Death blew out of Kansas in a lumbering yellow truck.
Profile of a profiler
‘It didn’t belong there’
After Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols built the bomb in the back of the Ryder truck McVeigh had rented only days before, according to court records and from his own account, McVeigh drove a circuitous route into Oklahoma toward his target: the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
Near Emporia, Kan., McVeigh checked the explosive load: a homemade bomb made with racing fuel and fertilizer weighing thousands of pounds.
He stopped for a rest in the cab of the truck near Blackwell, along Interstate 35. Then he drove on. It was 15 years ago, on April 19, 1995.
According to a defense chronology prepared by several of McVeigh’s attorneys, a copy of which is maintained on the Web site of PBS’s “Frontline,” he took the Harrison/Fourth Street exit into downtown Oklahoma City. He drove behind the federal building, “then turned north on a one-way street.”
“On Fifth Street he turned right,” the chronology continues. “At the chain link fence in front of the Firestone he pulled over and lit the five-minute fuse.”
McVeigh, a decorated soldier, arranged two fuses for the bomb, according to the records ” an approach often used by the U.S. military. The first fuse lit is the backup, often a long, waxed string called “cannon fuse” that burns slowly at a consistent rate, so that lengths of it can be measured in time-per-foot.
The second fuse is the “primary,” the one intended to detonate the bomb.
“He pulled back into the street and at the light at Harvey and N.W. Fifth Street he lit the primary fuse. When the light turned, he pulled into the parking spot in front of the Murrah Building,” the documents state.
The documents describe cars around McVeigh as he pulled up to the parking lane in front of the Murrah Federal Building. It describes a woman he saw going into the building and the actions he took leaving the truck.
“He left the vehicle in drive, turned off the ignition switch, set the parking brake, dropped the key behind the seat, opened the door, locked it, got out and shut the door behind him,” according to the chronology.
That key ” or at least, a key ” would become very important in the case against McVeigh. A profiler with the Federal Bureau of Investigation would have a key photographed laying on the ground next to where the YMCA building then stood, now a parking lot for the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum.
That picture of a steel, double-sided Ford key now hangs in the memorial. But is it the right key?
Profile of a profilerThe Ryder truck key exploded into evidence at McVeigh’s trial in 1997. On May 13, FBI photographer Dawn Hester walked to the stand and testified that two years previous, she photographed a chilling piece of evidence.
“It was cold, windy and rainy,” Hester told the court. “I stood by until they found something for me to photograph before they moved in.”
“Do you recall what area you were searching on the morning?” asked government prosecutor Joseph P. Hartzler.
“We were in the alley. “¦ It’s off of Robinson,” Hester said, “I photographed a key.”
Co-defense attorney Robert Nigh Jr. cross-examined Hester about the item. “Who called you over to take a photograph of the key?” he asked.
“Mark Young,” Hester said. “It was Agent Young who found the key.”
Although he was never put under oath and never testified at McVeigh’s trial, Young’s presence at the bombing site had its irony. In 1993, at the height of the siege at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, Young and a fellow profiler, Peter Smerick, were boots on the ground, advising tactical teams about the Davidian leader, David Koresh.
As tensions rose in the standoff, Young’s was the voice of reason, according to a Justice Department report that followed the conflagration. The report states that he and Smerick warned the increasing pressure from the tactical teams would play into Koresh’s apocalyptic hold on his followers:
“Agents Smerick and Young were not Monday morning quarterbacks as we panelists are; they were members of the FBI team on the field of play. The agents went on to emphasize that the strategy of negotiations, coupled with ever-increasing tactical presence was inapplicable.”
The report includes an excerpt from a 1993 memo the two agents wrote: “In this situation, however, it is believed this strategy, if carried to excess, could eventually be counterproductive and could result in loss of life.”
The report continues: “The agents also were fully aware that Koresh’s followers believed in his teachings and would ‘die for his cause.’ “¦ The agents further recommended that, ‘since these people fear law enforcement, offer them the opportunity of surrendering to a neutral party of their choosing accompanied by appropriate law enforcement personnel.'”
As millions watched on TV on April 19, 1993, the final assault on the compound nonetheless commenced. A fire rose, consuming the compound, leaving about 80 dead, nine survivors, mountains of videotape and too many questions. For months, visitors who identified with the dead Davidians made pilgrimages to the site ” among them, McVeigh, who frequently stated that Waco prompted his bombing.
“I have concluded that decision-making at Waco failed to give due regard to the FBI experts who had the proper understanding of how to deal with an unconventional group like the Branch Davidians,” said Harvard psychiatry and law professor Alan A. Stone, who wrote the report.
These days, retired from the FBI and pursuing a consulting business in Texas, Young doesn’t wonder about McVeigh’s motivation.
“People that are going to do something anyway, it’s really great for them to take that justification,” Young said. “Had it not been for Waco, would he have still done it at another date? Maybe. He was gearing up for a while.”
Young said McVeigh was disgruntled about his failure to be accepted into the U.S. Special Forces, and of his defining moments in the Gulf War.
“You see a lot of folks who, because of some occurrence in their life, they decide to be list-makers or grudge-hold-ers,” Young said. “When it comes to the attention of law enforcement, it usually goes beyond just thinking into some sort of action. It may be that’s where he was.”
Into the action is where Young found himself on that rainy day on April 22, 1995.
