The Suspect Speaks Out

He doesn't exactly come across as Lee Harvey Oswald. With his stocking feet propped up, his jumpsuit sleeves tied casually around his waist, he seemed a lot more like a typical Gen-Xer than a deranged loner, much less a terrorist. His handshake was firm, and he looked his visitors right in the eye. He appeared a little nervous, maybe, but good-humored and self-aware. Normal.

Normalcy, of course, is the image that Timothy McVeigh wants to project. In a jailhouse interview with NEWSWEEK last week--the first since his arrest--he told a modern Boy's Life story. He had a happy enough childhood, played sports, learned computers, served in Desert Storm. How, his lawyers want you to wonder, could this ostensibly agreeable young man have been behind the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building that killed 167 people? He is "the boy next door. A boy wonder," said his lead attorney, Stephen Jones, who lowered his voice a bit when he got to the point: "He's innocent."

Most Americans know virtually nothing about the man whom a federal grand jury will almost certainly indict next month for plotting and executing the worst domestic terrorist incident in U.S. history. They glimpsed him as he stoically walked in front of the cameras after the Feds took him into custody in Perry, Okla., two days after the April 19 bombing. They may have read newspaper and magazine profiles portraying him as a brooding, gun-obsessed drifter. The McVeigh who spoke to NEWSWEEK is a more subtle and intriguing figure, at once more clever and ingenuous than his tabloid personality. In a 70-minute conversation in a small, unadorned meeting room at the El Reno federal prison, McVeigh turned out to be savvy, world-weary and very media-wise. He was no militaristic automaton.

"I never, never called myself a prisoner of war," he said. The report that he refused to state anything more than name, rank and serial number after his arrest was all a media concoction, he claimed- or made up by the police. So was his alleged "confession" in jail, reported last month by The New York Times. But when NEWSWEEK asked, "Did you do it?" McVeigh became cagey. "The only way we can really answer that," he replied, "is that we are going to plead not guilty." Questioned about specific evidence that may connect him to the bombing, he tended to duck rather than deny. He seemed bemused by the speculation about the case and about other suspects in the alleged plot. "Yeah, here comes John Doe 2 for the 18th time," he said with a chuckle at one point.

Armchair psychologists searching for psychic scars will be frustrated by McVeigh's portrait of his childhood. Growing up in the small upstate New York town of Pendleton, he wasn't a Boy Scout, "but I hung around with a bunch of kids in the neighborhood that were Boy Scouts," he said. "We'd go hiking quite a bit in the backwoods." His family had a pool, a mecca for the kids on the block, and during the long winters there was a frozen pond down the road for ice hockey. Yes, his parents split when he was 10, but he says the divorce didn't have a big impact on him. "There's nothing there," he insisted. He was closest to his father, he said. The bond grew after his mother moved to Florida with his two sisters. His mother married a coast guard man and moved around the country, though where she lived, he said, is "very sketchy in my mind." At home, McVeigh would help his dad out with the family's beloved vegetable garden. By high school, he was "wrapped up" in his own life. He "dabbled in sports," avoided cliques, worked in a fast-food joint, saving money and "splurg[ing] it all at one time." There were girls, but "I don't know if I had any steady girlfriends." As a senior, he got "heavily into computers," buying a Commodore 64 with his own money, but was bored by classes at a local business college after graduation. "A lot of the stuff," he recalls, "was repetitive of what I had already learned in high school." A job as a security guard in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1987--a big town for a boy from Pendleton--introduced him to a larger, potentially more exciting world, to the promise of adventure.

He found it in the army, signing up in 1988. "A very hard-nosed squad leader" pushed McVeigh to become a squared-away soldier. McVeigh responded by becoming what the military calls a "water-walker," promoted ahead of his mates to corporal, then to sergeant. His entrance-test results were consistently in the top 10 percent. After McVeigh gave NEWSWEEK his military records, the magazine showed his scores to Pentagon officials. In combat arms, he was rated in the top 5 percent. "He would make a great infantry officer, tanker, artillery officer or combat engineer," said a master sergeant who did not know he was commenting on McVeigh. His electronic aptitude, said another official, qualified him for "repairing satellite Communications."

