Based on hundreds of interviews, including an in-depth exclusive with Timothy McVeigh, Richard Serrano takes readers on a wild ride on the trail of the Oklahoma City bomber, showing not only how the bomb parts were collected but how a seemingly normal young man came to hate his government and "save" his country.
Another thirty minutes and Timothy McVeigh would be gone. He was sitting on a wooden bench waiting to be taken inside Judge Danny G. Allen's courtroom, and all he had to do was listen to the prosecutor make a short legal presentation: the judge would grant bail, and then he could gather his belongings and be out the door.
For two days he had been tucked safely inside the eighty-year-old Noble County jail in little Perry, Oklahoma, while the world's eyes were trained on Oklahoma City, some seventy-five miles down the road. No one would think to look for him in a fourth-floor jail cell atop this small-town county courthouse, a face unrecognizable among the town drunks and petty thieves and other local miscreants. What better place to hide?
He had been arrested Wednesday morning on a stupid charge of driving without a license plate. Of course, the Oklahoma highway trooper had also found the loaded assault pistol concealed under his left arm. So he was taken to jail on traffic and gun charges, and he would have gotten out Thursday but for the unhappy circumstance that Judge Allen was tied up with a messy divorce case that took longer than anyone expected. The judge held over until Friday the hearing for McVeigh's bail.
But McVeigh was usually a patient man. For the past several years he had been a drifter; he had no home, really. He had lived with friends in Michigan and Kansas and Arizona, and he had rented a trailer home for a while, and sometimes he would stay a week or two in cheap motel rooms.
He liked being alone. Not that he was unsociable, although he was somewhat withdrawn and did not make friends easily. It was more that he embodied the restless spirit of so many young men in America today, restless to the point where some become disillusioned about the way their lives are turning out and begin to seek new roads to travel. It is never easy to get your life on track. McVeigh had tried and stumbled repeatedly.
But he never seemed in a hurry. He owned a succession of battered old used cars, and he logged so many miles on these "Warriors," as he called them, that one after another they would give out and their odometers would turn no more. He had had a tiny gray four-door with a red-and-black National Rifle Association decal on the window, but four months ago it had been rear-ended in Michigan. He had bought a roomy blue Pontiac station wagon, not a young man's car, and it had clunked out a week ago in Kansas. He had traded the wagon in for a 1977 Mercury Marquis, a big yellow sedan, and it was the car that had gotten him into the trouble that put him on the bench here waiting for court to begin.
Sometimes he slept in his car. On warm nights, particularly out in the desert Southwest, he would veer off down a dusty side trail and pull out his bedroll, the evening stars the last flickers of light he would see that day. Still wearing his flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled halfway up his forearms, he would lay his hands behind his head and dream. He once had been a soldier and had fought great battles in the sands of another land. In the future, he vowed, he would fight again.
By this Friday morning, about to be escorted into Judge Allen's courtroom, he was tired and restless and eager to push on. For two nights McVeigh had slept precious little, recalled fellow inmate John Seward, a local in for burglary. "He would act like he went to sleep," Seward said. "But he didn't sleep at all. When they took him out of here he had them black bags underneath his eyes."
McVeigh was waiting on the bench next to another inmate, Dana Charise Haynes, a young woman from Kansas City being held on marijuana charges. It was almost ten-thirty, and the judge was about to take the bench. McVeigh could reach out and almost wrap his fingers around freedom.
Sheriff Jerry Cook, a tall man, soft-spoken and slow-moving and yet at the same time possessing the distinct mark of authority, had not even seen McVeigh until the phone call came in. His office is on the first floor, past the hallway with the posted bills about the upcoming spring food drives and the pending farm auctions around this part of rural, flat north-central Oklahoma. There is an outer lobby where his small support staff works, and past them in the back is Cook's own little office. The room is cluttered, and the sheriff's chair and desk are pushed up snug against the wall.
The telephone on that desk rang. On the other end of the line was an agent from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Government investigators had been calling around the Midwest since the night before, desperate to locate a Timothy James McVeigh, date of birth April 23, 1968, wanted for questioning in the bombing two mornings ago of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City.
Do you have him? the agent asked.
Cook took a moment to run his finger down the names on his daily inmate roster. McVeigh was halfway down the list. Yes, he said. He's here.
"We got him!" the agent shouted to his colleagues. Then he spoke into the phone again. Hold him, he said.
Cook hung up and took a breath. He bounded up the stairs and into the offices of Mark Gibson, the Noble County district attorney. He told Gibson the incredible news: the man the whole nation had been seeking was in their courthouse.
