Seventeen years ago, a truck bomb ripped through the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. Six years later, the federal government executed Timothy McVeigh for the crime that killed 168 people and injured more than 500 others.
But the federal probe and prosecution, with 18,000 witness statements, 43,000 leads and 7,000 pounds of evidence, did not end speculation on what happened April 19, 1995. The recent release of a book and a documentary on the case refocuses on lingering theories that the bombing involved more than McVeigh and his ex-Army buddy, Terry Nichols, who is currently serving a life sentence for his role in the plot.
In Oklahoma City: What the Investigation Missed — and Why It Still Matters, journalists Andrew Gumbel and Roger Charles examine the federal case against McVeigh and Nichols. The authors contend that investigators and prosecutors, due to a host of factors, narrowed their scope early on and likely fell short identifying others who knew about the bomb plot.
Gumbel, a former investigative reporter for British newspapers The Guardian and The Independent, said he reviewed millions of documents and interviewed more than 150 people integral to the case, including investigators, prosecutors, defense attorneys, witnesses, and even Nichols himself.
“You had to try and capture the motivation of prosecutors. You had to understand how the investigation was conducted,” said Gumbel, the primary author. “You had to understand the subculture of the radical far right — what they were up to, what McVeigh’s motivation was, who else might have been empathetic or in a position to help.”
In Oklahoma City, Gumbel and Charles present a sprawling and complex critique of the federal probe, prosecution and defense. They conclude the investigation was compromised by interagency rivalries, media leaks, political considerations and occasional incompetence.
Criticism is ramped up several notches in A Noble Lie, a direct-to-DVD documentary currently on the film-festival circuit. Its creators, Oklahoma-based Free Mind Films, revive conspiracy theories that some elements of the federal government had prior knowledge of the bomb blast.
Weaving together archival footage and new interviews, A Noble Lie alleges things that federal officials (and Gumbel, for that matter) dismiss as absurd — that a truck bomb alone could not have gutted the nine-story building, that more explosives were detonated inside the structure, that the tragedy might have been the result of an undercover sting operation gone awry.
“We’re not saying conclusively that’s what we know to be true,” said James Lane, the film’s director. “We’re just saying there’s enough evidence to call into question that [a sting operation] might have been one of the motivations. We’re not leading the viewer to any conclusions.”
Alternative theories surrounding the bombing have dogged the case since the early hours of the crime. But it is notable that the case is being revisited so many years later.
For Gumbel, it is a matter of extracting lessons from Oklahoma City for use today.
“In the run-up to 9/11, there were a lot of missed signals. You had miscommunication with government agencies, territorial bureaucratic turf wars that got in the way of appreciating a very real danger. The same thing happened in the run up to Oklahoma City,” Gumbel said.
“Anything that can feed into the body of knowledge that explains why things go wrong, I think is inherently valuable.”
Moreover, Gumbel sees disturbing economic and social parallels between the climate of the early 1990s, which stoked the rabid anti-government zealotry of McVeigh and Nichols — veterans of the first Gulf War who bounced from job to job — and that of today.
“You have now a number of people who have seen combat returning home to a depressed economy,” Gumbel said. “They have military training, familiarity of weapons and explosives, and they have nowhere to go in their lives. And some percentage of those people are going to be drawn to extreme ideologies and have the means … to wreak a certain amount of havoc.”
While Oklahoma City credits the bombing investigation as often brilliant, Gumbel contends there were plenty of missteps.
“They made a couple of mistakes and there were a couple of things that — I think the polite way to put it — were unfortunate,” he said.
Gumbel points to two incidents in the first days after April 19, 1995. A little more than an hour after the bombing, McVeigh was arrested near Perry and booked into jail for having no license plate on his car and carrying a concealed weapon without a permit. By April 21, however, the FBI had linked him to Oklahoma City. Upon discovering that he was in custody, swarms of agents descended on the Noble County Courthouse — a move that Gumbel argues effectively quashed any opportunity to coax information from the suspect.
“Instead of having two experienced interrogators sitting down with him and seeing how much they could get out of him, it was like a brawl,” Gumbel said. “You had every law enforcement agent on the scene — local, FBI, whoever — piled into this room. McVeigh felt cornered.”
Similarly, Gumbel’s book charges that media leaks tipped off Terry Nichols and his brother James, a Michigan farmer who shared his brother’s radical views, that authorities wanted to talk to them. That enabled the brothers to prepare for an onslaught of law enforcement scrutiny, and it gave Terry Nichols time to hide potential evidence that would not be discovered for 10 years.
