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Oklahoma Bombing

More than any other event in recent years, the terrorist bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City has galvanized the paranoid psyche. Suspicious minds on the right – the “Patriot” or “militia movement,” as the media has dubbed them – view the event as a heinous act of government perfidy, a terror trick used to justify a crackdown on American civil liberties or, worse, the opening salvo in a Washington-sanctioned invasion of America from abroad. Meanwhile, paranoids in government and in the media and among leftist watchdog groups that find themselves increasingly adrift in the ideological murk of the post – Cold War era, have imposed their own political semaphore on the same event. In their view, the Oklahoma bombing represents an act of terror perpetrated by zealots of the nativist right wing – a rising menace composed of those dangerously nutty militias and racist hate groups.

Somewhere amid all the feverish speculation emanating from both polar extremes lie the facts, which suggest that neither view of the terror attack in Oklahoma City is dealing with reality on a first-name basis. In fact, as presented in the popular press, the government case against a handful of Patriot extremists (which has yet to go to trial) makes as little sense as the convoluted conspiracy theories traded on the Internet and talk radio.

In the cloud of suspicion hanging over the site of the former Murrah building we have a genuine mystery.

This much about the bombing is undisputed: At 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995, a massive explosion literally ripped the north face off the federal building in downtown Oklahoma City. As the smoke, dust, and debris settled, the devastating magnitude of the blast immediately became evident: One third of the building had collapsed, and the bomb (or bombs) had left behind a crater thirty feet wide and eight feet deep. As the days passed and rescue crews probed through the detritus, the body count would rise to 169 people, including 19 children who had been attending a day-care center for federal employees on the second floor. Among the government agencies located in the Murrah building were the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), the FBI, the Drug Enforement Administration (DEA), the Defense Investigative Service, the Social Security Administration, and the U.S. Army and Marines recruiting offices.

Federal investigators hastily announced that the explosive had been an ammonium nitrate and fuel oil bomb, the same type of home-brewed “fertilizer” explosive as used in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center by Middle Eastern terrorists. The FBI initially estimated that the bomb had weighed 1,000 to 2,000 pounds, the payload probably packed in a car; however, in an effort to account for the bomb’s massive destructive fore, authorities soon upgraded their estimated to hypothesize a 4,800-pound bomb, most likely delivered via a truck. The fertilizer-fuel oil mixture, composed of commercially available materials, had been packed in twenty blue plastic barrels. Officials described the method of detonation as a hand-lit safety fuse. Several eyewitnesses on the scene just before the explosion reported seeing a yellow Ryder truck approach the front entrance of the building, halting in a no-parking zone. They described two men in blue jogging suits exiting the truck and getting into a car. There may have been a third person driving the car. A woman driving on Northwest Fifth Street near the Murrah building reported that she nearly ran into a man, later identified by authorities as a suspect in the bombing, who was walking away from the building. Another witness claimed to have seen two men peeling away from the scene of the crime in a yellow Mercury.

Sifting through the debris, law enforcement officials soon announced that they had discovered a truck axle, which contained a vehicle identification number that they traced to a Ryder truck rented in Juction City, Kansas. This lucky discovery became the first break in the case. Meanwhile, the second breakthrough was about to drop onto the investigator’s laps in the town of Perry, Oklahoma, sixty miles north of the erstwhile Murrah building. At about 10:20a.m., a Perry police officer pulled over a 1977 yellow Mercury marquis that had been speeding at more than eighty miles per hour. Officer Charles Hanger noticed that the car had no license plates. Exiting his squad car, Hanger approached the driver’s side of the vehicle; he reported seeing the telltale bulge of a shoulder holster under the driver’s jacket. The driver – twenty-six-year-old Timothy James McVeigh, about to enter the annals of conspiracy theory, informed Hanger that he was packing a gun. Pointing his own gun at McVeigh’s head, Hanger confiscated the driver’s .45-caliber Glock pistol, loaded with hollow-point “cop killer” bullets, and a sheathed hunting knife.

Hanger arrested McVeigh, who calmly – dispassionately, per Hanger – cooperated with his captor. Booked in Noble County on charges of illegally transporting a loaded weapon, carrying a concealed weapon, and driving a vehicle without license plates, McVeigh, a former army sergeant who had served with distinction in the Persian Gulf War, sat in a courthouse jail cell for two days. By Friday morning following Wednesday’s bombing, he would be charged in the worse terrorist incident ever carried out on American soil. There were several strong links between McVeigh and the crime in Oklahoma City, including that his appearance matched eyewitness descriptions of John Doe number one, a tall man with a military-style crewcut. Moreover, a former coworker of McVeigh’s had called the FBI, reportedly offering evidence that connected McVeigh to the bombing. McVeigh is also alleged to have dropped a business card in the squad car after his arrest; the card advertising Paulsen’s Military Supply in Wisconsin, had scrawled on it, “more five-pound sticks of TNT by May 1.” According to other news reports, the FBI also discovered in the glove compartment of McVeigh’s rented care a letter to a friend vowing revenge for the 1993 federal raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.