Gibson, not your normal county prosecutor in the Oklahoma Bible belt but rather a young man who sported long hair and dark sunglasses, was skeptical. "That's BS," he said.
But it's true, said the sheriff.
Gibson shook his head. "You're playing games with me, Jerry," he protested.
We've got the bomber, Cook said again. Federal agents are on their way here.
Then Gibson blanched. It suddenly struck him that right that minute McVeigh was sitting outside Judge Allen's courtroom and would more than likely be released very soon.
"Take him back up to jail," he instructed the sheriff. "Until we get something figured out."
Cook found McVeigh and Haynes sitting on the bench, quiet, patient, waiting. The sheriff fumbled for something to say.
"They don't want you right now," he told McVeigh.
He took him by the arm and they started toward the jail elevator.
"Well," McVeigh asked, "do you have any idea when I'll be going to court?"
"No," Cook said. "But it'll be sometime today."
Haynes was left sitting there. "They took him upstairs so fast," she recalled. "Then everybody kept saying he was the bomber."
The sheriff's phone rang again. This time it was the FBI, which placed a federal hold on Cook's instantly famous prisoner, Inmate No. 95-057. Cook was back downstairs in his office. All day long he would be up and down the courthouse building; all day his phones would be ringing.
He shut down the jail telephones and set up a security perimeter around the courthouse square. Gibson conferred with Judge Allen and the judge decided it was best to proceed as scheduled, so they brought McVeigh down a second time and escorted him into the courtroom, alone, without a lawyer.
Gibson and McVeigh approached the judge's bench. Gibson was nervous. He wanted to be as far from McVeigh as he could be. As the session began, the prosecutor could not help but study the man standing next to him. He's one cool customer, Gibson thought. I've never seen anyone so unreactive. So military-like. He's a void. Not macho; not tough-guy. Just no reaction at all.
By now everyone in the courtroom, and almost everyone in the courthouse, and even some among the crowd that was forming outside realized that McVeigh faced considerably graver problems than these piss-ant misdemeanor gun and traffic charges. But in the courtroom all of them, Judge Allen too, carried on as if nothing at all were out of the ordinary.
The judge asked McVeigh if he would be able to secure a large bond.
"I'm unsure," he said. "I only have a couple of grand cash. I don't know about a bond. I don't know what to do."
Other concerns? the judge asked.
McVeigh said he was confused about why he had been charged with both carrying a weapon and carrying a concealed weapon. "It looks like a doubling up," he said. "Isn't that the same thing? I was carrying a weapon and it was concealed."
"Thank you," the judge said. "You may very well have a point, but I don't know without getting into the facts of it, and it may be something that you would want to talk with your counsel in regard to."
Gibson requested a total bond of $5,000. "Mr. McVeigh was born in the state of New York and in visiting with him just prior to court, says he has a mailing address in Michigan, but that's not actually a residence," the prosecutor told the judge. "According to what he told me before court, he has no residence at this time. He's traveling."
The judge turned to McVeigh. "Where do you presently live, sir?"
"I have a mailing address of Michigan."
"Michigan, okay. Are you presently employed, sir?"
Judge Allen mentioned the high bond recommended by the prosecutor. "Mr. McVeigh," he said, "do you have anything you wish me to consider in regard to bail?"
What had brought him here? Almost twenty-seven years old, a typical American kid from a middle-class background, a decorated army veteran and a hero of the Gulf War, and now this. What had gone wrong? He had never been arrested before and certainly had not seen the inside of a jail cell. He had spent the last two days with three other male inmates, cramped inside a concrete-walled tank containing four metal-frame beds and a commode. Now he was standing before a judge and was keenly aware of the commotion building up all around him.
In the past he could always find a way out of scrapes and other minor troubles, matters as small as lying about his name or where he lived or what he did for a living. He was good at things that did not matter, like cheating motel owners when he lied about how many would be staying overnight. He was persuasive. At the last motel he had stayed in, up the interstate in Kansas, he had talked the owner down eight whole dollars because it was Easter weekend and she found him to be a pleasant and nice enough young man. That was something he had learned to do a few years ago, a talent he had discovered selling firearms and other weapons on the gun show circuit. He could turn on the charm when he had to.
"Just ... just that I've never tried to do anything as far as illegal in any way," he told the judge. "You know, I didn't intend for it to be illegal, and I've never done anything illegal."
"Thank you," the judge said. "I appreciate that."