“The fact that [investigators] made what they were doing so public inadvertently meant that line of investigation dried up right away,” according to Gumbel. “McVeigh had clammed up … and everything started to bog down from there.”
Such criticism gets a mixed reaction from Bob Ricks, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Oklahoma City office at the time of the bombing. Ricks credits investigators for outstanding work that tracked down every possible lead.
“You had a full and complete examination of all the evidence that was subject to review based on strict evidentiary standards,” he said, “and none of that evidence was ever found to be faulty.”
Ricks disputes the idea that agents could have interrogated McVeigh, explaining that the suspect almost immediately “lawyered up.”
But he concedes that things weren’t perfect. Ricks said micromanagement from then-FBI Director Louis Freeh was a problem, as was a steady flow of media leaks from the U.S. Department of Justice.
“It slowed our investigation, but all the investigative agencies got along extremely well. I don’t know of a single lead that was lost by there being jealousy between organizations,” said Ricks, now Edmond’s chief of police.
The specter of other bombing conspirators has long cast a shadow over the crime. In Oklahoma City, Gumbel and Charles follow a maze of connections that possibly link McVeigh to others on the fringes of 1990s radical right-wing extremism. It is a rogue’s gallery that ranges from bank-robbing white supremacists to a white separatist compound in far eastern Oklahoma called Elohim City.
Gumbel argues that investigators and prosecutors, striving for a simple and straightforward narrative, failed to give some people greater examination.
“One by one, these people were dropped as suspects and were recruited instead as prosecution witnesses,” Gumbel said. “Various pieces of baggage they had were overlooked and a decision was clearly made: ‘Let’s focus on what we’ve got. Let’s make the case against the suspects we have in custody, and unless someone comes along who was clearly directly involved, we’re just going to concentrate on what we have.'”
Allegations surrounding Elohim City are well-trodden ground for conspiracy theorists. On April 5, 1995, McVeigh phoned the enclave and asked for its head of security, Andreas Strassmeir, whom he had met at a gun show in 1993. Strassmeir was not there to take the call, but Gumbel and a number of other independent reporters believe it likely that McVeigh had been to Elohim City and might have had allies there.
Strassmeir, a German national whose grandfather had been a high-ranking Nazi official, long has denied any involvement with the bombing. He eventually returned to Germany.
Other roads also seem to lead to Elohim City. A federal informant named Carol Howe often visited there; she reported back to her Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms handlers that Strassmeir and another man, Dennis Mahon, had talked about blowing up federal buildings in Oklahoma City and elsewhere. McVeigh’s defense attorneys tried unsuccessfully to get Howe on the witness stand.
Tantalizing links aside, investigators said they never found evidence that McVeigh had been to Elohim City. Ricks noted that McVeigh was taken into custody while heading north on Interstate 35, nowhere near the secluded compound in Adair County.
“Did he intend to loop back, potentially ending up [in Elohim City]? That’s a possibility,” said Ricks. “They welcomed anyone that came in who had similar beliefs to them.”
At least two members of McVeigh’s defense also reject the suggestion that he had ties to Elohim City. Randy Coyne, arguably closer to McVeigh than anyone else on the defense team, said McVeigh never indicated he had been there. Cate McCauley, an investigator who worked on McVeigh’s appeals, said he actually laughed at the notion.
Nevertheless, both Coyne and McCauley agree that McVeigh wanted to take credit for the bombing and would have been inclined to protect the identity of others. McCauley said she thinks McVeigh and Nichols might have received some help in making the bomb. Coyne said he doubts the conspiracy went further than McVeigh, Nichols and Michael Fortier, a friend of McVeigh’s who became a key witness for the prosecution.
“I certainly have a feel for the fact that Tim was willing to take all the blame for himself,” Coyne said. “Tim would have been happy to jump on the grenade himself, and I think he was willing to protect his friends. As far as other friends beyond Fortier and Terry, I don’t know. If there were [other conspirators], he kept them from us.”
In 1998, no less than the presiding judge in the federal trials, U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch, acknowledged the presence of nagging questions surrounding the bombing. “It has been mentioned here and certainly was mentioned at the trial that there are … a number of questions unanswered,” Matsch told prosecutors in a pre-sentencing hearing for Nichols. “I expect the government is continuing its investigation to attempt to answer some of these unanswered questions.”
