Citizen McVeigh: Sorting Through the Myths and Facts
[Ed. Note: The writer, Phil Bacharach, got a letter from McVeigh about a month after the story came out , thanking him for his fairness.]In the 19 months since a fertilizer-and-fuel bomb tore through the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, many Oklahomans have come to believe Timothy McVeigh is pure evil, a stone-cold killer whose blind hatred for government made him think nothing of murdering children and adults alike.That perception has endured since the afternoon of April 21, 1995, when the accused bomber, shackled and surrounded by FBI agents, stepped from the Noble County Courthouse in Perry to meet a chorus of jeers and shouts of "Baby killer." News reports from those first weeks following his arrest only confirmed the worst suspicions of Americans.We were told he was a gun-toting militia wacko. We were told he refused to tell federal agents anything but his name, rank and serial number. We were told he thought Uncle Sam had implanted a computer chip in his butt. McVeigh was portrayed as a demon, and we readily wanted to believe it, reassuring ourselves that no one charged with taking 168 innocent lives could be anything else.Now, his defense attorneys would have us believe none of that. They insist the 28-year-old man charged with the worst act of domestic terrorism ever to occur on U.S. soil is really just the boy next door, the product of blue-collar America, a bona fide war hero, a bright and courteous young man any father would let his daughter date. One afternoon last February, when I drove to the federal penitentiary in El Reno where the suspect was being held, I wondered which Timothy McVeigh I would meet. Judging by the media accounts I had read about him, there seemed to be at least two McVeighs -- and maybe even more -- locked away in the prison. I was on my way to an audition of sorts, having been selected as one of some two dozen reporters picked by McVeigh's chief counsel to meet the alleged bomber separately in hopes of later winning an interview with him. McVeigh's attorney, Stephen Jones, recently revealed in court filings that such meetings took place. But U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch has barred McVeigh from further on-the-record interviews, ultimately making the "audition" and the issue of who would be granted another audience with the suspect a moot point.Still, for Oklahomans struggling to understand what prompted the horrors that were unleashed on April 19, 1995, the mystery of who McVeigh really is has proven a particularly resonant mystery. Solving it will not be easy. McVeigh's defense attorneys have used the media to airbrush public perceptions of their client, while federal authorities have leaked a wealth of stories to reassure Americans that the true culprit is in custody. Amid so many contradictory versions of the truth, McVeigh might be disappearing behind a media-woven tapestry of fact and myth.Perhaps it is the inevitable consequence of high-profile cases in the Information Age. Like the O.J. Simpson criminal trial, the federal building bombing case marks an enduring marriage between the law and the media."What you're seeing here is the criminal justice system coming into the 20th century as the rest of the world goes into the 21st century," said Connecticut lawyer and former U.S. attorney Stan Twardy."As society becomes more and more in tune with telecommunications [and] media impact, the criminal justice system is going to experience growth pains. High-visibility cases such as Simpson and now this case are going to be seen 50 years from now as defining moments in the evolution of the criminal justice system."Unlike the steely eyed Timothy McVeigh the world saw two days after the bombing, the tall and lanky young man I met made a good first impression. His handshake was firm. His blue eyes looked at me intently when I talked. He smiled easily and often.McVeigh, one of his attorneys and I sat at a round table in a small visitor's room. The air was stale, the only illumination coming from broken sunlight streaming in through high windows. Convivial and relaxed, McVeigh appeared eager to discuss everything from the military to his beloved Buffalo Bills. After all, he said, reporters provided his only social outlet besides talking to attorneys.Dressed in an over-sized gray sweatshirt and prison-issued orange pants, a leg swung lazily across his knee, McVeigh worried that, while he was never very muscular, he would be "skin and bones" by the start of his trial.By February, McVeigh was receiving only one or two letters a day, a dribble compared to the stacks of mail that had arrived in the weeks following the bombing. The letters ranged from hate mail to entreaties on how to achieve salvation through Jesus Christ. McVeigh admitted he was particularly amused by four "very sexually flirtatious" marriage proposals, only one of which included a photo of the would-be bride. But McVeigh said the woman didn't look nearly as inviting as the slice of pizza she held in the picture."And that's saying a lot for someone who's been in prison for more than six months," he said, leaning back in his chair and laughing. Because he was prohibited from watching television, McVeigh said he passed