An Exploded Life

When the Dust Settled Over Oklahoma City, Kathy Wilburn Had Lost Two Grandkids and Gained an Obsession: Finding the Truth

Almost since the moment Timothy McVeigh's bomb went off, Kathy Wilburn has never believed what the government told her nor doubted what she had to do. Her story began at 9:02 on the morning of April 19, 1995, when she and her daughter were working at the IRS office in downtown Oklahoma City. Edye was crossing the room to blow out the candles of a birthday cake when the two heard an enormous explosion. They ran into the street. In an instant, Wilburn's world became a twilight zone of crashing glass, exploding cars, bloody bodies, and official explanations that seemed somehow incomplete.

Now, six years later, on the eve of McVeigh's execution, Wilburn finds herself at the center of a publicity storm. All last week she trooped from 60 Minutes to Good Morning America to the Today Show. She's done a CNN special and been on the BBC, Geraldo, Extra, Court TV, and America's Most Wanted. She has appeared on French and German TV. The London Independent has written about her, and so has The Los Angeles Times.

But Wilburn hasn't been content to star in other people's stories. She questions the government stance that only three men—McVeigh, Terry Nichols, and Michael Fortier—were involved in the attack on the Murrah Federal Building. Instead, she and her now late husband found clues suggesting a wider plot, leading back through the white-power movement and beyond. They believed they had discovered the outlines of a botched sting by the feds, who according to Wilburn knew about the bombing but failed to stop it.

Along with those who share her suspicions, she points to evidence that ranges from a severed leg found in the rubble but never identified to reports that a bomb squad was on the scene before the explosion. They say the government has never said who, exactly, made the bomb, nor accounted for how it could have been assembled so quickly by two people. A star government informant reported that she and several others had cased the building prior to April 19.

Fueled by grief, Kathy is carrying on a civil action instigated by her husband, Glenn, against the federal government. She believes court proceedings would yield real facts about the case. In the meantime, she has pursued leads on her own, filming a documentary and writing a book. Along the way, she has befriended the Nichols family and become a pen pal to Terry. Her search has taken her to some strange places. She has been embraced by a pastor of the Aryan Nations, received a valentine from Terry Nichols, and been invited to Thanksgiving dinner by a Klansman.

She has sought her own peace, through knowing the hearts and minds of her enemies.

April 19, 1995, Oklahoma City
Out in the suburbs, Danny Coss, Kathy's son by a former marriage, was watching television coverage of the blast when he saw his mother and Edye running down the street.

A police officer, he promised his mother he'd find her two grandchildren, who were in the federal building's daycare center when the fertilizer bomb detonated. It was a quick search. The first little boy, Chase, was toe-tagged in the back of a truck.

Then a rescue worker "heard Colton crying in the rubble," Kathy says. "He was going to try to apply CPR but he realized there was nothing he could do. There was a big glass shard in Colton's stomach and he literally had been gutted. Colton cried and whimpered and died in his arms.

"I wanted to see them at the funeral home. Nobody wanted me to. I go into this room and say, 'I want to see Chase and Colton Smith. I am their grandmother.' "

The undertaker became distraught, she says. "He got tears in his eyes. 'Please, ma'am, please. I don't want you to see these boys.' So I didn't see them just because I didn't want to hurt the man's feelings. I said, 'How did you get both of those fat little boys in that little coffin?' And he said he tilted them towards each other, and Chase's hand was on top of Colton's. He assured me they looked very peaceful."

Spring 1996, Oklahoma
While reporters went crazy trying to get an inside view of Elohim City, the far-right religious compound where some investigators believed the bomb plot was hatched, Kathy and Edye took a video camera and drove out to eastern Oklahoma and up the dirt road to the compound.

"We knew you had to go at noon and attend a church service to get an audience with these people. I tried to document the whole trip on home video. Edye says, 'Get the camera down.' There's a sign in Hebrew saying City of God, and I'm throwing the camera on the floor, and there are guys coming at us with guns. These armed escorts take us into church. We're introduced as the 'ATF's worst nightmare.' So we get a standing ovation. The Iron Cross band played and they are marching around with their guns."

Spring 1997, Oklahoma
Kathy has never communicated directly with McVeigh, whom she considers obnoxious. But she attended his court proceedings. "One day I was sitting in the hearing and he saw me glaring at him. I continued to look at him and he at me, and we were in a stare off. After several minutes, he mouthed at me, 'What are you looking at?' I just kept looking. And then he sat back and positioned himself behind one of the members of the defense team so that I couldn't look at him anymore."

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