(Because I had worked closely with the TV station in Waco, sharing material on various stories, I knew the journalists involved in the recording of the ATF assault on the Branch Davidian siege. A mismanaged and unnecessary law enforcement effort confronted a narcissistic false messiah with an almost predictable outcome. I spent the entire 51-day standoff doing live TV reporting for my Houston station employer, and some work for CBS and CNN. But what I couldn't talk about was what I could not yet confirm, though I knew why this turned into a tragedy, and that the government would need a scapegoat. The true story is what follows here. - JM)
A gray, photocopied map with the tracings of yellow highlighter was on the passenger seat of the new Isuzu sport utility truck. Jim Peeler was trying to drive, read the map, and talk on his cell phone. The lowering sky and wet roads complicated his tasks. Frustrated, he touched a speed dial button on his cell phone.
"Dan, I can't find this place. Are you sure you know where it is?"
"You just need to find EE Ranch Road, Jim."
"That's what I've been trying to do for about an hour, Dan. This map ain't much of a help, either. And the weather sucks."
Waco television photographer Jim Peeler had been given only vague directions to his destination. His KWTX-TV colleague, Dan Mulloney, was taking the lead on the story. Mulloney's sources had told him to be near the location of a religious commune east of Waco, off of U.S Highway 6, EE Ranch Road, and the Old Mexia Road. Reporter John McLemore and Mulloney were to approach the site along the ranch road, which dropped south off of the state highway. To ensure the TV crews did not miss law officers as they arrived or departed the location called Mt. Carmel, Mulloney had asked Peeler to come up the two-lane from the south and be ready with his camera.
Out the window of his new truck, Peeler saw the buffalo grass lying flat with moisture and the winter fields in a lingering brown. A year earlier, February had shown a bloom of wildflowers; bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush in purples and red had spread across this same section of Texas black land prairie. Peeler wished for a bright day. He did not like the feel of this heavy air and its cold weight. Before he had loaded his camera gear into his truck that morning, Peeler had been disturbed by a lack of information about this assignment. Just the day before, on Saturday, the television photographer had confided to his wife and a close friend about his discomfort over the upcoming story. The weather had felt like an additional clue to a dread he had begun to sense.
"Have you ever felt darkness?" he asked. "Or just blackness. I honest to God felt that all weekend long and when I got up that morning. I told my wife about it, what I was feeling, and she told me not to go. But, you know, I had to. It's my job. I've got a family. And I thought I was just being silly, you know, superstitious. But I think it was what most people feel before lightning strikes them."
"Just don't go, James," Peeler's wife had urged.
All sinew and bone with narrow hips and overworked shoulders, Peeler had dressed for the weather, putting on a heavy pullover with the British Broadcasting Corporation's logo on the front, a tee shirt, and a windbreaker. The extra layers made him less agile in dealing with his bulky TV equipment. Behind the wheel of his truck, Peeler looked at the scattered ranch houses and mobile homes, trying to find the cutoff to the ranch road. Nothing promising or hopeful had yet occurred that morning.
Within a few hours of Peeler's wandering lost on the back roads outside of Waco, I, along with dozens of other journalists from across the planet, found ourselves racing to a remote location where federal agents surrounded a community headed by a religious zealot. We listened to daily lies, distortions, and calculated misinformation that we had no real way to contradict or question because of a lack of alternative sources. Fifty one days were to pass before the unimaginable conclusion. My friend Jim Peeler still blames himself for much of the tragedy.
Relentlessly hard working, talented, and likable, the Waco TV photographer Jim Peeler ought to have reached financial comfort and professional acclaim. Both had eluded him. A man with a soft voice and abundant thoughtfulness, Peeler was earning around $17,000 annually the year he stepped into the political and weapons crossfire of the Branch Davidian standoff. Individuals like Peeler, in any profession, were not expected to fail. Unfortunately, success in television journalism often requires deft political as well as reporting skills. Peeler did not possess that kind of personality.
The morning that Jim Peeler and two of his KWTX-TV colleagues approached Mt. Carmel they were certainly not oblivious to the potential dangers of their assignment. The Waco Herald-Tribune had begun publishing a series of stories about the people living in a commune referred to locally as Rodenville. Mark England and Darlene McCormick's articles had suggested the leader of the religious sect at Mt. Carmel was an evil zealot. According to the newspaper's sources, Vernon Howell, who referred to his followers as Branch Davidians, was being investigated for child sexual abuse, drug manufacturing, and illegal weapons possession.
Howell, soon to adopt the biblical name of David Koresh, had attracted dozens of adults and their children and convinced them to make their home in his wooden castle at the end of the world. Set upon a wind-scoured rise of bald land named Mt. Carmel, Koresh's believers lived behind clapboard walls on the edge of McLennan County, waiting for Armageddon, the final battle between good and evil predicted in the Book of Revelation. A few of them had grown impatient, however, and had left for California. They were some of the sources of information for the series of reports the Waco paper had entitled, “The Sinful Messiah.”
As disgusting a character as David Koresh was, there was nothing incontrovertible to prove that he was living outside the bounds of the US Constitution. Texas child care workers had investigated allegations of pedophilia several times and found nothing. The religious leader was also accused of having sex with the wives of male members of his congregation but that appeared to be at the consent of the married partners. Koresh, in fact, was guilty only of participating in American conservative endeavors: practicing his religion and acquiring weapons to protect his property and way of life.
Finally having the name of his destination, Jim Peeler tried to recall what he had heard about Rodenville. The name came from George Roden, the man who had founded a branch of some kind of church or religious sect. The newspaper's articles indicated that Koresh had taken control of Rodenville in a power struggle against Roden, which involved a gunfight. Rodenville was supposed to be a series of ramshackle houses built around a circle but Koresh had ordered the homes torn down and rebuilt into a single structure.