the time reading, so much so that it was beginning to strain his eyes. He liked history books and pored over newspapers, chiefly the Dallas Morning News, the Washington Times and the Daily Oklahoman. Radio provided another diversion, especially KTOK-AM for news and KRXO-FM for classic rock.He said he had been amused listening to the radio when Oklahoma City experienced its first winter storm of 1996. McVeigh recalled the frenzied traffic reports of multiple car wrecks and treacherous road conditions. Disbelieving, he said he had glanced out his cell window to still see grass, not a blanket of white."What a bunch of weanies," McVeigh said with a grin, explaining that in his native New York, a blizzard meant at least 30 inches of snow. Then he brought up Waco, Texas, and the infamous standoff between FBI agents and the Branch Davidians. Prosecutors allege the fiery siege of April 19, 1993 -- a rallying cry for the militia movement -- was an obsession for McVeigh and fueled his hatred for Uncle Sam. McVeigh called his current treatment by federal law enforcement officials "something of a psychological warfare" comparable to how FBI agents had "clipped the phone lines" of Branch Davidian leader David Koresh. Specifically, McVeigh complained about monitored phone calls and not being allowed to mail a letter unless the flap was unsealed and outside the envelope.Otherwise, he said things were OK, crediting his stint in the U.S. Army with helping prepare him for the routine and tedium of prison. At least now, McVeigh said, he knew when to expect his meals.By talking with reporters, McVeigh said he hoped to clear up public misconceptions of him. He expressed frustration with being psychologically dissected in articles written by people who had never spoken with him.And McVeigh said he was exasperated so many ex-soldiers he claimed to barely know were now touting themselves as having been among his best buddies. The newspapers seemed to want it both ways, painting him as a loner who had lots of friends.Revealing a certain media savvy, McVeigh complained about reporters too often taking quotes out of context and reducing statements to pithy soundbites. If he were to agree to any interviews, he said he would first familiarize himself with the work of the prospective interviewer.Then he leaned forward and jokingly tapped me with his tennis shoe. "Lucky for you I haven't read any of your stuff yet," he said.He laughed and flashed a toothy grin. It was a curious moment of would-be male bonding -- as if we had known each other for years. Other reporters share similar impressions of the bombing suspect. The first to interview him, Newsweek contributing writer Col. David Hackworth, recalls being "completely disarmed" by McVeigh's friendliness."He came off as the boy next door, just not what I expected at all," he said."I kind of expected, from what I had read in all the media publications, this Looney Tune militia guy."That reaction is echoed by Lawrence Myers, who reports for Media Bypass, an Indiana-based magazine chronicling America's far right. He also interviewed McVeigh on the record."What is absolutely astonishing about Timothy McVeigh is that he's not evidently uncomfortable with his current plight," Myers said. "That's absolutely unbelievable, but that is indeed my general perception of Timothy McVeigh -- direct, animated, communicative, friendly, gregarious, good-humored. Very -- I would think -- too happy."Trying to uncover the real Timothy McVeigh doesn't lend itself to shortcuts. After all, the annals of American crime are filled with charming psychopaths, and it's doubtful if even a skilled therapist -- much less a journalist working to beat a deadline -- can unlock a personality within an hour-long conversation.McVeigh's media accessibility is about defense strategy, not psychoanalysis. Any talented criminal lawyer knows to cast his client in the best possible light, a process that can entail manipulating everything from personal grooming to simple mannerisms. And when an attorney is defending someone accused of slaying 168 people, he is sure to tackle that makeover with greater urgency. Jones says he launched the media strategy to let McVeigh counter a "juggernaut of guilt" shaped by a deluge of law enforcement leaks. "From the standpoint of Mr. McVeigh, I think I have perhaps accomplished what I set out to do," said the Enid attorney."No matter how thin you make your pancakes, they have two sides. If Mr. McVeigh is guilty, he should be judged based upon the evidence before a fair and impartial jury -- not before a jury that has its mind made up before they've even been sworn in."If Jones' media strategy occasionally comes perilously close to public relations, he says it became necessary the moment TV cameras rolled video on a stone-faced McVeigh leaving the courthouse in Perry.The "walkout" scene, he charges, is standard PR for federal authorities."It suggests, first of all, that the person's guilty," Jones said."It suggests they're an evil, dangerous person and that law enforcement has done its job. It undermines the presumption of innocence. It's a classic photo opportunity. Bill Clinton could take lessons from the FBI."His client agrees, calling the agency "wizards at PR." Twice, McVeigh