He set bail at $5,000, and McVeigh was sent back upstairs. Shortly after noon, a phalanx of FBI agents helicoptered into Perry and landed over by the local YMCA building. More teams of government agents were coming. News of the arrest was flashing around the courthouse square. The curious were collecting out front; so were the media, with reporters abandoning their "satellite city" encampment in Oklahoma City and rushing to Perry. Up in his cell, McVeigh was trying desperately to telephone a local lawyer, but he could not get through.
"Why isn't this phone working?" he asked Farrell Stanley, one of the sheriff's jailers.
Stanley wasn't sure what to tell McVeigh. He didn't want to lie, but he also didn't want to admit that his boss had ordered them shut off.
"Guess they're out of order," he said, shrugging.
McVeigh gripped the phone receiver hard in his hand and smashed it into the cradle on the jailhouse wall. "That's the only time I ever saw him show emotion," Stanley remembered later. "He slammed it down like he was mad."
Emotions were pouring through the young man. His first concern was his safety. He hated the national government and he despised federal law enforcement. He believed that if the FBI was coming here, as surely he knew they were, he would never be safe. Ever since his final days in the army, when he washed out of a once-promising future as a career soldier, he had learned to mistrust the government he had once served so proudly. After several years of reading extremist propaganda and staying up to listen to the vitriol of the fanatical right on late-night shortwave radio, he had heard plenty of horror stories about the FBI. Phony confessions. Broken promises. Trumped-up charges. Torture.
He had for some time believed that the government in Washington planned to disarm the American public through gun control, particularly the dreaded Brady bill, and turn the United States into some kind of a dictatorship. And then the twin evils of law enforcement abuses at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, aroused his anger, and he was convinced that when the FBI came calling, no man was safe, not even behind the four walls of his own home. He was so certain of this that once, while living in a small house in the Arizona desert, he kept loaded rifles by his door and stacked wood out front to use as a berm, in case federal agents tried to storm his living room. And he always, always, carried a pistol. But now he was unarmed and defenseless in a county jail in a tiny prairie town, not far from federal agents eager to avenge the dead in Oklahoma City.
McVeigh looked up, and it was Sheriff Cook again. "There's some people who want to see you," he said.
The sheriff brought his prisoner back down the jail elevator and through his lobby and into his own cubbyhole office, and McVeigh saw them -- a pair of federal agents with the familiar dark blue windbreakers with the letters FBI printed across the back. Agents James L. Norman, Jr., and Floyd M. Zimms started the conversation. Or tried to.
The room was crowded, and Cook squeezed into a corner. The sheriff's top priority was that no one, McVeigh included, be hurt, and that was a chief concern because, he said later, "there were rumors going around that we had snipers." He strained to look at McVeigh and was amazed that the young man was able to obscure his image, to deny his inquisitors any show of concern about what was happening here. It was the same blankness that had struck District Attorney Gibson when he noticed the emptiness of McVeigh's face, the totally unresponsive look in his eyes, the absence of any human emotion. "I was looking and I didn't see any," Cook recalled.
The FBI spoke first. "Do you know why we're here?" one of the agents asked.
"Yes," McVeigh said, blurting out his words. "That thing in Oklahoma City, I guess."
He cut off any more questions. He wanted a lawyer, he said. He would give only his name, age, and other routine information. He would not tell his place of birth.
"I will just give you general physical information," he said.
The agents attempted to pry him open. "Our investigation has revealed that you have knowledge about the bombing ..." they said. "We have identified other individuals connected to the bombing.... You are the only one who can decide whether or not you want to cooperate."
McVeigh recognized this instantly as FBI entrapment. Where was the advantage in placing yourself in the arms of the enemy? No, he decided. Better to say nothing than to trust the devil. And his concerns were shifting. Now he was no longer even listening to the agents. He seemed instead distracted by the increasingly angry crowd forming outside. He imagined the man who ran the local hardware store with a hammer in his hand, the aproned mother keeping as she thought about her own little ones in preschool, and the beefy farmer in the big blue overalls who had left his fields to come here for the hangin'."
The three hundred people outside were getting noisy. Many of them knew somebody who had been hurt or killed in the bombing in Oklahoma City, where McVeigh knew the FBI was going to take him, and they all wanted more than just a glimpse.
He implored the agents, "Take me out the roof."
What do you mean? they asked.
"Jack Ruby," he said. "You remember what happened with Jack Ruby."
He meant how easy it had been for Jack Ruby to get up close to President Kennedy's assassin that day and shoot him. McVeigh had no doubt that the Dallas cops had let Ruby slip into the police garage. He believed in conspiracies -- didn't all Americans believe in government conspiracies? Why would anyone trust the government? Why should he expect anything different here?