Lost and increasingly frustrated, Peeler resisted using the two-way radio. The team of TV reporters did not want to prematurely alert authorities to their presence. The 41 year old Peeler was struggling with his nascent unease, however, and he needed to hear another voice.
"I was distracted," Peeler explained. "I kept thinking about the day before. My best friend Woody Bland had come up from Marlin and we went over to the hardware store to look for something he wanted. On the way over there I told Woody I had an awful feeling about a big deal I had coming up the next day. And he said, 'Just don't do it. You gotta pay attention to that little voice, Jim. I know what that feels like. I had it once and I ignored it. And I ended up in a serious motorcycle accident.' I guess I should've listened to him and my wife."
A television photographer in Waco might be forgiven by his profession, if not his employers, for refusing to put himself at risk. An annual salary that left his family of four qualified for Food Stamps provided only modest motivation for accepting dangerous assignments. Jim Peeler was working a Sunday to earn precious overtime dollars from KWTX-TV. Although his wife had a staff position at a nursing home, Peeler took on jobs mowing lawns and taping weddings on weekends to support his two young daughters. In the newsroom, few of his colleagues had ever seen Peeler actually eat. Living on coffee, he rarely brought a lunch, never purchased even a drive-thru burger, and waited for whatever his wife prepared for the evening meal with his family. Either his income was too sparse to spend on food for himself or he was a nervous, hyperactive man who did not overly concern himself with nutrition.
Jim Peeler had been my friend for almost a decade the morning he scrambled down the back roads near Waco and searched for Mt. Carmel. As a correspondent for a Houston TV station, I had met Peeler at one of the many news stories we both covered in Central Texas. He consistently shared information, interviews, and videotape, and never cared who got credit for his work. Peeler's videotape and sources were invaluable to me and every other journalist who reported on the federal government's standoff with David Koresh and the Branch Davidians. The 51 days I spent at Mt. Carmel leading up to the final conflagration were all made easier by the assistance and friendship of Jim Peeler, Dan Mulloney, and John McLemore.
In the collegial community of Texas television photographers, Peeler was considered more craftsman than artist because he worked too hard at his daily assignments to devote himself to award-winning special reports. Nonetheless, a number of golden statuettes from the Dallas Press Club decorated his work cubicle. Small market television does not provide the time or resources for employees like Peeler to produce the types of eye-catching segments needed to advance careers. Jim Peeler's days were normally spent taping more than a half dozen different stories while a photographer in nearby Dallas might be given a dozen days to shoot one high-profile piece. Peeler's ambition and creativity were being consumed by pressures for functionality and job security.
He picked up the cell phone and called Dan Mulloney again, hoping for more detailed directions.
"Mulloney, I'm tellin' ya, I can't find this place. Help me out, will ya?"
"Well, you see anything goin' on? Any suspicious-looking vehicles, like unmarked cop cars or feds?"
"No, man. How do you know anything's gonna happen, anyway?"
"It's big and it's gonna come down this morning, Jim. I need you to get in place. You need to find EE Ranch Road and then call me."
Peeler continued looking for a roadblock Mulloney had insisted had already been established by the Texas Department of Public Safety. A small, white station wagon was in front of his truck. Presently, the car turned around and sped off. Peeler watched as the driver repeated looping back to the same spot in the road.
"Jim, go up there and see if you can see anything," Mulloney insisted.
"There ain't nothin', Dan. I told you that."
"No cops? No noise? No cars or anything?"
"Nope. Nothin'. Just this Waco Herald-Tribune car coming back and forth and throwing gravel when it spins around."
"How do you know it's theirs?"
"Trust me. I know."
"They don't have markings on their cars."
"It's them, Dan. I know their people as well as you do." Exasperated, Peeler repeated the question he had been asking all morning. "Are you sure this is gonna happen, Dan?"
The people who had informed Dan Mulloney that a cadre of federal law officers was going to arrest David Koresh were solid, dependable sources. Mulloney, known for having his own network of reliable informants, had cultivated the confidences of police, ambulance drivers, defense attorneys, dispatchers, bail bondsmen, and anyone connected to criminal activities around Waco. In this case, though, a radio operator for an emergency medical transport company, a woman with whom Mulloney was living, had been corroborating his information. He also told me that he had been tipped by one of the reporters from the Waco newspaper. Peeler's anxiety, however, prompted Mulloney to double check the info with his girlfriend. His call to the emergency hotline was automatically recorded and became a part of the body of evidence related to the Branch Davidian raid.
"I thought you said this was happening this morning for sure," Mulloney said. "We don't see a thing."
"It's happening," his girlfriend said. "They're already out there and they've asked for body bags to be brought with rescue."
The confirmation was passed on to Peeler, who had made his way around to Old Mexia Road and had pulled off on the shoulder to study his map. The window was down to let in some cool air when a Buick with faded paint stopped near the driver's side door. U.S. Mail carrier yellow lights were attached to the roof. The man behind the wheel of the Buick leaned over to speak with Peeler.
"Hey buddy. You lost? I've been watching you drive up and down this road out here."
"Yeah, matter of fact, I am," Peeler admitted to the stranger.
The two men got out of their vehicles and stood beneath a tree.
"It seems like there's a lot of traffic on this ole country road today." The observation sounded innocent to Jim Peeler. "What's goin' on?"
"Mister, you know where this place is they call Rodenville or Mt. Carmel?" Peeler had ignored the question put to him.
"Sure. See that big yellow building over there with the satellite dish on the roof? That's it."
"Yeah? That's it? How do you know?"
"I'm a mail carrier. I used to deliver mail to them."
