Twelve years before the federal building in Oklahoma City was bombed, a group of white supremacists with close ties to the Aryan Nations drew up a plan to bomb the same building in much the same way, according to evidence gathered by a federal prosecutor.
The plot, conceived at the end of October 1983, called for parking a van or a trailer in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and blowing it up with rockets detonated by a timer, the prosecutor, Steven N. Snyder, recalled in a recent interview.
Strangely, and perhaps only coincidentally, Richard Wayne Snell, an Oklahoma man identified by a government witness as a participant in that plan, was executed in Arkansas this April 19, the day of the actual bombing. He was 64 years old, called himself a prisoner of war and had been convicted of two murders. His impending execution had been protested by right-wing paramilitary groups.
Timothy McVeigh, the prime suspect in the Oklahoma City blast, has never mentioned Snell, and federal officials said they considered it “unlikely” that he or his supporters had been involved.
Although the existence of an earlier plot does not link those identified as plotters then and those accused now, it does suggest the idea of bombing this particular federal building could have been a subject of discussion among small extremist groups for more than a decade.
The only links between McVeigh and people identified as the earlier conspirators are extremely tenuous. McVeigh once got a traffic ticket in the Fort Smith, Ark., area, where some of them lived, and several months ago his sister Jennifer subscribed to The Patriot Report, a newsletter published there.
Plot allegedly hatched in Idaho
The details of the 1983 plan came from James D. Ellison, the founder of the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord, an anti-Semitic paramilitary group that now appears to be defunct but once flourished in northern Arkansas.
Ellison’s account first came to light when Snyder, an assistant U.S. attorney in Fort Smith, interviewed him in preparation for his role as the principal prosecution witness against 14 other white supremacists, including 10 charged with plotting to overthrow the government by force. The trial was held in 1988, and all the defendants were acquitted.
In addition to Snell, who was already on death row, the defendants included Richard Butler, chief of the Aryan Nations, in Hayden Lake, Idaho; the late Robert E. Miles, a former Ku Klux Klansman who headed the Mountain Church of Jesus Christ the Saviour in Cohoctah, Mich., and Louis Ray Beam Jr., former grand dragon of the Texas Ku Klux Klan and “ambassador at large” of the Aryan Nations. Beam recently moved to North Idaho.
According to Snyder, Ellison said he attended a meeting of extremist groups in Hayden Lake in July 1983 and told them of the death of Gordon Kahl, a member of another rightwing group, the Posse Comitatus.
Kahl was a tax protester who fled North Dakota in early 1983 after a shootout with federal agents and was subsequently killed in a gunbattle with agents in Smithville, Ark.
“Kahl was the catalyst that made everyone come forth and change the organizations from thinkers to doers,” Ellison said, according to Snyder’s notes.
In late-night meetings, Ellison told Snyder, the leaders at Hayden Lake discussed how to topple the government, using as a sourcebook “The Turner Diaries,” an extremist novel that envisions the government’s overthrow by right-wingers.
According to Snyder’s notes, Elli son told him the Ellison organization had discussed plans to bomb federal buildings and the Dallas office of the Jewish Defense League.
Oklahoma building targeted in 1983
At the 1988 trial of the 14 white supremacists, Ellison testified that in October 1983, Snell and Steve Scott, an associate, “asked me to design a rocket launcher that could be used to destroy these buildings from a distance.”
“On one of the trips when I was with Wayne,” Ellison said of Snell, “he took me to some of the buildings and asked me to go in the building and check the building out. This kind of thing.”
And before the trial, Ellison told the prosecutor that at Snell’s request he had entered the federal building in Oklahoma City to gauge what it would take to damage or destroy it.
Afterward, he testified in court, he made preliminary sketches and drawings. Rocket launchers were to be “placed in a trailer or a van so that it could be driven up to a given spot, parked there, and a timed detonating device could be triggered so that the driver could walk away and leave the vehicle set in position, and he would have time to clear the area before any of the rockets launched.”
“And I was asked to make it so it would fit in either a trailer or a van or a panel truck,” Ellison continued.
Although his trial testimony did not specify which building Ellison had entered - that detail came only in the pretrial questioning - Snyder confirmed in a recent interview that it was the federal building in Oklahoma City.
“I remember this,” Snyder said, “because I thought it was strange that they would go all the way to Oklahoma City” from Arkansas.
“Ellison said that Snell was bitter toward the government because of the IRS,” Snyder said, “and I think these were agents from the Oklahoma City office, and they had taken him to court, and his property had been seized by the FBI and other agents in a raid. But you can’t be sure about any of this, because a federal raid, to a lot of these people, is any time the postman brings the mail.”
Snell guilty of two murders
In 1984, a black Arkansas state trooper stopped Snell for a traffic violation near DeQueen, Ark. Snell shot the trooper, Louis Bryant, as he approached the vehicle, then shot him again as he lay on the ground, killing him. Snell always contended afterward that he had killed the officer in self-defense.
Snell fled and was chased to Broken Bow, Okla., where he was wounded in a gunbattle with the authorities before he was subdued. In his car, the police found a gun that was used in the robbery and murder of William Stumpp, a Texarkana pawnbroker. Snell was convicted of both murders and sentenced to death in the Stumpp case.
On April 19, 1985, a heavily armed force of 200 state and federal officers surrounded Ellison’s remote mountain compound on the shores of Bull Shoals Lake in northern Arkansas. A four-day siege ended when Ellison was persuaded to surrender by Robert G. Millar, who is still the spiritual leader of an armed apocalypic sect in Elohim City, a rural compound near Muldrow, Okla.
Three months later, on July 17, Ellison was convicted of racketeering charges. And two months after that, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The following year, he agreed to become a government witness.
The defense at the sedition trial contended that Ellison had fabricated the conspiracy. Having listened for seven weeks, an all-white jury acquitted all the defendants.
Killer became cause for extremists
From his prison cell in Varner, Ark., Snell began publishing a periodic newsletter, The Seekers, which told of the “war to establish righteousness,” a war in which he considered himself a POW.
The Militia of Montana, which rallied to Snell’s cause in the March issue of its publication, Taking Aim, reminded its readers that his execution was set for April 19.
“If this date does not ring a bell for you then maybe this will jog your memory,” the newsletter said. “1. April 19, 1775: Lexington burned; 2. April 19, 1943: Warsaw burned; 3. April 19, 1992: The feds attempted to raid Randy Weaver, but had their plans thwarted when concerned citizens arrived on the scene with supplies for the Weaver family totally unaware of what was to take place; 4. April 19, 1993: The Branch Davidians burned; 5. April 19, 1995: Richard Snell will be executed - unless we act now!!!”
As the day of his execution approached, Snell was frequently visited by Millar, who described himself as the prisoner’s spiritual adviser. He shared Snell’s final hours, witnessed his execution and took his body to Elohim City the next day for burial.Snell watched televised reports of the Oklahoma City bombing on the very day he died, Millar said. According to Millar, Snell was appalled by what he saw.Snell’s last words were also threat ening. He addressed them to Gov. Jim Guy Tucker just as he was strapped to a gurney for execution by lethal injection.
“Governor Tucker, look over your shoulder,” witnesses quote him as saying. “Justice is coming. I wouldn’t trade places with you or any of your cronies. Hell has victories. I am at peace.”