McVeigh was also carrying a phone debit card issued by The Spotlight, the conspiracy-minded newsletter of the anti-Semitic Liberty lobby. Purportedly, the government case against McVeigh relies heavily on the record of phone calls made with this card, which link McVeigh to suppliers of the fertilizer and plastic barrels allegedly used in the manufacture of the bomb.

In addition to McVeigh, the FBI had issued sketches of the so-called John Doe number two, believed to have accomplice in the Oklahoma bombing. The famous sketch of John Doe number two depicted a dark-haired man, perhaps of Middle Eastern extraction, wearing a baseball cap. Witnesses reported having seen this man with McVeigh at the bombing site and earlier at the Ryder rental franchise in Kansas. Initially, reports stated that the second suspect arrested in the bombing, Terry Nichols, was the same man seen in the familiar sketch of John Doe number two. But Nichols, an army buddy of McVeigh’s, didn’t look anything like the sketch. (McVeigh had implicated Nichols and Nichols’s brother, James, having upon his lockup in Noble County listed James as his next of kin.)

Strangely, the FBI and federal prosecutors soon proffered a revised story, suggestion that John Doe number two, whoever he had been, was no more, most likely having been incinerated in the explosion. Terry Nichols further implicated McVeigh in the bombing, telling the FBI that McVeigh had called him from Oklahoma City the Sunday before the bombing, asking for a ride. Nichols drove from his home in Herington, Kansas, to Oklahoma City, then drove McVeigh to Junction City, Kansas. According to Nichols, during the drive McVeigh offered a cryptic statement: “Something big is going to happen,” he said. “Are you going to rob a bank?” Nichols asked. McVeigh didn’t elaborate but merely repeated the first statement: “Something big is going to happen.”

A search of Terry Nichols’s farm by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms reportedly turned up bomb-making materials – blasting caps, sixty-foot Primadet detonator cords, ammonium nitrate, nitrogen fertilizer, and 55-gallon blue plastic drums. The prosecution’s case tightened when it was learned that the Nichols brothers had made appearance at meeting of the Michigan Militia, an Armageddon-ready phalanx of right-wing patriots convinced that the United Nations was plotting an imminent invasion of America. And McVeigh, it has been alleged by several witnesses, was seen in the company of Michigan Militia leader Mark Koernke, acting as his bodyguard.

It certainly seems as though federal prosecutors have sewn up an airtight case against McVeigh and Terry Nichols. Still, a number of extremely puzzling and as-yet-unexplained events undermine the simplistic case presented in the popular media. For starters, certain persons in surprising places seen to have had foreknowledge of the bombing. According to the Portland Oregonian of April 20, 1995, Judge Wayne Alley, whose office was across the street from the Murrah building, was advised by unidentified government “security specialists” several days before the bombing to take “special precautions.” Conspiracy trackers have had a field day with this peculiar bit of news, which seemed to take on even more significance because (a) Alley is a former U.S. Army general and (b) the judge was scheduled to preside over the trial of McVeigh and Nichols before the court venue changed to Denver.

Judge Alley wasn’t the only person to receive advance warning of the bombing. In OKBOMB! – Jim Keith’s anomaly-packed book on the conspiratorial dimensions of the bombing – Keith chronicles a number of other instances where elect individuals were warned to stay away from the Murrah building. David Hall, the general manager of KPOC-TV in Oklahoma claims that he has videotaped interviews with eight workers in the federal building who assert they were told to expect a bombing on April 19. Per Hall, two days before the blast, a secretary to a state center received the same warning. Keith also reports that Oklahoma State representative Charles Key has claimed that “he knows of two witnesses who heard ATF employees mention that they had been warned no to come to work on the day of the bombing.” Key has urged Congress and the state of Oklahoma to investigate these claims, but so far without success.

Without a formal investigation into such claims, it’s difficult to distinguish rumor from fact, but a handful of other people in Oklahoma City have made similar assertions. Several claim that the ATF had warned its employees to stay away from the building on April 19. Although ATF maintains that five of its fifteen agents assigned to the Murrah building were on the premises during the tragedy, and that all five were injured, other reports (including one from an ATF agent and another in the New York Times) suggest that no agents were on site at 9:02 a.m. that morning.