"Yeah, and they are all crazy down there. They used to ask me into their house and all. I got along with them okay. But I don't do that road no more. I deliver in the China Springs area now. But something's goin' on out here. Something ain't right. Hey, is something gonna happen out here? You know anything?"
"Yeah. Could be. But I'm not really sure."
"You with Channel 10?" The man had finally taken note of one of the KWTX-TV markings on Jim Peeler's news truck.
"Yeah, I am."
"Oh yeah? Me and my wife, we live in a trailer house out on Beaver Lake Road and we watch Channel Ten all the time. I reckon we'll tune in tonight and see what's gonna happen."
The mail carrier's name was David Jones, a slender, six foot blade of a man wearing a brown and red plaid jacket that looked like a shirt. Peeler remembered Jones listening to everything he said with his arms folded across his chest. A baseball cap was on Jones' head and long, straggly blonde hair hung out from beneath its edges.
A distant fwop-fwop of helicopter blades interrupted their conversation. Jones kept talking as Peeler walked toward the nearby fence line and scanned the horizon to confirm what he suspected was the source of the sound.
"You hear those helicopters?" Peeler asked Jones.
"I don't hear nothin'. I just hear that dairy over there. Used to be a dairy made noises over in that direction. But I don't hear no helicopters."
Suddenly, the rotor slap got louder and Jones knew Peeler's assessment had been correct.
"What's helicopters doin' out here? Something's gonna happen. I know it. But them are Apaches and Chinooks. They damn sure don't belong on this side of I-35."
"How do you know so much about helicopters?"
"I was in the service. I used to be a helicopter mechanic. You learn the sound."
Peeler watched as the choppers passed low in the sky between him and the yellow building with the satellite dish on the roof. Jones followed him back to the car as Peeler ran to answer his chirping cell phone.
"Where are you?" Dan Mulloney's voice sounded desperate.
"I'm with a mailman," Peeler said.
Mulloney repeated to reporter John McLemore what Peeler had said and then spoke back into the phone.
Peeler did not know if David Jones had heard Mulloney's complaint on the other end of the line. Jones resumed talking about Rodenville and said he had read the morning paper about how David Koresh and his people were supposed to have guns inside their compound. Gunfire was sometimes heard at Mt. Carmel but Jones said he thought it was mostly shooting at jackrabbit and javelina. Subsequently, Jones got back into his car and pointed it in the direction of the big yellow building with the satellite dish. Peeler noticed the car's old paint was probably yellow or gold. Jones stopped beside the KWTX-TV truck as he completed turning around his car. Peeler was listening to his two-way radio.
"Hey man," Jones said. "I'm gonna go down there and see if I can tell if anything's happening."
By the time Peeler had turned his head to respond, the Buick was moving toward Rodenville. He phoned the television station to give the news director an update on the situation.
"Hey, a bunch of people been stoppin' to ask me what's goin' on out here," he told Rick Bradfield.
"Okay. If anyone else asks what we are doing, Jim, tell them we're doing a garbage dump story."
"Okay. I'll get back with you later, Rick."
Unexpectedly, three unmarked Texas Department of Public Safety cars roared past Peeler's parked truck. A dark blue Plymouth was leading them in the same direction that David Jones had earlier traveled. Peeler started his truck, dropped it into gear, and slipped in behind the speeding procession before he keyed his radio microphone and alerted Dan Mulloney.
"Hey, man. It looks like it's goin' down now."
The gloom that Jim Peeler had been feeling for the past day was becoming more of a physical presence as he raced to catch up with the lawmen. In the pre-dawn, the TV photographer had been on his knees, beside his own bed, praying for the feeling to pass. Morning prayers were a ritual he had performed without fail for thirty five years. The day federal agents surrounded Mt. Carmel, Peeler had asked God if his worries were only his imagination. He told himself that he would be back from his Sunday morning assignment in time to attend regular services with his family at their church in Marlin.
Peeler will never understand why his God led him to a chance meeting on a country road with a mailman named David Jones. He will always believe that the lives of the Branch Davidians were destroyed by the almost incomprehensible circumstances of that encounter and he has spent many years accepting blame for their deaths. Mail carrier David Jones was a Branch Davidian and close confidante of David Koresh and after talking with Jim Peeler he had hurried to Mt. Carmel to inform Koresh that law enforcement was approaching their compound.
"The night before I was lying on the floor watching TV with my little girl," Peeler said. "I can remember this like it was last night. She had her little head right here on my shoulder, just above my arm. And I told her, I said, 'Your daddy's got to go to work tomorrow but it doesn't feel good. I just don't know about it.' And you know what she said? Hell, I should've listened to my six year old, too. None of this would've ever happened."
"Don't go, daddy," she begged. "Please? Just don't go."
* * *
A break in the topographical surface of the land traverses Texas, north and south, from just outside of Fort Worth to the Hill country beyond the reaches of San Antonio's western suburbs. The Balcones Escarpment is a minor geographical separation of the rocky, unforgiving ground, which has left the sunset side eight hundred to a thousand feet elevated. Geographers argue that along this frontier is where the South ends and the West begins. The evidence is not easy to ignore. Westerly, trees begin to lose their stature in the heat and cholla cacti proliferate. The soil fades into unpromising sandy loam with rocks protruding above the surface and rainfall accumulations are modest. On the far side of the Edwards Plateau, along the Concho River Valley and west of the branches of the Llano River, the South surrenders to the ocotillo, huisache, mesquite, and varieties of cacti that populate the Chihuahuan Desert.
