Cleverness--And Luck

THEY WERE SMART ENOUGH -to build a bomb that gutted a nine-story building and left hundreds dead or missing. But getting away with it was harder. Tim McVeigh was tooling along 1-35, about 60 miles north of Oklahoma City last Wednesday morning, when a state trooper pulled him over because McVeigh's yellow 1977 Mercury Marquis didn't have any license tags. As Trooper Charlie Hanger looked in McVeigh's car window, he noticed a bulge under the young man's jacket. Reaching into McVeigh's coat, be pulled out a handgun -a Glock 9-mm semiautomatic, loaded with Black Talon "cop killers bullets. "What's going on here?" asked McVeigh. The young man, dressed in black pants and combat boots, seemed perfectly calm. "You don't have to worry about it," he told the trooper.

The police had their man, at least one of them. The problem was, that they didn't know it. Arrested on minor charges, McVeigh was about to be set free from the county jail on a $500 bond two days later when word arrived from the FBI that the young drifter was one of the two most wanted men in America. Last week, McVeigh, at first identified only to the public as "John Doe No. l," was formally charged with his involvement in the Oklahoma City bombings; prosecutors will almost surely ask for the death penalty. McVeigh's arrest was the first major break through in one of the most intense manhunts ever conducted by the FBI, an operation that was still searching for "John Doe No. 2" at the end of the week.

Tracking down McVeigh took luck, but also cleverness. The story of bow the FBI pieced together the trail that led to the alleged bombers is a model of investigative skill, proof in a skeptical age, perhaps, that the government does do some things right. The full details will not be known until the case is finally resolved, if then, but NEWSWEEK reporters last week retraced a twisting trail that begins in the Oval Office in Washington and leads into the strange underworld of gun-toting extremists who call themselves "Patriots."

In the hour after the bombing, President Bill Clinton was, like most Americans, determined to do something, anything to bring to justice what he called the "evil cowards" responsible for the carnage. He asked his advisers if he should close the Oklahoma airports to keep the bombers from fleeing abroad. Maybe, he wondered, the Israelis could help out. Israeli President Yitzhak Rabin had just called, offering his country's antiterror expertise. The president's advisers warned that enlisting Israel might look anti-Arab. For the time being, the president had to be patient; the FBI was on the case.

In FBI parlance, cases like the Oklahoma City bombing are known as "major specials." The FBI rehearses for every possible "major special" from airline hijackings to prison riots; only a week before, it had practiced for a terrorist incident. Within an hour of the bombing, four FBI "fly-away teams," elite "packages" of agents and prepackaged communications gear, computers and forensic equipment had been dispatched to Oklahoma City. At FBI headquarters, the antiterrorism team assembled on Wednesday morning in the Strategic Information Operations Center (SIOC) felt reasonably confident. Not just from "we always get our man" bravado, but because experienced investigators understand a basic truth about the kind of people who commit violent crimes. "These people don't realize it," says former FBI assistant director Oliver (Buck) Beveil, "but they're going to leave a trail."

The trail started, as it almost always does, with a scrap of hard evidence. Investigators distrust eyewitnesses, especially ones in a state of shock at the scene of a disaster. They need something tangible, and they need it quickly. The longer the wait, the colder the trail. It took investigators 21 months to find a piece of the timing device on the bomb that blew up Pan Am Flight 103-and three years to bring charges against a pair of Libyan agents. In the case of the Oklahoma City bombing, however, the crucial discovery came almost right away. An FBI agent, scouring the streets near the blast, came across a twisted scrap of metal, a piece of truck axle, that had been blown two blocks from the crater. The axle bore a VIN: vehicle identification number. The agent lugged his find back to the FBI's command center, where his supervisors fed the truck's VIN into the Rapid Start System, a kind of computerized mosaic-builder used to help the FBI piece together evidence.