After two federal trials, one state trial, scores of books and innumerable news accounts, lingering mysteries remain. Among them:
—More than 20 eyewitnesses, some of whom testified for the government at trial, said they saw McVeigh with one or more unidentified men the morning of, and in the days before, the bombing.
—Among those witnesses were three employees at Elliott’s Body Shop, in Junction City, Kan., where McVeigh on April 18, 1995, rented the Ryder truck that carried the deadly cargo to Oklahoma City. The trio said McVeigh was with a shorter, dark-haired man who would come to be known as “John Doe No. 2.” Investigators believe the workers had confused the elusive figure with an Army soldier who had been in the shop the day after McVeigh.
—There were sightings of a Ryder truck at Geary Lake, the Kansas location where the bomb was mixed, days before McVeigh rented the truck.
—It remains unclear exactly how McVeigh got to Elliott’s. About 20 minutes before he rented the Ryder under an alias, a surveillance camera placed McVeigh at a McDonald’s 1.3 miles from the body shop. McVeigh had no car and it was raining lightly, but he did not appear to be wet when he rented the truck at 4:20 p.m.
—A severed leg found in the rubble of the Murrah building points to the possibility of an unidentified 169th bombing victim.
But not all mysteries are created equal. Eyewitness accounts are notoriously problematic, and Ricks said the Oklahoma City bombing case is no exception.
“When you look at the multiple sightings of McVeigh and other people, when you break them down on a time chart, it’s physically impossible for McVeigh to be in these 40-some-odd places that he was supposed to be,” he said.
“I think, in most cases, people saw things and they wanted to make logic out of it. When you do, unfortunately, your mind can play tricks on you.”
An officer’s death
Where Gumbel and Charles find mistakes and missteps, A Noble Lie claims cover-up and corruption. Its interviews include a private investigator who said the Murrah building housed secret documents from the Clintons’ Whitewater scandal. It is alleged that McVeigh was a covert government agent, that former U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook had prior knowledge of the bombing and that ATF agents were warned to stay away from the building on April 19.
In the film, narrator Chris Emery posits that authorities who knew about the bomb plan but did nothing “are just as guilty as those who lit the fuse.”
Lane said the filmmakers received some “fundraising and logistical” help from the Oklahoma chapter of the We Are Change, a movement that doubts the mainstream version of events surrounding 9/11.
Among the film’s more controversial charges involves one of the first rescuers to the federal building.
Authorities say Oklahoma City police officer Terrance Yeakey committed suicide on May 8, 1996, but A Noble Lie alleges he was murdered because of what he saw at the bomb site. Echoing conspirator theorists who have questioned Yeakey’s death for years, the documentary casts doubt on the belief that Yeakey slashed his wrists in a rural area, staggered a half mile from his car and eventually shot himself in the head.
“He had an enormous number of lacerations on his arm, his neck,” Lane said. “Bled out in the car so much that they said you could dip it out with a ladle. He has marks on his neck and on his wrist. It looks like he had been bound.”
But Oklahoma City Police Chief Bill Citty said he is absolutely certain the medical examiner’s office correctly determined Yeakey’s death to be suicide. Citty notes that the 30-year-old Yeakey had marital problems and was coping with other issues, including the trauma of the bombing.
“There is no doubt in my mind that what he experienced and went through in the bombing and what he saw affected him. Without going into details, I can tell you it did affect him,” said Citty. “The officers that had the hardest time with the bombing obviously were officers that are more sensitive to that type of pain, because we all went through it — but also officers who didn’t have a strong support system. … Yeakey was struggling with that side of it. He was having personal issues at the same time that all of that occurred. There were things that transpired prior to him taking his life, dealing domestically.”
‘A grain of truth’
Whether it’s 17 years later or 77, observers don’t anticipate the Murrah bombing will soon shake the aura of conspiracy any more than the passage of time has brought a clear consensus on who killed President Kennedy.
“I would assume that this will go along as long as I’m alive,” said Ricks. “There’s always a grain of truth [with conspiracy theories]. None of these can work unless there’s at least a certain grain of truth attached to them. But when they’re examined clearly and deliberately, they generally fall apart.”
“I think where that suspicion comes from is again misinterpreting certain signs and pieces of evidence that may very well point to something different, and a major lack of understanding of how the government, and federal law enforcement in particular, works,” he said.
“The idea that the FBI or ATF or any other agency could do something like this and keep it a secret — when you see the internal workings of those agencies — is ludicrous on its face.”
But Lane is undaunted.
“We’re Oklahomans. We were all personally impacted by this. We want the perpetrators, all of them, brought to justice.”