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Terror on Trial: Journey to Terre Haute: From cradle to grave

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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) -- On the eve of Timothy McVeigh's execution, Courttv.com's Andy Brooks and Catherine Quayle take a trip from McVeigh's childhood home in upstate New York to Terre Haute, Indiana, where the bomber is to be executed June 11, 2001. They talk to people along the way about the deeds and death of an American terrorist.

June 8: New York to Buffalo to Pendleton

We picked up the recreational vehicle in Collins, N.Y., about 40 miles from where Timothy McVeigh was born. It is a 2000 model, equipped with electricity, running water, two beds, a working kitchen, and more cabinets and cupboards than we could hope to fill in our five days on the road. We are planning to drive it the 600 miles to Terre Haute, Ind., where McVeigh is scheduled to be executed at 8 a.m. ET Monday morning.

From his birthplace to his death place, and all points in between. Along the way, we will talk to people, ask them about the execution, about the death penalty, about their lives. It will be a journey through the heartland. In an RV. It is an American odyssey, wrong side out, and it is probably crazy and maybe in poor taste, but we have had this idea. This idea.

It arose spontaneously and organically during a staff meeting just yesterday. A group of editors and writers talking about the execution, making provisions. What if we... We could really... It just might... Could we? And less than 24 hours later, Andy Brooks, a Web site producer, and I were being given the tour of the inside of our recreational vehicle by a muscular, tattooed mechanic named Greg, whose T-shirt sleeves had been hacked off. When we told him we wouldn't be doing any cooking in the RV, he looked at me and said, "You don't cook? How do you ever expect to get married?" He was also the first to inform us that Bill McVeigh, the terrorist's father, had left town for the weekend, making it very clear to the media earlier that day that they needn't call on him because he wouldn't be home.

With or without Mr. McVeigh, our main destination for the afternoon was Pendleton, the town just north of Buffalo where McVeigh grew up and attended high school. We were briefly waylaid on our route by the Original American Kazoo Factory and museum (est. 1907)  which displayed on its roof what must surely be the world's largest kazoo  and by a gas station minimart where a sign at the register read, "Limit two butters per person," but by five or so we were heading north to Pendleton, Andy at the wheel and me wrangling with the maps.

The smallness of this almost-town was apparent long before we ever barreled into it in our 25-foot Shasta Sprite, the Ford V-10 engine roaring and the curtain rods rattling against the weatherproof windows. It did not appear on the giant road atlas we had purchased earlier, and it was barely a dot on our backup state map. When I called a Kinkos in neighboring Tonawanda to ask for directions there from Pendleton  to e-mail photos we had taken earlier  the woman who answered the phone had never even heard of McVeigh's birthplace, though she worked not three miles away.

We drove around and around the town's perimeter, a fortress of strip malls and shiny, new discount stores, without being able to find our way into it and finally had to stop at a gas station for directions. The pimply teenage girl behind the register insisted that Pendleton was just "over there" and made an indistinct hand gesture that seemed to indicate both north and south simultaneously. I asked if she could point me toward the central part of the town.

"Like where?" she asked, curling her upper lip to reveal two neat rows of braces.

"Just the main part?" I asked hopefully.

"Uh..."

Apparently, Pendleton has no main part, no center. And after 40 more minutes of left turns and right turns down long, curving roads dividing seas of tall grass, past the occasional farmer's stand and antique car dealer and one vast lot of multicolored lawn ornaments, we spotted a green water tower with PENDLETON painted across it and knew we had arrived.

Beneath the tower was a baseball field and next to that a squat, one-room structure that a hand-carved sign advertised as the Pendleton Historical Society. Is there anything in this town's history, I wondered, that could possibly compare with having harbored, raised and nurtured America's deadliest terrorist?

A peek through the window (the office was closed) provided no answers. I could make out only a stack of Styrofoam cups on a counter and four rows of folding chairs. It was a dark, tired-looking room with outdated paneling. We had arrived too late to talk to anyone here today. And maybe we were just too late in general. We were the last stragglers in a long and hungry stampede of reporters, who had herded to this small place looking for an explanation, for a scoop, for sound bytes, who had camped out in front of Bill McVeigh's modest ranch house just a minute's drive down the road. Andy began shooting video of the water tower, and I asked myself for the fourth or fifth time today, What are we doing here?

I am wrong about Pendleton, of course. It has more to its credit  or blame  than McVeigh. Joyce Carol Oates once lived here, for one example. "To grow up in Pendleton, N.Y.," she said, "is to know oneself distinctly marginal; wherever the fountainheads of significance, let alone power, they are surely not here." A Web site editor read this quote to me over the phone as we were racing (so far as that word can be applied to our new vehicle) down Route 290, hoping to make Pendleton before dark, and it came back to me as I stood under the water tower scanning the sparse surroundings. Did McVeigh feel marginalized here? Enough to kill?

A tiny roadhouse bar called Brauer's was the only other occupied building nearby. Andy maneuvered the RV into a space in the gravel parking lot next to another, larger RV ("Do you think someone stole our idea? Is everybody driving to Terre Haute in an RV?") and we went inside, where six or seven patrons sat at the short wooden bar. Formica tables with metal stools lined one wall, and a jukebox stood silently in the corner. In a second room visible through the doorway they were serving the Fine Food advertised on the sign outside.