But the agents assured him that he would be well guarded. Enough people had been hurt or killed already, they said. No one was interested in any more casualties. They meant to assure his safety, but they also meant to assure their own. A rifle shot aimed at McVeigh might hit an agent. Someone else in the crowd could be friend to McVeigh.
James Adams, the senior assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Dallas office and a former Marine Corps helicopter pilot in Vietnam, had flown up to Perry with the others, and it fell to him to make a decision. He determined that the roof was not suitable for a chopper landing -- there were too many trees and power lines. The best alternative was to use the sheriff's van to transport the prisoner to a helicopter. They could back the van up to a courthouse entrance and walk their man out. But they would have to move fast, "We were concerned about an assault with a rifle," Adams said. "And the bulletproof vests that we have don't stop a rifle round. And quite frankly, I didn't think to put a bulletproof vest on him."
Louis Hupp, a senior FBI agent from Washington, stepped forward to take McVeigh's fingerprints. He placed a layer of tape on a countertop, poured out some ink, and with a roller spread out a fine, light-colored film. Then one at a time, beginning with the right thumb, he rolled McVeigh's fingers, knuckles, and palms across the sheet of ink, recording for history the hands the FBI would say had been wrapped around the steering wheel of a yellow Ryder rental truck.
The jailers escorted McVeigh back to his cell, through the sheriff's reception area, where a TV set was showing live pictures of the crowd outside the Perry jail, the reporters speculating about the man inside. McVeigh again tried the phone, but it was still dead. He could lift himself high up on the windowsill to see some of the ground below, but not who was out there. He began ranting to Tiffany Valenzuela, a female inmate from Tulsa sitting in a nearby jail tank.
"I don't know what the deal is," he said. "I don't know what the deal is.... This sketch of a guy who bombed the federal building ... they say it looks just like me.... But he's got a double chin and bigger ears than I do.... That's not me."
Still trying to peer outside, he hollered across the jail area to Valenzuela and asked whether federal agents in business suits were patrolling outside.
"Be my eyes," he said. "Are there any suits on the roof? Are there any suits outside?"
Valenzuela was annoyed. "If you didn't do anything, you shouldn't be scared," she told him.
"But I might be a Lee Harvey Oswald."
"Just sit down and relax," she said. "I'm sure they got the wrong man anyway."
He breathed deep. "I'm not scared," he said. "I'm not scared right now." But then: "Oh, I'm getting kind of paranoid now.... Everybody's out there...."
By midafternoon, Royce Hobbs, an attorney with law offices on the west side of the courthouse square, who had been trying for some time to get in to meet with McVeigh, a man who he knew desperately needed legal help if anyone ever did, was finally allowed in the building. He was permitted inside only after filing a hasty petition with Judge Allen alleging that McVeigh was being held incommunicado. Then the judge granted another short hearing, McVeigh was brought down, and the judge asked the prisoner if he wanted to meet with Hobbs.
"In regards to what?" said a confused McVeigh.
"In regard to what you appeared before me earlier today," Judge Allen said, "on transporting a loaded weapon and carrying a concealed weapon."
McVeigh did not hesitate. "Yes," he said.
Lawyer and client were given a private room; they spoke briefly, and Hobbs presented the standard lawyerly advice: say nothing.
Then Hobbs was gone; McVeigh was alone again.
And now the agents were coming, ready to present him to the throng outside and the rest of the country -- a nation in disbelief that the tremendous destructive force in Oklahoma City could come from a deep anger born and nurtured within our borders. McVeigh was handcuffed and his legs were put in irons, and he began muttering to himself. "I'm not scared," he said. "I'm not scared now."
Then he was walked out into the late-afternoon sun and the angry jeers from the crowd. "Killer!" they shouted. "Baby killer!" McVeigh did not appear to hear them. He seemed detached, disinterested, showing neither fear nor remorse, neither guilt nor innocence. He stared straight ahead, his eyes not moving. The nation was watching live on television, and Timothy McVeigh, army veteran, Gulf War hero, the modern revolutionary, gave the United States of America a first-class display of his iron countenance. He gave the thousand-yard stare. He was hurried into a van, then to a helicopter, then to Oklahoma City.
Soon he was on the cover of Time and Newsweek, on the front pages of national and local newspapers. Who could forget this image? The television news footage of Timothy McVeigh walking out of the Noble County Courthouse was played over and over and over in the years that followed. His was the face of terror.Copyright © 1998 Richard A. Serrano, All rights reserved.
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