Looking eastward from the top of the escarpment, dark, hopeful soil spreads toward the Gulf of Mexico. Neat fields of corn and cotton are visible all the way to the horizon and rainfall is greater. The land is greener. In an airplane, the contrast is stark, sudden, and unsettling. No real connection exists between the two ecologies. These two worlds are intuitively disassociated while still being physically adjoined. The escarpment has become the only explanation for a number of strange people and occurrences around Waco, as if the lack of a geographical transition between the two topographies has had an effect on psychological development. The pecan bottoms along the Brazos River Valley and the black pasturelands of Central Texas seem to have produced a disproportionate share of tortured souls.
Before the Branch Davidian shootout, Waco was known for more than being the town where the Dr. Pepper soft drink was created. A seventeen-year-old black man, who was being tried for the murder of a farm woman, made the mistake of admitting the killing in open court. Jesse Washington was convicted of the slaying of Lucy Fryer in the 1916 trial. Although the law called for a life sentence, Washington was surrounded in the courtroom and dragged outside where a chain was slipped around his neck and he was dipped in hot coal oil. A crowd estimated at fifteen thousand watched as the uneducated farmhand choked slowly to death hanging from the branch of a post oak tree, his flailing legs speeding suffocation.
A photographer recorded the lynching of Jesse Washington and witnessed body parts being cut off and passed through the crowd for souvenirs. The mutilated carcass was placed in a burlap sack and dragged behind a car before the remains were then hung from a pole. The photos and written descriptions were distributed nationally and the rest of the U.S. began to refer to the mob justice as, "The Waco Horror." Of the 4742 lynchings known to have occurred on American soil between 1882 and 1968, Jesse Washington's actually had a sociological impact. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People employed the record of Washington's death as a tool to get the nation's first anti-lynching law passed by Congress in 1921.
Waco and vicinity are replete, however, with more modern examples of ruined individual minds. David Koresh was simply a prime time, internationally broadcast episode of the region's dark history. The other stories are as fundamentally frightening. Possibly the most unsettling is the tale of Kenneth McDuff, a man who tortured cats as a child, was convicted of multiple murders, and sent to prison. Raised in a crossroads rural town with a café, feed store, and a water tower, McDuff got out of prison as part of an early release program and then hurried back to killing. He left an unknown number of victims buried in unknown locations. McDuff was finally run to ground by U.S. Marshals Parnell and Mike McNamara and executed by the state of Texas.
George "Jo Jo" Hennard's heinous act was a single incident of astonishing violence. Whatever was screaming at Hennard's consciousness on a sunny afternoon south of Waco, it caused him to point his pickup at the front wall of a Luby's cafeteria. He accelerated into the glass and his truck came to a stop inside the dining room. Hennard stepped out of the cab of his truck and walked around the shattered cafeteria systematically executing the mostly elderly diners by pointing his handgun at the back of their heads and pulling the trigger. Twenty three people lay dead before Hennard decided he was finished. The horror concluded when he put the gun to his own head and fired.
No one in Waco had any reason to be contemplating the past in February of 1993. Wildflowers and warm days were close and the city was about to entertain a convention of travel professionals. There were significant clues, however, danger was afoot in Waco. The Chamber of Commerce had scheduled the tourism convention for the weekend of February 27 - 28 and had booked every hotel room in the city for travel industry writers and executives. The U.S. federal government offered no explanation when it ordered the rooms turned over to agents of various unspecified operations. The travel professionals moved to the closest hotels in Hillsborough and Temple. At the Waco Convention Center, which is part of the Hilton Hotel complex, men wearing nylon jackets bearing "ATF" stitching were walking the hallways with travel conventioneers. The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms had also booked a room at the convention center for a 4:00 p.m. Sunday news conference.
Federal agents had done nothing to disguise their identity over the course of several days in Waco. The Waco Herald-Tribune's reports on the Branch Davidians ought to have been motivation for them to take off their marked jackets and badges. Instead, they talked openly about why they were in town. At a downtown bar, agents had brashly drawn an outline of the Mt. Carmel compound on a napkin and carelessly left it to be recovered by a waitress. KWTX-TV's Rick Bradfield is still in possession of the haunting sketch. Possibly more astonishing was the appearance of agents at the city's charity ball a week before the Mt. Carmel raid. KWTX-TV General Manager Ray Deaver told investigators that he had seen BATF officers walking around the ballroom wearing the government insignia.
A hundred miles north on Interstate 35, the Dallas regional office of the BATF had been busy making cryptic phone calls to journalists telling them about an impending event near Waco. Public Information Officer Linda Wheeler had contacted television news departments in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex to inform them of potential "good visuals" associated with the execution of a search warrant. One day prior to the Mt. Carmel incident, Don Marion, news director of the Waco ABC-TV affiliate, was asked by a Dallas television station if he was planning to have cameras at the location when the warrant was served.
"Absolutely not," Marion answered. "Of course, we had no idea what might happen."
The conscientiously ignored truth about what was unfolding outside Waco is that the entire community had been inadvertently placed on alert. Prisoners in the county lockup had information about the BATF's plan. A jailer told KWTX-TV photographer Dan Mulloney he had heard an inmate talking about the raid two days before it had happened. Ambulance drivers, local police and fire departments, and rescue teams had all been placed on twenty four hour call. A two part, front page newspaper series, commandeered hotel rooms, media tips from government offices, and law enforcement warnings meant that, if the Branch Davidians did not know the BATF was coming, they were the only souls in a five county region who did not. Photographer Jim Peeler's chance conversation with mailman David Jones was only one more piece of information; not the sole cause of the tragedy.