"No....Comment..." the bartender said with practiced finality when Andy told him we were working on a story about McVeigh. "We've had enough reporters around here. Since the beginning." He waved the subject off with one hand and moved away. A burly, sunburned man in a sleeveless button-down shot a tired glance in our direction. We sat down at the bar and ordered beers, catching their fatigue. We had come a long way to talk to people about almost nothing but McVeigh, but suddenly I didn't want to talk about him either.

A man sitting to my right began to explain to me the numbers game being played out on a TV screen above the bar. It was something like Keno. You select up to 10 numbers for a dollar a card. If any of your numbers match those the computer selected, you win. He had already won $80 that evening. He had rough hands, dark weathered skin and a youthful, mischievous smile. A pack of Marlboro Reds sat on the bar in front of him among his winning cards. He owned his own trucking company, and we learned that it costs $3,000 to replace all the tires on an 18-wheeler. Less if you buy them in Canada, which he sometimes did.

"If the wheels are on the truck when you drive it back across, they're not exactly going to ask you about them," he said.

A petite, though somehow tough-looking woman in a plaid flannel shirt wandered into the bar and took a seat next to the burly, suntanned man, who nodded his recognition to her. He later told us she was his wife of 23 years, and she confirmed this with a wry half-smile.

We explained our project to them. The drive. The RV. The interviews. The execution. We down played it, hoping for their understanding. They expressed their sympathy for Bill McVeigh, who, it came out, was once a Brauer's regular.

"Bill used to come in here all the time and drink with us," one man said. "But he doesn't anymore."

"It's not his fault what happened," someone else said, and others added murmurs of assent.

Now he spends his days fending off the reporters, they explained, somehow managing not to implicate us in their disgust, and in exchange we nodded sympathetically.

The conversation waned, and we all stared into our beers. "What a way to put Pendleton on the map," the suntanned man added sadly, and the subject was closed.

It was after eight when we left the bar, though we had stayed only half an hour, and already beginning to grow dark. We decided to do what any New Yorker would do when released into the suburbs. We went to Target. It had suddenly dawned on us that we were going to have to sleep in this thing, this house/car, this obscenity. We had not thought to bring sheets or blankets or pillows. We grabbed madly at items on the Target shelves, needing everything and consumed by a desire to spend. Without more than a cursory "What do you think? This?" "Yes, definitely" we bought a jumbo-sized pinwheel to plant in the ground in front of the RV. We find this hilarious. We think it will attract strange and fascinating people to us. They will line up outside the RV while we are sleeping. We decided to expense it as a "Public Relations Implement."

We piled our booty into the Shasta Sprite, and I paused for the requisite second to wonder at our merriment. It is easy to forget where we are going.

Later, as we are driving up Route 190 toward the KOA that would be our parking spot for the night  Andy is wielding the steering wheel like a weapon and I am struggling with the map, just as if there were a couple of rowdy kids in the back and we are all heading to Yellowstone  Andy blurts out, "I know what is so great about what we are doing!"

"What?" I ask, because I am certain there is something and it is just waiting there, ready to be named.

"It's great because this is exactly how McVeigh would have done it. We're self-contained in this thing. Independent. We don't need anyone for anything."

He seems to be right. Earlier, on the plane, I had been reading about McVeigh, the survivalist. In their book American Terrorist Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck describe McVeigh's early obsession with preparing for disaster, how upset he had been when the basement flooded in the house he shared with his father and how he had made provisions to prevent it from happening again. The RV does at first seem to be the ultimate survivalist vehicle. But then I remember the hassles of the day  the search for an Internet connection, for a place to recharge our cell phones, for a camping spot so the RV can be plugged in  and the theory begins to lose its charm.

We find the KOA, just a few miles south of Niagara Falls, and an enthusiastic boy of about 17 shows us to our parking spot. We pass giant vehicle after giant vehicle, some accompanied by the dim glow of small campfires. It is dark, and the only sounds, once we turn the engine off, are the ringing, bell-like voices of bats. I crawl into the bedspace over the driver's seat and Andy takes the room in the back. Whenever he turns over, the vehicle shakes. I lie awake for hours, white-brained with insomnia, squishing mosquitoes on my thumb. What are we doing here? Tomorrow we must make ourselves useful in some way. We will drive toward Ohio.

June 9: Niagara Falls to Mansfield, Ohio

The campground was already alive when my alarm clock rang at 7 this morning. Campers (or kampers, according to the KOA preferred spelling of all things kamping) were walking their dogs and heading to the showers.

A stunted wooden rollercoaster was visible through the top front window of the RV just above my bunk, and I realized it must be the Fantasy Island the boy told us about last night when he was checking us in. He works at the tiny amusement park during the day and at the campground at night.

We wandered around the grounds to see who had lingered after the early risers had headed back out on the road. We found Kathy and Wayne Giese. They were sitting in Coleman foldable chairs outside their poptop. A fire was smoldering its way out nearby and three small blond girls ran in and out of the shade of the camper's awning. They live just north of Chicago, and this trip to Niagara Falls is the farthest they have taken their camper yet.

Kathy complained she hadn't showered in three days, but agreed to speak to us on camera anyway, and Wayne, who was wearing a baseball cap and drinking a Labatt's, initially declined to speak to us but wound up doing the bulk of the talking.

