Pair who sold guns to Koresh say the ATF has made life difficult

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 29, 2000
By Terry Ganey

Who They Are

Henry S. McMahon Jr. and Karen Kilpatrick sold 223 weapons to David Koresh, the Branch Davidian leader whose compound was consumed by flames in a government assault.

What Happened

Now, nearly seven years later, McMahon and

Kilpatrick say they still dream about the children who were among the 80 Davidians who perished with Koresh in flames and gunfire. Law enforcement agents have long memories too - of their six colleagues killed

during a previous raid, and the guns that fired the fatal shots. After the fire, agents recovered 61 weapons they say Koresh and his followers had illegally altered to make capable of automatic gunfire.

Their Complaints

McMahon and Kilpatrick were never charged with a crime. But they say the government has made their lives miserable through threats and intimidation. The botched raid on the Branch Davidians and its tragic consequences have made the gun dealers pariahs, they say. They are unable to hold jobs and survive on disability pay from the government.

The Outcome

Complaints to the Justice Department were rejected when the government found no evidence the pair had been mistreated. McMahon and Kilpatrick dropped a civil rights suit because they couldn't pay a lawyer. Now, they're hoping the investigation of special counsel John Danforth will help to bring them public exoneration - and perhaps some money.

Bonners Ferry, Idaho - When Karen Kilpatrick has nightmares, she sees faces of children dying in the fire that destroyed the Branch Davidians' complex near Waco, Texas in 1993.

Henry S. McMahon Jr. sometimes imagines their faces, too. And he often thinks about David Koresh, the Branch Davidians' leader who died along with about 80 of his followers.

Before the government's tragic siege at Waco, Kilpatrick sometimes changed the childrens' diapers during visits to the complex. McMahon, her companion and business partner, still has a Bible filled with handwritten margin notes taken during Koresh's religious talks. He sat through Koresh's marathon Bible studies for only one reason. "I was there to sell David a gun," McMahon said.

Kilpatrick and McMahon were the gun dealers who sold 223 weapons to Koresh and his followers in the months before the disasterous raid by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms nearly seven yers ago. That raid and the events that followed took lives, ruined careers and cost the public millions of dollars.

Kilpatrick and McMahon were ground up by the event, too. Now haunted by Waco, they say their lives were ruined by the treatment they received from ATF agents.

The two say the ATF irreparably damaged their reputation in the gun trade and terrorized them in the days immediately following the raid. Dogged by questions about their involvement with Koresh, they say they have been unable to hold steady jobs ever since. They live on Social Security disability payments in a small apartment in this Idaho panhandle town of 2,193, a 30-minute drive from the Canadian border.

ATF chief spokesman Jeff Roehm said their allegations have been investigated and discounted. "There was no finding that anyone behaved inappropriately and no agent was disciplined," Roehm said.

But government officials have never fully explained why Kilpatrick and McMahon were treated they way they were, and the government won't do so now. Roehm said federal law prohibited him from responding to specific allegations.

Now McMahon and Kilpatrick are pinning their hopes on John Danforth, the special counsel appointed by Attorney General Janet Reno to investigate the government's actions at Waco.

"I hope he can give me my life back," McMahon said. "I've lost everything." Kilpatrick and McMahon may be true victims of an unrestrained and overzealous government. But their gun sales may also have contributed to the crisis at Waco. Are they trying to cash in now with exaggerated claims of distress?

The answer is unclear, but one thing is certain: What happened at Waco has drastically changed their lives. Once successful gun dealers, Kilpatrick and McMahon now live in a two-bedroom, federally subsidized, $184-a-month apartment. Their prime concerns are basic: food, clothing and shelter.

McMahon, 37, has a head of curly dark brown hair. He speaks softly and says he doesn't like confrontations. Kilpatrick, 42, speaks with a twang that she picked up during her early life in Pensacola, Florida.

Their apartment is simply decorated and furnished for a quick exit. There is a picture on the wall of Hank Williams Jr., the country singer who patronized the Florida gun shop where McMahon once worked. Below their pint-sized television is a sign: "Is Your Church ATF Approved?"

