McVeigh: The Indelible Legacy of a Mass Killer
Timothy J. McVeigh does not believe in the hereafter. When a lethal dose of potassium chloride stops his heart at dawn Monday, he expects everything to be instantly over.
He has not sought spiritual guidance. He does not want a minister at his side when he is strapped to the gurney. He has no regrets.
He will leave behind a legacy of a small-town boy turned soldier turned enemy of the government, the mass murderer who brought home-grown terrorism to America.
When he dies in a federal penitentiary here in the nation’s heartland, a few hundred miles from where his bomb exploded, there will be no more McVeigh to try to fathom.
To some, he is a friend and a martyr to the cause that Washington is slowly taking away our individual freedoms.
To most, he is a pathetic, cowardly killer, a monster who did not blink at including 19 children among his 168 dead because, in his words, they were just “collateral damage.”
To those who knew him, McVeigh will never fully go away.
His neighbors still can see him running barefoot and laughing as a young boy up Meyer Road and down Hinman Street in Pendleton, N.Y., the town where he grew up, about as far north as one can get without leaving the United States.
At Ft. Riley, Kan., his Army infantry buddies recall him as the serious soldier, the grunt who never did the bars but stayed at base to shine his boots and clean his weapons, the kind of enlisted man that prompted his commanders to wish they had “a hundred Tim McVeighs.”
There on the blue-green parade ground of the Big Red One they marched and chanted, “Kill! Kill! Kill! Blood makes the grass grow!” McVeigh sang loudest; his voice echoes still.
In the deserts of Arizona and up in the thumb of Michigan, and along the byways of America that he drove in a series of old, battered cars, he embodied that aimless, rootless spirit of many young men of the 1990s, seeking purpose in a life they found increasingly alienating.
He too grew angry, his hate directed at the federal government, and he mailed letters to his sister and friends, ultimately pledging to “take action” and avenge the atrocity of the Branch Davidian siege.
He even once left a message on his sister’s word processor: “Die, you spineless cowardice bastards!” He meant federal law enforcement, and his words still resonate at the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, where agents worry that a McVeigh “martyrdom” might inspire others to follow his crusade.
Finally there is Oklahoma City itself; where the city block that was once the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building is now a national memorial.
Most of the memorial is given over to stories of the victims. But gazing at the reflecting pool and touring the site, visitors still hear the echo of McVeigh’s terrible handiwork: an audiotape of the bomb itself, taken on the morning of April 19, 1995.
Signposts Along the Way for McVeigh
What created Timothy McVeigh?
As a boy he was a blue-eyed, smiling Timmy with swirling golden locks who often came rushing through neighbors’ front doors without knocking. He became a steel-eyed, grim-faced Timothy McVeigh with the trademark Army buzz cut, who pulled up in a loaded Ryder rental truck at the front entrance to the Murrah building.
Along the way there were defining moments in his 33 years. To him they were signposts, each one a betrayal leaving him feeling abandoned, and lost.
To adapt, he learned to be alone and cherish his solitude. He often would pull off on a lonely road somewhere; he liked to sleep under the stars. There he could relive his heroics in the Persian Gulf War, where he won the Bronze Star. He also could plot his “strike” against the government.
He was alone even when he was arrested about an hour after the bombing, headed north in his rusting 1977 Mercury Grand Marquis with the odometer about to turn over. He told the state trooper that he was in the process of moving. Back then, he was always on the move.
He had a coal-black .45-caliber Glock military assault pistol, Model 21, under his jacket. He was arrested and eventually tied to the bombing. Two years later, he was convicted of the worst mass murder in the United States, and sentenced to die.
Those long hours alone stood him in good stead for what came next--a tiny cell and soon, a death row cell in Indiana.
And it was those defining moments that helped get him there:
* The Blizzard of 1977 shut down the Pendleton area. For several days, the McVeigh family holed up inside their home, waiting out the snowstorm, and 8-year-old Tim made a fallout shelter in the basement. He began stockpiling canned goods and bottled water.
His father, Bill, worked the late-shift at an auto parts assembly plant and slept during the day. His mother, Mickey, was a travel agent and often away from home. She was gone during the blizzard.
His parents fought often and his mother, after several breakups, left for good. That left Tim, the only son sandwiched between two sisters, to shoulder much of the responsibility at home and try to raise himself.
He grew to hate his mother.
* In May 1988, he joined the Army on a whim, a 20-year-old bored with working as a private security guard. He liked the feel of a gun on his hip, but he wanted more of a challenge. He wanted a career. His beloved grandfather, Eddie McVeigh, had given him his first gun, and soon Army Sgt. Timothy McVeigh became quite the marksman.
He loved soldiering--the long hikes, the drills, above all the weapons. Sent to the Gulf War, he specialized as a tank gunner, where his crew mates marveled at his precision at killing enemy Iraqi soldiers. He was a dead-on shot under the sizzling desert sun, sometimes at distances of several football fields.
But what he wanted most was a chance to join the elite Special Forces, to live out his boyhood dream of being a commando, a Rambo-like character surviving by his own hands and know-how.