They had followed the news about McVeigh, but professed no particular interest in his execution. Like most, they will be glad to see him go and feel he is getting what he deserves. What concerned them more than McVeigh's fate, however, was the world that brought him about. A world, as they see it, in which children are not taught morals, do not spend enough time with their parents, do not feel the firm hand of discipline on their behinds.

"Everything's way too lenient. All these younger kids shooting other kids. Where are the parents?" Wayne said, explaining that the McVeighs and the school shooters are all products of the same malfunctioning machine.

Kathy agreed. "A lot of it has to begin at home with the younger children. You teach them from very early on right from wrong, and if you teach them that on a consistent basis you have less of a chance that your child is going to grow up and hurt someone."

Parents shouldn't be afraid to spank their kids, they insisted. "Not beat the snot out of them," Kathy cautioned, but teach them strongly, firmly, physically.

"Nowadays you're not even allowed to spank your child," Wayne noted. "Not that anybody should have to abuse their child but nowadays you spank your child, they want to arrest you for it."

One of their three daughters approached during this conversation and whispered affectionately to her mother, who shooed her gently away.

"You look at the Middle East," Kathy said. "There's a lot less rape and murder there because they know what will happen to them if they commit those crimes. You steal something and they cut your hand off, you murder somebody, they're going to kill you too. A lot of people need that boundary."

That boundary did nothing to stop Timothy McVeigh, I thought. He knew what awaited him, and he has repeatedly expressed his readiness. But perhaps he was different in some way? An anomaly, a monster.

"168 people," Wayne said, and I was struck by how known this number is, how significant. In the past 24 hours, being in the bomber's homeland, I have been so focused on McVeigh and his family and neighbors that his victims have faded temporarily into the background. But Wayne and Kathy have not forgotten them.

"Think about that," Wayne said. "A hundred and sixty-eight," and for a second the three of us sat in a stunned silence, as if hearing the number for the first time.

We said goodbye to the Gieses and finally got out on the road. After our inept wanderings around the greater Buffalo area yesterday, we had almost forgotten that we were heading somewhere in particular and not just driving in circles.

The Shasta Sprite seems ready for the open road. Cruising on local byways, on the cracked asphalt of small upstate towns, the RV rattles and shakes as if it is about to break apart into a thousand tiny bits of simulated wood paneling and formica countertop. But at 70 miles per hour it is a bearable, if not comfortable ride, and we breeze down Interstate 90 through New York's wine country. Mile after mile of the short, gnarled grape vines and occasional glimpses to the west of the blue expanse of Lake Erie. The lake is so vast that at times it seems to rise skyward like a range of cornflower mountains.

Yesterday, as we were trying to find our way into Pendleton, we came across Lockport Road.

"Lockport Road!" I shouted, grateful for a significant landmark at last. In their book, American Terrorist, Michel and Herbeck noted that in 1987, when Timothy McVeigh bought his first new car, a Chevrolet Geo Spectrum, he raced it home along Lockport Road, a straightaway, at 100 miles per hour. I told Andy this and he slammed his foot to the pedal in an attempt to recreate the event.

"Yeah, we're going 50," he said. It was a nice idea.

Today, we are just across the border into Ohio when three deer saunter leisurely onto the highway. Andy sees them and hits the brakes, and the weight of the RV surges forward against the strain. They scamper safely across to the other side, but we realize how difficult it would be to stop this four-ton machine going at highway speed.

"The brakes," Andy says, "are unremarkable."

In the afternoon, it is all highway. So much green. Weathered red farmhouses and rusty silos standing tall over the land. It blurs past for hours and we become calm for the first time in two days. Everything is alright out here. Everyone is safe. We pass the time with an interminable string of technical problems related to laptops and cellphones, microphones, power converters. They are small, solvable annoyances, and I am nearly grateful for them.

We drive across the Cuyahoga River, which winds almost imperceptibly beneath a cushion of trees. Is that the one that caught fire? We debate this. It was a long time ago, anyway. No fires today. A clear, cool, perfect day. No catastrophes. No explosions. Only little things. Little packaged problems. Columbus before nightfall. Shortly the search will begin for another place to plant the pinwheel.

June 9: Mount Gilead by nightfall

Andy had picked up a copy of Saturday's Buffalo News before we hit the road this morning, and I glance at it as he steers the RV down Interstate 90 across the rolling farmland of eastern Ohio. There is only one story about Timothy McVeigh on the front page.

It describes briefly the final preparations for his Monday morning execution, including how prison officials will move him from his cell on death row to the special holding area in the death house, where he will stay until minutes before the guards arrive to shuttle him into the execution chamber, and measures to accommodate the 1,400 people from the media expected to cover the event. I am surprised by the scant newspaper coverage just two days before.

I scan the rest of the front. The top story is about trees planted in memory of two teenagers from one Buffalo high school who were brutally murdered. I learn that their deaths, unrelated, are two of the 35 homicides so far this year in that city of 300,000. In all of 2000, there were 39. For some reason more than half of this year's murders occurred in the month of May. Another story recounts the aftermath of the recent elementary school slayings in Japan, and a feature discusses the local application of Megan's Law, requiring a public registry of area sex offenders.

An unsettling, if typical, assortment of bad news. Violence against children. Locally, nationally and abroad. Even the story on McVeigh, though it does not mention the 19 children killed in the bombing, carries the specter of this particular brand of horror.

What I am finding as we travel through this corner of the country is that people we have met think of McVeigh as just one symptom of a larger disease. The school shooters and the sex offenders and the violent criminals of various sorts are other symptoms. Same illness. The differences lie only in degree.

