McVeigh Found Guilty of Murder and Conspiracy in Bombing of Federal Building

The New York Times/June 3, 1997

DENVER -- As tears streamed down the faces of victims and their families in the packed courtroom, a federal jury on Monday found Timothy McVeigh, an angry drifter, guilty of the Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people, injured hundreds more and shook the nation's sense of security within its borders.

McVeigh entered the courtroom smiling and showed no emotion as Judge Richard Matsch took the verdict from the foreman and read it aloud.

The jurors found McVeigh guilty on 11 counts of conspiracy and murder. They concluded that he had conspired with Terry Nichols, a friend he had met while they were both in the Army, and others unknown to use a truck bomb to destroy the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995. Nichols is awaiting a federal trial in the case.

The jury found McVeigh guilty of first-degree murder in the deaths of eight federal law-enforcement agents who were at work in the building that day. While the killings violated Oklahoma law, only the killings of the federal agents fell under federal law, which makes such murders capital offenses.

Later this week, the same jury will begin to consider whether McVeigh will be sentenced to death. The last American executed for a federal crime was Victor Feuger, who was hanged in 1963 in Iowa for kidnapping.

For weeks after the bombing, the worst act of terrorism on American soil, Americans were riveted by what became familiar sights: the hull of the Federal Building and scenes of tearful rescue workers pulling the dead, many of them small children, from the wreckage.

McVeigh was arrested shortly after the bombing on a routine traffic stop. After he was linked to the attack, the country learned of a right-wing netherworld where antigovernment propaganda flourishes and dark conspiracy theories of a New World Order are spread by the Internet and short-wave radio.

On Monday, as word raced through the courthouse that the jury was about to deliver a verdict, tension mounted among the victims and victims' families who had been waiting since Friday morning.

"I'm anxious," said Roy Sells, 63, a retired Air Force employee at Tinker Air Force Base whose wife, Leora Lee, was killed in the explosion. "I didn't get a vote."

When Joseph Hartzler, the lead prosecutor, entered the courtroom, he saw Sells standing in the second row. Hartzler, who uses a wheelchair because he has multiple sclerosis, leaned out of the chair to ask Sells if he was all right.

Victims of the bombing and members of their families squeezed together to make room for each other on the crowded benches. One clutched a crucifix. Another held a lucky coin. One woman knelt to pray. A hush fell over the room when McVeigh walked in. "He looks like such a nice boy," one spectator murmured sadly.

Matsch (pronounced MAYTCH) warned the spectators before the jurors came in that "there must be no audible or visible emotion" when the verdict was read.

After the verdict was announced and the judge had polled the jurors, one by one, about whether they agreed with the verdict, Matsch lifted his order sequestering the jurors and sent them home. They will return at 9 a.m. on Wednesday to begin the second phase of the trial, in which they will hear evidence on whether McVeigh should be sentenced to death.

Matsch ordered McVeigh led out of the courtroom first. As the spectators left, they hugged each other and wept. Outside, as if by magic, the largest crowd since the trial began had gathered to clap and cheer for them.

Some family members raised their thumbs in a victory sign, and one woman shouted, "We got him!" But others were crying so hard that friends had to hold and console them.

Hartzler, smiling broadly, was greeted by an ovation. "We're obviously very pleased with the verdict," he said. "We always had confidence in our evidence. Now maybe everyone else will have confidence in our evidence."

As Hartzler paused to cross the street, a gentle rain began to fall, and a crowd of well-wishers surrounded him, clapping and cheering him and the prosecutors at his side: the U.S. attorney from Oklahoma City, Patrick Ryan, wearing his usual white cowboy hat; Beth Wilkinson; Scott Mendeloff, and Larry Mackey. The cheers rolled down the street.

McVeigh's lawyer, Stephen Jones, said he could not comment on the verdict. He congratulated Hartzler and the other prosecutors and the FBI agents for their work on behalf of the government.

"We are ready for the second stage," Jones said. "I visited with Mr. McVeigh, and I will work with him tonight and tomorrow for the second stage."

