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The Oklahoma conspiracy - 1/3
Next week, one man will be executed for carrying out america's worst peacetime atrocity. Timothy McVeigh claims to have acted alone. but new evidence reveals he was part of an undergound network of white supremacists
The Independent (England), May 10, 2001
Imagine this scene in Oklahoma City, in the early morning of 19 April 1995. Timothy McVeigh is driving into town in a rented removal lorry that contains a deadly fertiliser bomb: more than 6,000lbs of ammonium nitrate soaked in nitromethane fuel, supplemented by several sausage-shaped strings of commercial Tovex explosive, all of it wired up to blasting caps and shock tube.
McVeigh has driven down from Kansas, where he spent the previous day making the bomb with his old army buddy and fellow right-wing survivalist Terry Nichols. And now, the deadly plan he has worked on for so long, his gigantic, foolhardy act of revenge against his own government, is about to come to fruition. The front of his T-shirt bears the slogan shouted by John Wilkes Booth as he assassinated Abraham Lincoln, "Sic semper tyrannis". The back carries a quote from Thomas Jefferson: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."
Shortly before 9am, as he approaches the Alfred P Murrah federal building in improbably sunny weather, McVeigh pops in a pair of earplugs. He lights one five-minute fuse and another two-minute one. He parks in a handicapped-parking zone, right beneath the America's Kids infant daycare centre on the first floor, hops out of the truck and walks away into a series of alleys and streets, taking him safely out of his target's immediate shadow.
His getaway car, a busted-up 18-year-old Mercury Marquis, is parked several blocks away, exactly where he left it four days earlier (again, with Nichols's help). But he has covered barely 150 yards when the deafening roar of the explosion lifts him off his feet, knocks out the glass of the windows all around him, sets off hundreds of car alarms and causes the buildings, even at this distance, to shake violently, sending cascades of brick and stonework into the streets. One-third of the Murrah building has been obliterated, and 168 people including 19 children have been killed, in the deadliest peacetime assault on American soil.
That, at least, is Tim McVeigh's version of events. It is the story he gave to two journalists from his hometown of Buffalo, New York, in an extensive series of interviews that forms the centrepiece of the recent book American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh & the Oklahoma City Bombing. It is clearly the way he would like his act to be remembered, as he prepares for death by lethal injection at a federal penitentiary in Indiana next Wednesday. It is an account that, for all the media hullaballoo surrounding his execution, has gone largely unquestioned by the US's raucous punditocracy.
It is also, give or take a few details, the official version presented by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and government lawyers at his trial in 1997. McVeigh, the argument ran, had some help from Nichols and another friend from army days, Michael Fortier, but essentially he carried out the bombing alone. No accomplices, no broader network of conspirators, nothing. Case closed, as far as the government was concerned.
Now imagine the scene all over again, this time with extra details supplied by eyewitnesses interviewed in the immediate aftermath of thebombing and by the investigative work of a handful of journalists, lawyers and academics who have spent the past six years going over every detail of the calamity to try to wheedle out its mysteries.
Suddenly, the picture is very different. McVeigh is still driving the yellow Ryder removal truck, but he is not alone.
In the early morning, the vehicles pull up in a derelict section of Bricktown, a mile from the Murrah building, where the accomplices make the bomb at high speed, IRA-style.
Then, according to the accounts of at least 10 eyewitnesses, there is a flurry of activity across Oklahoma City in the hour before the bombing. Just after eight o'clock, the brown pick-up roars out of the Murrah building car park with McVeigh and another man inside. Half an hour later, the Ryder truck drives from Bricktown to the top of a hill a mile or so to the north. It is followed along part of the route by both the pick-up and the Mercury Marquis, the latter with three men inside. The truck waits at a tyre store, possibly for a radio signal giving the all-clear (hence the choice of a high altitude). McVeigh, identified once again as the Ryder driver, allays immediate suspicion by asking the store owner for directions to the Murrah building.
