, may have looked like bad luck, “but in the long run it was good luck for me, I guess?”
McLemore sometimes thinks about going back to Waco. “I love the people there, I love the genuineness of it,” he told me, before rattling off a list of the city’s attractions and historical claims to fame—the Chisholm Trail, the Dr Pepper Museum—“there’s even a museum called the Red Man that has a painting by Adolf Hitler.” But McLemore knows that he’d be an unwelcome specter in the city. Around the world, the name “Waco” remains a shorthand for the Branch Davidian siege, a fact that residents of the city have long sought to combat. There’s no public memorial in the city to the Branch Davidian dead, and a common refrain among residents is that the tragedy actually happened in rural Elk, since Mount Carmel lay beyond the city limits. There’s little appetite to relitigate what happened or to restore anyone’s reputation. As former McLennan County sheriff Larry Lynch, who helped negotiate the cease-fire between the ATF and the Branch Davidians, told me recently, “the city fathers and mothers would like to have us remembered for Chip and Joanna [Gaines] instead of a biker shootout, or the Branch Davidian [siege].”
“I probably won’t be invited to very many house parties in Waco,” McLemore conceded. “I bring up bad memories. But I would not change one thing. I’m associated with these tragic events, but I was just a journalist pointing them out.” Even after decades out of the profession, he says,“That’s who I am, and what I do.”