Jannie Coverdale, who lost her grandchildren in the bombing and has been a regular at the hearings ever since, confessed that she felt mixed emotions. "This is bittersweet," she said. "After all, this is a young man who has wasted his life. I'm glad they found him guilty, but I'm sad for him, too. I feel sorry for him. He had so much to offer his country.

"I want him to get the death penalty," she added, "but not out of revenge. It's necessary. I haven't seen any remorse from Timothy McVeigh. If he ever walked the streets, he would murder again. I don't want to see that."

Asked if the verdict had brought her closure, she said: "I don't think there will ever be closure. Too many people are missing."

Paul Douglas Ice, a special agent for the U.S. Customs service, was one of the eight victims named in the first-degree murder counts. His sister, Sharon Ice, was smiling as she left the courthouse. "I am ecstatic over the verdict," she said. She said when she had seen McVeigh in the courtroom, "I saw a monster."

She will testify in the penalty phase of the trial.

In Washington, President Clinton said he could not comment on the verdict. But he said, "This is a very important and long overdue day for the survivors and families of those who died in Oklahoma City." He added: "I say to the families of the victims, no single verdict can bring an end to your anguish. But your courage has been an inspiration to all Americans. Our prayers are with you."

He also said he was "proud" of the work of Attorney General Janet Reno, who also had no comment on the verdict.

In Oklahoma City, near the fence at the Federal Building site, the district attorney, Bob Macy, said he would file state charges against McVeigh and Nichols to make sure that those convicted of the bombing would receive the death penalty. He said he feared that a federal death penalty could be vacated on appeal because the federal statute was new and untested.

On that April morning in 1995, the homemade 4,800-pound bomb shattered not only Oklahoma City's Federal Building and scores of lives, but also America's very notion of itself.

To some, it seemed at first as if the blast must be the work of foreign enemies, perhaps Islamic extremists like those convicted of bombing the World Trade Center in New York. "At that moment in time, no one in America would have thought an American would bomb its people," one of the prosecutors, Mackey, told the jury. "People were looking elsewhere."

And, but for a routine traffic stop of McVeigh on Interstate 35 by Trooper Charles Hanger, an Oklahoma highway patrolman known as "the hangman" because of his zeal, the most deadly act of terrorism in the United States might have remained a mystery. Hanger had no idea of the importance of what he had done. He took his wife to lunch before he turned in the gun and ammunition he had taken away from McVeigh.

The nation was stunned to discover that the chief suspect in the case was an American, a lanky former Army sergeant with a crew cut who had been decorated with the Bronze Star during the Persian Gulf War. A computer search linked McVeigh to the axle of the rented Ryder truck used in the bombing just moments before he would have been released from a tiny jail in Perry, Okla. He was seen on television in handcuffs, wearing an orange prison jumpsuit and surrounded by FBI agents as a crowd screamed, "Baby killer." That image was burned into the collective consciousness.

When he was stopped, 75 minutes after the explosion, McVeigh was wearing a T-shirt inscribed with the motto: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." Instead of fruit, the tree above those words bore droplets of bright red blood. On the front of the shirt, President Abraham Lincoln appeared on what looked like a "Wanted" poster; under it was the Latin phrase his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, is said to have shouted: "sic semper tyrannis," or, "thus always to tyrants."

McVeigh was carrying a 9-millimeter Glock semiautomatic pistol and passages from "The Turner Diaries," a venomous far-right novel that had become his bible. The passages from the novel described a bombing of FBI headquarters that touched off a white "Aryan" revolution, with wholesale slaughter of blacks and Jews.

Among his belongings in the car was a slip of paper that carried a quote from Samuel Adams: "When the government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny." Underneath, in McVeigh's handwriting, was the note, "Maybe now, there will be liberty."

Obsessed with guns and apparently embittered because he had washed out of the Army's Special Forces training, McVeigh drifted, largely alone, through a right-wing milieu, haunting gun shows and swap meets, carrying and reading his copies of "The Turner Diaries."

For McVeigh and others involved in the far-right fringe, three events had confirmed their view of a runaway government out to take their guns.

