The back-to-back convictions of Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh all but close the federal government’s investigation into the Oklahoma City bombing.
More than 2-1/2 years after the bombing, federal authorities say they have no credible evidence anyone else was directly involved. And while Justice Department officials hope the convictions will douse speculation of a broad conspiracy behind the attack that killed 168 people, many outside the government say questions will swirl about the crime forever. Doubts about what really happened will be as permanent a legacy of the bombing, they say, as the concrete barricades now outside federal buildings nationwide and the heightened security for federal employees.
“This case will linger in the American psyche as one of the prominent unsolved crimes in our history - even though we have near unanimity on the guilt of McVeigh and Nichols,” said Brian Levin, a lawyer and former New York police officer who heads the Center on Hate and Extremism at Richard Stockton College in Pomona, N.J.
“This isn’t just a view held by conspiracy theorists,” Levin said. “The average man in the street has a perception that at least a piece of the puzzle has not been found. That perception will linger.”
Citing a judicial gag order, Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder refused to declare the investigation officially closed. FBI Director Louis Freeh said: “We are not at this point conducting any additional investigations. I think I should just leave it at that.”
In the weeks after the April 19, 1995, bombing, federal investigators said up to half a dozen terrorists might be involved. Now, however, sources say the FBI and Justice Department are as convinced as they can be only McVeigh and Nichols planned and carried out the bombing - with an assist from one individual and the possible acquiescence of one or two others.
McVeigh was convicted in the bombing in June and sentenced to death. Nichols was convicted Tuesday of conspiracy and involuntary manslaughter. The sentencing phase of his trial begins Monday and he, too, could be sentenced to death.
Michael Fortier, who knew the two convicted bombers in the Army, has admitted he agreed to sell stolen weapons to help his colleagues finance the attack. He pleaded guilty to reduced charges in exchange for his testimony against McVeigh and Nichols. His sentencing in pending.
His wife, Lori Fortier, also knew of the plot in advance. And McVeigh’s sister, Jennifer, testified she ignored many warnings her brother was contemplating violent action against the government.
But that’s it, federal sources say.
Still, the possibility of more participants bedevils some Americans and is the subject of a state grand jury investigation in Oklahoma. From John Doe 2, a swarthy man reportedly seen with McVeigh in the days surrounding the bombing, to bands of white separatists, to international terrorists, suspicious characters abound in what federal officials characterize as conspiracy theories run amok.
Beginning minutes after a bomb in the back of a Ryder truck demolished the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the FBI cast a net whose breadth was rivaled only by the investigation that followed the JFK assassination. In all, about 30,000 people were interviewed.
“Not a lot of fish came back with the net,” one official said.
Critics of the federal investigation stress the testimony about numerous sightings of John Doe 2, about conflicting numbers and locations of Ryder trucks around the time of the bombing, about McVeigh’s apparent attempts to reach out to far-right groups.
John Doe 2 was originally identified by employees at the Junction City, Kan., body shop where the Ryder truck used in the explosion was rented. The government suggested in McVeigh’s trial these employees confused that rental with one a day later involving two men from nearby Fort Riley - one who looked like McVeigh, the other who became known worldwide through FBI sketches as John Doe 2.
Defense attorneys counter once the government made up its mind Nichols and McVeigh were guilty, agents ignored - and prosecutors later ridiculed - any witness whose account was at different.
Critics of the investigation have latched onto comments by Oklahoman Carol Howe, who suggested people from an Oklahoma white supremacist community known as Elohim City were involved in the attack. Howe, a onetime informant for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said she once saw McVeigh at the compound with Andreas Strassmeier, a German citizen who was head of the compound’s security.
Howe has testified before the state grand jury investigating the bombing. U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch refused to allow Howe to testify at the McVeigh trial and restricted her testimony in the Nichols trial.
During cross-examination, prosecutors noted Howe never mentioned McVeigh in initial interviews.
As for Strassmeier and other residents of Elohim City, officials said there is simply no evidence tying any of them to the Oklahoma City bombing. They stressed evidence McVeigh made only one phone call to Elohim City; a planned conspiracy would have yielded many more.