On their face, many of the more than 4,000 pages of FBI files recently given to defense attorneys in the Oklahoma City bombing case seem clearly worthless.
But also buried in these dozens of boxes are personal letters from convicted mass killer Timothy J. McVeigh, an interview with his father and other witness statements--nuggets that McVeigh's attorneys might have found useful in preparing his defense.
The value of the new material lies at the heart of McVeigh's fate. He is scheduled to die in just nine days.
And it now falls to a federal judge to determine whether the government purposely withheld the documents and whether the 33-year-old former Army sergeant should be granted yet another stay of execution.
Much of the material appears largely irrelevant to his guilt or innocence. There are rambling letters and clippings from a Salt Lake City man who also included a note from his psychiatrist, and inconsequential material collected from an inmate doing time for sending a mutilated pig to a police chief.
But the files may include the secret that spares the confessed mass murderer from his scheduled June 11 death in the new federal execution chamber in Terre Haute, Ind.
According to sources, copies of some of the FBI files obtained by The Times and court documents, the information includes:
* Several personal letters from McVeigh to his sister, Jennifer, during the time that he was serving in the Persian Gulf War. These letters were newly found in the FBI's field office in Buffalo, N.Y., and could shed light on McVeigh's state of mind and influences right before he began mistrusting the federal government.
* An FBI interview in Buffalo with McVeigh's father, Bill McVeigh, about his son's whereabouts in 1993. Although the government notes that this is "before the bombing conspiracy began," it is also the year of the fiery FBI siege on a religious compound outside Waco, Texas, that so enraged McVeigh and led him to Oklahoma City.
* An interview in the Detroit FBI office with Roger Moore, an Arkansas gun collector, about an SKS rifle recovered from a relative of Terry L. Nichols, McVeigh's bomb conspiracy collaborator, who is serving life in prison. Moore claimed that a cache of his guns was stolen by Nichols and the proceeds used to pay for bomb ingredients.
* Several transcripts kept in the Los Angeles FBI field office, including one that mentions "a friend of a friend of a relative of Michael Fortier," He was McVeigh's ally who helped sell the stolen guns and knew about McVeigh's bomb plans.
"At a few points," the government conceded in one report, "the speakers speculated about fallout from the FBI's investigation of Fortier."
* Interviews with Dave Shafer, an Indiana seed dealer who recalled visiting the farm of Nichols and his brother, James, in Decker, Mich., where they discussed a "super-bomb." Shafer said he was shown a diagram of what he took to be the Oklahoma City federal building.
* An Oklahoma City FBI interview with J.D. Cash, a small-town Oklahoma reporter who said that New York Times reporter Jo Thomas had advised him that "she had developed an informant who had informed her that Dennis Mahon was involved in the bombing." The government later determined that Mahon, who has been identified as a white supremacist, did not have a role in the bombing.
McVeigh was convicted four years ago in the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The blast killed 168 people and injured more than 500 others.
He was to have been executed May 16, but with just days remaining, prosecutors suddenly announced that thousands of pages of FBI files had been found.
So now for McVeigh, who has changed his earlier wish to die, the legal hurdles are extremely high.
Many legal experts believe his new June 11 execution date will be scuttled too as his lawyers try to convince U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch that McVeigh did not receive a fair trial because of the withheld FBI files.
Prosecutors, however, insist that the files hold nothing new of any real value to McVeigh's guilt or innocence--just page after page of extraneous material collected in the largest criminal investigation in FBI history.
Paul Finkelman, a professor at the University of Tulsa College of Law, said the newly unearthed documents improve McVeigh's chances at a reduction in his death sentence and lend credence to his belief that the federal government does not play fair.
"McVeigh has discovered that he can continue his war on America through seeking a stay," Finkelman said. "He will use the process to further mock his victims and his country."
But Martin H. Belsky, law school dean at the same Oklahoma university, predicted that McVeigh will die soon.
"The good news is that McVeigh can no longer claim to be a martyr for a political cause," Belsky said. "He is acting like other sociopaths who seek to absolve themselves of responsibility. And the very good news is that it is very unlikely that he will be able to avoid his eventual punishment."
Much of the newly disclosed information centers on the elusive John Doe No. 2, a shadowy character that some witnesses insist helped McVeigh rent the truck that carried the explosives.
But the government has concluded that the figure was simply the result of mistaken identity, and even McVeigh has said recently that there was no John Doe No. 2.
Nevertheless, the question of whether others were involved in the worst terrorist attack in America could yet emerge as a central matter into whether McVeigh is executed or receives a lighter sentence.
After the bombing, the government published a composite sketch of the man they then thought was with McVeigh at the Ryder rental truck agency in Junction City, Kan.
The FBI was immediately inundated with reported sightings of the man. Those reports continue to this day even though the government long ago announced that it believes the Ryder agency employees were mistaken in saying that another man accompanied McVeigh.
Prosecutors, in a court filing this week, said "much of the [newly disclosed] information is nothing more than sightings of men thought to 'resemble' the JD2 composite sketch."
For instance, one inmate wrote offering to find John Doe No. 2 within "95 days"--if a prosecutor secured his release.
The files also include information about Carol Howe, an Oklahoma City debutante. She became involved with Mahon, the white supremacist, and began visiting the antigovernment Elohim City compound in eastern Oklahoma.
The FBI at first theorized that some of the Elohim City residents could have been behind the bomb plot. But the FBI later determined otherwise. Howe later told the FBI that she saw a John Doe No. 2 look-alike at the compound; however, the FBI did not find her report reliable.
Indeed, said the government, "much of the JD2 evidence was contradictory and implausible."
Other newly found material would seem to have only tangential value to the McVeigh defense. One file reports that a man saw an unknown woman photographing an Atlanta federal building on the day before the Oklahoma City bombing.
On the actual day of the bombing, a woman saw a man photographing the Israeli consulate in Atlanta.
The day after the bombing, one new FBI file reports, a "caller overhead a man make flight reservations" and a "foreigner called a U.S. Senate office for directions to the nearest government building."
Other files reported the findings of a survey by sheriffs in Mississippi about antigovernment militias there, with the notation: "negative results."
Still more files deal with a man surnamed "Jacks" or "Jacques" who was allegedly seen with McVeigh and Nichols trying to purchase property in rural Missouri. He was viewed by some as the John Doe No. 2 figure, and the files include 62 photo images provided by the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles of all the men in the state with the last name "Jacques."
Because the investigation was so massive, it prompted a huge outpouring from much of the country, including tens of thousands of leads that went nowhere.
Some items involved "nonphysical beings" while psychics offered to contact "cadavers" for information about the bombing.
Another inmate, identified only as "DP," was in a federal prison at the time of the bombing. His warden intercepted a letter, backdated to the day before the bombing, saying: "No good news to repot from hear (sic), except for the federal building bombing in Oklahoma City. My people do good work."
The files on "DP" run for more than 60 pages and stop when authorities realized he was a mentally disturbed individual serving time for mailing a mutilated pig carcass to a police chief.
Then there is a 23-page handwritten letter to former Atty. Gen. Janet Reno offering to provide "definite multitudinous information in regard to the party you seek whom may well be the accomplice you seek in the Oklahoma State Federal Building."
The letter writer, while not divulging this "multitudinous information," asked for a $1-billion reward, release of the writer's fiance from prison and a London visit with the Prince of Wales.