Photographer Dan Mulloney told me several years later that he had gotten his advance information on the raid from Tommy Witherspoon, a reporter for the Waco paper. Mulloney and Witherspoon had become friends through their mutual interest in the courthouse and police beats. According to Jim Peeler, Mulloney had also informed him that the tip came from Witherspoon. The newspaper reporter has refused to speak to anyone about his sources on the Branch Davidian tragedy. Mulloney confirmed Witherspoon's information by checking with his law enforcement contacts and then encouraged Peeler to help him cover the story. He did not, however, provide Peeler with details.
Dan Mulloney had a thick silver beard, long gray hair and a gruffness that did not offer comfort to people sitting for interviews in front of his camera. Generally, television news photographers with Mulloney's experience have moved on to larger markets and more lucrative paychecks and his failure to make that transition gave him some resentment. He was, nonetheless, a very capable photographer and an even better newsman. Uninterested in artsy features, Mulloney released his energy and talent by covering hard news, breaking crime, and disaster stories.
By 7:20 a.m. on February 28th, Mulloney had already been in his first minor dispute of the day. Reporter John McLemore, who had been called in to write the story of the impending arrests, had demanded that he ride to the site with Jim Peeler because he wanted to enjoy Peeler's new truck instead of Mulloney's overworked old Ford Bronco. The aggressive and confident McLemore had often irritated Mulloney with his comments and field directions on how he wanted a particular story to be taped. This morning Mulloney was not listening to McLemore's insistence on riding with Peeler.
"I'm going to be on the front side, John," Mulloney explained. "If anything happens, that's where it will happen and that's where the reporter needs to be.
McLemore dropped his arguments about riding in the other truck and as he and Mulloney traveled down U.S. Highway 6, the photographer began to fill in some of the blanks for his colleague.
"You read the paper, right, John?"
"Yeah, I've got the basics."
"It's pretty unbelievable, actually, but the feds managed to get that story killed twice before it was published. They went in there and told the editors they couldn't publish. Said it would cause a big legal problem. They were threatening and all. Said they had been working on an investigation of Vernon Howell or David Koresh or whoever in the hell he is for about a year and publishing the story would blow their chances at arresting him. Such bullshit, man. I guess the paper's editors finally got some balls and said they were tired of waiting on the feds."
If any law enforcement official had wanted a simple, risk-free method for arresting Koresh, almost any co-ed at Baylor University might have suggested a plan. Koresh was a regular at the Chelsea Street Pub, a popular hangout for Baylor students. He also patronized the same grocery store each week and jogged almost daily at a scheduled time on the Baylor running track. A great portion of Koresh's day was also spent refurbishing automobiles in a small garage near U.S. Highway 6, an aluminum walled structure referred to as the Mag Bag. Koresh was often curled over the fender of an old muscle car, his head peering under the hood as he worked alone.
Unaware of the Mag Bag, Mulloney's Bronco passed it on the left as he and McLemore turned south along the ranch road. Phone calls kept coming from an agitated Jim Peeler. Peeler and Mulloney were best friends but Peeler's calm and unflappable demeanor often irritated the unsettled Mulloney. Peeler, however, had always proved reliable, both professionally and personally.
In a low spot, Mulloney positioned his car where he and McLemore had a view of the road leading to Mt. Carmel. No law officers would be able to pass without being observed by the photographer and reporter. They got out and stood by the road. A Waco Herald-Herald Tribune vehicle had also stopped at a location that afforded an expansive view of the rise of land topped by the yellow compound. Mulloney assumed the reporters who had written the special series on the Branch Davidians were inside the station wagon with a photographer. Phone calls from Peeler had ceased after he got directions from mailman David Jones and McLemore and Mulloney waited for federal agents to approach and arrest David Koresh.
The cell in Mulloney's car squeaked again and he knew it was Peeler. "Hey, a bunch of marked cars with feds in 'em just passed me. Looks like this thing is finally goin' down."
Mulloney told McLemore what Peeler had just said and instantly caught sight of a flatbed cattle trailer being pulled behind a truck. A tarpaulin covered the bed of the trailer and it flapped in the wind, undulating up and down as if some large live beast were struggling beneath for release. In a rear corner of the trailer, two men in blue garb with bulky chest armor raised the cover and revealed themselves to Mulloney and McLemore. They smiled and offered a friendly wave, leaving the two journalists with the impression there was no cause for concern. Clearly, the presence of reporters was not a surprise to the BATF agents. They wanted a public record of this moment when the BATF expected to cover itself in law enforcement glory.
Mulloney jumped into the passenger's seat with his camera and quickly powered up the Sony. McLemore accelerated the truck and caught up with the trailer loaded with armed federal agents. As the caravan rolled onto Branch Davidian property, the lawmen began to release the stays of the tarpaulin and prepared to hit the ground running. Dan Mulloney and John McLemore were still expecting to be back at the television station's newsroom within an hour.
Unmarked autos stopped in front of Jim Peeler. Drivers and passengers jumped out, popped open trunks, and began putting on bulletproof armor. Peeler turned on his camera and taped the men checking their weapon loads. Two young agents left the car's doors open and turned up the volume on a two-way radio. One of the agents realized Peeler was taping and pointed to the gravel shoulder of the road, ordering the photographer to keep a measured distance. Peeler still heard the radio transmissions and was able to record them with his camera. A rancher drove up to the roadblock established by the BATF agents and Peeler heard the man say he needed to go up the road to get to his house. The man was informed the road was closed but was expected to be open in about thirty minutes.
The loud aerodynamic noise of rotating helicopter blades caused Peeler and the officers to look up as the choppers moved into view.
"There were three of them," Peeler remembered. "I don't know anything about helicopters but there were two big ones and one small one. I know that much because I taped them. And I heard them over the radios in the ATF cars and I recorded those transmissions, too."
Situated about a half mile from the tower of the Davidian compound, the roadblock where Jim Peeler and the federal agents were located had an unobstructed view of the helicopters as they dipped in closer to the structure.