The first was a raid on Aug. 22, 1992, by federal agents on a white supremacist's cabin in Ruby Ridge, Idaho. The second was another federal raid, in Waco, Texas, on April 19, 1993, that left more than 80 Branch Davidians dead in a fire that consumed their compound. And the third event occurred in November 1993, when Congress passed the Brady bill, which mandates a five-day waiting period for the purchase of guns.

In a lletter expressing his rage over these events, McVeigh often enclosed a favorite passage from John Locke's "Second Treatise on Government": "I have no reason to suppose that he who would take away my liberty, would not, when he had me in his power, take away everything else; and therefore, it is lawful for me to treat him as one who has put himself into a 'state of war' against me."

But McVeigh was not on trial for his ideas, the prosecution emphasized, but for a crime of immense proportions.

As it turned out, an ordinary citizen saw the clue that broke the case, even before most law enforcement agents reached the scene.

He was Richard Nichols, a maintenance man standing a block and a half away from the bomb's target. He was taking a break from his job at the Regency Towers apartments to meet his wife so they could take his nephew to the doctor. Just after 9 a.m., he told the jury, as he and his wife were about to get into their car, they were spun around by the force of a vast explosion. As they watched in horror, a large shaft of metal hurtled toward them through the air and landed on their little red car, parked at the curb. The piece of metal, which weighed more than 250 pounds, was the rear axle for a truck.

Before noon, while rescuers dug for victims in the shattered building that had been flattened like a pancake, from nine floors to three, an FBI agent, James Norman, found a partial vehicle identification number on the axle and started a search for the truck's owner, which turned out to be Ryder Rental Inc. in Miami.

By 2:15 p.m. that day, while stunned Americans still suspected foreign terrorists, Ryder officials had traced the truck. "Robert Kling" had rented it on Monday, April 17, at Elliott's Body Shop in Junction City, Kan., they said, and their records showed that it was still on the road.

By 4:30 p.m., less than eight hours after the blast, Agent Scott Crabtree of the FBI, based in Salina, Kan., was in Junction City, looking for the rental contract and for anyone who could remember "Mr. Kling."

Based on descriptions given by Tom Kessinger, a mechanic at Elliott's, an FBI artist was at work before dawn on drawings of two suspects. The nation and the world came to know those suspects as John Doe No. 1 and John Doe No. 2.

Lea McGown, the owner of the Dreamland Motel in Junction City, did not hesitate a moment when she was shown the FBI sketches on Thursday, April 20. John Doe No. 1 was Tom McVeigh, she said. He had checked into Room 25 on Good Friday, April 14, and stayed the weekend. She remembered that he had brought a big Ryder truck to the motel.

McVeigh gave his address as the Decker, Mich., farm of James Nichols, brother of Terry Nichols. That information led federal agents to the Nichols brothers and, just before he was released from the Perry, Okla., jail, to McVeigh.

Terry Nichols, an Army friend of McVeigh who had tried farming and had drifted from place to place, never appeared at McVeigh's trial. But evidence seized from Nichols' home was critical to the case against McVeigh. At the back of a drawer, wrapped around some coins, agents found a pink piece of paper that turned out to be a receipt for 2,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate, a type of fertilizer than can be used to make a bomb. On that receipt, made out to "Mike Havens," were two fingerprints made by McVeigh.

As the prosecutors made their case against McVeigh, they never let the jury lose sight of the horror of the bombing, beginning their presentation of evidence with the sound of the explosion, accidentally recorded by a machine that had been recording a public hearing at the state Water Resources Building across the street. They called witness after witness who had survived the bombing to tell of their experiences and to identify the dead, most of them in photographs from happier days.

Interspersed with this testimony were accounts from witnesses who offered a motive connecting McVeigh to the bombing. McVeigh's younger sister, Jennifer, identified his handwriting on many documents expressing hatred for the government. She said he had told her to expect "something big." His friend Kevin Nicholas brought with him a letter, written in February 1995, in which McVeigh said he wanted to take action against the government. And McVeigh's friends Lori and Michael Fortier detailed McVeigh's plans for the bombing.

The defense tried to undermine the credibility of the Fortiers by painting them as drug users who had lied in the past, hoped to sell their story and were testifying to avoid jail. But the defense was unable to provide either an alibi for McVeigh or any alternative theory to the prosecution's version of events.

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