The bomb's eruption of heat and pressure--which blew the 1993 Ryder rental truck into thousands of charred and mangled pieces--destroyed windows, walls and hundreds of lives, but it did not destroy the key evidence.
A truck axle, hurled two blocks from the blast site, held the vehicle identification number that pointed investigators to a stoic, crew-cut Michigan man and his friends.
Of course, luck would have its role as well.
Ironically, it was the World Trade Center bombing in New York in 1993 that would help hasten the swift arrest.
As it had after the trade center explosion, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms instantly scrambled two of its four regional bomb response teams. The teams are composed of bomb technicians, investigative experts and forensic chemists.
As they had in New York, the investigators found telltale parts of the Ryder rental truck that had carried the massive bomb, this time on the axle.
But in trade center blast, a similar part had languished in the police lab for two days, delaying identification of the bomb carrier (also a Ryder rental van).
Not so last Wednesday.
The First Day
Jim Adamcik, assistant special agent in charge of the Los Angeles ATF office, was designated supervisor of the National Response Teams. Among his previous cases was the deadly Dupont Plaza Hotel arson fire in Puerto Rico that killed 97 on New Year's Eve in 1987. ATF veteran Dan Boeh, team leader of the trade center investigation, was also dispatched from Baltimore.
Their first challenge was protecting evidence scattered around an unusually wide area. Even as urgent rescue and recovery operations continued, bomb investigators were starting their search of the outermost reaches of the blast perimeter, some of it five blocks from the destroyed federal building.
"Two things made this different from the trade center bombing," said Bob Holland, retired ATF agent and creator of the National Response Team system. "First, the size of the crime scene was mammoth; debris was scattered for blocks around. Second, was the children. When you start finding itty bitty bodies . . . well, it'll affect everyone. You can't prepare for that."
Knowing exactly what they were looking for, agents swiftly located the axle. The truck was traced to Ryder Rentals of Miami, where company officials said it was assigned to a rental franchise in Kansas, Elliott's Body Shop of Junction City.
It was still Wednesday. Smoke was still rising from the morning's blast, but the identity of the truck had been established. It had happened so fast, it would turn out, that even one of the fleeing suspects was still in the state.
"That was a lesson learned in New York," Holland said. "Everyone knows now how valuable that information is."
FBI agents called on Elliott's Body Shop. They were told that two people had rented the truck on Monday. The one with the crew cut gave his name as Bob Kling of Redfield, S. D. He was heading for Omaha, Neb., he said.
All of the information was bogus, but because of the quick trace to Elliott's Body Shop, FBI agents were able to get detailed descriptions of the two men. On Thursday, the rental agency employees helped a police composite artist sketch the suspects.
The Second Day
Authorities in Oklahoma City and Atty. Gen. Janet Reno in Washington held press conferences in which the composite sketches were displayed. By midday Thursday, a sizable slice of the nation's population had seen them.
That same day, FBI agents interviewed three witnesses who were near the scene in the moments before the explosion. The witnesses also were shown the drawing of "John Doe No. 1" and, according to an FBI affidavit, "identified him as closely resembling a person the witnesses had seen in front of the building" that morning.
The witnesses said they saw the man about 8:40 a.m. as they were entering the office structure. They said they saw him again 15 minutes later, still in front of the entrance as they were leaving the building. Nine minutes later, the bomb exploded.
The drawings also were shown to employees of motels and other businesses in the Junction City area.
Employees at the Dreamland Motel told agents that a man resembling "John Doe No. 1" had been a guest from April 14 to April 18. They said he registered under the name of Tim McVeigh, listed an Arizona automobile, and provided a home address in Decker, Mich.
He was seen driving "a Mercury from the 1970s." The manager also remembered that while checking his license number in the parking lot she had noticed it was dangling, about to fall off. She meant to tell her guest, but she got busy.
Computerized motor vehicle records in Michigan confirmed McVeigh's identity, and further listed his date of birth as April 23, 1968.
The FBI also had gotten a call from someone who recognized McVeigh from the composite drawings. A former co-worker verified the name and said McVeigh held "extreme right-wing views," was a military veteran and "was particularly agitated about the conduct of the federal government at Waco, Tex., in 1993."
The co-worker said McVeigh had been so agitated about the deaths of the Branch Davidians on April 19, 1993, that he had gone to the site. After visiting it, "McVeigh expressed extreme anger at the federal government and advised that the government should never have done what it did."
