Killing the Messenger
Who's Really to Blame for the Botched Raid in Waco?
By Robert Bryce, Joe Ellis, and Jim Moore, Fri., June 23, 2000
The blame game started just after the last body bag was zipped up. Four agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and six Branch Davidians were dead. The emergency room at Providence Hospital in Waco was awash in the blood of injured ATF agents. David Koresh, still holed up in his compound, was bleeding from gunshot wounds in his right wrist and left hip. The bloodiest and most controversial clash in American law-enforcement history had begun. A 51-day siege followed. It ended -- after assaults by federal tanks and repeated tear gassings -- with a fire that rapidly consumed the Davidians' wooden compound. Another 75 people died on April 19. The search to find culprits for both disasters got under way immediately.
The ATF certainly didn't want the blame for the February clash -- what should have been a normal execution of a search warrant. So it quickly found a scapegoat. The raid would have gone smoothly, the ATF said, had a TV cameraman not alerted the Davidians that the raid was imminent. In fact, the official report on the shootout by the U.S. Treasury Department found that the element of surprise was lost long before the heavily armed agents -- hidden in two cattle trailers -- headed up the long, muddy driveway to Mount Carmel.
The Davidians knew of the raid in advance because a Koresh associate and U.S. Mail carrier, David Jones, had run into Jim Peeler, a cameraman for Waco's KWTX-TV, on a rural road near Mount Carmel shortly before the raid. When Jones learned the cameraman was looking for the Davidian residence, he raced back to alert Koresh. As he arrived at the tan wooden structure that rainy Sunday morning, ATF agent Robert Rodriguez, working undercover within the compound, was inside the building talking with Koresh. A few minutes later, Rodriguez left and phoned his ATF superiors, advising them to call off the raid because Koresh had been alerted. Rodriguez's superiors ignored his warning. And so the bloodiest and most controversial event in American law enforcement history began a few minutes later, at 9:47am, February 28, 1993.
Those facts are clear. But one question has never been satisfactorily answered : How did the TV cameraman and the other members of the media on the scene know the raid was going to happen? The Texas Rangers and the ATF have known the answer for over a year, and it is disturbing: Media and law enforcement officials say journalists were tipped off by Cal Luedke, a longtime member of McClennan County Sheriff's Office, who was part of the ATF's raid preparation and support team.
The review of the events leading to the shootout are particularly important now that the trial in the Davidians' $675 million wrongful death lawsuit against the federal government has gotten under way this week in Waco.
Luedke vehemently denies charges that he tipped off the media. But Dan Mulloney, the KWTX cameraman who shot the now-familiar video of ATF agents storming the Waco compound, says the station learned about the raid from Tommy Witherspoon, a reporter for the Waco Tribune-Herald with whom Mulloney had a long history of sharing sources and tips. And Witherspoon's source, Mulloney said, was Luedke. "Tommy told me it was Cal. No doubt about it," Mulloney said. "I knew if Tommy said something was true, it was. I could trust him 100%. And he told me that Cal had told him the raid had been moved up to Sunday."
Witherspoon denies telling Mulloney he got the information from Luedke. "I never told Mulloney who my source was," Witherspoon said last week. "Seven years later, I don't understand why this is a story."
Witherspoon also points out that Mulloney had another source who tipped him off about the ATF raid on Mount Carmel. Indeed, Mulloney has readily admitted that he confirmed the tip he got from Witherspoon with his girlfriend, who worked at American Medical Transport, the Waco ambulance company the ATF asked to be on alert on the morning of the raid.
Although Witherspoon has consistently refused to corroborate the source of his information, state and federal law enforcement officials involved in the investigation say they have evidence that Luedke leaked news about the raid to the media. Those same sources say that Luedke, the former head of the McLennan County Roadrunner Drug Task Force, has even confessed that he provided details on the raid to the media and that his confession was forwarded to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno's office in Washington for possible action. But Reno has apparently refused to do anything with the information on Luedke; he has never been indicted or charged by federal authorities. The AG's office has no comment on the matter.
Confronted outside his home in March, Luedke denied tipping the media. "I'm so goddam tired of that shit," he said, "I ain't gonna talk to you about that." He suggested that reporters working on the story were "just stirring the shit," and demanded that they leave him alone.
Luedke repeated his denials in a sworn deposition given on October 8, 1996, in a lawuit filed by an ATF agent in early April against KWTX, the Waco Tribune-Herald, and the American Medical Transport ambulance company. That lawsuit, which claimed that employees of the three companies were responsible for tipping off the Davidians about the ATF raid, was quickly joined by dozens of other ATF-ers. All three defendants denied wrongdoing. Their legal defense relied on the fact that the ATF stormed the compound even after they'd lost the element of surprise. Nevertheless, the case was eventually settled out of court, with the plaintiffs reportedly getting some $15 million. The money was divided among more than six dozen ATF agents and their survivors, and attorneys.