A piece of videotape provided another clue. just before the blast, the camera on a bank's automatic teller machine across the street had caught the image of a Ryder rental truck in front of the Murrah federal building. The vehicle identification number from the truck axle was traced to a 1993 Ford truck from a Ryder rental in Miami. The truck had been assigned to a rental company known as Elliott's Body Shop in Junction City, Kans., 270 miles from Oklahoma City.

To the investigators, it was a Eureka moment. A fragment of metal had led to what FBI investigators call a "habitat." A habitat is any place where the suspect has once been. In habitats (motel rooms, bus stations, cars) investigators find the evidence (fingerprints, body fluids, hair follicles) that allows them to identify suspects.

At first, this particular habitat, Elliott's Body Shop, offered a false lead. The ID and the licenses given by the two men who rented the truck on April 17, two days before the bombing, turned out to be bogus, But at least the G-men had a description from the clerk, and FBI artists were able to make composite drawings of two men dubbed "John Doe No. I" and "John Doe No. 2." Their images were instantly flashed around the world-along with the promise of a $2 million reward for information leading to their conviction.

Even the fake driver's license offered one tantalizing clue. Its date of issue was given as April 19, 1993, the same day the FBI burned to the ground the Waco compound of cult leader David Koresh. From the beginning, the FBI had been operating with three basic theories about the case. One was international terrorism, perhaps from Islamic fundamentalists who use car bombs like the one that blew up the Murrah building. A Palestinian-American businessman, traveling from Oklahoma City to the Middle East right after the bombing, was held for questioning in London; his bags seemed to contain suspicious electronic equipment. But the lead, which captivated the press in the first hours after the bombing, proved false, and the man was released. Another possibility was a drug gang; drugrunners are more willing than most criminals to use violence against judges and law-enforcement agencies. The third was the strange stew of right-wing extremists who have been preaching their conspiracy theories with growing stridency (page 36). To many of these groups Waco is a rallying cry, a harbinger of the day that government troops will kick down their doors and steal their guns and their children. On the Internet and on radio talk shows, extremists had been railing lately about the second anniversary of Waco on April 19. The date on the fake license hinted that the FBI was dealing with someone similarly obsessed.

On Thursday, dozens of FBI agents fanned out through the quiet streets of Junction City, showing bar-tenders and motel proprietors the drawings of the two men. At the Dreamland Motel, a half-mile outside town, the G-men scored again. Lea McGown, the owner of the motel, recognized one of the faces in the drawings. She said that the man-identified by the FBI agents as John Doe No. 1 -had checked in on April 14 and checked out on April 18, the day before the bombing. He was cleancut, she said. She noticed nothing curious about him except, perhaps, that he was reclusive.

The man had identified himself to her as Tim McVeigh, his true name. While FBI agents were interviewing the motel owner, McVeigh was languishing in the county jail in Perry, Olda., where he had been hauled in by Trooper Hanger on a concealed weapons charge. (Denied a TV or newspapers, McVeigh may have been one of the few people in America not to see the bloody consequences of the bombing.) But though McVeigh closely resembled the composite portrait distributed by the FBI, local authorities had not yet made the connection. McVeigh seemed harmless; he said "yes sir" and "no sir" and held himself erect, like a soldier.

Meanwhile, the FBI was getting inundated by calls-more than 2,600 of them-in response to the government's offer of a $2 million reward. One of them was a genuine tip. A former coworker of McVeigh's called in after recognizing the composite drawmg on TV. This infomant told the bureau that McVeigh was a disenchanted army vet who hated the government. McVeigh was particularly agitated about the FBI's raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. Indeed, the informant said, McVeigh had made a personal pilgrimage to Waco to view the charred ruins.

With McVeigh's name, the FBI was able to search its vast data base. There is a national computer network that allows law enforeement agencies to track suspects. It was such a search that produced the recent arrest record of one Tim McVeigh in Perry, Olda.