Luck Enters Case
By early Friday morning, less than 48 hours after the bombing, federal agents knew who they were looking for. They ran the name McVeigh through a national computer database to see if he'd ever been arrested.
Now entered the element of luck--and Oklahoma state trooper Charlie Hanger, proprietor of what some call the most notorious speed trap in the Southwest.
Earlier, on Wednesday, less than 1 1/2 hours after the bombing, Timothy McVeigh's yellow 1977 Mercury--now without its license plate--sped through Hanger's territory about 20 miles north of Perry, Okla.
Hanger was suspicious from the outset. The man said he was driving cross-country, but he hadn't bothered to get comfortable and take off his jacket. And the man had no luggage.
Then the man leaned forward to retrieve his license and Hanger noticed a bulge. McVeigh was wearing a shoulder holster with a handgun. He was arrested for possession of a concealed weapon, among five misdemeanor charges.
McVeigh was taken to the Noble County Jail in Perry, the county seat. When he emerged from the black-and-white cruiser he was handcuffed and wearing a blue jacket, a black sweat shirt, black jeans and black combat boots.
Hanger confiscated a fully loaded Glock 9-millimeter semiautomatic handgun, a six-inch straight-blade knife, a billfold containing $250 and a wallet.
Notice of McVeigh's arrest was entered in the computerized criminal database shared by the nation's police agencies. And McVeigh, after changing into an orange jail jumpsuit, retired to a fourth-floor cell of the county courthouse. The cells are iron cages built in 1915, concrete-walled chambers that contain four metal frame beds and a commode.
He shared his cell with two drunk drivers and an accused burglar. They talked about the weather, officials said.
McVeigh waited to be arraigned so he could post bail and move on. But there were delays.
He could have been arraigned Thursday morning, but local authorities were concerned about releasing an out-of-state man on bail, especially since McVeigh claimed to have no permanent address. McVeigh had to spend an extra night with his cellmates.
Meanwhile, Hanger voiced suspicions several times about McVeigh and, according to Assistant Dist. Atty. Mark Gibson, the two men wondered briefly if he might be linked to the bomb blast.
"We talked about it but we figured at that point that it couldn't be him," Gibson said. They didn't think he resembled the composite drawing. Besides, the all-points bulletins indicated police were seeking Middle Eastern suspects.
Also, McVeigh apparently had his hair cut after renting the truck on Monday, so his hair appeared longer in the composite than it was in his jail cell.
On Friday morning McVeigh was expected to face a bail hearing. Gibson said he had planned to ask for $500 bail, based on the fact that the charges against McVeigh were misdemeanors.
The hearing before Judge Daniel Allen was set to start around 10:30 a.m. but was delayed when Allen had to spend extra time on a divorce case.
'They Got Him!'
In Perry, Sheriff Jerry Cook took a call from Oklahoma City shortly after 10:30 a.m. It was an ATF agent who identified himself as Chris Peters.
"He gave me McVeigh's name and wanted to know if we had him in the jail. When I told him yes, he got real excited."
Cook heard Peters shout to colleagues: "They got him in Perry!"
Peters asked Cook to place a hold on McVeigh and put an assistant U.S. attorney, Arlene Joplin, on the line. Joplin explained that McVeigh was wanted as a suspect in the bombing and that federal agents were en route to Perry.
The sheriff found Gibson in a juvenile hearing and handed him a scrawled note. McVeigh was the bombing suspect.
"That's BS," Gibson blurted out. Cook shook his head. "You're playing games with me, Jerry," Gibson said. Cook said federal agents were on the way.
Back in the hallway, Cook saw a deputy leading McVeigh off an elevator. "They don't want you right now," Cook said, sending McVeigh and his escort back into the elevator.
"Do you have any idea when I'll be going to court?" McVeigh asked. Cook said around noon or so.
A helicopter carried a squad of federal agents, led by FBI agent Danny Coulson, to the Perry area at about noon. It first landed near McVeigh's abandoned car on Interstate 35.
Several agents and troopers stayed with the car while the others went 20 miles south to Perry.
At the courthouse, federal agents first interviewed the three inmates who shared McVeigh's cell. For a time, McVeigh was alone in the cell.