They live like people on the run, able to move on a moment's notice. McMahon says he can pack up the air mattresses they sleep on and the boxes that serve as chests of drawers and be on the road in less than two hours. What is he afraid of?

"The feds, man," McMahon said.

"The deal is so good"

Always interested in firearms, McMahon got into the gun business full time after his discharge from the Air Force in 1987. He worked for Duke McCaa, owner of the Gulf Breeze Pistol Parlor in Gulf Breeze, a resort city on Florida's panhandle.

Guns brought McMahon and Kilpatrick together. In April 1988, Kilpatrick came into the shop. She was going through a difficult divorce, and looking for a handgun she thought she needed for protection. She and McMahon have been together ever since.

In 1990, they moved to Waco. Florida had imposed a three-day waiting period for gun purchases-an impediment to weekend sales. They thought business would be more lucrative in Texas, where there were more weekend gun shows that could be reached best from a central location like Waco.

They put down money on a three-bedroom home in nearby Hewitt and set up shop in the house. They did pretty well. At a good weekend gun show they might sell $32,000 worth of weapons. They would make about eight percent of the gross sales, about $2,500. They said their annual income was between $40,000 and $50,000.

One of their best customers was a man with two names-Vernon Howell, also known as David Koresh. McMahon remembers meeting Koresh in early 1991. Koresh lived at the Branch Davidians' Mount Carmel complex, 12 miles northeast of Waco. One of McMahon's business cards brought the two together.

McMahon said Koresh was a collector of cars, guitars and motorcycles. He said Koresh wanted to collect guns, too, because he thought they were going up in value. At that time, laws prohibiting the importation and manufacture of some assault and military rifles were driving up the prices. McMahon said he saw no evidence that Koresh was building an arsenal for a violent confrontation with the government.

In 1992, McMahon and Koresh arranged a gun deal together. McMahon supplied Koresh with the frames for AR-15s, the semi- automatic version of the military M-16 rifle. From other sources, Koresh bought barrels and other parts for the AR-15s, which Koresh and his followers then assembled.

McMahon said the plan called for selling the AR-15s at gun shows. For $400 in parts, a gun could be assembled and sold for $600. McMahon said the two planned to split the profits. According to ATF records, McMahon sold Koresh the frames for 104 AR-15s.

"I'm getting them cheap," McMahon said. "I'm going to do so well, I can't sleep at night, the deal is so good." Too good to be true, as it turned out.

The ATF visits

On July 30, 1992, two ATF agents, Jimmy Ray Skinner and Davy L. Aguilera, visited McMahon's business. Koresh had come under suspicion because of shipments of gun parts and explosives to the complex. McMahon was not under investigation at that time.

When the agents asked McMahon why Koresh was buying so many guns, McMahon replied that Koresh was an investor. McMahon said that while the agents were with him, he called Koresh on the telephone. Koresh invited the agents out to the complex to inspect what he had, but they turned down the offer, McMahon said.

The following month, the ATF informed McMahon that he would owe an eight percent excise tax on the guns he sold through the arrangement with Koresh. McMahon said that prompted him to cancel the deal. He said they had sold no more than seven weapons together.

Shortly after that, McMahon and Kilpatrick quit the gun business in Texas and returned to Florida. They resumed working for McCaa, the gun dealer in Gulf Breeze. McMahon said the competition in Texas was too intense. He said the move had nothing to do with the ATF's investigation.

McMahon and Kilpatrick put Koresh out of their minds - until Feb. 28, 1993. That Sunday they were driving to their home in Pensacola from a gun show in Jacksonville when they heard a radio report on the deadly ATF raid on the Branch Davidian complex. Six Branch Davidians and four agents were killed in the encounter.

Flight to Oregon

The day after the raid, McMahon and Kilpatrick called the ATF office in Pensacola and explained their relationship to Koresh. They said agents told them to avoid talking to either the media or the FBI. By that time, the FBI had taken over the siege of the complex. The press, tipped off about McMahon and Kilpatrick, besieged the couple's Pensacola home.