"It has to do with an obvious change in the fabric of our society," Wes Kaufman tells me. "I have to believe that it has to do with the breakdown of the families and the fact that a lot of children are not raised with a solid foundation of belief, where they are brought up in a church surrounded by a supportive group  beyond their immediate family."

Wes is a marketing rep for an insurance company, and he tells me this as we sit on a bench next to a restored train station, now a rest stop for bikers, in Bellville, Ohio, where he and his wife Joyce have lived for 15 years and raised her three kids with frequent visits from his son. She stands to the side as we talk, smiling at him. They are both wearing T-shirts bearing the logo of St. Paul Lutheran Church, where they have been active members since they moved to town.

I ask him what the secret is. How do you keep families and communities healthy, together? There is something in his gentle face and the careful, serious way he responds to my questions that convinces me he knows the answer.

But he responds by acknowledging how difficult it can be. "My wife and I were talking last week about how busy you can get, just how many activities you get your kids involved in," he says, "so that you never have that interaction as just a family, like we had when I was younger. We had dinner together every night."

I ask Wes if the execution affects him personally in some way.

"I feel the decision by our country and our legal system to execute someone affects us all in some way, yes."

When pressed further, he admits to having wavered in his stance on the death penalty, but has ultimately come down against it. "I don't feel I have the moral right to decide whether someone dies for what they have done," he says.

He is particularly distressed by the number of people who want to watch McVeigh die. There are those with nothing but a morbid curiosity, he admits, but there are also the victims' families. "There are some individuals who believe this will bring some resolution and help them deal with the tragedy they have been through ... but it's hard for me to understand how that would help, how, if you've lost a son or a daughter, it would help you to see someone else die."

It is hard to imagine anything bad ever happening in Bellville, Ohio. It is a bedroom community of only a couple thousand people, many of whom work an hour away in Columbus. It is a serene and lovely town, with tree-lined streets and small Victorian homes, their lawns neatly clipped and their porches adorned with planters, statuettes and American flags. A white gazebo stands in a grassy square near the two-block stretch of downtown.

"We call it a bandstand," Joyce Kaufman had said when Andy and I stopped to speak with them on the sidewalk near their house. They had approached us, seeing the RV with New York plates and assuming we were lost.

It is a town that seems to be actively warding off the evils of the outside world. In front of several lawns, we notice blue signs, about three feet square, that proclaim, "We stand for the Ten Commandments" and then list the commandments beneath.

It seems a million miles from Mansfield, where we had stopped earlier, although the two are only about 10 miles apart. A city of 50,000, Mansfield has a worn, working-class, industrial look about it. Billboards, empty buildings, laundromats, Porky's Barbecue. We stopped at Deschner's Pizza to see if they would let us hook up our computer to e-mail a story and some photos to our office in New York. They agreed, and while there we spoke with one of the employees, Jen Swartz, a young, pretty girl with her short brown hair pulled back in a bandana. She took off her apron and sat down to speak with us for a few moments.

Jen had heard a lot about the execution on the news, and especially from friends at St. Luke's Lutheran Church. A pastor she knows hold prayer rallies about it, praying for McVeigh's soul and those of the victims. Jen, who works with three- to five-year-olds in a local Head Start program, wasn't sure how she felt about it herself.

"What makes us any better as a society if we say he should be put to death when he killed someone? We're just doing the same thing he did," she said.

I asked, since she admitted to having mixed feelings about the death penalty, if she felt an execution was more justified for someone like McVeigh, whose crime resulted in the deaths of so many. Not at all, she said. "A life is still a life."

Later, after a mushy, bland supper at an "Amish Family Restaurant" called Der Dutchman, we finally stop for the night at a campground in Mount Gilead, about 40 miles north of Columbus. Mount Gilead? A mountain in Ohio is something I will have to see. The owner, a chubby, middle-aged man named Chris, trots out to the RV with his flashlight and welcomes us warmly before climbing in his truck and guiding us down the dark, gravel road between the other vehicles, many of which look as if they have been here a long time. They have porches and lawn furniture and colorful lanterns strung from the eaves of their pop-up canopies. Something about this scene makes me wonder briefly if we have wandered into a nudist colony.

Chris selects a parking spot for us and gives us all the instructions we could possibly need. He seems so glad that we have come. Although I lug a heavy bundle of firewood from the front office to the RV (having to drop it several times and catch my breath), Andy is unable to start the campfire we had fantasized about during the day. We have no kindling and without a flashlight, we can't find any in the dark. It seems to be official that we are terrible campers. We sit inside and bask in the glow, through the window, of our neighbors' cheery fires.

June 10: Mount Gilead, Ohio to Indianapolis

"McVeigh is going to hell. Period. Point blank. If that doesn't buy you a ticket straight to hell than nothing does."

We are driving west on route 70, leaving Columbus for more of Ohio's green farmland, and it is a special Sunday morning call-in show on talk radio AM610. The radio listeners are debating the fate of Timothy McVeigh's soul. The question: Will he go to heaven?

The host, Carla, is a firm believer in the power of repentance. At any point before his death, she says, McVeigh has a chance to save himself by asking for God's forgiveness.

"If he's lying on his deathbed and says that he accepts that Jesus died for his sins, he goes right on up. Does not pass Go," she says. A surprising number of callers agree with her. They are willing to accept his redemption, want to accept it. They seem to have a lot invested in God's power to forgive us anything.

