Thousands of protesters, police, journalists and a handful of victims, along with the simply curious, descended Sunday on this small town on the winding Wabash River as Timothy J. McVeigh calmly and without regret prepared to meet his death at dawn today.
The 33-year-old former soldier spent his last day writing goodbye letters to friends, watching TV and visiting with his lawyers at the U.S. penitentiary here. His final meal was two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream.
"Mr. McVeigh's temperament is very even," said Rob Nigh, one of his lawyers. "He is calm. He is himself. He is prepared to go forward with his execution.
"Quite frankly, he is ready to die."
Nigh also sought to explain McVeigh's intentions in a new series of letters in which the Oklahoma City bomber seemed still defiant and unrepentant about killing 168 people in the April 19, 1995, explosion at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
"Mr. McVeigh has tried to express as best he can that he is sorry for the deaths that occurred," Nigh said. "But that is not to say that he doesn't believe that he was right. He has tried to express as best he can that he is sorry for that pain and for those people.
"I don't think there is anything that he can say that will make it any better, or would ever reduce the suffering."
Shortly after 2 a.m. PDT Sunday, McVeigh was strip-searched, shackled and transferred from his 8-by-10-foot death row cell to a slightly larger, windowless cell inside a small, red-brick execution facility. It is just outside the main prison walls, but still well within the high barbed-wire fence that surrounds the compound.
"Inmate McVeigh was cooperative and the movement occurred without incident," prison officials said in a brief statement.
McVeigh was moved in a large white van, flanked by guards who walked in front of and behind the vehicle. For extra security, more vans were placed around the outside of the execution facility.
At noon, McVeigh ate his last meal, then chatted with lawyers during a two-hour visit.
"He is in amazingly good spirits," defense attorney Nathan Chambers said. "I know after the move in the middle of the night he was able to sleep for a couple of hours, and he intends to sleep again tonight."
On Sunday afternoon, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected without comment a request to videotape the execution. The request came from another condemned inmate who hoped to use the footage to show that lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment.
As the day wore on, state Highway 63 outside the prison became choked with TV vans and police cruisers. The sprawling grounds of the penitentiary, which house the new federal death row, were filled with 1,400 journalists.
Separate fences were set up to corral large groups of pro- and anti-death penalty advocates.
Ten victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, chosen by lottery to witness the execution, were escorted to Terre Haute by federal agents.
Hotel rooms were booked for 30 miles in each direction, restaurants were crowded and federal authorities--well aware of the foul-up over the belated discovery of FBI files--were leaving little to chance. Even a no-fly zone was in place above the prison.
The scene, Chambers said, was "surreal."
"Look around us," he said. "All these people gathered to watch someone die."
Tensions were raw across town.
Officials at the local Chamber of Commerce, concerned about the city's reputation, said they hoped that what happens here is remembered not as the taking of a life but as a "federal event."
Security outside the prison was even tighter than in the days before McVeigh's original execution date, May 16, with 800 police officers on duty over the weekend.
Yet, despite the crush of media, federal marshals cruising the main drags in unmarked white sedans and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms vans parked at fast-food restaurants, life went on in Terre Haute on the eve of the execution.
This weekend, organizers of the Miss Indiana pageant that begins today hung posters of 21 smiling contestants. The drag races went on as planned. Clerks at Books-a-Million tried with little success to hawk copies of "American Terrorist," a recent book on McVeigh. They have been trying to move the copies for two months now.
Darrick Wilson, a pre-law junior at Indiana State University, had to convince family members up the road in Marshall that everything seemed pretty normal.
"My mom was telling me to take the day off, come home," the 20-year-old said. "I told her not to worry: I'll still be in bed when it happens."
Roberta Morlan, a 58-year-old nurse from Terre Haute, found herself in a tattoo parlor, purchasing the second-to-last T-shirt the proprietors had printed before the May 16 execution date was delayed. Silk-screened with a mock newspaper called "Hangin' Times," the shirt showed a picture of McVeigh below the headline: "Die! Die! Die!"
Morlan was buying the shirt for her daughter, a nurse at Baptist Hospital in Oklahoma City who treated dozens of wounded after the blast, including children.
"It was especially the children that got her," Morlan said.
Among the media were dozens of journalists from other countries: TV reporters from Norway, the Netherlands, Ireland and Japan; newspaper writers from England, France, Belgium and Germany. Overwhelmingly, they were filing stories for audiences that have rejected the death penalty and view executions as evidence of an underdeveloped society.
"Most Europeans are very much against the death penalty," said Pascale Riche of the liberal French Paper Liberation.
"This circus," he said, pointing at the TV satellite trucks, "it's nauseating; this organized festival, this fair. It confirms the stereotypes--the worst stereotypes--of the U.S."
Others saw the execution as a purely U.S. enterprise. Homeowners near the prison charged $25 for parking; $10 farther down the road.
"The hotels are making money off it," said Adele Rogers, who does body piercing at the tattoo parlor that is selling McVeigh T-shirts. "People are renting their rooftops and lawns out. Why shouldn't we make a buck?"
Emotions were especially high in Oklahoma City, where about 300 victims will view the execution by closed-circuit television.
On Sunday, thousands of mourners, tourists and survivors visited the memorial erected where the federal building once stood. They paused in silent reflection. They snapped photos. They laughed. They wept. They listened to park rangers tell of the heroism and the horrors of that shattering April day, of the courage and of the carnage. Many picked up pieces of the chalk placed outside the memorial museum and stopped to scrawl their thoughts on the slate courtyard.
"There is power in forgiveness."
"Tim, receive your just reward."
"Lethal injection: It's time, baby."
"Can more death heal our pain?"
There were hearts and rainbows drawn in chalk. And there were many, scores of, "God Bless."
The 168 chairs of the memorial--one for each of the dead--shimmered in the hot sun. There were U.S. flags draped on several. There was a yellow stuffed animal on one. Kathleen Treanor came by late in the afternoon to place a rose-wreathed photo on a chair in the front row: a photo of her daughter, Ashley Eckles.
It was Ashley's chair. She was almost 5 years old when she died.
As the tourists took pictures and the TV crews taped down cables, Treanor walked past the chairs in the sun, heading back to her car. She had to go home to help her teenage sons pack for camp. And to prepare herself to see McVeigh die. It would be, she felt, a relief. As long as McVeigh was alive, as long as he kept talking and writing and explaining April 19 in his own twisted way, she had felt obligated to speak out and tell her story, tell the victims' side loud and clear. She is tired of that. She wants an end. "I'll just be glad when I don't have to do damage control every time he opens his mouth," she said. "I'll be done with this man. He'll be finished. Kaput."
Others, less intimate with the pain of the bombing but moved by the memorial nonetheless, expressed their own relief that McVeigh soon would be gone.
"It's kind of like writing the last chapter of the book," said Tim Caviness, 55, a retiree from Virginia who toured the memorial with his wife.
For some, the memorial brought more questions than closure.
One woman, a 51-year-old secretary from Kansas, said she always opposed the death penalty. But looking at the empty chairs, at the photos of the victims, at the birthday cards from mothers to their children six years dead, she had to pause, rethink. "I really struggle," she said. Her husband was adamant: McVeigh should die, absolutely. Yet she slowly shook her head. Execution, she said, still didn't seem right. "It's not our power to take another's life."
She looked again at the chairs.
"But, I think he deserves it."
Times staff writer Stephanie Simon in Oklahoma City contributed to this story.