Twenty miles away from the blast, seismographs at the University of Oklahoma recorded not one, but two explosive “events” just after 9:00 a.m. on April 19, within ten seconds of each other. The Omniplex Science Center in Oklahoma City recorded the same dual disturbance, the second one stronger than the first. The second tick of the seismograph needle as been dismissed by skeptics as a mere “echo” of the main event. However, Dr. Charles Mankin, director of the University of Oklahoma Geological Survey, held a press conference shortly after the bombing and told an assembly of journalists that the seismograph readings more likely indicated two explosions, rather than, as debunkers often assert an “air blast” caused by the collapse of the building or an earthquake. As Mankin put it to the fourth estate, “The news media, itself, even reported two bomb blasts initially, but later changed their story.”

The twin blast theory gets even more interesting in light of several other little-reported details. For one, eyewitnesses – including rescue workers on the scene just after the explosion – reported that the bomb squad detail had discovered another bomb, apparently unexploded, amid the rubble. According to David Hall, the general manger of KPOC-TV in Oklahoma, local fire chief John Hanson told him that “they had found two undetonated bombs in the building as well as one rocket launcher in the building.” These accounts of multiple bombs recovered on the site are at odds with the official version of events that eventually emerged – that a single 4,800-pound fertilizer bomb was to blame for the massive damage to the Murrah building.

The nature of the bomb itself is another contentious issue. More than one demolitions expert has commented that a homemade fertilizer bomb – even if prepared under ideal conditions, which this one wasn’t – packed inside a truck parked outside of the federal building could never have mustered the destructive force of the Murrah bomb or bombs. Brig. Gen. Benton Partin, a retired U.S. Air Force officer with considerable knowledge of military ordinance, believes he smells a rat: “When I first saw the picture of the truck bomb’s asymmetrical damage to the federal building…my immediate reaction was that the pattern of damage would have been technically impossible without supplementary demolition charges at some of the reinforced concrete column bases (inside the building) – a standard demolition technique.” Partin went on to say that “the gross asymmetry in the federal building damage pattern is ipso facto evidence that there was an inside bomb effort and a[n outside] truck bomb effort.”

Which leads us to the inside-job theory. Did the truck bomb terrorists have help from personnel with access to the building? Here we begin to tread into a minefield of speculation, and with the government holding its evidentiary cards close to the vest, there’s no way of proving that particular conspiracy theory. However, this hasn’t inhibited conspiracy trackers from marching into the rhetorical blast zone. And on their way in, they brandish a curious New York Daily News story reporting that several hours into the search and rescue operation after the bombing, “some rescue workers were ordered to stop searching for survivors while federal officials removed boxes of documents…. Groups of 40 to 50 federal agents spent much of the night carrying dozens of boxes from the seventh and ninth floors, where the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms have offices.” This delay of the rescue operation occurred despite that people were still buried alive in the rubble. What if the feds were trying to remove unexploded ordnance, using the cover story of document retrieval? Ask inquiring minds.

Same inquiring minds found at least partial corroboration from Oklahoma State representative Charles Key, who dredged up a sheriff’s department film that referred to an “arsenal room” inside the Murrah building. Apparently, at the time of the bombing, weapons were being stored in that room. Per Key, the sheriff’s film “establishes, beyond a doubt, that the ATF was maintaining an arsenal room in the Murrah building the day of the bombing and that [the] arsenal room was ruptured by the initial blast from a truck bomb.” Key pointed out that the pattern of damage was worse in the area of the alleged arsenal room. According to several eyewitness reports, bomb squads removed an assortment of ordnance from that room, including undetonated explosives and even an anti-tank TOW missile. To date, Key’s calls for a full investigation of these stories have gone unheeded by state and federal officials.

More peculiarities revolve around the key suspects, McVeigh, Nichols, and the mysterious John Doe two. According to KPOC-TV’s David Hall, a month after the bombing the FBI had a suspect matching the description of John Doe two under surveillance. Early in its investigation, the FBI had referred to a videotape showing McVeigh and John Doe two leaving the crime scene in a brown Ford pickup. On the day of the blast, the police had issued an all-points bulletin for a brown Ford pickup with two occupants. KFOR-TV, another local station, tracked down a truck answering to that description parked outside a “northwest Oklahoma City business.” In a June 7, 1995, report, KFOR correspondent Jayna Davis showed a digitally obscured picture of an employee at that business. “Law enforcement officers,” she said, “agree with us [that he] strongly resembles the FBI sketches of John Doe two. We know who he is, but we can’t show you his face at this time because he has not been arrested or charged. However, he wave witnesses who identified him in the company of Timothy McVeigh just days before the blast and just a few miles away from the Murrah building.”