claimed, U.S. marshals ignored his request for a bulletproof vest when he exited the courthouse. He said that at the time he feared their refusal meant authorities wanted a potential sniper outside to save everyone the cost of a trial.When McVeigh walked into the sunlight, he said, he immediately scanned the crowd and rooftops of nearby buildings, employing a "thousand-yard stare" learned in the Army. Now McVeigh said he thinks he was denied a bulletproof vest so TV cameras could easily capture the bright orange prison garb he wore.Months after the arrest, McVeigh's attorneys began the damage-control media campaign. First, Hackworth interviewed McVeigh, with Newsweek's July 3, 1995, cover featuring the accused bomber gazing thoughtfully off in the distance. Hackworth said McVeigh seemed well-prepared for the interview."I had a very strong feeling that it was carefully orchestrated, that he had been drilled by other lawyers," Hackworth said."I don't think by Jones himself, but I think he'd been put through a fair number of rehearsals on how to handle the questions. So many of the things he responded to were kind of like responding to, 'What is your first general order?' It was almost by rote."That article was followed by on-the-record interviews McVeigh granted Time, Media Bypass and the Sunday Times of London. The resulting news stories hardly described a monster, but instead showed a McVeigh who appeared to be articulate, intelligent and decidedly level headed.In October, Matsch stopped a defense push for a more ambitious media blitz. Jones wanted McVeigh interviewed by a host of national and regional print and broadcast media organizations, a list that included the Oklahoma Gazette. Moreover, Jones requested that his client be interviewed by a TV news personality of his choosing -- thus insuring likely softball questions from the likes of Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer or Tom Brokaw.Prosecutors called the proposal tantamount to a McVeigh "infomercial." Matsch avoided questions of constitutional rights, ruling that such interviews would be potential character evidence.By then, however, Jones already had managed several photo ops for his client. In June, 1995, he gave color photos of McVeigh chatting with his lawyers to various media outlets. CNN received a soundless video clip of McVeigh demonstrating how he bounces a ball against his cell wall. On the bombing's one-year anniversary, Jones invited NBC-TV and CBS-TV to videotape the suspect and briefly ask him questions.Even McVeigh's courtroom appearances bear little resemblance to the stoic loner America saw shortly after the blast. He seems to enjoy himself at pre-trial hearings, smiling and joking with his battery of attorneys. Meanwhile, his alleged accomplice, Terry Nichols, typically acts dour and quiet.But not everyone is impressed by McVeigh's apparent nonchalance. "It's hard to think that someone could be accused of such a mass murder and, on the surface, seem not to care," said Diane Leonard, whose husband Don died in the explosion.Nevertheless, McVeigh defends his courtroom behavior. Humor, he says, is simply how he copes with his predicament."I'm fighting for my life here, and I'm not giving up," he said.Despite a backlash from bombing survivors and victims' families, Jones says the media campaign has worked. As proof, he points to surveys the defense recently conducted in Colorado. When the trial was moved to Denver, more than 50 percent of potential jurors in the area indicated they thought McVeigh was guilty. And Jones says that figure has not increased, even after months of bombing-related stories saturating Denver newspapers and TV news broadcasts.He said Nichols seems to have suffered by not adopting a similar media plan. According to Jones, survey respondents who say Nichols is guilty have more than doubled since last spring.Oklahoma City attorney Irven Box credits Jones for doing what initially looked all but impossible."Even though I see some of the defense strategy of McVeigh being totally outlandish, they're doing an absolutely fantastic job making the most of what they have and humanizing McVeigh," he said."My first perception was that it was impossible to humanize him. I mean, he was the devil come to life on earth for people that I had talked to. My feelings were the same, too -- what a monster. But I think he's been humanized, and they've done a great job doing it. And I think it's going to make a difference in Colorado."Nevertheless, a makeover alone won't win McVeigh an acquittal or -- in the event of a guilty verdict -- spare his life.Enter the conspiracy theories being pursued by the defense -- suggestions that the bombing was the work of a shadowy plot possibly involving foreign terrorists, white supremacists and even an undercover federal agent. Such speculation has surrounded the bombing since the explosion, but only now is creeping into mainstream media.Twardy said the conspiratorial notions hold enormous promise for the defense. After all, he said the defense need only raise a reasonable doubt of McVeigh's guilt."You're dealing with circumstantial evidence where there's not an eyewitness," Twardy said."There's not a photo of both Nichols and McVeigh placing the bomb. The government has a case of circumstantial