"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
The blame game started just after the last body bag was zipped up. Four agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and six Branch Davidians were dead. Dozens of combatants were injured. David Koresh was bleeding from gunshot wounds in his right wrist and left hip. The emergency room at Providence Hospital in Waco was awash in the blood of the wounded.
The bloodiest and most controversial clash in American law-enforcement history had begun. A 51-day siege followed. It ended — after numerous assaults by federal tanks and repeated tear gassings — with a fire that rapidly consumed the Davidians’ wooden compound. Another 75 people died that April 19. The search to find culprits for both disasters got under way immediately.
The ATF certainly didn’t want the blame for the February clash — what should have been a normal execution of a search warrant. So it quickly found a scapegoat. The raid would have gone smoothly, the ATF insisted, if only a journalist hadn’t alerted the Davidians that the raid was imminent.
Cameraman Jim Peeler of Waco’s KWTX-TV had run into David Jones, a Davidian and U.S. Mail carrier, on a rural road near Mount Carmel shortly before the raid. When Jones learned the cameraman was looking for the Davidian residence, Jones raced back to alert Koresh. The bloody clash ensued.
Those facts are clear. But one question has never been publicly answered: How did the TV cameraman and other journalists on the scene know the raid was going to happen? The Texas Rangers and the ATF have known the answer for more than a year, and it is disturbing: Media and law-enforcement officials say journalists were tipped off by Cal Luedke, a long-time member of McClennan County Sheriff’s Office, who was assigned to support the ATF’s raid-preparation team.
Luedke vehemently denies the charge. But Dan Mulloney, a former cameraman at KWTX has told Salon News and the News of Texas that he learned about the raid from Tommy Witherspoon, a reporter for the Waco Tribune-Herald. “Tommy told me he got it from Cal Luedke,” said Mulloney. “Tommy told me it was Cal. No doubt about it.”
Witherspoon, however, insists he never provided that information to Mulloney. “I have never told anyone who my source was for that tip. The only person I ever told was one editor here at the paper. I deny ever telling Dan Mulloney anything.”
Although Witherspoon refuses to corroborate Mulloney’s claim, state and federal law enforcement officials involved in the investigation say they have evidence that Luedke was the source of the leaks. Those same sources say that Luedke, the former head of the McLennan County Roadrunner Drug Task Force, has even confessed that he provided details on the raid to the media, and that his confession was forwarded to the Department of Justice for possible action.
The revelation of Luedke’s role raises a number of questions. For instance, why haven’t the ATF and the Department of Justice told anyone that they have evidence Luedke was the source of the leak? In the years since the raid, Mulloney and Peeler have seen their reputations ruined. The pair were ensnared in a lawsuit brought against KWTX by ATF agents who blamed the media for injuries they suffered after Peeler inadvertently tipped off Koresh. And the two photographers have been forced to shoulder much of the blame for the ATF’s fiasco in Waco.
A source close to the investigation says Luedke confessed to federal authorities that he leaked information about the raid, and the transcript and details of his confession were forwarded to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno’s office in Washington. But Reno has apparently refused to do anything with the information on Luedke. By not resolving the Luedke matter, Reno has let suspicions linger about two federal marshals, Mike and Parnell McNamara, who were wrongly accused of informing journalists in advance of the raid.
Finally, the inside details about the botched raid raise other troubling questions about how the ATF handled the Waco standoff. When David Jones arrived at the Davidian compound that rainy Sunday morning with word of the impending raid, ATF agent Robert Rodriguez, working undercover within the compound, was inside the building talking with Koresh. Rodriguez then left and phoned his ATF superiors, advising them to call off the raid because Koresh had been alerted. But higher-ups ignored Rodriguez’s warning.
The 1993 report on the Davidian matter by the U.S. Treasury Department found that Koresh and other Branch Davidians were ready and waiting long before the heavily armed agents hidden in two cattle trailers left EE Ranch Road and drove onto the long muddy driveway at Mount Carmel. Why the ATF chose to proceed with the raid, after the warning by Rodriguez, has never been adequately explained.
For his part, Luedke continues to insist he had nothing to do with the leak. Confronted outside his home last month by a producer for the News of Texas, he refused to discuss the matter. “I’m so goddamned tired of that shit,” he said. “I ain’t gonna talk to you about that.” He suggested that reporters working on the story were “just stirring the shit” and demanded that they leave him alone.
When asked if he had lied about his role in tipping the media in his deposition, Luedke replied, “No, I sure didn’t.” Luedke also denied that agents from the ATF and Texas Rangers ever interviewed him about his role in tipping the media about the raid on Mount Carmel.