Just in time. McVeigh was about a half hour away from walking out of jail on Friday morning, when Noble County Assistant District Attorney Mark Gibson was handed a note that the FBI had called to say, as he put it, "You've got the guy we're looking for." By evening, McVeigh was being escorted by men in FBI windbreakers-past a jeering crowd shouting "Baby-killer!" -to a helicopter that would take him to Tinker Air Force Base and on to federal prison.

McVeigh's license offered another lead. The drifter gave as his residence the address of a farm in Decker, Mich. By Friday midday, FBI agents in black ninja body armor were clambering over the farm, looking for its owner, James Douglas Nichols. Relatives and neighbors told the FBI that Nichols built small bombs, apparently for the fun of it. McVeigh, the neighbors said, had been a frequent visitor at Nichols's farm, showing off his guns and spouting his extremist dogma.

Nichols was taken in for questioning. At about the same time, his brother, Terry, gave himself up in Herington, Kans. Terry Nichols may have been an army buddy of MeVeigh's; together, the Nichols brothers and McVeigh seemed to form their own bund. They had vague ties to the Michigan Militia, a "Patriot" group under the leadership of a gun-dealing Baptist minister, Norman Olson. Olson disavowed the trio, but Phil Marowski, the self-described "chaplain" of the Michigan Militia, told NEWSWEEK, "I consider Tim McVeigh to be a good guy. If I were in a war I would want him on my side. He's the kind of guy who forms allegiances to the death." More FBI agents probed into McVeigh's past, tracing his gun purchases and looking into a mysterious explosion last winter at an Arizona trailer park where McVeigh had been living-and, perhaps, practicing.

Still at large is John Doe No. 2. He was described by several people who saw him cruising the bars ofjunction city as swarthy, muscular and bad-tempered. The bureau also suspects it will find other conspirators, perhaps as many as a half dozen more. The FBI will probably track them down, too. But the bureau's struggle with the heartland extremist groups will not be over. It will be just beginning.

Less than 90 minutes after the explosion, police stop Timothy McVeigh in Perry, about 60 miles north of Oklahoma City, for driving without a license plate -not because they suspect a connection to the bombing. McVeigh is arrested after cops discover he has a five-incb knife and semiautomatic handgun loaded with Black Talon "cop killer" bullets.

An FBI agent finds a twisted and charred piece of truck axle two blocks from the explosion. Via a still-legible vehicle-identification number, investigators trace the part back to a truck rented at Elliott's Body Shop in Junction City, Kans., 270 miles from Oklahoma City. Employees there help the FBI make two composite sketches. Other witnesses -including the owner of the Dreamland Motel, who recognize a man in one sketch as a guest registered under the nwne "Tim McVeigh"-help the Feds zero in.

Investigators discover that an ATM video camera in Oklahoma City has picked up a partial image of a yellow Ryder truck parked in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building just before the explosion.

Attorney General Janet Reno releases two composite sketches and announces a $2 million reward for information leading to the conviction of the suspects. An FBI hot line receives 2,000 calls.

About 30 minutes before McVeigh would have walked free after a $500 bond hearing (which had been scheduled for the day before and postponed because the judge was unavailable), federal authorities alert the Perry district attorney that he is holding a prime suspect in the case. As onlookers jeer and call him "baby-killer," McVeigh is later turned over to the FBI and transferred to Tinker Air Force Base. At 7 p.m. he is charged with maliciously damaging federal property.

Terry Nichols, who served with McVeigh in the army, surrenders to authorities in Herington, Kans. Nichols does not appear to match the composite sketch of the second suspect, but he is held in federal custody as a material witness.

FBI and ATF agents raid a farmhouse in Decker, Mich., owned by Terry's brother, James. In the summer of 1992, McVeigh lived with the Nichols brothers and continued to list their house as one of his addresses, The Nichols are allegedly connected with the right-wing, paramilitary Michigan Militia. Local officials and a neighbor report that Nichols has repeatedly detonated explosives on his farm. Like his brother, James Nichols is held as a witness.

Cleverness--And Luck | News