Despite Luedke's denial, sources confirm that he was interviewed by both the Texas Rangers and the ATF about the leak. Sources close to the Texas Rangers confirm that the inquiry into the leaks was led by Ranger David M. Maxwell and that it determined that Luedke was the leaker.
The failure to punish Luedke angers state and federal law officers who believe that someone should be held criminally liable for the fiasco at Mount Carmel. Indeed, although nine Davidians were sent to prison, not a single law enforcement officer has ever faced criminal charges for the events at Waco in 1993 -- though more allegations about government malfeasance will undoubtedly emerge over the next four weeks during the civil trial before U.S. District Judge Walter Smith Jr.
The 1996 lawsuit has had a major impact on the journalists who, along with their employer, KWTX, were implicated in tipping off the Davidians about the ATF raid. The two cameramen, Jim Peeler and Dan Mulloney, were left with nothing but damaged reputations and no chance to be heard in court. The pair have been forced to shoulder much of the blame for the ATF's fiasco in Waco. In many ways, the event has ruined them (see sidebar below).
The Perfect Scapegoats
It's clear by now that Koresh learned about the raid because Peeler happened to run into David Jones about an hour before the ATF drove onto Mount Carmel property. But Peeler, Mulloney, and the other members of the media were simply doing their jobs. They had no idea a gun battle would break out or even that their presence helped alert Koresh.
Nevertheless, Peeler, Mulloney, and the rest of the media provided the ATF with a perfect scapegoat: Everyone loves to hate the media. Indeed, the ATF's abuse of the media began even during the agency's bloody retreat from the compound. While Mulloney was walking away from the shootout on EE Ranch Road, several ATF agents became enraged that he was taping the event. A female officer snapped at Mulloney, "Get that camera out of here." Then a male agent came at him from the side and tried to pry the camera from Mulloney's hands. "What's the matter with you? Get the fuck out of here," he said, pushing Mulloney to the pavement. The photographer shielded the camera between his legs to prevent it from being damaged.
As Mulloney regains his balance, his footage shows the late McClennan County Sheriff Jack Harwell admonishing the cameraman, "You should have never been here in the first place. Get out of here." It was an ironic statement, as it appears Luedke, one of Harwell's own employees, was responsible for the media's presence.
The earliest news reports from Waco by the mainstream media show that the ATF wanted to blame the media. The day after the siege began, Kathy Fair, a reporter from the Houston Chronicle who appeared on Nightline with Ted Koppel, said that the ATF believed it had been "set up" by "at least one reporter." That would be KWTX's John McLemore, who was working with Mulloney. Fair (now Kathy Walt, who works in the paper's Austin bureau) was repeating information garnered from ATF agents. The accusation, says McLemore, "ruined my career. I couldn't even get a job interview after that."
Even as it blames the media, the government conveniently overlooked all of the other clues being provided to Koresh. Earlier that morning, ATF agents were assembling right next to busy I-35, wearing their marked uniforms and toting automatic weapons, while military helicopters warmed up nearby. Blaming Peeler and Mulloney also ignores the overarching truth that undercover agent Robert Rodriguez had told the planners that the element of surprise had been destroyed and the raid should not be executed. None of this mattered with the media there to take the blame.
Eyes Wide Shut
In his first public statements since the end of the civil trial, Peeler said that Jones appeared to be doing reconnaissance when they stopped their cars for a brief chat on Old Mexia Road, a few miles west of the Mount Carmel compound. His statements corroborate the findings of a 1993 Treasury Department report on the raid, which says that Jones had been doing counterintelligence on the ATF for several weeks. He had repeatedly asked to go inside the undercover house that ATF agents were renting near Mount Carmel, only to be refused by the agents. On another occasion, Jones refused entry to an ATF agent posing as a UPS delivery man who asked to use the bathroom inside the compound. Jones had pointed him to the outhouse.
During their brief conversation, Peeler told Jones that he was looking for Mount Carmel, and they briefly discussed the "Sinful Messiah" series on Koresh that had been running in the Tribune-Herald. While they were talking, both men heard the three National Guard helicopters that began warming up their engines at Texas State Technical College, a few miles to the west, over an hour before the raid began. The weather that morning was rainy and overcast, factors that helped carry the whine of the massive engines on the two OH-58 Kiowas and one UH-60 Blackhawk to the spot where Peeler and Jones were talking.
"He heard helicopters," said Peeler. "I heard helicopters." According to Peeler, the Davidian asked him, "Are there helicopters out here? Something's gonna happen out here today. There's too much traffic on the road." Shortly afterward, Jones left Peeler, saying he was heading home to "watch TV and see what will transpire." Jones sped back to the compound and alerted Koresh. He died in the fire that consumed Mount Carmel 51 days later.
And regardless of who tipped the media, the ATF has never satisfactorily answered questions about the overall security of the raid. According to Mulloney and Peeler, in the minutes before the raid began, neither of them were stopped by law enforcement officers. "There were no roadblocks when we got there," said Mulloney. "Anyone could have gone in there any time. There was lots of traffic on the road."
Although the ATF blamed them for tipping off the Davidians about the raid, Mulloney and Peeler have never been charged with any criminal violations -- and won't be.