Despite Luedke’s assertions, sources confirm that he was interviewed by both the Texas Rangers and the ATF about the leak. Sources close to the Texas Rangers say the inquiry into the leaks, led by Ranger David M. Maxwell, determined that Luedke was indeed the leaker.
The failure to punish or even publicly identify Luedke angers law officers at the state and federal level, who believe that someone should be held liable for the fiasco at Mount Carmel. Indeed, although nine Davidians were sent to prison — five of them for 40 years — not a single law enforcement officer has ever faced criminal charges for the events at Waco that ended seven years ago Wednesday.
The Department of Justice’s refusal to use the evidence provided by Maxwell has increased the amount of bad blood between the Texas Rangers and the feds. Last year, James B. Francis Jr., the chairman of the Texas Department of Public Safety, which oversees the Rangers, said the Department of Justice’s stances on the Davidian matter were, “in effect, a cover-up. It is not intended to be, but in effect it is. It is a complete stonewall.”
Representatives of the Davidians say the failure to prosecute or produce records on the Luedke investigation confirms their belief that the government is still hiding information. “It’s like a lot of other things that have occurred in this operation,” says Stanley Rentz, a Waco attorney who represented Graeme Craddock, a Davidian who was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison for his role in the shootout and siege. Federal authorities, said Rentz, want to “contain the problem as much as they can. It was just a matter in which they wanted to cover up something, contain the flame.”
Jim Peeler and Dan Mulloney didn’t die at Mount Carmel. Nor were they physically injured. But the event has, in many ways, ruined them. It was clear early on that Koresh learned about the raid because Peeler happened to run into David Jones about an hour before the ATF drove onto Mount Carmel property. But Peeler, Mulloney and the other members of the media say they were simply doing their jobs, that they had no idea a gun battle would break out or that their presence helped alert Koresh.
Nevertheless, they provided the ATF with a perfect scapegoat: Everyone loves to hate the media. The lawsuits over the botched ATF raid started before the fire at Mount Carmel did. Early that April, an ATF agent filed a suit that was quickly joined by dozens of other ATF staffers against KWTX, the Waco Tribune-Herald and a Waco ambulance company, claiming that their employees were responsible for tipping off the Davidians about the ATF raid.
All three defendants denied wrongdoing. Their legal defense relied on the fact that the ATF stormed the compound, even after losing the element of surprise. But the case was eventually settled out of court, and the plaintiffs reportedly received $15 million, divided among more than six-dozen ATF agents and their families or survivors. Peeler and Mulloney were left with nothing but damaged reputations and no chance to be heard in court.
Left to fend for themselves in the court of public opinion, they have not fared well. Peeler, a man of slight construction with a television camera constantly balanced on the bony blade of his shoulder, still works at KWTX. Now 47, married with two daughters, Peeler supplements his meager salary by mowing lawns on weekends. Mulloney, who shot the now-famous video of the ATF assault on the Davidian compound, spends his time slicing lemons and limes and mixing drinks in a Waco tavern. John McLemore, the KWTX reporter who aired the first TV stories on the raid, has been unable to get a job in television. He works in public relations for a Waco insurance company that buys policies from dying AIDS patients.
Peeler says the accusation that he is to blame for the deaths of the ATF agents and the Davidians remains a specter that haunts him every day. “Have you ever seen the movie, ‘The Sixth Sense,’ where a man was completely dead but really didn’t know that he’s dead? Well that’s me, ya know,” said Peeler. “My body, physically, doesn’t know that its dead, but my heart, my heart really knows that it’s over with. I ain’t ever gonna be the same again.”
In his first public statements since the end of the civil trial, Peeler said that Jones appeared to be on reconnaissance when they stopped their cars for a brief chat on Old Mexia Road, a few miles west of the Mount Carmel compound. Jones had been doing counterintelligence on the ATF for several weeks, according to findings of the 1993 Treasury Department report. He had repeatedly asked to go inside the undercover house that ATF agents were renting near Mount Carmel, only to be refused by the agents. On another occasion, Jones refused entry to an ATF agent posing as a UPS delivery man who asked to use the bathroom inside the Davidian compound. Jones pointed him to the outhouse.