"Tell the trailers to move up. Tell the trailers to move up. There are no weapons in the tower. There are no weapons in the tower."
The pilot's voice on the radio sounded easy and reasoned in Peeler's earpiece. Through his viewfinder, the choppers looked closer to the compound than they actually were because of the compression effect caused by the focal length of the lens.
Another report came back from one of the helicopter crews. The voice on the radio this time was frantic and worried.
"We are taking massive fire. We are taking massive fire."
Presently, Peeler's camera recorded smoke coming from the tail boom of one of the helicopters. Peeler tracked the ship downwards with his camera as the pilot prepared for a hard emergency landing.
A popping sound of automatic gunfire was suddenly being broadcast on one of the two-way radios. Astonished by the significance of what he was hearing, Peeler looked at the agents to see if they were reacting. One of them touched the gun in his hip holster and made a smirk of acknowledgement to another officer. Peeler unsuccessfully attempted to contact Dan Mulloney on his cell phone.
When gunfire finally made its deceptively harmless sounding pop-pop-pop on the radios, Peeler noticed a white Herald-Tribune wagon being halted by DPS officers and BATF agents. Darlene McCormick, one of the two reporters who wrote the series on the Branch Davidians, was lying in the back seat, face down, crying. She composed herself enough for Peeler to ask her a few questions.
"Darlene, what in the world is going on over there?"
"It's bad, Jim," she sobbed. "It's real bad."
"You see Mulloney and McLemore?"
"Yeah, they're all over there. They're pinned down. God, it's so awful, Jim. I don't know if Rod and Mark and Tommy have been shot. Jim, can I use your phone?"
"Sure. Can you reach Mulloney?"
"No, I already tried before my phone went dead. I need to try to call inside to speak with Koresh."
"I was supposed to have an interview with him this morning. But we had this tip that something was going to happen. I was afraid of going inside their compound. The ATF guys kept telling me Koresh might take me hostage and that he was some type of desperate character."
"Why'd he want you to come inside, Darlene?"
"He was pissed about our series. He said I could just come in and look around and talk to him about anything I wanted. That they had nothing to hide. But I'd gotten afraid. Those ATF guys had gotten to me. I don't know. God, this is just horrible."
McCormick handed back Peeler's phone after she had dialed the number inside the Branch Davidian compound. She had picked up a busy signal. Peeler returned to his camera as a dark blue GMC sport utility arrived at the roadblock. The driver was immediately recognized by the other officers. A brief conversation followed and the dark-haired man began to wail, banging on the roof of his car. Peeler was close enough with his camera to record the emotional outburst.
"God, why? Why? I told them not to come. I told them. Why did they do this? They knew we were coming. I called the commanders. I told them they were aware we were on our way. Why in the hell did they do this?"
The man cradled his face in his arms and sobbed. Jim Peeler did not learn until viewing the tape many days later that the man was Robert Rodriguez, an undercover agent who had been living with the Branch Davidians and providing investigators with information. Through the camera lens, though, Rodriguez was just another frightened witness on a Sunday morning when the air filled with the thunk and snap of discharging guns.
"Hurry. Hurry. Hurry. Let's go, John. Damnit. Dan Mulloney was loading tape into his camera as he urged reporter John McLemore to increase their speed.
"I'm hurrying, Dan."
The two were already hearing reports of gunfire as McLemore brought the Bronco to a stop near a bus, which was parked, improbably, in front of the Davidian's home. BATF agents had scattered across the open space between the bus and the compound. Several were advancing closer to the yellow walls. Mulloney ducked out the door of the Ford, dragging his camera and tripod, hunching low beneath the bullets zipping through the air.
McLemore tumbled out and tried to get a sense of what was happening. Moving over on the other end of the gray bus, he saw the blue-jacketed BATF agents pointing their automatic weapons at targets as indistinct as walls and windows. Splinters of wood blew off when bullets tore through the thin clapboard. One agent was already lying on the ground, motionless.
Near the front of the bus, Dan Mulloney had spread the legs of his tripod, snapped down his heavy camera onto the plate, and began recording. Mulloney would have been safer if he had hand held his camera and crawled under the bus. Instead, he had positioned himself just inside the field of fire and concentrated his lens on a spot where agents were bringing forward a ladder. He taped as BATF officers climbed up on the roof, clawed at window frames, punched out glass with the stock end of their weapons, reached in and began firing blindly. In one sequence later broadcast around the planet, a Branch Davidian behind the wall fired through a second floor dormer where an officer was positioned. The BATF agent watched the bullets explode the wooden slats on either side of him and then slid down the roof to his ladder. Wounded were staggering away from the building with their blue uniforms darkened by blood. Bullets pinged off the side of the bus where Mulloney was standing next to his camera. One tore into the doorframe of the Bronco.
McLemore got Mulloney's attention and pointed out action the photographer was unable to see through his viewfinder. The reporter was watching scenes he wanted captured and did not think Mulloney was recording enough of the standoff. Mulloney resisted and asked for more tape from the car. The gunfight had been going on long enough that the photographer was worried about his twenty minute cassette being expended. Unseen people fell behind the walls and bleeding government agents were screaming for help.
McLemore eventually worked his way back to the news truck and phoned in several descriptions of the battle. Station archives record him saying he and Mulloney were, "pinned down by a firefight," and weapons fire from within the compound. Mulloney moved his camera and taped McLemore hunkered down on the front seat below the level of the windshield as he spoke to the station. McLemore was in a position to see Waco Herald-Tribune reporters Tommy Witherspoon, David Sanderford, and Mark England, who were flattened out on the ground and exposed to harm. Bullets sent up puffs of dirt as they landed on their periphery.