He was asked to try out when he was still in the Middle East. He was tired, had lost weight, and his feet--in newly issued boots--were sore.
* In April 1991, he arrived for Special Forces training in North Carolina. But on an afternoon hike on just his second day there, carrying 45 pounds of rocks in his rucksack, he stopped at a wooded stream. His feet were blistered; exhausted, he knew he could not go on.
So he quit. He was sent home to Ft. Riley, where he began to stew and fester, and to read far-right literature like the racist tract “The Turner Diaries.”
He blamed the Army for letting him down, and from there he learned to hate the government.
* Two years later, David Koresh and his Branch Davidians were under siege by federal officers near Waco, Texas. McVeigh was one of many who came to watch, setting up shop on the hood of his car, selling anti-government bumper stickers--$1.50 apiece or four for $5.
By now he was well into the “patriot” movement. Though not a joiner in any of the burgeoning militias around the country, he was touring the gun shows and propagating the cause. He was already incensed over federal government actions at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, where a woman and her son were fatally shot during a 1992 standoff with federal agents.
Now he was drawn to Waco.
He came in March 1993, and what he saw enraged him. Federal agents were using Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and to McVeigh there was no mistaking those tanks. He had ridden them in the Persian Gulf, he had gone to war atop those very tanks to shoot at America’s enemies. Now he saw those same machines directed at American citizens.
Sitting atop the hood of his car, in a red flannel shirt with his sleeves rolled up, he spoke to college reporter Michelle Rauch. His words echoed the mounting unrest on the far right.
“I’m out here to make a statement,” he said, his first real brush with making a name for himself. ". . . It seems the ATF just wants a chance to play with their toys paid for by government money.”
* A month later, on April 19, 1993, at a friend’s home in Decker, Mich., he was staring at the television, hardhearted, one of millions of Americans watching as the Branch Davidian compound went up in flames. Some 80 lives were lost.
McVeigh’s hatred was complete.
For good or ill, he touched many lives.
Old Army buddy Michael Fortier, a doper and braggart and fellow government hater, said McVeigh often popped in and out of his trailer home in hot, dusty Kingman, Ariz.
“Well, if you don’t consider what happened in Oklahoma, Tim is a good person,” Fortier would testify at his friend’s trial. “He would stop and help somebody that’s broken down on the side of the road.”
Terry L. Nichols was another former Army pal, older, and he too resented the federal government. Nichols had failed at everything he tried, from farming to fatherhood. He had been raised with his brother, James Nichols, in Decker, and had grown up tossing small bombs to blow out tree stumps on the family farm.
Still pals after leaving the Army, Terry Nichols would help McVeigh store the bomb ingredients. The government would claim he also helped him assemble the bomb. Two days after the blast, when McVeigh and Nichols were both identified as co-conspirators, Nichols cracked.
During nine hours of FBI questioning in the basement of the Herington, Kan., police building, he gave up McVeigh.
“We were good friends. For five years . . . ,” he said. “But it looks like . . . maybe he did it. And I think I may have . . . I may have accidentally helped him in doing it.”
McVeigh’s first lawyer in the bombing case was John Coyle, an Oklahoma City attorney who knew some of the dead. He had a wife and children and a good law practice. He did not want to endanger them.
“If ever anyone needed a lawyer, it is this young man,” Coyle said. “And it should not be me.”
He asked to be removed from the case, and Stephen Jones from nearby Enid, Okla., stepped in. Jones, a failed Republican politician who had represented death penalty defendants in the past, quickly made the case as much about himself, reveling in the worldwide spotlight cast upon him and his famous client.
Jones’ defense would be that “others unknown” blew up the Murrah building. He would contend that McVeigh was merely a “patsy” used by higher-ups to harm the federal government. He would argue that McVeigh simply was “being a soldier” by refusing to identify his handlers.
“Dead men do not tell tales,” he warned the jury at McVeigh’s Denver trial in June 1997. “I say again, the government may not be the only people that want my client executed.”
Joseph Hartzler was the chief prosecutor. He was smart and driven and good-hearted, but sometimes came off cocky. Hartzler and his team put together a dazzling display of hard evidence, scientific testimony and victim witnesses.
When he was first appointed to the case, he quipped, with a touch of arrogance: “Whoever did this should spend some time in hell. I just want to accelerate that process.”
Diagnosed as Sane, Seeking Celebrity
But McVeigh does not believe in hell. He does not believe in heaven either. He believes in the cause.
Over the years he has been studied repeatedly. A defense psychiatrist found him to be clearly sane, remarkably so, with a high IQ and well aware of what he was doing in the driver’s seat of that Ryder rental truck. He also diagnosed him as clinically depressed, a product of that loneliness going back to the 1977 blizzard.
Another expert, a psychologist for the prosecution, said there is another dimension to McVeigh--that of someone seeking celebrity.
Oklahoma City brought him status. And the government he despised handed him the chance to prolong that status when, just days before his original May 16 execution date, the FBI disclosed newly discovered documents that had never been turned over to defense attorneys.
The foul-up gave McVeigh another 25 days of life and brought him yet more attention.
