March 31, 1997 in Nation/World

Questions From The Rubble Two Years After Federal Building Blown Up, Government’s Case Against Mcveigh Doesn’t Seem So Rock-Solid

Richard A. Serrano Los Angeles Times
 

Two years in prison have not changed the man.

Timothy James McVeigh is still the thin, serious, pale-skinned figure the nation first glimpsed on the day of his arrest, escorted out of an Oklahoma courthouse in waistcuffs and leg irons, damned by a jeering mob as the worst mass murderer in U.S. history.

He still greets you with a look from cold blue eyes, still proclaims his innocence, still demands a jury trial.

Yet this morning, when at last McVeigh goes on trial, there is one difference from two years ago: The case against him does not seem nearly as solid as it once did.

Can prosecutors in fact prove that this decorated Army veteran of the Persian Gulf War acted alone in driving a bomb-laden, yellow Ryder rental truck up to the circular drive outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City at 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995?

The government still cannot place the 28-year-old defendant at the site of the explosion that killed 168 women, children and men and injured 500 others. It cannot place in his hands the ammonium nitrate used in the bomb. It also has no confession, despite the leak of several reported McVeigh “confessions” that tumbled into media reports in recent weeks.

What prosecutors do have is a case that rests largely on circumstantial evidence.

Witnesses have identified McVeigh as the nervous customer renting the truck two days before the bombing. His jeans, T-shirt, knife and ear plugs reportedly were covered with forensic evidence matching chemical components found inside the truck. And he had ranted for years against perceived government abuses, especially the failed 1993 FBI raid at the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas.

But his defense lawyers have woven a pattern of doubt into the government’s case.

They have highlighted widespread problems of contamination at the once-famed FBI crime lab, where McVeigh’s clothing was examined. They have conjured up conspiracy theories indicating others may have had a larger role in the bombing. They have hinted about foreign terrorist cells operating in the Philippines and Europe.

And the defense lawyers hold a wild card - the FBI mug shot of John Doe No. 2, the elusive second suspect. Federal authorities say they now believe that McVeigh had no such companion, but the defense will argue that change of heart is simply an attempt to snip off a loose end that could tangle the prosecution’s case.

His lawyers hope to use those elements of doubt to convince jurors that McVeigh is not guilty - or to let him live if there is evidence that co-conspirators were permitted to go free.

This morning, hundreds of residents of the Denver area and eastern Colorado are to converge in the second-floor courtroom of U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch for the start of jury selection.

Prosecutors in Denver will say McVeigh could not control his hatred for what happened at Waco. They will argue that Waco was the catalyst - his spark, his trigger. Oklahoma City was his revenge.

Their critical pieces of evidence:

A dealer at the Mid-Kansas Co-Op in McPherson, Kan., believes that it was McVeigh and co-defendant Terry L. Nichols - who will be tried separately - who purchased large bags of ammonium nitrate in the fall of 1994.

Fingerprints on a sales receipt for ammonium nitrate that match McVeigh’s.

Two employees at the Ryder agency in Junction City, Kan., who swear that McVeigh rented the truck two days before the bombing.

A service station attendant in Billings, Okla., just under the Kansas state line, who remembers McVeigh pulling in shortly after midnight on the morning of April 19. He will say McVeigh was headed south, in the direction of Oklahoma City.

Debris found on McVeigh’s clothing, knife and ear plugs matching that from materials found on a piece of board from the inside of the truck.

But is that enough to convict McVeigh? Is that enough to put a man to death?

The government also has compiled a string of letters he wrote to a friend in New York during his years wandering the country, letters in which he vented against the government and insisted that something must be done to take back America.

There are similar letters and phone calls and conversations with his sister, Jennifer McVeigh, expected to be a key government witness - albeit a hostile one.

But most importantly, there is the prosecution’s own secret arsenal - Michael and Lori Fortier of Kingman, Ariz.

Michael Fortier is a former Army buddy of both McVeigh and Nichols, a longtime McVeigh chum when they lived together in the Southwest desert. Prosecutors say he will testify that McVeigh let him in on his plans to destroy the Murrah building. Fortier’s wife is expected to describe how McVeigh arranged soup cans in their house to show how large barrels are assembled to make a truck bomb.

The Fortiers are the government’s star witnesses. But McVeigh’s defense attorneys call them liars.

Michael Fortier at first insisted to authorities that his friend could not have done such a terrible crime. Lori Fortier agreed. Not Tim, they said.

But later, faced with their own criminal culpability, the Fortiers crumbled.

Michael Fortier ultimately pleaded guilty to charges of knowing about the bombing but doing nothing to stop it. He received a 23-year prison term, with the promise of a reduction in years if his testimony helps nail McVeigh and Nichols. As part of the deal, Lori, who also must testify, was permitted to go free.

But even if the Fortiers don’t testify as prosecutors expect, that alone will not absolve McVeigh.

So defense attorneys have attacked the government’s physical evidence. They have raised sharp allegations of widespread contamination problems at the FBI’s crime laboratory, pointed to the FBI’s decision to remove several key chemists from the lab and insisted some FBI lab technicians have had a history of falsifying reports or committing perjury to further the goals of prosecutors.

His lawyers also claim there was a wider conspiracy. They have raised concerns about a far-right, religious compound called Elohim City in eastern Oklahoma. They have suggested a link to neo-Nazi organizers in Germany.

In making these arguments, they have suggested that McVeigh was nothing more than a patsy.

They hint that McVeigh was told to drive the truck and leave it at the Murrah building, believing it was filled with something other than 4,800 pounds of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil sloshing around in 55-gallon drums.

The McVeigh defense team can use that analogy - perhaps effectively - because of the existence of one mystery figure: John Doe No. 2.

The government has contorted itself in its attempts to make him go away, saying he was mistaken for an Army soldier at Fort Riley, Kan., and then later that he never existed at all.

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