‘It ruined my career, cost me my marriage’: John McLemore reflects on coverage of siege at Mt. Carmel

“My wife didn’t deserve any of this negativity,” McLemore told KWTX in emotional interview
Published: Apr. 20, 2023 at 11:46 AM CDT
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WACO, Texas (KWTX) - For journalists and reporters in Central Texas who covered all 51 days of the Branch Davidian stand-off near Elk three decades ago, sometimes, it seems like it tragically unfolded just yesterday. At other times, it seems like such a fuzzy memory we wonder if it really happened at all.

The standoff started on Feb. 28, 1993, when federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents tried to arrest sect leader David Koresh for stockpiling illegal weapons. Four agents and six Davidians were killed during the gunfight that day.

On April 19, 1993, FBI agents moved in to end the 51-day standoff with the religious sect at Mount Carmel near Elk in rural McLennan County, a siege that resulted in a blazing inferno that killed at least 80 people inside the complex, including about two dozen teens and children. Koresh was among the dead, according to federal authorities.

John McLemore was a young reporter working for KWTX at the time of the deadly siege at Mt. Carmel. He witnessed it all first hand.

John McLemore at the Branch Davidian Complex as ATF agents load wounded colleagues into a KWTX...
John McLemore at the Branch Davidian Complex as ATF agents load wounded colleagues into a KWTX news vehicle.(KWTX ARCHIVES)

The KWTX newsroom had received a tip that the raid was happening on Feb. 28 so he and photographer Dan Maloney met early that morning to make the 20 minute drive to the Davidian compound. We may have never known exactly what went down that day, if McLemore and Maloney hadn’t been there.

McLemore spends most of his days now on the Texas Coast, trying to catch a fish, or at least a beautiful sunset. Hardly a day goes by that he’s not haunted by February 28, 1993 or the 51 days that followed.

He has no idea who fired first, but it didn’t take long for the gunshots to ring out after following the ATF agents onto the property that morning.

“All hell breaks loose. We just heard massive amounts of gunfire,” McLemore said during an interview at his home in Galveston.

The KWTX news crew was caught in the crossfire between the agents and the Davidians, and the news vehicle they were riding in even suffered a couple of direct hits. McLemore, however, maintained enough composure to make sure the camera was rolling.

“I said, ‘Dan we have to shoot this.’ I was thinking this is a turning point for this country, and said to myself, ‘Don’t screw it up John. Don’t screw it up,’” McLemore recalled.

The young reporter knew he was risking his life to tell this story, and he couldn’t help but think of his wife at home. “My wife’s birthday was the next day. I kept thinking, am I ever going to see her again?” he remembers.

When the shooting stopped, it was McLemore who drove several injured ATF agents off the property in the news vehicle.

The decision left Maloney walking, with camera in hand, through a gauntlet of angry and injured ATF agents.

“Maloney got roughed up leaving the compound. We did everything we could to help them,” McLemore recalled.

The reporter spent the next 50 days covering the standoff, providing news coverage that should have launched his career.

“That ruined my career and cost me my marriage,” McLemore said.

KWTX Reporter John McLemore drove wounded ATF agents to safety during the shootout at Mt....
KWTX Reporter John McLemore drove wounded ATF agents to safety during the shootout at Mt. Carmel on Feb. 28, 1993.(KWTX ARCHIVES)

It all started to unravel when a newspaper reporter from Houston went on Nightline and told Ted Koppel and the nation that a source told her it was a TV reporter who tipped off the Davidians about the raid. McLemore was the only TV news reporter who was at the compound that day. We now know the Davidians were tipped off, inadvertently, and not by McLemore. To this day, some people still blame him for the ATF’s failure.

“My wife Shelli didn’t deserve any of this negativity. People would go to her work and say, ‘you know the blood of all those people is on your husband’s hands.’”

McLemore filed a lawsuit in a failed attempt to clear his name.

“We won on the first level. We won, unanimously, at the 10th Court of Appeals, but the Texas Supreme Court said that I was a limited public figure, and they were wrong. She was wrong, but I couldn’t collect damages.”

At that point, right or wrong didn’t matter. The damage had been done.

“I couldn’t get a job interview because everyone thought I had tipped them off,” McLemore remembers. He said this is a burden he will carry for a lifetime, along with those terrible memories from day 51.

“I’m doing a live shot and you, Gordon Collier, were on the set. You start telling me in my ear because my back is turned to it that it’s on fire. The building, there’s a blaze. I turned and looked and WOW! Hit me like a bolt of lightning. I didn’t expect that.”

We all know how the story ends. Only nine made it out of the fire. Koresh and 75 of his followers died. It’s a story that’s been told countless times. McLemore thinks the most recent Netflix documentary, “Waco: American Apocalypse,” told it the best.

“The Tiller Russel documentary was the best I’ve seen. I thought it was well told, leaving viewers knowing this is an important event in U.S. history, and we shouldn’t forget it.”

After his career in journalism came to an end, McLemore worked in public relations, and as a crisis communication manager for an oil company.

KWTX asked McLemore, if he could go back in time, and call in sick on February 28,1993, would he do it?

No, he said without hesitation. He would do it all over again, and do it exactly the same way.