Was There a Cover-Up?
But the standards are different for peace officers. According to federal statutes, a law enforcement officer who leaks news about a raid may be charged with disclosure of confidential information. And if Cal Luedke was indeed the source of the leak, he could be in even more trouble than that. It also appears he could be subject to prosecution for obstructing justice because his actions contributed to the gunfight at Mount Carmel. Moreover, he may have perjured himself when he was deposed in 1996 for the lawsuit brought against the media by the ATF agents. In his sworn statement, Luedke claimed he had never told anyone about the raid. He also denied ever being interviewed by the Texas Rangers or the ATF about the leak.
The Department of Justice's refusal to use the evidence provided by Maxwell has increased the amount of bad blood between the Rangers and the feds. Last year, James B. Francis Jr., chairman of the Texas Department of Public Safety, which oversees the Rangers, called the DOJ's stance on the Davidian matter "in effect, a cover-up. It is not intended to be, but in effect it is. It is a complete stonewall."
Representatives of the Davidians charge that the failure to prosecute or produce records on the Luedke investigation confirms their belief that the government is still hiding information. "It's like a lot of other things that have occurred in this operation," said Stanley Rentz, a Waco attorney who represented Graeme Craddock, a Davidian who was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison for his role in the shootout and siege. The ATF, said Rentz, wants to "contain the problem as much as they can. It was just a matter in which they wanted to cover up something, contain the flame."
Bill Johnston, the former assistant U.S. attorney in Waco, has confirmed that an investigation into the leak was conducted shortly after the standoff with the Davidians ended, though he refused to say whether the probe focused on Luedke. Finding the source of the leak was "the point of the inquiry," said Johnston, but he added that federal rules are such that news of the investigation "never got in the public arena." Johnston said there was "sincere interest at a certain level to do something, to make a decision and take some action." Nonetheless, he refused to provide any information about what legal actions should have been taken against whoever released the advance information about the raid.
The Investigation Continues
Last August, Johnston, who is now in private practice in Waco, sent a letter to Attorney General Reno warning her that some federal officials were not being forthright with her about Waco. "I have formed the belief that facts may have been kept from you -- and quite possibly are being kept from you even now, by components of the Department," he wrote. Although he stayed on the payroll for six months after he sent it, the letter put an end to Johnston's career with the federal government. But it also helped spark further inquiry into the entire Waco controversy and forced Reno to reopen the matter to determine exactly what federal agents did before and after the 51-day siege.
Johnston also played a crucial role in getting out new evidence by helping filmmaker Mike McNulty (who produced the award-winning documentary, Rules of Engagement) gain access to lockers in Austin that contained the charred evidence collected at Mount Carmel. The material showed that federal authorities had lied about the type and number of munitions used during the siege. The production of that evidence, and its analysis by the Texas Rangers, led Reno to last year reopen the investigation into Waco.
Although Johnston insists that he is limited in what he can say about the matter of the media leak, it's clear that he wants to see the truth brought into the open. "It's a story that I encourage you to do what ever you can on," he said.
Despite the evidence amassed against Luedke, federal officials are still refusing to answer any questions about the investigation. A spokesman for former U.S. Senator John Danforth, whom Reno asked to head the new Waco probe, refused to comment on the Luedke matter. The Texas Rangers have also declined requests to discuss Luedke or the issues around the leak. Several efforts to interview David Maxwell, the Ranger who interviewed Luedke, were referred to his commander in Austin, who refused comment. Mike Cox, a spokesman for the DPS, which oversees the Rangers, also refused to comment.
Every military strategist knows that maintaining the element of surprise is critical, particularly when resistance is expected. The ATF went ahead with the raid on Mount Carmel even though Robert Rodriguez had told his ATF commanders, Charles Sarabyn and Phil Chojnacki, that Koresh was waiting and weapons were likely to be drawn. Right before the raid, Sarabyn and Chojnacki told other ATF agents to hurry into their vehicles because Koresh knew they were coming. Yet the two commanders denied for weeks after the botched raid that Rodriguez had warned them.
The Treasury Department's own report on the raid contains unusually harsh words for the ATF commanders. "Sarabyn and Chojnacki lied to their superiors and investigators about what Rodriguez had reported," it says. The 200-page document also says the pair altered records after the raid, in order to mislead investigators. Treasury Dept. investigators said the officers' attempts to cover their tracks was "extremely troubling and reflects a lack of judgment."
It's Sarabyn and Chojnacki's willingness to, in the Treasury report's own words, lie about the events of Feb. 28 that infuriates Peeler and Mulloney. Peeler agrees that his actions helped alert the Davidians that the ATF was coming. But he was simply doing his job. The ATF didn't do theirs. "They ignored a standing order," says Peeler. "If they saw the media or thought they had lost the element of surprise, they were supposed to stop and regroup. So why are we blamed for them violating that standing order? The problem is, they don't want to admit they made a mistake."
Another version of this story was published on Salon.com. Robert Bryce can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.