A gunner on a Bradley fighting vehicle, McVeigh shipped out for the Persian Gulf. Newspaper accounts have quoted acquaintances saying that McVeigh once boasted he had blown the head off an Iraqi soldier from 1,100 yards. But he now paints a less dramatic picture. "There was only a single shot fired on the first day," McVeigh said, "and that was to get them to come out" of their bunkers. The Iraqis his unit confronted quickly surrendered. For him, the war was mostly a long drive in the desert. Still, McVeigh bonded with his comrades. "You can literally love your battle buddies more than anyone else in the world," he said.

When he came back to the states, McVeigh made "top gun," the best shot among the 65 gunners in his battalion. But he failed to fulfill his dream of becoming a Green Beret. In March 1991, he dropped out of the Special Forces qualification course at Fort Bragg, N.C. He strongly denied press reports that he had failed a psychological-screening test. "That's a bunch of bunk," he said. Rather, after two months in the desert, he just wasn't in top physical shape. "I had gotten new boots and blisters started to break out. Any realist knows that if you develop blisters on the second day. . . you're not going to make it."

Washing out of a program that has a 50 percent failure rate "wasn't the straw that broke anything," McVeigh said. But he admits that, after the army began to downsize after the gulf war, "a bit of doubt started to surface." In late 1991, he took an early "out" from the army. Missing barracks life, he stayed in touch with his buddies from basic training. one of them was Terry Nichols, who has been charged with having a role in the Oklahoma City bombing. Did the two men, as reported, build bombs on Nichols's farm in Michigan? McVeigh says they did set off some explosions there, but down-plays them. "It would amount to firecrackers," said McVeigh. They used plastic Pepsi bottles that burst "because of air pressure. It was like popping a paper bag." NEWSWEEK asked if he used an ammonium-nitrate mix, the fertilizer that was an essential part of the bomb that destroyed the Murrah building. Warned by his lawyer not to answer, McVeigh responded, "I don't want to confirm that I know of any chemicals or anything else."

McVeigh also resisted talking about his political views. He declined to answer whether he had read "The Turner Diaries," a novel about a massive race war in the United States that has become a cult classic on the far right. He also denied belonging to any militia group. But he did acknowledge visiting Waco, Texas, during the long 1998 standoff between the Branch Davidians and federal agents. He was not "angry" about the FBI siege that ended in the burning of the Branch Davidian compound, but he was "bothered." The government, he said, "most definitely" made mistakes, and he made a return pilgrimage after the raid.

McVeigh described Michael Fortier, another army buddy who last week moved closer to agreeing to cooperate with the investigators in the OKBomb case, as a Bend: McVeigh was the best man at For-tier's wedding. Fortier has reportedly told prosecutors that he and McVeigh eased the Murrah building together--floor by floor. "I've been through Oklahoma City," said McVeigh. With Michael Fortier? "I'd rather not answer that," McVeigh replied.

The first he heard of the Oklahoma bombing, he said, was from the trooper who stopped him that same morning for driving without a license tag as McVeigh headed away from the city. While he was being booked, he saw the first images of the shattered Murrah building on TV. He had no immediate reaction to the carnage, he said; he was too busy getting a lawyer. Ultimately, he was "horrified" by the children's deaths. "It's a very tragic thing."

Two days later, after he was turned over to federal agents, investigators showed him photographs of children maimed and killed in the bombing. He refused to speak to the federal interrogators. When NEWSWEEK asked about McVeigh's "personal reaction" to the grisly photos, his lawyer, Jones, jokingly interjected: "'Get my attorney'." McVeigh joined in the laughter with his attorneys. "Right," he said, "this is getting pretty heavy."

It is going to get heavier. McVeigh does not think he can get a fair trial. He has been reasonably treated in prison, but when he asked--twice--for an armored vest before he was paraded past a hissing crowd after his arrest, his jailers "just ignored me," he said. Visions of Oswald, gunned down at Dallas police headquarters by Jack Ruby, spun in his head. McVeigh admits he fears the death penalty. But he said he would handle it "one day at a time." Meanwhile, he's trying to buff his public image. When NEWSWEEK photographer Eddie Adams took McVeigh's portrait, McVeigh hammed for the camera, requesting more relaxed shots and apologizing for his prison pallor. "Don't let any of the trashy magazines get these pictures," he joshed. He seemed relaxed - eerily so for someone who stands to be charged with 167 counts of murder.