It played into what the prosecution psychologist said was “a combination of [McVeigh’s] narcissism and boredom, and there may be certain grandiose fantasies too.”
“In the narcissism there is a sense of being a legend in one’s own mind,” said the psychologist, who asked that his name be withheld because of his work for the government. “There’s an inflation of one’s self and one’s importance, and sometimes there’s even a sense of immortality, that somehow your execution or death is not real. It becomes so pervaded with grandiosity that, instead of being frightened of death, it’s embraced.
“And he was a sensation seeker. To the max. And being in prison, particularly in general isolation, it’s just exceedingly boring. Particularly if you’re drawn to sensation. He would be deeply bored, enough to feel it consciously day in and day out.
“So I think he will increasingly know this is his last call, as the execution date approaches. His defenses likely will begin to crumble and come apart, and then he’ll be more amenable to wanting to make a statement, to solidify his place in history, that the government was the evil one all along.
“It completes for him the fantasy of being the first hero of the Second American Revolution.”
A Warning of a Call to Arms
Waco was his Bunker Hill, and standing at the fence in front of Fortier’s yard, in the late summer of 1994--a deadly hot time in Arizona--McVeigh issued his call to arms.
“Tim was telling me what he meant by taking action,” Fortier would recall. “He told me that him and Terry were thinking of blowing up a building.”
Their plans were intricate. He and Nichols rented storage lockers in Arizona and Kansas. They stole dynamite from a Kansas quarry, purchased fuel oil in Texas and visited grain elevators to buy large pallets of fertilizer.
McVeigh took on an alias--Robert Kling, a name borrowed from his love of “Star Trek.” He rented a 15-foot Ryder truck, big enough to hold 5,000 pounds. And he brought along earplugs to protect himself from the deafening blast that came at 9:02 a.m. on a Wednesday, a busy midweek workday.
But there were screw-ups. McVeigh’s fingerprints were found on an old fertilizer receipt at Nichols’ home. He gave his real name to the owner of the Dreamland Hotel in Junction City, Kan., where he spent his last days renting and filling the truck.
Normally careful to avoid highway toll booths because he believed they had cameras that spied on motorists, he was caught on a video camera in a McDonald’s restaurant, buying a hot fruit pie just before taking a short walk to pick up the truck.
There were other miscues too--or did he want to get caught? No license plate on his getaway car, a red flag for any policeman. A package of papers, his “manifesto,” on the front seat, with a card on top on which McVeigh had written, “Obey the Constitution of the United States and we won’t shoot you.”
Inside were clippings recounting the Revolutionary War and documents railing about high taxes and the “slaughter” near Waco.
When he was photographed at the sheriff’s office in Perry, Okla., he wore a T-shirt with two quotations. The Latin phrase “Sic semper tyrannis” (Thus ever to tyrants), and a quote from Thomas Jefferson, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
Two days later, when FBI agents realized McVeigh was their man, they converged on the jail in Perry. They asked McVeigh if he knew why they were there and he blurted out: “Yes. That thing in Oklahoma City, I guess.”
A Shattering of Innocence
The story of Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing is one of ruined lives, even beyond the 168 killed and more than 500 injured.
Terry Nichols was given life with no parole in federal prison, and now state officials in Oklahoma are seeking to try him a second time in the hopes of a death sentence.
Fortier, who knew McVeigh’s intentions and helped him sell a cache of stolen guns to finance the bombing, is serving 12 years.
America’s innocence was shattered.
As a boy, McVeigh said he one day wanted to own a gun store. It never happened. As a soldier, he dreamed of being a Green Beret. He never got his wish. As a “patriot,” he hoped to spark a new rebellion against the government. He failed.
Now it is his turn to pay.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
The Execution Site
Timothy McVeigh’s execution Monday will be witnessed by 10 victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, along with media and government witnesses. McVeigh will be put to death by lethal injection.
Events Preceding Execution
Between Thursday and Monday
Two hours before By this morning, McVeigh will be moved to execution facility holding cell.
One hour before
McVeigh will be searched by an “escort team,” secured
with restraints, removed from holding cell and escorted to
In the execution room
The restraints will be removed. He will then be
strapped to the table and IVs inserted into his arm. Government witnesses will already be in their witness room. Remaining witnesses will be admitted to the facility to separate rooms.
The execution (5 a.m. PDT)
Drapes will be opened and McVeigh will be allowed a final statement. The warden will read relevant portions of the Judgment and Order, and then ask the Marshal if the execution can proceed. The Marshal will then check with the Dept. of Justice, and if a stay is not entered by a court, the execution will occur.
Victims: seven family members of deceased victims, two survivors with physical injuries, one survivor. Other victims will witness the execution via closed-circuit television from Oklahoma City.
Media: 10 members of news media.
Inmate witnesses: Six witnesses, including a spritual adviser, two attorneys and three family members or friends.
* Demonstrators will be allowed to begin protesting shortly after midnight on June 11. Buses will transport protesters to separate 50-person tents provided for death penalty opponents and supporters.
Sources: U.S. Dept. of Justice; U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of Indiana; Federal Bureau of Prisons
Researched by JULIE SHEER /Los Angeles Times