evidence. If the defense can raise cracks into the government's theory of what happened, that's how the defense gets acquittals." But who is the real Timothy McVeigh? The question has consumed federal agents, reporters and independent investigators for more than a year, as they comb the suspect's past for that fabled moment to explain how McVeigh, if guilty, could ever carry out such an atrocity. In All American Monster: The Unauthorized Biography of Timothy McVeigh, author Brandon Stickney suggests McVeigh has a sense of alienation spurred by his parents' breakup. The couple officially divorced in 1986, but had separated back when McVeigh was 10. Stickney says Bill and Mildred "Mickey" McVeigh split up because of her many infidelities."People still talk about how she used to go around and cheat on Bill," said the author, who lives near McVeigh's hometown of Pendleton, N.Y."She was apparently going out with his friends. It was something that was very difficult. As I understand it, sometimes kids used to bring this up in school and tease Tim about it [by asking], 'Who was your mother out with the other night?' "The boy remained with his dad. Sisters Patty and Jennifer went to live with their mother.Despite McVeigh's claims to the contrary, Stickney believes the divorce left the boy feeling abandoned."His mother was a wonderful woman, the social light in his life -- and all of a sudden, she's gone," he said.Indeed, McVeigh's life seems ripe for psychoanalytical probing. Others point to when the bombing suspect received his first shotgun at age 15.The gift from his father not only sparked McVeigh's life-long interest in firearms and gun owners' rights, but also, perhaps, the survivalist movement. By the time he was 16, he was stockpiling food and large barrels of water in the basement of the house.Still, his old high school chums remember him as a typical teen-ager."He wasn't everybody's best friend, although he wasn't an outcast, either," said Dave DeNormand, who graduated with McVeigh from Starpoint High in Lockport, N.Y."There was nothing really unusual about him."Indeed, McVeigh enjoyed computers and cars, collected comic books and was elected to the student council his junior year -- just like any all-American boy.After graduating in 1986, he enrolled in a nearby business college. But McVeigh grew bored and unchallenged by the computer classes. He dropped out after several months, taking a job as an armored car guard. And he hung out with friends, sometimes crossing the border into Canada, where McVeigh and his buddies could legally buy beer and check out the strip clubs.He remained passionate about guns. Ostensibly wanting a place for target shooting, McVeigh and friend Dave Darlak shelled out $7,000 to buy a parcel of land in rural New York.Myers suggested that purchase fits the pattern of survivalists who typically "look for a remote piece of land to retreat to if Armageddon ever comes or any type of crisis occurs."It was on that 10-acre tract, Myers said, that McVeigh had his first encounter with law enforcement. In April of 1988, a retired state trooper reported what sounded like explosions on the boys' property. Myers said the responding police officer found four young men -- McVeigh and Darlak evidently among them -- well-armed, dressed in camouflage fatigues and donning greasepaint. The officer, according to Myers, simply issued a warning.The following month, McVeigh enlisted in the U.S. Army. By all accounts, he found a home in the military, scoring high on entrance tests and later proving to be an expert marksman. Stationed at Fort Riley in Kansas, McVeigh began thinking about eventually trying out for the elite Special Forces.While fellow soldiers spent off-hours carousing in nearby Junction City, McVeigh showed more restraint. Instead, he became something of an on-base entrepreneur, offering for a fee to chauffeur around drunk enlisted men and charging a hefty interest on loans he made. Along the way, he became good friends with two other soldiers, Terry Nichols and Michael Fortier.Promoted to sergeant in early 1991, McVeigh served in the Persian Gulf War as a gunner on a Bradley fighting vehicle. He later received a handful of decorations, including the Bronze Star.McVeigh went to Fort Bragg in North Carolina after the war to take the Special Forces qualification course. The Gulf War, however, had weakened his physical fitness and mental resolve. After a hike on the first day, his feet were covered with blisters. McVeigh quit a day later.Some speculate that the disappointment of not becoming a Green Beret soured McVeigh on the military. But Hackworth suspects a distaste for authority already had been brewing. The reporter recalled a comment McVeigh made shortly before sitting down for the Newsweek interview, about Hackworth's autobiography, About Face, when stationed in Saudi Arabia. The book, which chronicles life in the military, is a favorite of soldiers."I said, 'Wow, I'm surprised you didn't read it during the war, as most people I had seen out there during Desert Shield were trying to scarf up as much knowledge about staying alive as possible,' " Hackworth said."And he said, 'No, I didn't read it. A lot of people did, but I didn't.'"I said, 'Why is that?' And he said, 'Because