‘It didn’t belong there’Now that the case is settled and McVeigh long dead from the needle of a federal execution in 2001, the chaos of the bombing seems distant to most ” like something in a museum. The starkness, uncertainty and shock of the time are conjured back, however, in Young’s firsthand recollection.
“In Oklahoma City, whenever we had to deal with a body, at the end of the day, we had to go to a decontamination station. That had never happened before. It’s sad we’d progressed to know how to deal with it,” he said.
Sifting the devastation, Young and other agents gathered evidence. The morning before came the news: A man fitting the FBI sketch of “Unsub #1″ ” the sketch that resembled McVeigh ” was sitting in the Noble County Jail north of Oklahoma City.
During that same time, Young alerted fellow agents to the key’s presence.
“The key “¦ I didn’t have any idea of the significance it was, the day I was back there in that alley,” he said.
McVeigh’s principal attorney during the trial in Denver, Stephen Jones, was concerned because prosecutors seemed to be treating the key as innocuous.
“I know that the key was a source of concern to us because the FBI and “¦ prosecutors had deliberately tried to downplay the significance of their find,” Jones said. “They had given us over 100,000 pictures relating to the investigation and they had described these pictures. And in the description of the picture that had the key in it, they didn’t say ‘key to the Ryder truck.’ I think they said ‘picture of debris’ or something to that sort.”
Young said that, in fact, most of the items collected were blast-damaged debris, but the key was different.
“I saw this Ford key laying there, and I said, ‘This is out of place,'” Young said. “Part of the training I’ve been through as an evidence-response team leader “¦ when you see something that doesn’t belong, it draws your attention. It didn’t belong there. In relation to other blast-damaged items, it was something that was left there.”
He said other team members questioned him about the find.
“Of course people said, ‘Well, people’s cars are here.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but people’s cars always have a key chain, other keys, something on them. There is something not right about this.’ My guys (who) gave me a bad time about it were on my team,” Young said.
Jones said he questioned the relevance of the key before the jury.
“No fingerprints were on it,” Jones said. “It wasn’t clear whether it had been placed there, blown there or dropped there.”
‘No explanation’The key, however, would become vital to the case against McVeigh. Following McVeigh’s conviction in Denver, Rocky Mountain News reporter Lynn Bartels wrote about the outcome:
“The jury relied on circumstantial evidence, including McVeigh’s fingerprint on a receipt for ammonium nitrate, and the key to a Ryder truck found in the alley where McVeigh said he planned to stash his getaway car,” Bartels wrote.
Young said it was McVeigh who told an accomplice, Michael Fortier, that he’d thrown the key down in the alley.
“I think it validated some other information that, in addition to locating it, he told another person who had testified,” Young said. “If I recall, one of the searches at a residence located a hand-drawn map, and McVeigh told Fortier, who had known the location, that as he had run from the building, he realized as he got into the alleyway, going back to where his car was, that he still had the key and he threw it down.
“So, the key, which was matched to the truck, we didn’t have any idea what significance it was.”
If so, this information doesn’t match the trial, or the records of Jones. In his book, “Others Unknown,” Jones writes:
“Our client had always told us that, as he left the truck in front of the Murrah Building, he had tossed the key inside! Now he had no explanation for the recovered key, no other story to invent. … Had it been blown out of the exploding truck intact? Highly unlikely. Had Tim McVeigh simply another lapse of memory? Or had there somehow been two keys? Or two people in the truck, each with a key? One of which got tossed into the truck, the other of which found its way into ‘miscellaneous debris?'”
In a recent interview, Jones reiterated these possibilities, adding a new one.
“The other explanation could be that Mr. McVeigh was not being straight with us, although I don’t know any reason that he would necessarily lie about that,” he said.
As for McVeigh telling Fortier that he’d thrown the key down following the bombing, this directly contradicts the testimony in court.
Before Hartzler, during the trial, Fortier testified that McVeigh had told him during a trip prior to the bombing to “case” the building that he intended to park his car in the alley next to the YMCA. Hartzler then artfully created an “a-ha” moment by divulging the discovery of the key.
“So you independently on your own directed us to that alley and told us about that alley and where Mr. McVeigh was going to park?” Hartzler asked.
“Absolutely,” Fortier said.
“Did you know at that time that the FBI had found the key to the Ryder truck in that alley?”
“No, sir,” Fortier said. “This is the first I’ve heard of that.”
How could McVeigh, sitting in jail, have told Fortier he threw the key in the alley after the bombing?
“I’ve never heard that,” Jones said.“Ben Fenwick
Time passagesWhile both the Dallas Morning News and Playboy magazine published versions of Timothy McVeigh “confessions,” the book “American Terrorist” by Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck is arguably the definitive first-person account from McVeigh.
Michel and Herbeck, reporters for The Buffalo News in Buffalo, N.Y., based the book on 40 hours of taped interviews with McVeigh. Now, “The McVeigh Tapes: Confessions of an American Terrorist,” will air at 8 p.m. Monday on MSNBC.
Michel told Oklahoma Gazette that McVeigh always insisted ” just as in his defense team chronology ” that he didn’t park the car in the YMCA alley and that he left the key in the truck.
“It seems to me that he said he left it in the truck, but he disputed that how the hell could it have survived the intensity and heat of the explosion,” Michel said.
However, Michel said troubling details could be just the passage of time.
“Not to stick up for him (Young) ” I don’t know who he is or anything ” but you know, it has been 15 years,” he said.
A picture of the key in question remains hanging in the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum. A call to Executive Director Kari Watkins was not returned.“Ben Fenwick