ATF agents placed the pair under protective custody and bought two plane tickets for McMahon and Kilpatrick to fly to Portland, Oregon. They lived in Salem, Oregon with McMahon's parents for 22 days.

The reason for the trip is unclear and the ATF has never explained it. McMahon and Kilpatrick had knowledge of Koresh's operations, but they never knew whether they were being treated as cooperating witnesses or suspects. McMahon now says he went along with the idea because he was scared. He said ATF agents told him the Branch Davidians might try to kill him and Kilpatrick.

Now, both say they regret going along with the agency's travel plans. "We should have gone public from the very get go," Kilpatrick says. McMahon believes the ATF wanted to hide him because his views differed from what the ATF was then saying about Koresh. McMahon doubted that Koresh had converted his guns into automatic weapons.

During a 1994 trial of surviving Branch Davidians, an FBI laboratory expert testified that 61 AR-15s recovered from the burned ruins of the complex had been illegally modified to fire fully automatically. Without a special permit, federal law prohibits possession of automatic weapons, which are more lethal because of the volume of gunfire they can produce.

McMahon also could have revealed that the ATF could have had a nonviolent inspection of the guns about eight months before the raid, when Koresh invited them to his compound. At the time that McMahon and Kilpatrick were placed in hiding in Oregon, the ATF was trying to cover up the agency's handling of the raid. Two raid commanders, Phillip Chojnacki and Chuck Sarabyn, tried to conceal the fact that ATF agents had lost the element of surprise and that the commanders went ahead with the raid. They denied being told that Koresh had been tipped off. The ATF's top management then lied to the public, saying the agency was unaware the element of surprise had been lost before the raid.

From Oregon, McMahon and Kilpatrick watched the siege unfold on television. While losing income from their jobs, they received no money for expenses. After three weeks, they called ATF agents in Pensacola and told them they were running out of money. An agent advised them to fly to Texas for a debriefing.

Brought to Waco on March 23, the pair was questioned separately for eight hours. They were not fed. McMahon said agents threatened him, screamed at him and told him he was marked for death. He said they told him he was going to be charged with manufacturing illegal weapons. Kilpatrick said that during her questioning session an agent pressed his body against hers, physically pinning her to a table.

These guys are supposed to be held to a higher degree of professionalism," McMahon said. "But they were acting like high school kids losing their tempers." He said the agents wanted them to implicate Koresh in illegal gun deal, but they refused.

On April 19, 1993, the FBI tried to force the Branch Davidians to surrender with a tear gas attack. When a fire consumed the complex about 80 people died, most from the fire and some from gunshot wounds.

Kilpatrick and McMahon returned to Pensacola, but there was no job waiting for them. McCaa, the owner of the Gulf Breeze Pistol Parlor, said his lawyer had advised him to no longer employ the pair.

I was scared," McCaa said. "I didn't want any repercussions from it. Why create an adverse relationship with the ATF?" McCaa said that while the ATF made some mistakes, he doesn't believe McMahon and Kilpatrick were mistreated. McCaa said that before the ATF had begun its investigation of Koresh, McCaa had advised McMahon to tell the ATF that Koresh was buying large numbers of weapons. (McMahon denies this happened.) "It's not that there was anything illegal, but it's just the sheer volume," McCaa said. "It's going to protect your tail with the ATF."

McCaa also said he could understand if ATF agents were hard on McMahon and Kilpatrick during their questioning. I'm sure these guys were angry," McCaa said. "They are supposed to be professional people, but some of their friends were killed. He was selling guns to the guy who ended up shooting their people.

"I don't know of any abuse that anyone did," McCaa said. "There may have been a squeeze factor to see if Henry had done anything illegal."

Living on credit cards

In the months following the siege, the ATF investigated McMahon's gun dealings. Neither he nor Kilpatrick was charged with any crime. Kilpatrick testified for the prosecution in 1994 when 11 Branch Davidians went on trial, charged with conspiring to murder federal agents. Four were acquitted and seven were convicted on lesser charges ranging from voluntary manslaughter to weapons violations.