Finally, at 3:30 p.m., Cook stepped to McVeigh's cell. "There's some people who want to see you," the sheriff said.
He said McVeigh betrayed no emotion and he was taken to an interview room. Then the federal agents entered, each wearing Windbreakers marked FBI and ATF.
"He just looked at them and didn't say a word," Cook recalled.
Cook read McVeigh his rights. The suspect immediately requested a lawyer and three minutes later the federal agents emerged.
"He's one cool customer," said Gibson, who also stood watching. "The whole time, it was 'yes, sir . . . no, sir.' I've never seen anyone so unreactive and military-like. He's a void, but it's not a tough-guy, no macho stuff. There's just no reaction at all."
The Noble County Court delays had paid off.
"If the federal government had waited another hour," Gibson noted, "(McVeigh) probably would have made bail. He came desperately close . . . "
Instead, an investigation that started with a mangled axle on Wednesday morning had led to a manacled suspect barely 48 hours later.
Braun and Serrano reported from Oklahoma City, and Rempel from Washington. Times staff writers Louis Sahagun in Junction City, Kan., and Ronald J. Ostrow and Sam Fulwood III in Washington contributed to this story.
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Timothy James McVeigh Profile
Age: 27 today
Background: Born April 23, 1968, in New York state. Grew up in suburban Buffalo, N.Y. Parents split up when he was about 10. Mother moved away with his younger sister and now is thought to reside in Florida. He and his father and older sister moved to a smaller house in Pendleton, N.Y. where his father still lives.
Education: 1986 high school graduate of Star Point Central School in Lockport, N.Y. Played basketball and was member of track team.
Military service: Served in Army for two or three years, including Gulf War duty. Honorably discharged.
Employment: Worked about five months as a guard for a security firm in Buffalo. Lived for a time on farm owned by James Nichols in Decker, Mich.
Portrait: Described by acquantainces as fond of firearms and explosives. Kept guns and ammunition in the trunk of his car and would swap or sell them. He and James Nichols frequently experimented with homemade explosives, detonating them on a road on the Nichols farm.
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A mangled axle from a rented truck, found blocks from the devastated federal building, led forensics experts to the suspects. In any bombing case, investigators attempt to reconstruct the device and the site as they existed an instant before the explosion. It is a painstaking process of chemical analysis, physical reconstruction and examination of the damage caused by the explosion.
Window frames, door frames or vehicles in the blast area, can give clues as to the type of explosive used.
* High velocity explosives, such as plastic explosives, can tear or break metal.
* Low velocity explosives deform rather than rend metal.
A grim part of the task is that the nature of the injuries suffered by victims near the blast can provide information about the device. Bodies are often X-rayed for clues.
The distance from the blast point to objects destroyed is used to calculate the power of the explosion and determine the amount of explosive material.
The shape and depth of the crater can provide information about the original location of the blast.
* As much as 90% of the bomb's chemical residue is left at the scene, but the explosive substance changes form chemically in the blast.
* Every surface subjected to the initial blast ends up coated with a chemical residue.
* By analyzing this residue, investigators determine the makeup of the original material.
* All the debris from the site, which can cover an area of many square miles, is gathered together and reassembled. Literally tons of material is gathered and sifted through fine sieves to pick up even the tiniest pieces.
* As rubble and debris is accumulated, even by vacuuming in some cases, items such as door handles, vehicle parts or pieces of the building might be collected.
* Investigators search for pieces that belong to the bomb itself, including parts of circuitry, clocks, radio devices or pieces of the vehicle which carried the explosives. Pieces of a rental truck also pointed to suspects in the World Trade Center bombing.
* If the damage pattern indicates the charge was directed or shaped, debris from items such as sandbags can help determine this aspect.
* The identification of even very small parts can lead investigators to a manufacturer, country of origin and ultimately to the perpetrators. Some groups and individuals leave "signatures" of their work. Such information is shared by investigators around the world.
Source: Brian Jenkins, Kroll Associates; Associated Press
Researched by NONA YATES / Los Angeles Times
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The number of bombings investigated annually by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has been increasing gradually since the mid-1970s. Figures include any incidents under ATF jurisdiction in which a device using explosives and a blasting agent explodes, including premature detonation. '93: 1,880 Sources: Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Activities, 1993; 1993 Explosives Incidents Report
Researched by JOHN BECKHAM and VICKY McCARGAR / Los Angeles Times