Federal agents lost the element of surprise before their failed raid at Mount Carmel because of a chance meeting between a television photographer and a mail carrier, who was cult member David Jones, according to the U.S. Treasury Department’s review of the tragedy.

“The review investigated the various theories that attempted to explain how (David) Koresh was warned of the impending raid,” the report states. “The precise answer to how Koresh was alerted is now clear: KWTX cameraman Jim Peeler told David Jones that a raid was imminent, and Jones quickly passed that information to Koresh.”

The review acknowledged that there are conflicting reports about what Peeler, a news photographer for Channel 10 in Waco, told Jones about an hour before the Feb. 28 raid by 100 agents from The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

After the meeting, according to the report, Jones drove to the compound and warned Koresh, whose name was Vernon Howell before he changed it.

Peeler declined comment about the report Thursday, saying he had been instructed to do so by station officials.

Waco attorney Rick Bostwick, who represents KWTX, said the review team is speculating that the inadvertent meeting between Peeler and Jones led to the cult lying in wait on the agents.

He said the conversation between Peeler, who got lost while looking for the Branch Davidian compound, and Jones was not nearly as specific as has been reported by attorneys representing the cult leader.

“The postman asked, ‘Is something going to happen?’ and there was an ambiguous response like, ‘I don’t know. Maybe.’” Bostwick said. “And that was essentially the extent of the conversation or any discussion relating to anything. The postman drove up to him. It is a misconstruction, I think, and probably a significant one, that would indicate that Peeler solicited assistance. I think the opposite is true.

“Which leads you to question: What was Jones doing out there? Was he out on a scouting mission? Because there was some indication that Koresh knew who the undercover agent was and had known that for some time. So if you have a guy in your midst who you know to be undercover and you know you are being investigated, then it is not incredible at all that you have people periodically, particularly as paranoid as they seemed to be, scouting around,” he said.

Dick DeGuerin, a Houston attorney who had represented Howell, has said that Peeler, who thought that Jones was nothing more than a mailman, warned Jones away from the area because of the impending raid and possible danger.

While Peeler and the station have denied making such specific statements, the Treasury review said there is evidence to support it.

“In a statement to the Texas Rangers, Koresh’s attorney stated that in one of their visits to the compound during the standoff between the cult and the FBI, David Jones (now deceased) told them that Peeler warned him not to go near the compound as there were going to be ‘60 to 70 TABC (Texas Alcohol Beverage Commission) guys in helicopters and a shootout would occur,’ the report states.

“Peeler has denied giving this much detail to Jones. However, he has admitted that on the morning of the 28th, he believed that TABC was involved and had tuned his scanner to the TABC frequency. TABC was not involved in the action on the 28th and Peeler is the only witness interviewed by the review who believed that TABC was involved. Peeler’s admission lends credibility to the account provided by Koresh’s attorneys.”

But Bostwick wonders where Jones was before he saw Peeler and what he saw that could have alerted him to the impending raid.

“We can speculate all day about what all Jones saw and who he talked to or passed by or whatever,” Bostwick said. “He could have seen the helicopters or other media vehicles. To say Peeler was the absolute tip assumes the absence of any other data, which would mean that he would be operating in a vacuum. That is beyond credibility and not the facts. We don’t know what he knew.”

After Jones returned to the compound after talking with Peeler, the undercover agent left the center and told his superiors that Howell knew they were coming. The report says that Howell was yelling that “neither the ATF nor the National Guard will ever get me.”

The National Guard loaned three helicopters for use during the raid, but no media representatives covering the raid knew before that the National Guard would be involved.

Bostwick questions how Howell knew about the National Guard involvement if Peeler reportedly told Jones about the raiding agents.

“I don’t know where Jones deduced that the National Guard might be involved. I do not believe that it came from Peeler because Peeler didn’t know. He couldn’t tell Jones something he did not know,” Bostwick said.

Read the Tribune-Herald's 7-part investigative series on the inner workings of the Branch Davidians. Hours after Part 2 appeared in print, the ATF raided the group's compound.

Read the Tribune-Herald’s account of the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound on Feb. 28, 1993. Four ATF agents and six in the compound were killed in the gunfight.

Read the daily news accounts of the 51-day siege at the Branch Davidian compound near Elk, which began Feb. 28 and lasted until April.

April 19 and beyond: FBI agents began inserting canisters of tear gas into the Branch Davidian compound in the early morning hours. By noon, it was on fire.

Federal officials left the compound site in late May 1993. As identifications of bodies continued, questions about the survivors, the compound and the cult itself began to emerge.

As the world began to take a critical look back at the events and legal proceedings continue, the ATF's bombshell report forces a shakeup at the top after the raid gone "tragically wrong."

In 1994, the surviving Davidians went on trial in San Antonio. Over six weeks, more than 140 witnesses testified, with the verdict coming just two days prior to the anniversary of the ATF raid.

The Rodenville shootout and the 1988 trial, the end of the world in 1959 and more stories from deep in the Trib archives.