Gun-rights groups seized on the government's treatment of McMahon and Kilpatrick. The National Rifle Association flew the couple to Virginia, where they were deposed by the group's lawyers. The NRA later paid Robert Montserrat, a Dallas lawyer, to represent McMahon if criminal charges were filed against him. Later, "Soldier of Fortune" magazine paid the couple's way to a convention in Las Vegas where they talked about the Waco case.

Unable to find work in Pensacola, they moved to Bonners Ferry, Idaho in the fall of 1993. Bonners Ferry is about 14 miles from Ruby Ridge, where three people died in 1992 in a confrontation between government agents and Randy Weaver over charges that Weaver had violated federal weapons laws. McMahon's father had retired to the area, and a friend of his gave the couple jobs in his newly opened restaurant. That lasted a few months until the restaurant went out of business.

They worked night security at a wilderness school for troubled youth until 1995, when McMahon testified about Waco before a House committee. After

that, McMahon said, co-workers at the school harassed him. He was demoted and quit, surviving for a while on credit cards and a monthly unemployment check of $728. McMahon went from 240 to 170 pounds. In 1996, he and Kilpatrick filed for bankruptcy, listing debts of $34,000.

One of their few assets was a claim filed against the government. In March 1995, McMahon and Kilpatrick they had filed a complaint against ATF seeking damages of $1.5 million. Roehm, the ATF spokesman, said the ATF office of inspection reviewed the complaint and found no evidence of wrongdoing by any ATF special agent.

In 1997, the Justice Department rejected the couple's civil rights complaint. Its report noted that ATF agents involved in the incident denied any abuse occurred. "There does not appear to be any corroborative eyewitness evidence supporting the allegations," the report said. "Given that there is no medical evidence of injury nor any corroborating eyewitness testimony this matter lacks prosecutive merit and should be closed."

McMahon and Kilpatrick also filed a civil suit against the ATF in federal court in Texas. The suit said the agency's actions caused the couple to suffer mental anguish, psychological and emotional distress and physical pain. It said the ATF had cost the couple employment as firearms dealers and had subjected the pair to false imprisonment.

The suit was dismissed, McMahon said, because he didn't have the $35,000 his lawyer needed to pursue it.

Kirk D. Lyons, the lawyer who filed the suit, said he took the suit as far as he could before it passing it along to another lawyer. The other lawyer tried to get the NRA to cover the legal fees but was turned down.

"They had a meritorious claim," Lyons said. "I wish we had the resources to carry it forward. It's not a Rodney King type case, but their rights were violated. They were frightened by the ATF and led on a merry chase around the country."

McMahon and Kilpatrick are receiving Social Security disability benefits that pay them an income that puts them near the poverty level of about $15,000 a year. The benefit payments are partly as a result of what happened at Waco.

A Social Security administrative law judge determined in 1997 that Kilpatrick's "anxiety-related disorder is traceable to her circumstantial involvement in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms assault on the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas." The findings on McMahon did not mention Waco directly, but referred to a 1996 psychological evaluation that said he could not deal with pressure or relate to coworkers.

"I have no problem getting a job or working," McMahon said. "After I've been there awhile people find out more of what I am. Once they find out about Waco, I'm branded. I shouldn't have to carry around this baggage to explain myself to people."

Some of the people hurt by Waco's events have gotten money. The undercover ATF agent who warned his superiors that Koresh knew the raid was coming has won $2.3 million from the government because of actions of ATF commanders. Dozens of other ATF agents shared in a reported $15 million settlement paid by television, newspaper and ambulance companies. They were accused of tipping off the Branch Davidians to the ATF raid. All denied wrongdoing, but settled the suit out of court.

Survivors of the Branch Davidians now have their own damage suit pending in federal court in Waco. They are seeking hundreds of millions of dollars. The trial is scheduled in May.

McMahon and Kilpatrick believe they are entitled to compensation, too. They hope Danforth's investigation will lead to findings in their favor. McMahon has talked to an investigator for Danforth about his claim and has sent him a package of information.

"We are due some compensation from the government. That's the bottom line," McMahon said. "They owe us."

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