What Really Happened at Waco

Posted in: Featured | By: | February 25, 2009

The Messiah?

The Messiah?

Friday, Feb. 28, 2009 will be the 16th anniversary of the onset of the conflict between the U.S. government and the Branch Davidians at Mt. Carmel – just east of Waco. I was a reporter on the scene for the standoff and knew well many of the people whose lives were changed by the tragedy. No single report has ever captured the facts of that day. After years of interviews, I believe that what follows here in two parts is true and accurate.

Part 1 – Out on the Prairie

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 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.”

“You did?”

“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 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.

“Fuck.”

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.”

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