World

OKLAHOMA: The reckoning

ANDREW PHILLIPS April 7 1997
World

OKLAHOMA: The reckoning

ANDREW PHILLIPS April 7 1997

OKLAHOMA: The reckoning

World

ANDREW PHILLIPS

There are few events that touch people so deeply that forever after they ask each other, where were you? Where were you when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, when John Lennon was shot? For the people of Oklahoma City, the question will always be: where were you at 9:02 on the morning of April 19, 1995?

Paul Heath knows exactly where he was when a truck packed with 2,200 kg of high explosive blew up and destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in the centre of town.

“Right there,” he says, pointing at a blurry photograph of the crumpled structure. The picture is mounted behind a chainlink fence that surrounds the bare plot of land where the Murrah building once stood. Oklahomans now refer to it simply as “the site,” and every day hundreds of people come to walk quietly along the fence and leave a token of remembrance—a plastic flower, a scribbled poem, a stuffed animal. Heath, a 60-year-old psychologist with the U.S. Veterans Administration who was in his office in the Murrah building at 9:02 a.m., recalls every detail: “I was on the fifth floor, right there, on the right side of the building. Just eight feet back from where the floor collapsed. I didn’t even get blown off my feet. Lucky? I suppose so.”

ON

ASSIGNMENT

IN OKLAHOMA CITY

Many others were not. The blast killed 168 people, making it the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in American history. Some 600 others were injured, and a gaping hole remains in the heart of the city. Half a dozen other buildings—the YMCA, a Methodist church, the office of the state water board— remain shattered. Parking lots with conspicuously fresh asphalt mark areas where other buildings, too damaged to save, were bulldozed. Even after two years, it is not easy to put the bombing out of one’s mind in Oklahoma City, and starting this week it will be next to impossible. As the trial of the chief suspect, 28-year-old Timothy McVeigh, opens in Denver, the survivors and those who still mourn husbands, wives, children and friends will relive the disaster. “There’s a great deal of anxiety—and for good reason,” says Robert Johnson, chairman of a city commission overseeing plans for a memorial to the victims.

Part of the anxiety comes from what will surely be the graphic nature of some early evidence—documenting the damage to the building and the injuries suffered by those inside. In the days before the trial, officials met privately with family members of some of those who died. After the bombing, the families were told that their loved ones were killed instantly. It was a well-meant lie. Some of those trapped in the building lingered for many hours, and offi-

cials had to tell their families the truth rather than let them hear it through news reports. “It has created a psychological nightmare,” says Gwen Allen, director of Project Heartland, which counsels survivors and families of victims. “Other families are worrying: are. they telling me the whole truth?”

On the face of it, the government’s case against McVeigh seems solid. Many details have become public in the past two years, and they seem to present strong evidence that the onetime soldier and longtime supporter of anti-government causes was at the centre ol the bombing. McVeigh and the man authorities say plotted with him, 41-year-old Terry Nichols, face 11 charges of conspiracy anc murder. McVeigh will be tried first; Nichols’s trial will follow immediately after—and prosecutors are seeking the death penally

Prosecutors ready formidable evidence against accused bomber Tim McVeigh

for both men. The government plans to present a trail of evidence showing that McVeigh rented the Ryder truck that carried the bomb in Junction City, Kan., on April 17, 1995, then drove it to Oklahoma City, parked it in front of the Murrah building, triggered the bomb and walked away.

The government’s physical evidence includes a receipt for 900 kg of ammonium nitrate, the type of fertilizer that was mixed with racing fuel to make the bomb. It was found at Terry Nichols’s home in Decker, Mich., and, say prosecutors, bears McVeigh’s fingerprints. Lab tests revealed traces of the explosive on McVeigh’s clothing, as well as a knife and earplugs found on him when he was arrested.

Phone records allegedly show that McVeigh made calls to fuel and chemical companies to inquire about buying materials that could be used to make a bomb, and to the garage that rented the Ryder truck.