"God will look into his heart and know if he is truly repentant," a man says, though like most, he doubts this will happen.

But one woman, Lori, is outraged at the prospect of McVeigh getting a free, last-minute ride to heaven. "That is so wrong," she says. "Whatever you did to somebody  rape, murder, stabbing  that's what should happen to you."

This prompts a flurry of calls from people who want to set Lori straight about the Bible's teachings. Many have elaborate, deeply rational notions about the logistics of redemption. Others are matter-of-fact, definitive, perplexed that there are even questions on this issue.

"It doesn't matter if it isn't fair. Jesus' blood paid for it. This is 'merica. People should know this," one man says in a heavy rural drawl.

It is Sunday, less than 24 hours before McVeigh is scheduled to die. We still have 200 miles to drive to Terre Haute, and it is another perfect day. Sunny, clear, 70 degrees. The hills have vanished, and the highway is a straight shot. A long line of tractor trailers stretch to the horizon.

We scurried to get out of the campground this morning. There are tasks to tend to regarding the RV's electricity, the water. I left Andy to finish the preparations and headed to the showers. When I returned he looked rather sour.

"What?" I asked.

He shook his head soberly, "If anybody in New York gives me any problems," he said, climbing in the driver's seat, "all I have to say is 'I ... pumped ... the sewage.'"

Feeling a little more like survivalists, we hit the road. My editor had asked us to go to church this morning. To hear what people were saying in their houses of worship about McVeigh, if anything. But after a side trip to the airport to send the video we'd shot back to New York, most of the churches we passed were empty. People had already retired to their backyard barbecues or perhaps to the nearest house of retail.

We cross the border into Indiana and immediately feel a serious desire to buy some fireworks. Perhaps because in all directions, and on every manmade surface, there are signs advertising them. Andy pulls off and we traipse into a red warehouse, proclaiming itself as Shelton Fireworks, which has easily the largest collection of recreational explosives I have ever seen. Stacks and stacks of many-colored boxes line the walls, filling the aisles. Big Boys, Hula Dancers, Mortar Kits.

We strike up a conversation with three kids hanging out at a cash register. One, Dave Auman, tells me he has been working there for four years and is pretty much at the top of the chain, though he declines to elaborate on what exactly that involves. He is on summer break from Indiana University where he will be a junior next year. I ask him what he thinks about McVeigh's execution.

"It's perfectly fine," he says. "He killed all those people. Why not?"

When asked about his views on the death penalty, he responds similarly, "It's fine," but adds, "If this would have happened in another country, like in the Middle East or something, he wouldn't have got a trial, all these appeals. He would have just got killed. Dead. See ya later." He seems to approve of this result.

I ask him about the people of Indiana, how glad they will be to have this whole mess over with. Pretty glad, he guesses, especially in Terre Haute.

"That's a crappy town anyway," he says. "It kind of smells."

We roam around the store, talking to one of the managers, who gives us a brief tour of the firepower. We are awed and full of questions. He responds proudly, telling us he has been in the business for 12 or 15 years, though he looks to be in his late 20s.

Then it's back on the road, across the billboard-littered state of Indiana. At some point, Andy's phone rings. "Hello," he answers. "I pumped the sewage."

June 10: Indianapolis to Terre Haute. Execution Eve

As we approach Terre Haute, I expect to sense the growing tension, an accumulation of dread and fear and curiosity. Signs of the impending execution will begin to appear at least a few miles out, I imagine. Homemade posters, bumper stickers, traffic jams.

In reality, the highway is the same as in Indianapolis, in Richmond, in Dayton, Ohio. There is no increased activity or any visible signs of what is about to happen. The only perceptible change is the knot beginning to form in my stomach. I had managed to ward it off for the past two days, but it is back.

As soon as we exit the highway onto Route 41, there is a flashing road sign telling PRO DEMONSTRATORS to take one route and ANTI DEMONSTRATORS to take another. Apparently there will be no mingling of views outside the federal penitentiary. After some driving around, we finally find the compound. It lies to the southwest of central Terre Haute, not far from a small residential community and a half mile from a main strip-mall drag. The longest of the prison's three sides is bordered by Justice Road.

The buildings are set so far from the perimeter that you can hardly see them, making the whole something less than the imposing structure I had imagined, although it houses some 1,270 inmates and another 400 or so in an adjacent minimum security camp. Twenty of these are on death row. Tomorrow there will be 19. The question I had been asking myself endlessly at the beginning of our trip comes back to me now. What are we doing here?

The "media circus," as it has been called a hundred times, is more like a small carnival. But an orderly one. Television trucks are lined neatly on the lawn in front of the prison near a field of cheerful, white tents. It might be a county fair or a school science fair, albeit one that has attracted a gargantuan media presence.

A relatively small contingent of anti-death penalty protesters, 30 or so, parade along the road near the main entrance as we drive around trying to find a place to park the RV. They wear brightly colored T-shirts and carry signs saying the usual things: Stop State Killing. Why do we kill someone who killed someone to teach someone that killing is wrong?

We decide to take a shot at getting press credentials. Having only planned this trip Thursday, we had not registered beforehand like any sensible, prepared journalists would have. The media registration office is 10 minutes from closing for good when we stroll in at nearly eight. Unfortunately, although Andy has an old Court TV press pass with him, I have nothing, not even a business card. To obtain the official Bureau of Prisons pass, I will need something with my photo and company name on it, the woman behind the desk tells me, sympathetic to my plight.

