HOUSTON — A television cameraman has confirmed he had a chance conversation with a Branch Davidian shortly before four federal agents and six cult members were killed in a February gun battle with followers of Vernon Howell.
But an attorney representing the television station said Saturday that the discussion was not the decisive warning to Howell that Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents were about to raid his compound.
“I think people have got to get off this idea that there was this so-called tip or one single warning,” said attorney Rick Bostwick, who represents KWTX-TV in Waco. “Everybody is looking for the holy grail, but it ain’t there.”
KWTX cameraman Jim Peeler told The Dallas Morning News that he didn’t know he was talking to a sect member when a man in a private car bearing U.S. Postal Service signs pulled up and began a conversation shortly before the raid.
Peeler told The Morning News he had gotten lost and the cult member offered him directions to the compound. He said he didn’t realize the impact of the conversation until the Texas Rangers started interviewing journalists who witnessed the raid.
“They were asking us about different people, and I said, ‘I talked to the postman.’ They said, ‘The postman?’ and that’s where it started,” Peeler said.
ATF spokesman Jack Killorin in Washington, D.C, said Saturday that he would wait for federal investigations to conclude whether Peeler’s chance discussion with sect member David Jones, who also served as a contract postal worker, alerted Howell, also known as David Koresh.
Telephone calls by an ATF spokeswoman earlier in the weekend may have alerted media about the ensuing raid, but the ATF has disputed that.
Mike Cox, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, would not discuss the Texas Rangers’ investigation.
“We said last April we were looking into the possibility that Koresh was alerted. But we would not be able to comment on the investigation,” Cox said.
The ATF initially said four agents were killed and 16 were wounded during the Feb. 28 raid because Howell had been tipped without the agency’s knowledge, destroying the element of surprise.
But agents have since said they knew Howell had been alerted to the raid but went ahead anyway.
“There has been an element of confusion there and we will wait for the review before we discuss it further,” Killorin said.
The idea of a single tip alerting Howell to the raid began early in the standoff, when news reports circulated that a mysterious call was made to the compound the morning of Feb. 28. The focus then moved to a chance conversation Jones had with a media member outside the compound.
Peeler declined to talk about the contents of his discussion with Jones. But Houston attorney Jack Zimmermann, who represented Howell’s lieutenant Steve Schneider and was allowed to enter the compound during the 51-day siege, said the chance conversation was the cult members’ warning.
Jones was told by Peeler to take cover because 75 agents and helicopters were about to converge on the compound, said Zimmermann, who claims to have interviewed Jones about the matter. Jones then got the word to Howell.
Jones was one of 85 followers who died with Howell just before or during a blaze that erupted as the FBI stormed the compound April 19.
Zimmermann said the mysterious phone call was a ploy devised by Jones to get Howell away from an undercover ATF agent who had infiltrated the cult.
Once separated from the agent, the cult leader was told the message from Jones.
Bostwick said Peeler did nothing wrong.
“No matter how you look at it, Jim was not at fault,” Bostwick said. “He is talking to someone he assumes to be the postman, whom he certainly doesn’t know and doesn’t imagine to be associated with the compound.
“Even if you believe what the attorneys claim Jones said, Jim was being a good Samaritan.”
An ATF agent wounded in the raid has filed a lawsuit charging that the TV station and the local newspaper, the Waco Tribune-Herald, were responsible for tipping the cult.
“Our contention, is that the TV station and newspaper entered or interfered with the execution of the arrest warrants and were negligent in doing so,” said attorney Jim Dunnam, who represents the ATF agent.
Tribune-Herald editor Bob Lott said Saturday that the lawsuit is groundless and that his employees did nothing wrong.
Bostwick said reporters had a First Amendment right to be at the compound and do their jobs.
“Peeler was doing what he had a right to do and what he had a responsibility to do and he was doing it correctly,” he said.
Bostwick offered a number of events that could have alerted Howell to an impending raid, including the Davidians’ detection of the undercover agent who abruptly left the compound the morning of the raid.
“They (the Branch Davidians) made deductions based on assorted data, some of which we know about and some of which we may never know about,” Bostwick said.