During their brief conversation, Peeler told Jones that he was looking for Mount Carmel, and they briefly discussed the series of articles on Koresh that had been running in the Waco Tribune-Herald. While they were talking, both men heard the three National Guard helicopters that were warming their engines at Texas State Technical College, a few miles to the west. The weather that morning was rainy and overcast, factors that helped carry the whine of the massive engines on the two OH-58 Kiowas and one UH-60 Blackhawk to the spot where Peeler and Jones were talking.
“He heard helicopters,” said Peeler. “I heard helicopters.” According to Peeler, the Davidian asked him “Are there helicopters out here? Something’s gonna happen out here today. There’s too much traffic on the road.” Shortly afterward, Jones left Peeler, saying he was heading home to “watch TV and see what will transpire.” Jones sped back to the compound and alerted Koresh. He died in the fire that consumed Mount Carmel 51 days later.
By blaming the media for the ATF’s botched operation, federal authorities deflected much of the criticism that should have been directed at them. The government conveniently overlooked all of the other clues being provided to Koresh. Earlier that morning, ATF agents were assembling right next to busy Interstate 35, wearing their marked uniforms and toting automatic weapons.
Additionally, helicopter flight logs from that morning show that engines began turning more than an hour before the assault. Choppers are rare in that area and their noise that morning could have easily been heard at the compound. There was also a question about the route taken by the cattle trailers. They passed a building known as “the Mag Bag,” where Davidian men hung out working on cars. Ten minutes from the compound by automobile, a simple phone call as the agents rode past would have given Koresh sufficient time to find his guns.
And even assuming that Peeler’s contact with Jones was the only way Koresh could have heard about the impending raid — an assumption that now seems wrong — scant effort has been put into learning how Peeler and other members of the media knew to be at the compound that morning. Dicky Grigg, an Austin-based attorney who represented one of the ATF agents, told Salon News and the News of Texas that he and the other plaintiffs’ lawyers had no reason to find out who the newsmen’s source was. “That turned out to be not that important to us since the way Koresh was tipped off was through Peeler,” Grigg said.
The earliest news reports from Waco show that the ATF got a fast start blaming the media — with the help of the media. Two days after the siege began, a reporter from the Houston Chronicle appeared on “Nightline” with Ted Koppel saying that the ATF believed it had been “set up” by “at least one reporter.” The Chronicle reporter, Kathy Fair, also told Koppel that the alleged “set up” had included “perhaps one local law enforcement official.”
Fair and the ATF agents may have been just guessing. But it appears that the ATF agents suspected early on that the leak about the raid had come from someone within the Waco Police Department or the McClennan County Sheriff’s Office.
Cal Luedke liked publicity. Just four days before the ATF raid on Mount Carmel, Luedke had taken Mulloney and McLemore on a drug raid in McGregor, a small town 20 miles southwest of Waco. According to Mulloney, Luedke, as head of the county’s drug task force, often invited reporters to tag along on drug busts.
His involvement in the county’s anti-drug efforts was probably the reason Luedke was asked to support the ATF’s raid on Mount Carmel. He and other members of the McClennan County Sheriff’s Office were supposed to serve a search warrant on the Mag Bag. Luedke’s presence may have also have helped the ATF make the case that Koresh and the Davidians were deep in the drug trade. For a time, the ATF case against Koresh and the other Davidians rested heavily on the notion that they possessed drugs and may have even had a methamphetamine lab inside Mount Carmel.
In a Dec. 16, 1992, letter to the state of Texas, the ATF said it needed the three helicopters because Koresh is “suspected of unlawfully being in possession of firearms and possibly narcotics.”
The ATF’s claim was specious, and the agency’s investigators knew it. Koresh was virulently anti-drug. Even after he was wounded in the Feb. 28 raid, the Davidian leader refused all medications, including aspirin. Before he came to Mount Carmel, some residents had been involved with drugs. But in 1988, when Koresh and his followers took control of the compound, he called Jack Harwell, the McClennan County Sheriff, and turned over evidence that some of the previous residents had possessed amphetamines. Later, the ATF purposely misused that information in order to get the use of the National Guard helicopters.
Luedke, now 68, has spent almost all of his adult life in law enforcement. He began wearing a badge in the late 1950s when he spent four years working as a trooper for the Texas Department of Public Safety. Low pay, he said, led him to quit the force and for the next 12 years, he worked for a finance company and then a brewery. In 1973, his old friend Jack Harwell, who had been elected sheriff, asked Luedke to come back to law enforcement. Luedke agreed and began working for Harwell in March of that year.
Two years later, he was assigned to the county’s drug task force. Over the next 25 years, Luedke was involved in dozens of busts, including everything from raids on crack houses in rural McClennan County to monitoring the surge in heroin trafficking along I-35 after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement. He retired from the sheriff’s office last November.