She then proceeds to describe a number of things I might do to fabricate such identification. Incredibly, she agrees to hold the office open for us until we can return with the goods.

We jump back into the RV and, following her directions, race to the Super K-Mart. There, using a Kodak do-it-yourself scanner, we cobble together a laughable combination of my New York State driver's license and part of Andy's business card, blown up accidentally to five by seven. One self-laminating kit and two careening turns later, we are back in the press office holding the most ridiculously poor fake ID ever made. And jumbo size.

"Looks great," she says, and hands over the official prison pass. She locks the door behind us as we leave, making us, it seems, the last reporters to register.

In the parking lot, the anti-death penalty protestors have gathered in front of the Journey of Hope bus. The group was started by a man whose grandmother was murdered but who still opposes capital punishment. They have two giant puppets, one of Jesus and one of Uncle Sam, which they later try to dismantle and wedge through the door of our RV when we offer them a ride. The demonstrators are professionals. They interview themselves while I hold the mike.

"Whenever you talk about abolition, people constantly say, well, you'd think different if it were your daughter. Well, the fact is many people do not think different when it happens to their family," says a Unitarian minister who is wearing a headband and short, gray ponytail. "You cannot breed healing out of violence any more than you can breed pit bulls and get canaries."

Wandering back toward the front gate, we encounter a slightly hungrier, more evidently religious group of protestors. They seem to make no distinction between talking to themselves and talking to others. We are greeted with the chewed-off ends of sentences started elsewhere. If there are pro-execution demonstrators here, we never see them.

Amazingly, two different officers scrutinize my fake ID at the front gate and still let me through. I can only hope they have better security inside the prison than out. I am glad to be within the perimeter where, oddly, there is more room to breathe. A wide expanse of grass separates the tents, and the chaos of the local TV station trucks, which must remain outside, seems remote.

We catch the first press briefing. It is a military, stiff affair. The spokesman speaks dispassionately about McVeigh's activities over the past few days (watching TV, sleeping regularly), his last meal (two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream). But what strikes me most is his use of the inmate's full name. Timothy James McVeigh. It is impossible to hear it spoken that way without thinking of his parents choosing it, saying it for the first time.

We are beginning to unravel and stumble around. Walking back from the penitentiary alongside the highway in the dark Andy walks smack into a street sign.

"I am permanently thirsty," he says later.

It is 3:30, and, there is nothing to do but wait.

June 11, Terre Haute: Death and pancakes

The sun is surprisingly bright at 5:20 in the morning. I sleep for about an hour in the bedspace over the driver's seat and wake with the glare in my eyes, afraid that I have missed everything. But there are still an hour and forty minutes to go. Timothy McVeigh is certainly in the execution facility by now. I can't resist wondering what a person  even this person  thinks about during the last hour and forty minutes of his life.

We have driven more than 600 miles over three days to be here, but we are not going to the penitentiary this morning. We will not be using our last-minute press credentials to stand among the 1,400 other members of the media and wait for news of death.

Instead, we are going to work with Jim.

Jim Thomas builds basement walls for a living. He lives virtually across the street from the prison and has rented us space on his front lawn to park the RV (although he eventually gave the money to his neighbor, feeling guilty for undercutting her price and taking our business away). He has kindly agreed to let us tag along with him as he begins his workday at 5:45 a.m. He is rotund, white-bearded and almost Santa Claus jolly, his cheeks sun-red.

It is less than an hour until the execution as we head out Durham Drive, which tees at Route 63, the main penitentiary road. I am riding with Jim in his pickup truck while Andy follows behind in the RV. The prison towers are directly ahead, and I ask Jim about wall building.

He surprises me by launching into a thorough and meticulous description of the process. "First the excavation guy digs out the hole where the home will be," he begins, and I notice the four or five police officers near government vehicles at the end of Jim's road, in front of the low fence that marks the prison perimeter. "Then the footer guys level the ground out, dig the footers, then pour the concrete into the footers."

The small group of protesters who had been stationed directly in front of the gates last night are still there. One of them holds up a sign that says, "If Jesus loves Tim, so do we," as we pass.

"Then the wall crew, which sometimes I'm on, will pour the walls," Jim says. "We put our forms together and then we pour the walls right on the footers. That usually takes a day to build and pour the walls."

He makes a left turn off 63 and heads in a straight line directly away from the prison toward his job site, which is about 10 minutes away. The local TV news trucks are clustered together in front of a red, wooden house partially covered by trees.

"Then the waterproofing guys will come, and they'll waterproof the outside with the resin to keep it from leaking," Jim continues, fixing me with a determined look. He is careful to deliver his explanation with absolute accuracy. "We have a 10-year, lifetime warranty on that."

The penitentiary is visible for one second longer in the rear mirror and then disappears. I am reluctant to leave this scene, which will be the focus of so much attention during the next hour. But brand-new walls are about to be built somewhere in the city.

A group of grubby men stand around in torn jeans and T-shirts outside the small, prefab office building that is the headquarters of Woodco Walls, Inc. They are noisy and unshaven. I am too exhausted to gently introduce the topic at hand and simply ask them what they think about this execution happening right across their town.