it was written by an officer.' "Hackworth was struck by the response."I think it was an off-guard comment that he hadn't rehearsed or thought about," he said."What it told me was, what we got here is a guy who just doesn't like authority."Indeed, there are darker shades to McVeigh's years in the Army. Those who served with him at Fort Riley remember his enthusiasm for a racist and anti-Semitic pulp novel called The Turner Diaries. Written by white supremacist William Pierce in 1978, it chronicles a fictitious race war after the federal government bans private gun ownership.In the book, revolutionaries pack a fertilizer bomb in a truck to blow up FBI headquarters. The episode, of course, bears a chilling similarity to the smoke, shattered glass and twisted metal that characterized downtown Oklahoma City the morning of April 19, 1995.During McVeigh's time at Fort Riley, he became acquainted with a local girl, Catina Lawson, after meeting her at a few parties around Junction City. Although the woman declined an interview for this story, her mother -- who also met McVeigh -- said her daughter was disgusted by the soldier. "He talked a lot about Hitler's idea of ruling the world -- that he had the right idea, he just got overzealous," said Lawson's mother, Connie Smith. "He said, 'If [Hitler] would have just moved a little bit slower and concentrated more on his plan, it would have worked.' She didn't like that."Receiving an honorable discharge at the end of 1991, McVeigh returned home to Pendleton. But civilian life proved a tough adjustment. He left after several months to visit Terry Nichols and Nichols' brother James on their farm in Decker, Mich.Perhaps influenced by the Nichols' distrust of the government, McVeigh allegedly gravitated to America's far right, reading right-wing publications such as the Spotlight and tuning in to the political extremist material blaring from shortwave radio. The early days of the Murrah tragedy were filled with many unsubstantiated reports. What isn't open to speculation is an angry letter McVeigh fired off in 1992 to the Lockport (N.Y.) Union-Sun & Journal."What is it going to take to open up the eyes of our elected officials?" he penned in a February, 1992, letter to the editor."AMERICA IS IN SERIOUS DECLINE. Do we have to shed blood to reform the current system? I hope it doesn't come to that! But it might."For someone who has been called the boy next door, McVeigh was diving into a mysterious and nomadic blur of gun shows, trailer parks and roadside motels. He spent long stretches of time in Kingman, Ariz., with his pal Fortier, made pilgrimages to the Branch Davidian compound in Waco and diligently hawked copies of The Turner Diaries.But his attorney insisted there is nothing sinister about McVeigh's political leanings. Jones classified his client's ideology as "squarely in the Pat Buchanan wing of the Republican Party." He said several of McVeigh's beliefs -- economic nationalism, support for a strong defense, concern over the expanding powers of federal law enforcement -- are shared by many Americans."I don't see that as the militia movement," Jones said.Walter "Mack" McCarty would probably agree. In the summer of 1994, McVeigh and Fortier took a handgun self-defense class from the 73-year-old Kingman, Ariz., resident."When I see a youngster that's fairly tall, stands up straight, carries himself in a military manner and he's got a high and close haircut -- that's my kind of guy," said McCarty, an ex-Marine."I was very, very favorably impressed the first time I saw Tim McVeigh. Oh, man, I really was." He and McVeigh occasionally discussed politics. Both were upset by how federal agents handled the Waco standoff and the 1992 siege on white separatist Randy Weaver."His (McVeigh's) agenda, politically, seemed to be the injustices that occurred in the country," McCarty said."I never, ever saw McVeigh vein-popping mad. He even talked very low. I never saw him angry, just kickin' his feet, clappin' his hands. He was just a calm-talking fellow." In the end, attempts to discover which of the many Timothy McVeighs is the authentic one might be doomed from the start. It's doubtful Citizen McVeigh can be neatly explained by any single event in his 28 years, any more than the fictional mogul in Citizen Kane was summed up by uttering the word "Rosebud." Easy answers are better left for paperbacks and TV dramas. And nothing can ever really account logically for what inspired the federal building bombing. Monstrous bogeymen and all-American boys rarely surface in the complexities of human existence.Only once in my interview with McVeigh did we stumble onto a forbidden subject. I asked him about the anti-government literature found in his Mercury Marquis when he was arrested the morning of the explosion.McVeigh did not answer. He simply looked at me, his lips set in a tight grin, undoubtedly amused by the transparency of the question. For all the conflicting stories of who is McVeigh, one thing is certain. He can be smart. He knows when to talk, and he knows when to shut up.But he said he wants to take the witness stand at his trial next year. Americans who want to meet the real Timothy McVeigh may have to wait until then, when he no longer will be able to make the ground rules.