As soon as the promised “smoking gun” videotape arrived at the newspaper, the city editor and I made a few quick copies of the accompanying letter before taking off for my house to view the tape.
We could have watched the videotape on a Tribune-Herald VCR but my home equipment will make copies, which we thought would be needed.
Two days before I took a long-distance phone call from a man who said he was writing a book on the tragic Feb. 28 raid on the Branch Davidian compound 10 miles outside of Waco that left four Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearm agents and perhaps six cult members dead. The wounded included 16 ATF agents, an unknown number of Branch Davidians and their leader, Vernon Howell, who also called himself Lamb of God, Messiah, Jesus Christ and David Koresh.
The man said he had a videotape never seen on television that showed all the ATF agents were killed by friendly fire. He said he came by the tape practically by accident on March 2 while monitoring live Ku band satellite transmissions from Waco. It was an unedited video “refeed” of the Feb. 28 assault. It contained no voice-overs, only the sounds the camera picked up at the scene.
By this time — 6½ weeks into the 7-week siege — I had taken phone calls from God, survivalists, religious fundamentalists, conspiracy buffs, pro-gun disciples and all manner of garden variety out-patients. I was skeptical of this new evidence.
The man said he had a law enforcement background. He said the tape had been studied carefully by other men with military and law enforcement backgrounds. They all came to the same conclusion that one agent shot himself in the right leg while drawing a sidearm and that all the dead agents were killed by friendly fire.
Two people in a tree?
He also said the tape showed two people clearly visible in a tree in front of the compound during the 45-minute shootout. That was interesting because a Texas newspaper reporter had made a similar unsubstantiated allegation on a national television program shortly after the botched raid. The two people in a tree had been described as reporters. Since we knew that no Tribune-Herald reporters were either on the Branch Davidian property or up any trees during the raid, we had been curious about the report.
Could see for myself
I asked the man if the people up the tree had guns. He said they did not. That’s why he thought they may have been reporters. I asked him what they were wearing. He said it appeared to be green. Perhaps it was camouflage clothing. I asked if he’d send me a copy of the tape. He said he would. What the heck. I’d heard a lot of wild stories, but the man was going to send me a copy of the videotape. I could see for myself.
I told City Editor Brian Blansett about the conversation. He was in charge of the newspaper’s eight-month investigation into the Branch Davidians as well as our coverage of the raid and the subsequent government siege on the compound. It sounded far-fetched to him also. But if it is on tape, what the heck, it certainly would be worth seeing.
On the way to my house last Thursday with the just arrived videotape, Brian stopped at the seed store to buy some beans for his garden. He’s unflappable. The new breed of city editor.
At the house we plugged in the videotape while we flipped through the man’s letter to me along with a copy of his letter addressed to Sen. Phil Gramm, which laid out all his allegations.
After nearly two hours watching the tape, along with lots of replays, we hadn’t seen a darn thing to substantiate any of the allegations. Brian finally spotted the two reporters “actually sitting clearly visible in a tree in front of the compound.” They were green clumps of an evergreen tree seen through a leafless hardwood tree. What you see is not necessarily what you get, and vice versa.