By all accounts, Luedke had a good career with the McClennan County Sheriff’s Office. According to personnel records provided by the county judge, Luedke had no disciplinary infractions during his years of public service.
In a sworn deposition given by Luedke on Oct. 8, 1996, in the ATF agents’ lawsuit against the Waco Tribune-Herald and KWTX, the deputy vehemently denied having any information about the raid on Mount Carmel before it happened. When asked if he had tipped Witherspoon about the raid on the compound, Luedke responded with a terse, “No sir.” He was then asked if he had been interviewed by the Texas Rangers. The answer was the same, “No sir.”
According to federal statutes, a law enforcement officer who leaks news about a raid may be charged with disclosure of confidential information.
Last August, Bill Johnston, then the assistant U.S. attorney in Waco, sent a letter to Reno warning her that some federal officials were not being forthright with her about the clash with the Branch Davidians. “I have formed the belief that facts may have been kept from you — and quite possibly are being kept from you even now, by components of the department,” he wrote.
Although he stayed on the payroll for six months after he sent it, the letter put an end to Johnston’s career with the federal government. It also helped spark further inquiry into the entire Waco controversy and helped convince Reno to reopen the matter to determine exactly what federal agents did before and after the 51-day siege.
Johnson confirmed that an investigation into the leak was conducted shortly after the standoff with the Davidians ended, but he refused to say whether the probe focused on Luedke. Finding the source of the leak was “the point of the inquiry,” said Johnston. But he added that federal rules are such that news of the investigation “never got in the public arena.”
Although Johnston insists that he is limited in what he can say about the matter of the media leak, it’s clear that he wants to see the truth brought into the open. “It’s a story that I encourage you to do what ever you can on,” he said.
Johnston played a crucial role in helping filmmaker Mike McNulty (who produced the award-winning documentary, “Waco: Rules of Engagement”) gain access to lockers in Austin that contained the charred evidence collected at Mount Carmel. The material showed that federal authorities had lied about the type and number of munitions used during the siege. The production of that evidence and its analysis by the Texas Rangers were additional factors that led Reno to reopen the investigation into Waco last year.
What most disturbs Johnston in the government’s silence about the source of the leak is that suspicion has been cast on Parnell McNamara and his brother, Mike, both of whom work for the U.S. Marshall’s Service in Waco. The two brothers, who are among the most famous lawmen in the Lone Star State, “had absolutely nothing to do with causing anything bad to happen in the Davidian raid,” said Johnston.
Despite the evidence amassed against Luedke, federal officials are still refusing to answer any questions about the investigation. A spokesman for former U.S. Sen. John Danforth, who was asked by Reno to head the new Waco probe, refused to comment on the Luedke matter.
The Texas Rangers have also declined requests to publicly discuss Luedke or the issues around the leak. Calls to David Maxwell, the Texas Ranger who interviewed Luedke, were referred to his commander in Austin. Mike Cox, a spokesman for the DPS, which oversees the Rangers, also refused to comment for the record.
Every military strategist knows that maintaining the element of surprise is critical, particularly when resistance is expected. That’s why so many questions have been raised about the agency’s decision to proceed with the raid even though Rodriguez had warned his commanders Koresh knew what was coming.
Indeed, right before the raid, ATF commanders Charles Sarabyn and Phil Chojnacki told other ATF agents to hurry into their vehicles because Koresh knew they were coming. But the two commanders denied for weeks after the botched raid that Rodriguez had warned them.
The Treasury report contains unusually harsh words for the ATF commanders. “Sarabyn and Chojnacki lied to their superiors and investigators about what Rodriguez had reported,” says the report. The 200-page document also says the commanders altered records after the raid, in order to mislead investigators. Treasury Department investigators said the officers’ attempts to cover their tracks is “extremely troubling and reflects a lack of judgment.”
Lies and lack of judgment were all too common in Waco seven years ago. And beginning June 19, when the Davidians’ civil lawsuit against the federal government goes to trial here, more deception may well come to light. But in the flurry of preparations for the trial, one bit of news has been overlooked: Cal Luedke was recently placed back on the sheriff department’s roster as a member of the active reserves for McLennan County.
Robert Bryce is the managing editor of Energy Tribune. His latest book is Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of "Energy Independence."More Robert Bryce.
Jim Moore is the Austin bureau chief at the News of Texas.More Jim Moore.
Joe Ellis is a producer at the News of Texas.More Joe Ellis.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)