An Exploded Life


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.”

September 1997, Denver

At Nichols’s trial, Kathy didn’t feel welcome around the other victims’ families, because she and her husband Glenn had gone against the government’s theory. Instead, she began to eat with Nichols’s mother and sister. “Joyce is just a good ol’ farm gal and Susie’s just a good ol’ country girl. I can’t help but love both of them. They talked about me a lot to Terry, and one day I came into the court room and I was sitting there with Joyce and Susie, and Terry’s eyes met mine.” She mouthed hello to him.

“Every day after that when he came into that courtroom he would make it a point to look at me and nod hello. So we started this strange relationship. I said to Susie that if Terry wants us to save his butt he’d better take the witness stand because he’s got some explaining to do. And she told Terry that. She came back and told me, ‘Terry said his lawyers don’t want him to take the witness stand, but if you will write your questions down, that he will answer them and I will bring you his letter.’

“I looked at Susie and I said, ‘Susie, don’t ever have Terry write anything down.’ Oh, God, can you believe I did that?”

Terry began writing to Kathy, even sending a valentine stuck together with toothpaste. He has written her more than 100 letters, one every two weeks. On March 16, 2000, he wrote: “THIS IS REALLY THE FIRST TIME THAT I’VE SPOKEN OR WRITTEN ABOUT TIM IN ANY SUBSTANCE TO ANYONE EXCEPT MY LAWYERS. I AM NOT WRITING THIS LETTER TO YOU IN ANY REGARDS TO JUDGE, CONDEMN, ACCUSE, NOR BLAME TIM IN ANY WAY FOR ANYTHING, FOR I BELIEVE THAT’S GOD’S DOMAIN.”

April 15, 1999, Arizona

Kathy headed out to Kingman, looking for Lori Fortier, whose husband, Michael, drew a 12-year sentence after he testified against both McVeigh and Nichols. As part of the plea bargain, she was given immunity. Kathy knew Lori was working in the back of a hair salon doing fingernails. She walked in, but couldn’t pick out Fortier. Back outside, she called up on her cell phone asking for Lori. She waited a moment and then a voice came on the line:

“This is Lori.”

“Lori, this is probably the strangest call you’re ever going to get. But my name is Kathy Wilburn and I lost both my grandchildren in the Oklahoma City bombing and I’d like to take you to dinner tonight. There’s a long pause, and she goes, ‘Oh, my God.’ ”

The two women agreed to meet at a restaurant for supper. “I finally found this girl sitting over on the bench by the wall, and I walked over to her and I said, ‘Lori?’ And the girl gets to her feet, never looking up, her head hung down, looking at the floor, and says, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ I had never planned what I was going to do or what I was going to say. She couldn’t look at me. And so, as a natural reflex, I put my arm around her and said, ‘I know this is going to be an awkward evening.’ We go to sit down and I ask her if she would be willing to do an interview for the documentary. She says, ‘I would hurt too many people, ma’am. My lawyers told me I can’t talk about the bombing.’

” ‘That’s fine. If you can’t talk about the bombing, let me tell you how it affected my life. We’re having an office birthday party. Edye’s walking across the floor to blow out the candles on her birthday cake when the bomb went off.’ I told her about running up the three blocks to the Murrah building and how the glass was falling all around us and I thought we would be killed. ‘There’s a boom, boom, boom, and clouds of black smoke, and it’s the cars in the parking lot blowing up. We went around to the north side of the building and it’s just a pancake of rubble. Edye crumples to her knees and begins to cry, “My babies, my babies.” ‘

“By this time, Lori is crying. I pull out this picture of Chase and Colton on this little card I have. And I gave this to Lori.

“She was a broken, sorry individual. I find out about her. She has two kids, picked on at school because they know who their parents are. She’s not welcome at the PTA. She drives several hundred miles every month to take her children to visit their daddy. And I realized Lori had some cross to bear. At the end of our meeting, she hugged me tightly and I walk her out to the car and she is just crying profusely, ‘Please, please, will you write to my husband?’