All that evidence is circumstantial—but the prosecution intends to bolster it with testimony from a onetime army buddy of McVeigh named Michael Fortier. Fortier has cut a deal with the government He has been allowed to plead guilty to four lesser counts, including knowing about the conspiracy but not informing authorities. In return, he will tell the jury that he and McVeigh cased the Murrah building four months before the explosion, and that McVeigh used soup cans in Fortier’s house to demonstrate how he would stack barrels of explosive for maximum effect.

Finally, the government will try to document McVeigh’s alleged motive for the attack—his hatred for the U.S. federal government. He was a gun enthusiast who moved steadily to the right, eventually embracing the views of the extremist Patriot movement, which considers the federal government illegitimate and part of a plot to deprive Americans of their freedom. Like other extreme right-wingers, he was obsessed with the federal authorities’ assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Tex., on April 19,1993—two years to the day of the Murrah bombing. And inside McVeigh’s car when he was arrested, 90 minutes after the Oklahoma City blast, was an excerpt from The Turner Diaries, the 1978 novel by white supremacist leader William Pierce that describes a truck bomb attack on FBI headquarters in Washington. The parallels are striking: in The Turner Diaries, Aryan activist Earl Turner drives a truck loaded with 1800 kg of ammonium nitrate and fuel into a garage under the FBI building at 9:15 a.m.

Nonetheless, McVeigh has defiantly pleaded not guilty. In pretrial manoeuvring, his lawyer, Stephen Jones, has indicated the broad lines of his defence strategy. He will suggest that there were two Ryder trucks involved—and that the one that blew up was not the one McVeigh drove. He will seize on recent revelations about sloppy practices in the FBI’s crime laboratories to cast doubt on the prosecution’s physical evidence. And he will attack the credibility of Fortier, who has admitted using illegal drugs in the months before the bombing and has an obvious motive in diverting the blame.

Most importantly, Jones will assert that McVeigh could not have built and delivered the bomb alone—and will suggest that a much bigger, darker conspiracy may be involved. His investigators have looked for evidence that McVeigh is just a pawn in an extensive plot ranging as far away as the Middle East and as close as a mysterious religious compound called Elohim City in the hills of eastern Oklahoma, run by Canadian-born Robert Millar (page 34). And who, Jones will ask, is the mysterious John Doe No. 2 that the government sought in connection with the case for 19 months—until finally declaring in January that he was actually a former soldier named Todd Bunting who had nothing to do with the bombing? Jones seems to be taking a leaf from O. J. Simpson’s defence team: plant so many seeds of doubt about the government’s case that some jurors will have a reasonable

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doubt about McVeigh’s guilt—or at least about condemning him to death. “There are still so many questions out there,” Jones has said. “Who is the mastermind? Who financed it?”

Marsha Right’s kitchen table in a northwestern suburb of Oklahoma City groans under the weight of a computer, printer and piles of documents. For her and others whose lives were shattered by the bombing, the focus on McVeigh as the trial opens can be infuriating. Right’s 23-year-old daughter, Frankie Merrell, died in the Murrah building, and since then Right has campaigned for the rights of victims and survivors of the disaster. The pain of the past two years is etched on her face; she sucks on cigarettes and fields a stream of phone calls. “For the first six months, I grieved and I drank too much,” she says quietly. “I knew I had to do something cathartic or risk destroying my family.”

Right threw herself into the survivors’ cause. The group she leads,

Families and Survivors United, protested when Jones got the trial moved to Denver after successfully arguing that an impartial jury could not be found in Oklahoma.

Right’s group persuaded District Court Judge Richard Matsch to permit a closed-circuit TV feed that will allow survivors to watch the trial at special locations in Denver

and Oklahoma City (there will be no public television pictures). And Right lobbied Congress to amend the 1990 Victims Rights Act to allow victims to attend a trial even if they plan to testify when the jury later weighs what sentence to impose on a convicted person. Last week, after the measure passed both houses of Congress in just 11 days, Matsch ruled that survivors and families may indeed attend all phases of McVeigh’s trial. “We do so much for the accused, and so little for the victims,” says Right.

