Blowing Smoke

Like the bulldozers that cleared the bloody rubble of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the FBI's investigation of the OKBomb conspiracy has been massive and unsubtle -- a relentless grinding process that has churned up thousands of leads but has apparently failed, so far, to find a completely convincing pattern in the debris. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Lynn Nichols have been indicted for murder and conspiracy and will stand trial sometime later this year; the case against them, federal sources say, is circumstantial but strong. But no one knows whether they acted alone -- and there are plausible grounds to suspect they got at least some help from ""others unknown to the grand jury,'' as the indictment puts it. One obvious problem is John Doe No. 2, who, if he exists at all, has never been found. Another is the suspicion that on Nov. 5, 1994, McVeigh and Nichols masterminded a robbery, possibly with one or more accomplices, taking $60,000 worth of guns and other valuables from a man in Royal, Ark., even though McVeigh was at a gun show in Ohio at the time. And finally, there is the haunting possibility that McVeigh, with his known affinity for neo-Nazi gibberish, had allies among the underground ultraright.

To these uncertainties, add the fog of reasonable doubt. Like it or not, McVeigh and Nichols will be tried in what could be called the post-O.J. (and post-Menendez) era. From the standpoint of an aggressive defense attorney, this means that just about anything goes, as long as it has the potential for persuading one or more jurors to accept an alternative theory of the crime. Under federal statutes, the OKBomb case could mean the death penalty for both defendants: the stakes couldn't be higher. That may be why McVeigh's attorney, Stephen Jones, launched a flank attack on the government's case in an Oklahoma court last week.

Jones's motion, part of a civil suit against McVeigh filed by the parents of two bombing victims, may be a publicity ploy. But taken at face value, it suggests a transatlantic conspiracy of neo-Nazi sympathizers who may somehow be connected to OKBomb. Three are Britons, two are Americans -- and one is a German national, Andreas (Andy) Strassmeir, 36, who admittedly had met Timothy McVeigh. None of the six, according to the papers Jones filed in court, is alleged to have actually taken part in the conspiracy. But Jones seeks the right to take sworn statements from each to see what they know about the case or about unknown conspirators. This is a legal fishing expedition whose real objective, in all probability, is to sow confusion in the minds of prospective jurors when the criminal case comes to trial: call it creative lawyering. By playing on the unresolved questions about the investigation, Jones could convince the jury that McVeigh may not have been the plot's mastermind, as the government alleges, and does not deserve to die. ""The government says "There's nothing to the conspiracy','' Jones says. ""There is a damaging lack of curiosity into what the facts are. . . . Assuming they were involved, [McVeigh and Nichols] lacked the money, the surveillance capabilities and the sophistication. It was beyond their capabilities.''

Beyond that bald assertion, Jones offers a pastiche of innuendo straight out of Oliver Stone. The most tantalizing bit involves Andreas Strassmeir and a telephone call McVeigh allegedly made days before the bombing to a far-right Christian commune in eastern Oklahoma called Elohim City. Elohim City is run by the Rev. Robert Millar, who espouses an avowedly racist brand of Christianity. Millar, who would not talk to NEWSWEEK, was ""spiritual adviser'' to the late Richard Wayne Snell, a rabid white supremacist who was executed in Arkansas on April 19, 1995, the day of the Oklahoma City bombing. Jones suggests that Snell's execution -- not the anniversary of the Branch Davidian tragedy at Waco -- may have been the real motive for OKBomb. And if so, he says, investigators should be looking for a conspiracy with neo-Nazi or white-supremacist roots.

Enter Strassmeier, who admits he spent two years at Elohim City before leaving in 1995. (He is now in Berlin.) The son of a prominent German politician, Strassmeir is a former lieutenant in the German army who enjoyed the pseudomilitary atmosphere that pervaded Millar's compound. He is not known to German authorities as a neo-Nazi sympathizer and his U.S. lawyer, Kirk Lyons, says Strassmeir knew McVeigh only slightly. Still, federal investigators say McVeigh called Elohim City on April 5, 1995, just minutes after he allegedly reserved the Ryder truck that carried the bomb to Oklahoma City. Lyons concedes that McVeigh was calling Strassmeir but says the message never got through. Why did McVeigh call at all? Only McVeigh knows, and he's not talking. Strassmeir, meanwhile, complains he has been hounded by the press since his McVeigh con-nection became known. ""I really don't remember [McVeigh] at all,'' he told NEWSWEEK, adding that he ""had absolutely nothing to do'' with the bombing.

It gets even fuzzier from there. Jones wants to interrogate Strassmeir and Lyons, who has a history of representing right-wing radicals and who is himself something of a celebrity among neo-fascists in the United States and Europe. (An associate denied that Lyons had any prior knowledge of the bombing.) And Jones wants to question Dennis Mahon, 46, a former imperial dragon in the Oklahoma KKK and an organizer for a group called the White Aryan Resistance. Mahon said Strassmeir is ""a good friend'' but doubted that ""Andy'' had a role in OKBomb; he denied taking any part himself.

Jones is also asking to talk to John Tyndall, leader of the ultraright British National Party; David Irving, a British historian known to be active in right-wing circles, and Charles Sargent, the reputed leader of a British neo-fascist group called C18. Tyndall told NEWSWEEK he knows Kirk Lyons and has heard of Dennis Mahon, but has never discussed McVeigh or Oklahoma City with either. Sargent's father told NEWSWEEK he didn't know where Sargent was and wouldn't tell a reporter if he did.

Irving, who has written biographies of Hitler, Goring and Joseph Goebbels, said he knows Lyons but was ""shocked and embarrassed'' to find his name on Jones's little list. There's another twist: Irving said he has already been in touch with U.S. officials about a possible connection to the OKBomb case. That came last year when, Irving said, he discovered that James Nichols, Terry Nichols's older brother, was a contributor to a legal-defense fund that Irving calls his ""worldwide fan club.'' ""I turned over his address'' to a U.S. Embassy official in London, Irving said. ""I want to stay on the right side of this.'' He also said he was ""horrified'' by the bombing.

What does it add up to? Not much, according to Justice Department sources. One official said the Feds are aware of Andreas Strassmeir, but, the more they look at it, the less substantial it appears to be. Jones, on the other hand, tells NEWSWEEK that the FBI is derelict for not interrogating a man ""who lived two hours away from where the bombing occurred, lived at a white-separatist compound . . . has admitted knowing Tim McVeigh and received a phone call from McVeigh.'' Point taken: NEWSWEEK'S source says federal investigators will probably talk to Strassmeir, if only to show the FBI has checked out every lead. That may persuade a jury to convict McVeigh and Nichols -- but the paranoia about the case could last for years.