"I could not believe how unorganized and chaotic everything was," Mulloney recalled. "It just seemed like nobody was in command and agents were running around everywhere, just shooting and shooting in the direction of the compound. A bunch of them were trying to get those big doors open at the front and another group was going up on the roof. Nobody looked like they were working with anybody else to get anything done. There just didn't seem to be any kind of a plan.
"Everybody was panicked, I can tell you that. Especially those guys who had been hit. They were screaming. I think one or two of them got hit in the gut just below their armor. You just could not tell what anyone was trying to do. No one other than the ATF and the Davidians knew what started all the shooting."
The BATF officers went ahead with their plan of attack even though they had been told by their own undercover agent, Robert Rodriguez, that the Davidians were ready and itching for a fight. David Koresh had been tipped by David Jones, the mailman who had met Peeler on the country road. The Davidians must have been blind if they did not pick up on many other developments in Waco that indicated this was to be an unusual Sunday morning. A parade of agents in their personal cars had stretched out over two miles up Interstate 35 as they drove up from their training grounds at Fort Hood. The team assembled at Bellmead Community Center where highway 84 and Loop 340 intersect. Even on a Sunday, there was passing auto traffic as the agents milled about the parking lot wearing their Kevlar suits and BATF insignia. The raid team on the cattle trailers also passed the Mag Bag where three Davidians had been hanging out and working on cars. In the fifteen minutes it took the BATF raid team to drive between the Mag Bag and Mt. Carmel, one of them could have easily phoned Koresh inside of the compound to offer a warning.
Gunfire stopped and Mulloney and McLemore saw the wounded BATF agents lying in front of the compound. A cease-fire had been negotiated over the telephone and injured were being evacuated. Mulloney changed tapes in his camera and slipped the first one down the front of his pants because he was worried that police or BATF officials might try to confiscate his recording. He walked over to his KWTX-TV news truck, which was one of only two vehicles capable of carrying the wounded. Three seriously injured agents were loaded into the Bronco, holding their open wounds as McLemore drove them back to meet the Lifeflight helicopter for transport to a hospital. BATF officers thanked Mulloney and McLemore and credited them with saving the lives of the agents. The two journalists had also assisted with communications. The BATF had asked them to call for medical help because radios being used by agents, absurdly, were not programmed to communicate with the command and control center.
Mulloney backed away from his truck with the camera rolling as McLemore eased his passengers across the gravel to the hardtop road. The photographer had chosen to walk out and look for the microwave relay truck that he expected KWTX to have parked close to the scene of the shootout. The tape Mulloney recorded during his exit, which was never nationally broadcast, is the most revealing documentary record of the standoff. Before reaching the ranch road, Mulloney taped five agents as they carried out the limp body of a fallen officer. The man's neck dripped blood in a trail across the ground. Mulloney turned around near the fence line and saw agents walking beside his news truck with one of their fellow officers draped across the hood. They were holding onto the man, offering encouragement as they tried to reach the medical evacuation point. All of the agents scowled at Mulloney and his camera.
"What the hell are you doing here?"
Mulloney spun to face the accusatory questioner, one of two sheriff's deputies.
"You don't belong here," the second deputy said.
The camera recorded a dull whacking thud and Mulloney crying out in pain. The camera was taping as Mulloney was attacked by the lawmen. Blows came from nightsticks and fists. Angry voices are heard on the videotape.
"Damn you. You're the cause of this happening." McLennan County Sheriff Jack Harwell was making the allegation. "You know better than this. Goddmanit. Who the hell do you think you are? You got no business here and you know it."
More blows landed on Mulloney from the lawmen. The camera's viewpoint jumped around and tipped as he was being hit. Mulloney moved off and made no attempt to defend himself because he did not want to be arrested and surrender his historic videotape of the shootout. Hands grabbed at his camera.
"Let go of my camera," Mulloney protested. "Leave me alone. This is mine."
Deputy Sheriff Coy Jones attempted to kick Mulloney's legs out from under him as the BATF agents and the sheriff reached for the camera. His retreat marked the last time there was any neutral observer near the Branch Davidian compound before it was consumed by fire.
"I don't know any other way to say this except the honest way and that's that they were all assholes. The ATF screwed up. They knew it and I had it on tape. I had pictures of their guys dying for no reason. I had pictures of them assaulting citizens who were exercising their right to practice religious freedom and to keep and bear arms. It was all there on tape. They just wanted us there, originally, so that we could videotape them playing cowboy, making Koresh out to be Satan and them being the great heroes to protect us all. That's obviously why they had their people call us from Dallas and tip us. What a bunch of bullshit. You know my job was never to take sides on this thing and I didn't. I just recorded it as it happened."
Mulloney had recorded the deadliest day in the history of U.S. law enforcement. Four BATF agents were dead, seventeen injured, and an untold number of Davidians were dying and bleeding inside of their flimsy compound. Eventually, the gun battle was also going to destroy Dan Mulloney.
On his way to the newsroom the next morning, Jim Peeler stopped at a Shell gas station to buy newspapers and see how the story was being reported. A woman working behind the counter was making breakfast tacos. She noticed Peeler's interest in the front page headlines.
"Looks like them religious fanatics got them some trouble, don't it?"
Peeler offered no response.
"Yeah, that mailman of theirs? He was in here just yesterday trying to convert all of us."
"Mailman?" Peeler asked, shaken.
"Yeah, he comes around here in that old, yellowish gold Buick he drives on his route."
Rolling up the Dallas Morning News and the Houston Chronicle as he walked, the TV photographer found a trashcan and tossed away the newspapers. He said he felt like he had taken one of the Branch Davidians' bullets in the gut.