The next day, KFOR described the man as an Iraqi national who had served in Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard during the Gulf War. The addition of a Middle Eastern accomplice to the crime scenario certainly complicated federal prosecutors’ simple story of right-wing nuts gone amok. But for now, at least, the question of why they apparently lost interest in the second John Doe remains a mystery. So, for that matter, do the early reports of video footage shot at the scene of the crime. What happened to that footage, if indeed it ever existed?

KPOC-TV’s David Hall tells another strange story that the federal authorities have yet to explain or adequately debunk. Hall says that on Friday following the Wednesday bombing, while listening to his police-band radio scanned, “I heard a broadcast coming over from the Oklahoma Highway Patrol that they had a car on I-35 and that the car, most likely, had been involved in the bombing.” Hall dispatched a camera crew, which arrived at the scene to find a woman claiming she had witnessed the arrest of a man at 1:30 p.m. She said that Highway Patrol officers had removed a suspect from his car and put him in a “military helicopter.” According to Hall, several other bystanders reported having witnessed the same scene, helicopter and all. Did the police actually pick up McVeigh on Friday rather than Wednesday, as we’ve been told?

Not surprisingly, in the absence of a straightforward story from federal officials, an assortment of even more way-out conspiracy tales have spawned to fill the gaps in what we know. Most outlandish are several well-publicized theories attributing the bombing to agents of the Japanese government, as payback for the earlier gas attack on Tokyo subways, which in this epic scenario was a CIA-orchestrated plot. Not much more useful is the theory spouted by jailed tale-spinner Michael Riconosciuto, who claims that the bomb used in the blast was a military fuel-air explosive, which Riconosciuto also claims he invented. Other speculations revolve around the many McVeigh “sightings” made before and after his arrest. (These theories came to a boil when Soldier of Fortune readers dug up a picture of a Waco ATF agent who bore a passing resemblance to the crew-cut boy bomber of Oklahoma City.) Did someone deploy a series of McVeigh doubles to confuse the investigative trail or to draw attention to McVeigh before the bombing? Was McVeigh set up to be the patsy? If this speculative possibility sounds familiar, you’ve done your homework on the JFK assassination, which abounds in stories of CIA-deployed Lee Harvey Oswald doubles gallivanting across the Northern hemisphere.

Clearly, some variety of conspiracy informs the muzzy events of the Oklahoma bombing – indeed, federal prosecutors have charged McVeigh and Nichols with conspiracy. But what was the precise nature of the conspiracy? Are we to believe the official version of events, that McVeigh and Nichols and perhaps unindicted co-conspirators from the militia movement teamed up to strike back at the feds for whatever reason – revenge for Waco or fear of a pending United Nations invasion? That theory is certainly plausible. But there may be more to the story than we’ve been led to believe, given the unconfronted evidence I have talked about on this page. Did McVeigh and Nichols get assistance from someone or someones within the government, making the Oklahoma blast an “inside job”? Of course, in these days of hyperbolic suspicion, it’s as easy to imagine crazed “rogue agents” of the government pulling off the OK caper as it is to imagine nutty right-wing zealots behind the bombing. But the fact is, the inside-job theory lacks a convincing motive. The theory popular among paranoid Patriots – that elements of the government used McVeigh and company to launch a latter-day Reichstag fire, a provocation to be blamed on the enemy (Patriots) – doesn’t gel because the payoff for evil feds is so minuscule compared to the risks. In other words, the feds don’t need a heinous crime to pin on right wingers to justify a crackdown on civil liberties. Law enforcement and conservative courts have been cracking down on civil liberties successfully for years without having to resort to a terror bombing.

Yet another Patriot theory ascribes motive this way: Inside government jobbers used the bomb to destroy Waco evidence that would have incriminated the ATF. But this theory falls apart when you invoke one simple word: shredder.

There’s another option for theorists that seems to make more sense: Could a federal agency be attempting a more “benign,” after-the-fact cover-up of its own bungling? An agency that had advance knowledge of the bombing but failed to thwart it would be staring a monumental PR disaster in the face, the kind that might lead to dissolution of that agency. Was the ATF illegally storing high explosives and other dangerous materials in a public building, and did that gross negligence literally add fuel to the fire?

On June 14, 1997, Timothy McVeigh was convicted of murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and weapons-related charges and was sentenced to death two months later. In April 1998, he filed to appeal the ruling. In a separate trial, Terry Nichols (who cooperated with the authorities) was convicted on December 23, 1997 of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and involuntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to life in prison and a fine of $14.5 million in restitution to the U.S. government. It appears that it is better to eliminate messy uncertainties from your case before it goes to trial. Much easier to convict a conspiracy of two or three guys.