Is It a Bomb, or Is It a Dummy?
Columbus, Ohio -- The specter of the FBI's laboratory scandal hung over the fourth week's proceedings in the trial of white supremacist Peter Langan on bank robbery and explosive charges. Two days of testimony were held about the functioning of the government's main explosives unit and the qualifications of the FBI's explosives expert in this case, Supervising Agent Robert Heckman. The FBI last week suspended one agent, Frederic Whitehurst, and transferred three others in the wake of an investigation of allegations by Whitehurst that the federal crime labs were mishandling physical evidence in domestic terrorism cases because the agents assigned to the work were not forensic scientists. An Inspector General's report, scheduled to be released in March, is expected to criticize the Bureau's handling of some of its biggest bombing cases: Oklahoma City, the World Trade Center, and Centennial Park in Atlanta. Any potentially damaging evidence against the lab that might have been raised here was quashed, however, by a protective order issued by Judge John Holschuh at the insistence of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Ohio. The order, filed in November 1996, says in part, "defense counsel...shall make no disclosure of the materials provided to them by the United States concerning allegations made by Frederic Whitehurst related to the FBI Explosives Unit, or the contents of those material..." The order allowed the defense to discuss the documents with Mr. Whitehurst but no one else without the Court's permission.The existence of the order and the ramifications of this decision didn't become obvious until this week, when the defense used some of these documents in an attempt to disqualify Heckman as an expert witness. The effort was largely unsuccessful. Although the discussion and examination of Heckman took place in open court, the 17 Whitehurst documents as well as the defense's original motion and the government's response were placed under seal, leaving the public to speculate about their contents.Whitehurst did not work on the Aryan Republican Army case, according to sources, but one of three other lab workers who was also disciplineddid. Dave Williams, a chemist in the explosives unit, was scheduled to testify for the prosecution but has now been withdrawn as a possible witness. Even without Whitehurst and Williams, the defense scored some points when the judge ruled that Heckman's expertise could not match two bombs any more precisely than to say they were "comparable." The government had intended to get Heckman to say that a bomb found at one of the robberies and another in Langan's suitcase were built by the same person because they ccarries the bomber's "signature," or style of assembling the devices. Heckman was also unable to testify with certainty that the explosive devices left behind in the bank robberies were actually bombs, not demonstration dummies. The defense argued that the devices lacked an initiator, and might not be termed bombs; the government argued that "heat, shock or friction" could have set them off, and therefore they were bombs. This latest turn of events has accentuated the government's problems with evidence in this case. Earlier this week, other FBI expert witnesses had admitted that the available DNA evidence limits the possible suspects to only about 80 percent of the population, and that they had been able to recover only one partial fingerprint of Langan's from the bomb-making equipment seized when he was arrested.The scope of the case here was severely circumscribed from the start: the court ruled two months ago that seven charges related to Langan's arrest, including explosive charges and assault on a federal officer, could not be tried along with the bank robbery case. This limited the prosecutor's ability to bring in the piles of weapons, explosives, and ammunition which would have swamped the weaknesses in the current case. For the same reason, the jury will not be allowed to see the long, hate-filled recruiting videotape for the Aryan Republican Army found in his Columbus safehouse when Langan was arrested.Without this evidence, the government is heavily relying on the testimony of the sole eyewitness to any of the 22 banks robberies the ARA is accused of committing, and on that of two cohorts who have been promised deals by the government. But what had once been expected to be very damaging testimony by alleged co-conspirator Kevin McCarthy seems now to be derailed. Defense attorney Kevin Durkin says that he expects McCarthy's testimony to last less than half a day, indicating the defense may have won some motions to limit McCarthy's testimony solely to events that occurred in the Southern District of Ohio. McCarthy did not participate in either robbery with which Langan is charged here, and was expected to testify instead about a pattern of robberies the group used. He was also expected to talk about the role of Christian Identity leader Mark Thomas and of Mike Brescia, who had been named in some militia and conspiracist reports as John Doe #2 in the Oklahoma City bombing. In earlier testimony by McCarthy in both Columbus and Des Moines, he said that he met with Langan, Thomas, and two other bank robbers, Richard Guthrie and Scott Stedeford, at a Waffle House and later at a Motel 6 in Van Buren, Arkansas during the second week of November, 1994. McCarthy at the time was staying at the nearby Christian Identity compound known as Elohim City. Langan boasted at their meeting he had "already committed 12 bank robberies." McCarthy did join the ARA the following month, and over the next year participated in 6 other bank robberies until the group was stopped last January with the arrests of Langan and Guthrie. Stedeford and McCarthy were arrested in May 1996. Stedeford was convicted in Des Moines this past November on two counts of bank robbery and use of explosive devices in the commission of a felony -- charges based mainly on McCarthy's testimony. Ironically, as the government's bankrobbing case against Langan weakens, evidence grows that this small gang of robbers was but one cell in a national movement to overthrow the federal government and institute a racist, theocratic system of government. A federal grand jury in Philadelphia is expected to hand up larger conspiracy indictments under the Racketeer Influenced Criminal Organization (RICO) statute.As this report goes to press January 30, government sources confirm that Mark Thomas and Michael Brescia have just been indicted.