"I know in my heart I wasn't responsible for what happened out there that day. But, you know, I don't think they would've been prepared if I hadn't run into that mailman. The whole surprise thing would've still been working for the ATF. I don't know. I've got to live with the guilt of what happened because a lot of people think I'm responsible for those lives, the agents and the Davidians."
There were many people who agreed with Peeler's critical self-assessment. On ABC-TV's Nightline a reporter from the Houston paper, Kathy Walt, who later become press secretary to Texas' Republican governor, went on the air and repeated information planted from BATF sources that claimed TV crews were hanging out of the trees when the cattle trailers arrived at the compound loaded with agents. Desperate for someone to blame for the epic failure, the federal government pointed investigators at Jim Peeler, Dan Mulloney, and John McLemore. The BATF turned the three KWTX-TV employees into suspects and accused them of tipping the Branch Davidians. They were innocent of doing anything other than acting with great courage to report on a story of profound national importance.
The unspoken cause of the assault was politics. President Clinton, who had recently taken office, had indicated he thought merging the FBI and BATF might save money and eliminate duplicated government services. The ATF was determined to save its bureaucracy, and when the Dallas regional office was contacted by Washington to see if there were any high profile projects unfolding, they were planning to use one to promote the agency. The timing was for the raid to be on a Saturday, national news on Sunday, cable TV interviews on Monday, and then a congressional hearing on Tuesday. Members of congress would find it hard to defund the ATF after the heroic raid of a cult compound that saved children.
Except that’s not what happened.
Jim Peeler still worked for almost the same salary at the same television station in Waco more than a decade later. He also kept the clothes he was wearing the morning of February 28, 1993 and they are crumpled in a box at his home in the Waco suburb of Hewitt. The BBC pullover, nylon windbreaker, and his jeans have never again been worn. Back in the corner there are also some colored drawings. His daughters, who were then attending a Christian school, had told other children of their father's work as a photojournalist at the shootout. The girls' teacher allowed the class to make colorings of how they thought things looked that morning at Mt. Carmel. Across the top of one of those drawings, Peeler saw a child's large block print. "You must be a hero."
"Not only was I not a hero, I was the opposite of a hero. I don't care what you say; it would have all been different if I hadn't talked to that mailman. Everything that happened that day was sad. I feel sorry for all of those people, the adults and the kids. But you know what? I got it, too; just in a different way.
"You ever see that movie? The Sixth Sense? I'm like that guy in that movie. He's dead but he just doesn't know it yet. That's me. I'm dead. My body's alive and everything, sure. But otherwise, I'm just as dead as they are."
As crushed as they were by being blamed for causing the tragedy, Peeler, Mulloney, and McLemore were diligent and productive during the 51 day standoff, often breaking stories the national journalists were compelled to chase. None of the three ever seemed to leave the narrow stretch of ranch road that had turned into a media compound.
I was working twenty hour days with Kirk Swann and Victor Cooper and was afraid to leave for food or even sleep. Finally realizing that a hot meal at a table might help me escape the daily death watch, Kirk and I ventured into Waco for lunch at a café along the Brazos River. As our food was being delivered, a television screen above the bar showed smoke rising from within the Branch Davidian compound. We raced back to the scene to report on the fatal fire. Peeler, McLemore, and Mulloney were still standing their watches, delivering the news, underpaid and unrelenting, as dozens of Koresh's believers and their children were consumed by the federal government's prairie fire as U.S. Army tank turrets penetrated the clapboard walls to shoot hot tear gas canisters inside the structure.
Dan Mulloney and John McLemore joined Peeler in becoming casualties of the fight between the Branch Davidians and the United States of America. McLemore, a talented young reporter, was never able to get hired at a major market station even though his work was consistently strong and he had performed ably during great danger. He left television, entered public relations work, and was deeply troubled by his memories of that day. McLemore's marriage failed and he left his wife and child in Waco and went to live in Houston. Eventually, he landed work in public relations.
Mulloney's decline was precipitous. Peeler was often called by his friend to bail him out of messes when Mulloney had been drinking. His videotape of the shootout never received any kind of national recognition and Mulloney left KWTX-TV to try freelancing. He made enough money to pay rent on a second floor walkup apartment on the edge of Waco, which is where his landlord found Mulloney's body when he died of natural causes at age 52. Mulloney's drinking, combined with Hepatitis C he had contracted during a blood transfusion, had destroyed his liver.
I drove to Waco for Mulloney's funeral. He had been a friend who had always been generous helping me produce my own stories. We saw each other frequently on various assignments around Texas. I sat next to Jim Peeler as Rick Bradfield, news director of KWTX-TV, eulogized his lost photographer. A handful of people were in the chapel of the funeral home. Peeler kept looking over at me, shaking his head in disbelief as if he feared the same premature end as a result of the things he carried with him from Mt. Carmel.
"You know, Dan's partly responsible for what happened to him," Peeler told me afterwards. "You can't fight stuff by getting' drunk. But man, he got screwed, too. He should have won every award there was to get for them pictures. But it's almost like he didn't exist. His own profession wouldn't even acknowledge him. It was like everybody in TV believed that Dan and John and me were the cause of it all. Well, we weren't."
U.S. Marshal Parnell McNamara, who had directed the early investigation of the shootout, stood near the door of the funeral home talking to friends after the service had concluded. He and his brother Mike had initially been suspected as possible sources of the leak about the raid to the Branch Davidians in spite of their impeccable record of nearly three decades in law enforcement. As I shook his hand and said hello, McNamara agreed with Peeler that Mulloney was just another fatality of the Branch Davidian and federal government shootout.
"Hell, we all died out there that day," McNamara said. "It's just taking some of us a little longer to get into our graves."