But KWTX cameraman Jim Peeler told The Dallas Morning News that he did not know he was talking to a sect member when he briefly spoke to a man in a private car bearing U.S. Postal Service signs just before the raid and asked for directions to the Branch Davidians' rural compound.
"There's no denying there was a conversation between (the postman) and myself. I've been up front about it from the word go," he said.
Mr. Peeler said he thought nothing of the conversation and only realized its possible significance after Texas Rangers began questioning 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," Mr. Peeler said.
Four ATF agents died and 16 were wounded in a firefight that broke out as federal agents tried to serve search and arrest warrants on the Branch Davidians' heavily fortified compound. Federal investigators say the cult prepared an ambush for federal agents after Branch Davidian leader David Koresh received the tip.
After an ensuing 51-day standoff with federal officials, Mr.
Koresh and at least 85 followers died in an April 19 fire that consumed the group's rural compound.
The Rangers have refused to discuss findings of the two-month inquiry that determined how the cult learned of the raid. But law enforcement sources familiar with the leak investigation say it determined that the exchange between Mr. Peeler and the postman, David Jones, was the source of the tip.
The sources added that the investigation determined that Mr.
Peeler did not know who he was talking with when he spoke with Mr.
Jones and did not intentionally tip the sect to the impending raid.
The investigation, completed in late May, also disputed widely reported allegations that the sect may have begun preparing for the raid after receiving a telephone call, sources familiar with the inquiry said.
"There were no telephone calls," said a knowledgeable source who declined to be identified.
KWTX officials could not be reached for comment Friday. But they have repeatedly denied that any of their employees did anything wrong on the day of the Feb. 28 raid. One ATF agent wounded in the raid has filed suit charging that the station and the local newspaper, the Waco Tribune-Herald , were responsible for the tip to the cult.
Tribune-Herald editor Bob Lott said Friday that the lawsuit is groundless and that his employees who covered the raid did nothing wrong.
Mr. Peeler said he did not know what was about to happen when he was told by his supervisors to go to a rural area near the Branch Davidian compound on the Sunday morning of the raid.
"The information that I received was to go out there on the road and there would be a roadblock, that DPS (Texas Department of Public Safety troopers) would be out there," he said.
He said he was told that the story he was covering would involve the compound occupied by the Branch Davidians.
Mr. Peeler said he got lost while trying to find the road leading to the compound, which he had been ordered to approach alone along a back road while another KWTX news crew approached from a main farm-to-market road.
Mr. Peeler said he cannot discuss exactly what he said to Mr.
Jones, a postal service contract employee whose private car carried postal service markings for use on a rural postal delivery route.
Mr. Peeler said he learned from Texas Rangers after the raid that ATF agents saw him talking with Mr. Jones in the hour just before the bloody federal raid.
An ATF affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Waco states that Mr. Jones immediately drove to the compound to warn cult leader David Koresh that a raiding party from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was coming. Federal agents watching from a nearby undercover house saw Mr. Jones enter the compound, and an undercover agent inside the compound then saw Mr. Jones' father summon Mr. Koresh into another room with news that he had a telephone call, the affidavit states.
Mr. Koresh emerged warning his followers that the ATF and National Guard were on the way, and the undercover agent then left to warn raid commanders of what he had seen, according to the affidavit and ATF agents who participated in the raid.
ATF officials have been harshly criticized for not canceling the raid after learning what the undercover agent heard Mr. Koresh say.
A Treasury Department review of the agency's actions to be completed next month is expected to criticize the commanders for major judgment errors in deciding to go ahead with the raid.
Some ATF commanders and agents who participated in the raid have countered that they did not consider the undercover agent's information threatening enough to warrant calling off the action. That was because Mr. Koresh had frequently warned his followers that the ATF would one day try to storm the compound, and undercover agents in a nearby house saw no indication that the sect was arming itself.
The Treasury review also is expected to criticize senior ATF officials who went to Waco after the raid for misleading the public and officials in Washington with repeated statements that raid commanders did not know until after the operation failed that they had lost the element of surprise.
Immediately after the raid, ATF officials also said they believed that the cult was tipped to the raid in a Sunday morning telephone call. The Dallas Morning News and other newspapers reported that the Rangers assigned to look into the tip were investigating an allegation that newspaper employees made telephone calls to the compound on the morning of the ATF raid.
Mr. Lott said Friday that he was pleased but not surprised that the allegation was proved false.
"I knew this all along, and I knew what we had done," he said, adding that his staff cooperated with the investigation as much as possible without violating confidential source agreements.
"We knew what we had done. We had gone over carefully what occurred. I knew that sooner or later that this is what the outcome would be."
Dick DeGuerin, a Houston lawyer who represented Mr. Koresh and was allowed to enter the compound during the 51-day siege, said Mr. Koresh and others told him that the claim of a telephone call was simply a ruse to separate Mr. Koresh from the ATF undercover agent.
"David Jones had been out to get a paper. On the way back he was driving his car and saw someone that looked lost. He saw a newsman," Mr. DeGuerin said. "After being satisfied that David was a mailman, the newsman said, `well you better get out of here because there's a National Guard helicopter over at (Texas State Technical Institute), and they're going to have a big shootout with the religious nuts.'
"David Jones rushed back, went in and was trying to get David Koresh's attention. David (Koresh) was giving a Bible reading to the undercover agent, and everyone knew he was an undercover agent. So (David) Jones wanted to get David (Koresh) away to warn him, and he had someone tell him there was a long-distance telephone call that he needed to take," he said. "I told all this to the Texas Rangers, and they substantiated it."
Mr. Peeler said he regretted that some news reports have repeatedly blamed some of his KWTX colleagues who covered the raid for compromising it. The KWTX news crew shot gripping footage of the failed raid that was broadcast worldwide and was recently nominated for an Emmy Award.
The reporter on that news crew, John McLemore, has been described in media accounts as the inadvertent source of the tip to Mr. Jones.
"I feel sorry for John," Mr. Peeler said. "He's been the main guy that's been taking all the heat, and he didn't do anything but do his job."