By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
DENVER--The middle-aged man in the black-and-white shirt looked like just another tedious defense witness in the trial of accused Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols. But halfway through the man's testimony, Judge Richard Matsch's courtroom became charged. Mechanic Charles Farley was describing how, on the evening of April 18, 1995--the day before the bombing--he had stumbled upon a group of men clustered around a Ryder truck in Geary State Park, a fishing lake near Herington, Kansas.
All along, the government has claimed that Nichols and Timothy McVeigh mixed the bomb at the Geary park on April 18, with McVeigh driving the explosive-laden truck to Oklahoma City in the early hours of April 19. But the prosecution has never produced any evidence to back up this assertion, or explained how just two men could mix 4000 pounds of explosives in such a short period of time. Numerous press reports have raised the possibility that other people were involved in the preparations for the bombing, but until the last couple of weeks, few of these reports have been entered into evidence.
As the defense wrapped up its case in the Nichols trial last week, 17 witnesses testified they saw a Ryder truck at locations associated with the bombing before the afternoon of April 17--the date the truck used in the bombing was rented. And 11 witnesses testified they saw McVeigh with one or more other men, who might be John Doe #2, #3, or even #4.
Charles Farley was among the most convincing of these witnesses. Farley testified that just before 6 p.m. on April 18, he drove down to Geary Park to check out fishing conditions. Entering an access road, he saw a parked Ryder truck. Near the truck was a car and a pickup, which he described in detail. There was also, according to Farley, a two-ton open-bed farm truck with wooden fencing on the sides; it was heavily loaded with white bags. Farley, who had grown up on a farm, recognized the bags as probably containing ammonium nitrate fertilizer--one of the two main ingredients in the bomb. Farley also said he saw four men, three of them clustered around the Ryder. Thinking one of the vehicles had broken down, Farley was about to stop and offer help when he came upon a fifth man, who gave him "kind of a dirty look." Farley heard the man say, "'We've got to get going, we've got to get moving,' or something like that."
In court, Adam Thurschwell, one of Nichols's defense attorneys, entered as an exhibit a photograph of a white man with long scraggly white hair, perhaps in his fifties or sixties. Farley identified the man in the photograph as the fifth man he had seen at the lake. The man has not been identified, but press reports speculate he may have been a Kansas militia leader.
In prosecuting McVeigh and Nichols for conspiracy, the creation of the bomb, and the murder of federal employees, the government has kept its case narrowly focused on the two defendants. In the McVeigh trial, the defense was given little leeway to produce evidence that might muddy the waters by suggesting other players in a wider conspiracy. But in the Nichols trial, lead defense attorney Michael Tigar succeeded in etching the outlines of just such a larger plot--a plot in which McVeigh seems to be centrally involved, but in which Nichols may have played little or no role.
Some of Tigar's witnesses suggested alternative scenarios involving numerous John Does and second Ryder trucks. Others said that while Nichols may have been a relatively harmless family man with a few strange ideas, McVeigh was a hardcore, far-right racist, entrenched in a frightening movement in which Nichols had little place.
During the Nichols trial, former friends, fellow workers, and army colleagues recounted how McVeigh tried to get them to join the racialist movement. Witnesses reported that McVeigh gave them movement literature, ranging from William Pierce's The Turner Diaries to the White Patriot, a Ku Klux Klan newspaper.
Richard Coffmann, a former "unit coordinator" for Pierce's racist National Alliance group, testified that McVeigh left repeated messages on the group's Arizona answering machine shortly before the Oklahoma City bombing. In the calls, made over a three-day period, McVeigh used the alias "Tim Tuttle." At about the same time, telephone logs show, he also called Elohim City, the white separatist compound on the Oklahoma-Arkansas border. It has been speculated that McVeigh was trying to reach Andreas Strassmeier, a German national who reportedly has been questioned in connection with the bombing.
Futher evidence of McVeigh's possible link to Elohim City was provided by Carol Howe, the Tulsa debutante who flirted with neo-Nazism before turning against the movement and becoming a government informant. Howe testified she had visited Elohim City on several occasions, where she heard the community's patriarch, Robert Millar, Strassmeier, and Tulsa Klan leader Denis Mahon all urge direct, violent action against the government. Asked if she had ever seen McVeigh at Elohim City, Howe replied, "I believe I did." She said McVeigh was in the company of Strassmeier and another man.
Howe also testified that during a visit to Mahon's house she overheard a phone conversation in which Mahon referred to the caller as "Tim Tuttle"--the McVeigh alias. But, as cross-examination revealed, Howe did not immediately tell her government handlers about McVeigh's presence when she was debriefed after the bombing.
When it came to depicting Terry Nichols, Tigar produced not only alibi witnesses (inluding the Herington, Kansas, Future Mart clerk who said Nichols bought a doll from her on the morning of the bombing), but also character witnesses like his young Filipino mail-order bride, Marife Nichols. Marife testified that she tried to get Terry to stay away from McVeigh. But she could not provide an alibi for her husband on the day before the bombing, when the government says Nichols helped build the bomb.
Whether or not the defense's strategy saves Terry Nichols from conviction or even the death penalty, it has helped to elaborate the dimensions of a wider plot whose contours fit the models provided by the far-right racialist movement itself, but whose members remain a mystery. For more than a decade, leaders of the movement have urged their followers to form underground leaderless resistance cells, made up of five to eight individuals, to carry forward the revolution. McVeigh and Nichols may have been members of a cell, and if Farley's account is accurate, he saw other members of the cell on April 18 at Geary State Park. Previously portrayed as just another citizen angry at the government, McVeigh emerges from testimony in the Nichols trial as a man with ties to the Klan, the National Alliance, and Elohim City. Whether he was acting alone, the leader of a cell or just a member remains unknown.
Meanwhile, the government's adamant refusal to address these arguments for a wider conspiracy can only lend credence to the theories floated by the militias and other groups--who all along have argued that official Washington is trying to cover up what happened. (One of the more far-out of these theories claims that the bombing was actually an FBI sting operation gone awry.) And about 170 families of Oklahoma City victims plan to join a civil suit against six government agencies, charging them with prior knowledge and a cover-up. Richard Beeder, the attorney in the case, plans to file the action formally within a month.
So we haven't heard the last of the argument for an Oklahoma City bomb plot conspiracy. And meanwhile, the movement goes on. There have been eight violent actions by racialist groups since the bombing, and just last week the government indicted three men in Little Rock, charging them with trying to create an Aryan Peoples Republic through a campaign of murder, robberies, and kidnappings.
Additional reporting: Gaelle Drevet