“I went back to my room and I thought, OK. I’ll write to him. If I see someone and you can show that you are sorry or remorseful, then it’s much easier for me to forgive you. I wrote to Michael. I told him I was working on a documentary and that the government didn’t tell the full story. He writes to me, ‘I am troubled by your statement that you no longer have faith in our federal government. I find it troubling that the federal government would deceive you in this matter and I also find it hard to believe.’ ”

April 16-18, 1999, Las Vegas

Kathy met with Carol Howe, the former Tulsa socialite who became a neo-Nazi, then turned informant for the ATF and got a movie contract.

“She had this big Nazi swastika tattooed on her arm,” Kathy says. “She’s had several operations to laser over it. Now instead of being that black ink, it’s just a big raised red scar. She didn’t look like that little petite debutante she did at her trial. I really think she’s trying to get over her racist ways, but she’s not there yet. She’d like to straighten up, but she’s a screwup.

“Carol and I stayed up late nights gambling. Carol is a strange little duck.”

June 7, 1999, Oklahoma

During her first visit to Elohim City, Kathy’s guides motioned to a clearing and said those were “the bunkers,” for big shootouts with the feds. She decided to put up $900 an hour and rent a chopper to inspect them from the air.

“When we went to see the guy with the helicopter we didn’t want to tell him where we were going because we were afraid he wouldn’t take us. Finally he says, ‘Oh, is that that place with all those little Smurf houses?’ He goes, ‘Lady, I’m not going there. Those people are crazy.’

“I pull out my pictures of Chase and Colton as little angels and I tell him who I am and what I’m doing. A lot of times in this journey I’ve had to pull the guilt card on people. I made him feel kinda bad. He goes, ‘Lady, I’ll take you, but if they come out, I’m out of here.’ He tried to stay up high so they wouldn’t hear his blades. We weren’t there for very long because we were heard and they did come out.”

June 27, 1999, Oklahoma City

Kathy invited McVeigh’s sister over. “I had Jennifer McVeigh here at my home for dinner,” Kathy says. “I felt she was like a little weasel and I couldn’t trust her.”

September 1999, Idaho

Kathy went to the Aryan Nations headquarters near Hayden Lake, where she’d heard McVeigh spent time. “You drive up this long, ominous driveway. There’s an armed-guard shack and a big sign that says For Whites Only.

“There’s a big building. The whole roof is painted with a Nazi swastika. I get out and say I’m here to see Pastor Butler. So they take me in his house to meet him. I say, ‘Pastor Butler, my name is Kathy Wilburn, and I lost both my grandchildren in the Oklahoma City bombing.’

“And he loves me! I grew up in church. I know the scriptures. We sit there and discuss the scriptures. Finally I came out arm in arm with Pastor Butler, and he liked me so much that he invites me to come to church the next morning. The next day I set out for church dressed in my Sunday best. When I walk in the door of the church there’s a Jewish flag there that’s got the Star of David on it that the members wipe their feet on.

“Inside, the vestibule is just covered from floor to ceiling with Nazi propaganda. When I walked down the aisle of the church I was stunned because up on the podium they had a big bust of Adolf Hitler. So we pull these hymnals out of the back of the pews and we sing the same songs I’d sung in my church, like ‘Amazing Grace.’ In my church you’d say, ‘Amen,’ but they go, ‘Heil, Hitler.’

“Pastor Butler gets up, introduces me to the congregation, and he proceeds to tell me the Lord has laid a new sermon on his heart and that it was for me and it explained why my grandchildren had to die in the Oklahoma City bombing. He said, ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Tim McVeigh is a great man and a martyr for the cause.’

“After church we are visiting out under the trees and there’s a black dog there, and he says, ‘See our nigger dog there? That dog has no more of a soul than a Jew or an Asian or a homosexual.’ ”

That afternoon, the two shared a meal in a Hayden Lake café. Butler hugged her goodbye. Kathy remembers him telling her not to worry, that she would see her grandchildren again in heaven. “I felt I had danced with the devil,” she says.

February 2001, Oklahoma City

Kathy has kept in touch with Bill McVeigh, whom she interviewed for her documentary. “When I heard the execution date of May 16, I immediately called Bill,” she says. “Nobody brings a child into this world that you don’t love it and nurture it, and then it grows up and does something like this. I think Bill McVeigh is the forgotten victim of this crime. So I called Bill to tell him how sorry I was they set the execution date. And he didn’t know. Nobody had bothered to tell him.”

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 1, 2001

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