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Terror on Trial: Life in Supermax's 'Bombers Row'

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Editor's Note: As part of CNN.com's new Crime section, we are archiving some of the most interesting content from CourtTVNews.com. This story was first published in 2001.

(Court TV) -- Like soldiers in a foxhole, the residents of Supermax's Unit D developed the kind of bonds that come when your days are no longer your own.

Perhaps they craved human contact as they lived out their time, confined in solitary cells 23 hours a day, in a federal penitentiary in Florence, Colo. They certainly had enough in common: Timothy McVeigh, Ted Kaczynski and Ramzi Ahmed Yousef all favored death and destruction by bombing.

Known inside the prison walls as "Bombers Row," it was here, on a wing for the most violent of criminals, that the notorious inmates formed unusual friendships. Through walls that muffled their voices, the men shouted to each other from their cells. One-hour exercise sessions in enclosed wire cages outside the prison walls allowed for better discourse.

McVeigh and Yousef engaged in intense political discussions; McVeigh and Kaczynski shared a love of nature and the ideas of survivalism; and when Latin Kings gang leader Luis Felipe joined the group in 1998, he and McVeigh traded "smut books" between cells, according to the authors of a recent book about McVeigh.

Until McVeigh was transferred in July 1999 to a new federal facility in Terre Haute, Indiana, to await execution, the foursome represented a collection of inmates not likely to be seen again anytime soon.

"It's like having the Wolfman and Dracula and Frankenstein all in the same wing," said Dan Herbeck, who wrote "American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing" with fellow Buffalo News reporter Lou Michel.

McVeigh will be executed June 11 for the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people. Kaczynski, known as the Unabomber, is serving four consecutive life sentences for his bombing spree across seven states. Yousef is serving 240 years for masterminding the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and Felipe is serving a life sentence plus 45 years for his conviction in 1996 on 18 counts of federal racketeering charges for ordering three murders.

Blake Davis, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Prisons, said the men were held together in the unit because they required the highest level of security that could only be found in the nation's most secure federal prison.

Common ground

Though the inmates would occasionally update each other on the status their cases, for the most part, their lawyers and others said, their conversations were simply innocuous chats. Sometimes they would complain.

A consummate news junkie, McVeigh was a loyal viewer of CNN and news talk shows that exposed what he perceived to be improper conduct by the U.S. government. So it is not hard to imagine that McVeigh would be particularly fond of Kaczynski.

"He really took a liking to Ted Kaczynski," Herbeck said. Both men were survivalists who liked to be outdoors and live off the land, and they shunned contact with the government. "They found common ground, even though they were different," he said.

Things got off to a rocky start, however. Michael Mello, a professor of law at Vermont Law School who wrote "The United States of America vs. Theodore John Kaczynski," said the Unabomber did not like McVeigh at first. That changed as they got to know each other.

"Initially, Kaczynski kind of looked his nose down at McVeigh. He saw McVeigh as a trashy kind of terrorist and himself as the rich man's terrorist," Mello said. "At first it wasn't so much respect for McVeigh's political ideology - he always saw McVeigh's as he tended to see everyone's that was not his own as being simplistic and simply wrongheaded.

"What he did come to respect somewhat was McVeigh's stoicism, the soldier in him, his willingness to accept his fate without whining, which are qualities that would tend to impress a lot of prisoners, but especially Kaczynski because those were qualities that he saw, rightly or wrongly, in himself."

Terrorists at heart

But Kaczynski wasn't the only neighbor whose company McVeigh enjoyed. Herbeck said he greatly respected the political convictions of Yousef, convicted for the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center.

"He admired the fact that Ramzi Yousef, when he got up and was sentenced, made a long speech against the U.S. government ... he said 'I'm a terrorist, and I'm proud of it because the U.S. government deserved what I did to them.' McVeigh really applauded that. He thought it was fantastic. He was kind of amazed that he would find much common ground with an Arab terrorist."

Yousef's attorney, Bernard Kleinman, said he did not believe his client talked political philosophy with McVeigh, though they did discuss movies and Yousef was pleased that McVeigh's presence shed light on his civil rights case against conditions in the prison.

But he said the relationship really was one of convenience for Yousef since he and the others were almost always locked down. Chances are he'd chat with anyone, Kleinman said, "whether it's Tim McVeigh or John Doe or you or anybody."

Girls, girls, girls

While McVeigh shared some intellectual interests with his bomber pals, with Felipe the interest was more common - women. Herbeck said the duo swapped what McVeigh called "smut magazines" and talked about females.

Felipe's attorney, Lawrence Feitell, said that when his client was transferred to Supermax after allegedly ordering murders from his previous prison, he sought the same privileges for him that his cell mates enjoyed.

But Felipe would have none of it. "My client was of the opinion that I acted officiously," Feitell said, adding, "He expressed the sentiment that these were not nice people and he had nothing in common with them."

Regardless, McVeigh seemed to take a certain amount of pride in the unique group of comrades. Herbeck said that when someone sought an autograph from McVeigh on a newspaper article showing photographs of the four inmates, he was quite happy to oblige.

The inscription: "The A-Team! T.J.M." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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