At 8.57am, McVeigh pulls into the handicapped zone of the federal building, walks across the street and gets into the Mercury with another man. From the passenger side of the Ryder truck emerges yet another man, who jumps into the brown pick-up parked just in front and drives away. By the time the bomb explodes at 9.02am, both the Mercury and the pick-up are on the freeway heading north back up to Kansas.
Fact or fantasy? The result of confusion among traumatised eyewitnesses, or an elaborate scheme in which decoys and rapid place-shifting among vehicles are all part of the plan? And who are these supposed accomplices exactly? How many of them are there?
These are the questions that have been gnawing away at investigators and victims of the bombing from day one. The government itself spent more than a year hunting for a so-called "John Doe 2", a second bombing suspect, before giving up and switching its story to the lone-bomber theory. The original grand jury indictment named McVeigh, Nichols "and others unknown" in what it called a "conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction". When the defence team put McVeigh through a polygraph test, he passed on all questions concerning his own role; when asked whether anybody else was involved, however, he failed.
The FBI now says the supposition of a wider plot was simply wrong. Before one dismisses the alternate theory as the stuff of conspiratorial fantasy, however, it is worth examining the deep flaws in the government's side of the story and asking why its early lines of investigation into John Doe 2, the brown pick-up and the rest all came to naught. The reasons are neither as mysterious nor as murkily conspiratorial as one might think.
The government's problem is neatly summarised by Stephen Jones, who, as McVeigh's trial lawyer, had the advantage of examining every document and witness statement gathered by the prosecution. "They got very lucky very early, then their luck turned sour," he said.
The people who will be named in this article are well known to the authorities; indeed, most are by now either behind bars for other crimes or dead. At the time of the McVeigh and Nichols trials, however, their relationship to the bombing was either unknown or unsupported by sufficient evidence. Even the case against McVeigh was riddled with holes, leading several commentators at the time to speculate that he might be acquitted. The government team had to ask itself: should we dilute our case against McVeigh by admitting we can't nail his co-conspirators? Or should we simply pretend they don't exist? They plumped for the latter, and the fact that McVeigh was convicted and sentenced to death suggests it was indeed a smart strategy to bring to court. That, however, does not make it anything close to the full truth.
The government did not call a single eyewitness who saw McVeigh, either in Oklahoma City or in Junction City, Kansas, where the Ryder truck had been rented two days earlier. Why not? Because every one of them saw McVeigh with someone else.
And then there was the mystery of the extra leg. The rescue teams who cleaned up after the bombing had found nine severed left legs, but only eight bodies to match them with. The government's medical examiner confirmed this in court. Moreover, the state of the extra leg was consistent with someone who had been extremely close to the source of the blast. Who could it belong to? Jones is convinced it must be one of the bombers. In the course of his research he talked to the former chief state pathologist for Northern Ireland who had conducted more than 2,500 autopsies on bombing victims, and told him: "In the Western world, there is no such thing as an unclaimed innocent victim. Everyone gets claimed, sooner or later, unless there is a particular reason not to."
There are other questions for which the official account has no satisfactory answer, notably how McVeigh managed to support himself financially after he stopped regular paid work in late 1992. The bomb itself was not particularly expensive, no more than a few thousand dollars once you consider that the Tovex and blasting caps were stolen from a quarry in Kansas. But McVeigh led an extraordinarily itinerant lifestyle, particularly after November 1994, when he barely stopped moving, frantically criss-crossing the country in his car and staying in motels at almost every turn. Somehow, he paid cash for everything.
From the start, there has been no lack of conspiracy theories about the Oklahoma City bombing, many of them absurd and many displaying the same government-hating bias that drove McVeigh. There was one claim that the bombing was a federal sting operation gone horribly wrong; another that there were explosive packs strapped to the internal pillars of the Murrah building, timed to go off at the same time as the fertiliser bomb. There is no credible evidence for either claim.
» Part 2