The families and survivors may be determined—but they are hardly united. About half those who survived the bombing are back at work; the rest have retired, taken disability leave, or quit. Some are so convinced that authorities are covering up important evidence that they are suing the federal government. Thirty-four victims are seeking $34 million each, claiming that government agencies, including the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Fire-arms, had enough warning about threats to federal buildings in Oklahoma City that they should have taken steps to prevent the attack. The lawsuits outraged other survivors, most of whom are federal employees.

One of the movers behind the court action is a 46-year-old accountant named Glenn Wilburn. His grandsons, three-year-old Chase and two-year-old Colton, were among the 15 children who died in the America’s Rids day care centre on the second floor of the Murrah building. Wilburn and his wife, Rathy, 43, have refused to accept the government’s “lone bomber” theory—in essence, that McVeigh acted on his own, with some help from Nichols. They have resolved to find the truth, by any means necessary. They have teamed up with an independent journalist, J. D. Cash, and interviewed dozens of witnesses who, they say, suggest that the bombing was much more complicated than the government is letting on.

Authorities dismiss the Wilburns as conspiracy mongers. But their grief for Chase and Colton, who lived with them and their divorced daughter, Edye Smith, is their shield and their sword; it makes them oblivious to criticism and propels them where more orthodox investigators fear to tread. Their sprawling ranch-style home in Oklahoma City is filled with Elvis memorabilia and home-made

tributes to the boys from friends and strangers: portraits, quilts, poems. Rathy Wilburn has preserved the boys’ bedroom as it was on the day they left, as usual, for the day care centre. Stuffed animals are piled on twin beds; the cupboards are full of clothes and toys; even candy wrappers the boys left on the floor are carefully preserved. She has told the story many times, but her voice still catches. “They could walk back in and it would be the same,” she says.

Glenn Wilburn says his inquiries have convinced him of two things: that the government knew that a bombing was planned, and that others besides McVeigh were involved. He says he has witnesses who say a bomb squad was at the Murrah building an hour before the Ryder truck blew up—suggesting that authorities had prior warning. (Government officials deny they were warned, or that a bomb squad was

present.) And, says Wilburn, witnesses have told him that five men were with McVeigh on the morning of April 19, 1995. He believes that the suspect the government first sought, then dismissed, was most likely a Philadelphia man named Michael Brescia, recently charged with involvement in a string of bank robberies planned by a white supremacist group called the Aryan Republican Army. Other inquiries have led Wilburn to conclude that the government may even have had an informant among the plotters, but failed to head off the bombing. ‘They screwed up, but they want to bury this thing,” he says. “I won’t let them bury it.”

Wilburn’s passion has led him to develop ties to far-right groups, which, for their own reasons, also believe that the Murrah bombing was part of a wider plot. He does not believe the conspiracy theories himself, but he says federal agencies have covered up their I mistakes before—and should noi 5 be allowed to do it again. The irony is that the more doubt he raises about the prosecution’s case in the McVeigh trial, the better it is foi the defendant. Both Wilburn and Jones, for example, have investi gated McVeigh’s ties to Elohirr City—where Brescia and othei Aryan activists spent time. Theii theory is that the compound is a focal point for members of the Pa triot movement who might have been involved in a plan to attack tin Murrah building.

McVeigh’s trial is expected to last well into the summer. But what ever the outcome, it is unlikely to put to rest all the questions. Feder al murder trials are rare in the United States, and Oklahomans wht follow the case closely worry that the appeals process may drag on fo many years. Colorado juries are also hesitant to pronounce the deat penalty—and nothing less than death for those found guilty will satis fy many in Oklahoma City. An Oklahoma state legislator, Charles Ke > has pledged to keep investigating what he calls the federal “coverup of the bombing. And a local prosecutor, Robert Macy, is already la’ ing plans to try McVeigh and Nichols on state charges after the fee eral courts have done with them. “I just hope there’s a resolution t this in my lifetime,” says gas station owner Bud Welch, whose 21 year-old daughter, Julie, was killed in the Murrah building. “Ther are lawyers who are going to retire on this case.” The one sure bet i that the case will drag on—and Oklahomans will face constant minders of where they were at 9:02 a.m. on April 19,1995. □