One worker, a man in a sleeveless, coral pink T-shirt, takes a second out from eating a cookie to say, "Kill him. I don't mind where they do it just as long as they kill him."

"They should have hung him on a cross out in front of the building and let everybody stone him to death," offers another worker. He is sucking on a cigarette he holds between his thumb and forefinger like a spliff, his face partly hidden beneath a red baseball cap.

"It doesn't bother you that your city has become known for this execution?" I ask.

"No, it don't matter," one man says.

"This is a strange town," another adds.

"The armpit of America," throws in another. It is a phrase Steve Martin used about this place in his movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles, they tell us, with a bitter laughter which makes it clear that Terre Haute is a kind of prison for all of them.

We had perhaps been too romantic in our visions of how this experiment would go. We had imagined a heartening glimpse of people going on with their work and lives while a man was put to death a few miles away. What we find is something else. Although the men seem buoyant for 6:20 on a Monday morning, their ribbing is tinged with what feels unnervingly like angry desperation.

Jim introduces every man that walks onto the job site and gives us a ludicrously detailed description of what each does. From the way they tease him  and their asides to us  it is clear Jim is something of a joke among them. And he is so eager to please us. He guides us out to the gravel lot where the wall forms are stacked on flatbed trucks. He lists all the various sizes, pointing them out proudly. The list goes on and on. And on.

He is gracious and maintains his warm smile when we tell him we have decided not to spend much more time there. The crew is driving about 30 miles north to the day's construction site, and we realize we will be on the road at the time of the execution. That doesn't feel right. We have no idea where we will go with only half an hour remaining, but we climb back aboard the RV and begin cruising the deserted streets of Terre Haute.

It is a fast food town. It is a hubcap and gunshop town. Fireworks stores dot the concrete landscape. Everything is closed and we begin to grow panicky, throwing out bad ideas. But finally we spot a Bob Evans restaurant, where a dozen or more cars are parked. It is exactly what we didn't know we were looking for.

Three men are sitting at the breakfast counter, and we slide onto the stools between them. Andy places the camera casually on the countertop and turns it on. We don't make a show of it, and two waitresses, who had stiffened at the site of the equipment, visibly relax as they decide we are only tourists, not reporters. We have not eaten a single meal, in the way we understand the word, since we have been on the road. The lazy light and the sweet smell of pancakes are inexpressibly comforting, and we order breakfast like starving children. It is 10 minutes to seven.

The man to my right turns to me out of the blue and says, "Be something if Bush would call up and give him a stay, wouldn't it?" then adds with a knowing smile, "but I don't think that's going to happen."

Another man sitting at the counter turns to the stranger who has just sat down beside him and says quietly, "I guess they must be strapping him in about now."

Martin, on my right, tells me about the motorcycle shop he owns not too far from the penitentiary. "I drove out there this morning and it was quite peaceful over there," he says. He is wearing darkly tinted glasses that cover half his face. The visible skin is liver-spotted and loose. He has an unplaceable, slurry drawl.

"I saw some guy out there in a wedding dress," says a man who has appeared on the other side of him. Almost all the stools are full now.

I ask Martin how he feels about having the federal execution facility right in the town he tells me he was born and raised in.

"Oh, I don't think it hurts anything," he says. "Because of the employment reasons, it's a good thing to have it over there."

The men to Andy's left are also discussing the execution. "I guess it's about that time," one of them says. Everyone glances at the clock above the open kitchen window. It is seven. And then it is two after. Nothing changes. We drink our coffee. Andy's five-course breakfast arrives, and we laugh about it. At about 12 after, the manager, a tall middle-aged man in brown polyester pants approaches two of the waitresses and simply says, "He's dead. The Associated Press said it."

After breakfast, we drive to the Sir Speedy down the street to use the computer. The young man managing the store provides us with more details. "He looked over at the reporters," he says, "and then at the ceiling. He turned white and then yellow." And this is how the details of McVeigh's death are gradually related to us as we make our way back across town, through the mouths of the citizens, every single one of whom seems to know exactly what has happened without having been there. We, too, know.

Although I don't regret our decision to spend the morning outside the gates of the prison, something tells me it is time to go back to ground zero. I don't want to leave this experience without stepping inside the perimeter one more time. We return the RV to its grassy space in Jim's yard and tread back down the highway toward the main gates. It has become quite hot, and we squint at the guard towers, shimmering and unstable now behind the distant fences.

"Oh my God," Andy says suddenly, and I follow his gaze.

Coming through the prison gates are two police cars with their lights flashing silently. Between them is a black hearse, shiny under the sun. The three cars speed away and are gone before we can make the movements necessary to get a photo. It had not occurred to us there would be rolls of news footage available later because there seemed to be no one witnessing this but us.

We visit the Court TV production trailer briefly, just past the guard post, and Andy decides to stay to feed back some of our video. I leave him there and slip back through the penitentiary gates. I slash through the weeds on the side of the highway, passing again in front of the compound toward the comfort of Durham Drive. I find I am crying. I don't know what I have just seen.

June 14: The road home

On Tuesday, there was little to do but leave Terre Haute. By noon, we already seemed to be the only reporters left in town. They had moved on to other stories, other towns.

And the locals had turned their focus to another execution. As home to the only federal death row, Terre Haute would not have to wait another 38 years for its next one. On Tuesday, convicted killer Juan Raul Garza will be led into the same execution chamber.

The night before in a bar called the Black Angus, a group of men were already talking about Garza's fate. "Yep, June 19," several of the men said in unison. They seemed mildly amused. No one we had met there expressed any concern about living so near the country's most famous death house.

Until I had seen the hearse leaving the prison the day before, I had not wondered what happens to the bodies of executed men. But of course, those men have families, and like other families, they have their own ways of dealing with their dead. McVeigh's body would be cremated, we had heard, and the ashes turned over to his lawyers for scattering in an undisclosed location. We decided to visit the funeral home.

I stood in the pastel hush of Maddox-Wood Funeral Home and Crematory next to a fireplace decorated with wooden birds and fake flowers while a plump grandmotherly woman tried to find the manager. "Mike," she said when she finally got him on the phone, "there's a young lady here who wants to speak to you about Mr. McVeigh."

It turned out that Maddox-Wood had merely processed the papers needed to facilitate a cremation elsewhere. They had turned the documents over to McVeigh's lawyers, and no one knew what had happened next. I hadn't the stomach to trace the story further. And did it matter? I returned to the RV, glad simply to have had the chance to hear the receptionist say, "Mr. McVeigh." In a way, she had answered the question I had come there to ask: Was managing the death of Timothy McVeigh the same as managing that of any other person? Yes.

Before hitting the highway, we spent nearly an hour wandering around in search of Terre Haute souvenirs to bring back to our colleagues in New York. We found none. Not a single key chain or silver spoon.

"No one ever wanted them before McVeigh," a teenager in the college bookstore told us. "Now everybody wants them."

We were perplexed. What sort of town couldn't even provide visitors with miniature thimbles bearing its name?

A town with the world's largest polyethylene plant, apparently. With the world's fastest aluminum rolling mill. A town that makes steel and plastics. Compact discs and gourmet bakeware. Home to the world's largest mail order company, Columbia House, as any indebted, music-loving teen knows. The average distance between Terre Haute and every consumer in the country is 821 miles, the lowest of any city.

Well, we were ready to be outside the dead center of the U.S. consumer population and, above all, far from the federal death row. With Andy still behind the wheel ("I kind of like it"), we renewed our acquaintance with Interstate 70 and began the trip back to New York.

The last evidence of the execution appeared about 15 miles outside the city, when we passed the bus that had carried the anti-death penalty activists we had spoken to Sunday. JOURNEY OF HOPE was painted on its side. Except for the driver, the bus was now empty.

We headed northeast to Fort Wayne, famous for its line of commercial-grade paper towel dispensers, and then back into Ohio.

By Wednesday, the execution had disappeared almost entirely from the papers. The Toledo Blade carried only one story, a three-paragraph item about a woman who had been arrested in Indiana on the way to the execution. She was wearing a wedding dress and claiming to be McVeigh's wife. The police eventually released her, not knowing what else to do. Other small Ohio papers had gone completely silent on the subject.

We had spent Tuesday night in a little campground in Whitehouse, Ohio, just outside Toledo. We camped next to a small manmade swimming pond, which served a second purpose, completely to the surprise of its designers apparently, as the local mosquito breeding ground. On one side of us was the tiniest RV I have ever seen, about eight feet long and six feet tall, with a little wooden porch, and a teeny-weeny mailbox, not big enough to hold a regular letter. On the other side of us, a man named Jim Raymond was camped in a much larger, practically luxurious RV with his wife and three granddaughters and a Siamese cat named Ching, who snoozed in the van's side window.

Before he retired to Florida, Jim had sold cosmetic accessories to department stores up and down the East Coast. When I told him I was from Virginia, he said, "Oh yes. Thalheimer's. Miller & Rhodes." Andy named Lancaster, Pa., as his home town, and Jim struggled for the names of department stores there.

"They just stuck a needle in his arm and put him to sleep. What kind of punishment is that?" Jim said when the subject of McVeigh inevitably arose. "You put him in a six-by-nine cell for the rest of his life without parole. Forever. Now that's punishment." I looked from Jim to his neighbor's miniature RV in view just behind him.

Passing through Toledo Wednesday morning, we listened to a grief counselor on the radio. She was loosely applying her theories to the bombing and the execution, among other subjects. "Closure doesn't exist," she said. "You have to carry it all with you. It's all part of learning to claim your inner grownup." We listened to news of President Bush's trip across Europe, their governments' criticism of him and us.

We wanted to think about something else. We wanted to ditch the RV. We took a ferry out to Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island, a lovely harbor town with an antique merry-go-round and a year-round population of 400. Its primary mode of transportation: golf carts. I discovered, when we went to rent one, that I didn't have my driver's license with me. A brief, frantic mental rewind revealed that I had left the license in the K-mart do-it-yourself scanner, the machine that had produced the fake press pass that gained me entry into the federal penitentiary. In seconds, Andy had the K-mart image center on the phone confirming this.

As I drove, license-less, around the island at a maximum speed of 12 miles per hour, Andy made a series of calls to arrange to have the license Fed-Exed to the airport in Buffalo, where, had we not rented the golf cart, I would have shown up for our flight Thursday to discover I had no ID.

Coming back on the ferry later that day, the world's third tallest peace memorial (Perry's Monument) receding into the greater blue of Lake Erie, I looked around at the other passengers, many of whom seemed to have spent a good deal of time at the local winery sampling the vintages, and I felt the subject of McVeigh going away. It was just over. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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