April 23, 1968
Pendleton, New York
June 11, 2001
Terre Haute, Indiana
The Oklahoma City bomber
"It's a very tragic thing."
O n the morning of April 19, 1995, a bomb hidden in a rented truck exploded outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The explosion killed 168 people, including 19 children who attended a day-care center on the second floor. At the time it was the deadliest single terrorist attack in American history.
The bomb had been left by a young man named Timothy McVeigh. McVeigh planned the bombing with the help of two friends as an act of revenge for a government raid on a religious group's headquarters in Waco, Texas. Six years later, on June 11, 2001, McVeigh was executed for the crime.
McVeigh was born in the small town of Pendleton, New York, near the old manufacturing city of Buffalo, on April 23, 1968. His father worked at a General Motors radiator factory in nearby Lockport, New York; his mother worked for a travel agency. McVeigh had an older sister; later, he would have a younger sister. His father was a solid worker who lived quietly. His mother was lively and longed for a more exciting life. In 1978 his parents separated. The two girls went to live with their mother; McVeigh chose to live with his father. "I don't want Dad to be alone," he said, according to his biography, American Terrorist.
In high school, McVeigh did not make much of an impression. He went out for the football and track teams, but quit. He did not have a girlfriend and did not date. Thin and quiet, he was almost an invisible man. After graduating from high school, he went to a two-year business college, but he soon dropped that, too. He had a job at a Burger King and drove an old, beat-up car.
McVeigh was fascinated with guns. The year after graduating from high school, he got a pistol permit and took a job as a guard with an armored car company. Over time, he bought several guns. Two years after high school, in 1988, he and a friend bought 10 acres of rural land to use as a shooting range.
You're in the army now
The same year, McVeigh enlisted in the U.S. Army. After basic training, he was assigned to the army's 1st Infantry Division, based in Fort Riley, Kansas. In the army, McVeigh was somewhat successful. He moved up the ranks, from private to corporal, sergeant, and then platoon leader. At the end of his first term in the army, he re-enlisted and then applied to join the elite Special Forces.
While in the military McVeigh also read The Turner Diaries, a novel about a secret underground army in the United States dedicated to, among other things, the worldwide destruction of the Jewish people. The army seized power by dropping atomic bombs on several East Coast cities. The Turner Diaries was written by a man named William Pierce (writing under the name Andrew Macdonald), who had long been associated with the neo-Nazi National Alliance and other far-right extremist groups. Some fans saw the book as a blueprint for a Nazi-like future for the United States. (The Nazis was a political party headed by Adolf Hitler that controlled Germany in the years prior to and during World War II. During the war the Nazis attempted to wipe out the Jews of Europe, and killed an estimated six million before the war ended in 1945.) McVeigh apparently liked the book well enough to recommend it to his friends.
Before McVeigh could begin his Special Forces training, the United States was drawn into the Persian Gulf War (1990–91) after Iraq invaded the tiny Middle Eastern country of Kuwait. McVeigh's unit was sent to Saudi Arabia in early 1991, and he saw some combat in the war. His performance was good enough for him to leave the Middle East early to begin his Special Forces assessment at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. But once there, McVeigh quickly realized that he was not in good enough physical condition for the course. He failed one test—carrying a 45-pound (20.5-kilogram) backpack on a ninety-minute march—and after two days he dropped out. With his military future looking less bright, he applied for an early discharge and left the army in 1991.
Back where he started
In early 1992 McVeigh went back to his father's house in Pendleton, New York, where he got another job as a security guard. At age twenty-four, he was right back where he had been after high school.
The year 1992 was a significant one for people who took The Turner Diaries seriously. In Ruby Ridge, Idaho, federal marshals tried to arrest Randy Weaver, a white supremacist who believes that white people are superior to members of other races. Weaver had been accused of selling weapons illegally. An agent of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) shot and killed Weaver's fourteen-yearold son and later killed his wife while she was standing in the doorway of their cabin holding their baby. (The baby was not harmed.) The incident enraged the militia movement, various armed citizen groups who have banded together to oppose what they believe to be too much government control over their personal lives. They viewed the seige at Ruby Ridge as a government conspiracy to take away people's firearms.
The next year, 1993, ATF agents laid siege to the compound of a religious sect, the Branch Davidians, in Waco, Texas. The siege ended with a fire that killed eighty members
On April 19, 1993, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) attacked the compound of a religious sect called the Branch Davidians near Waco, Texas. The compound had been under siege for fifty-one days following an unsuccessful attempt by federal agents to arrest its leader. The attack on the compound quickly went wrong. A fire started, and the building burned to the ground. Inside, eighty people died, including twenty-one children.
The Branch Davidians traced their roots to the late 1920s. Their leader, David Koresh (1959–1993), believed he was fated to be the next messiah (savior) and lead his people to paradise after the end of the world. Koresh had developed his theories about the end of the world from the Book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament of the Bible. He and his followers lived near Waco in a large structure filled with guns that they were going to use to defend themselves during the coming apocalypse, a battle at the end of the world.
In May 1992, a driver for the United Parcel Service told authorities he had seen hand grenades spill out of a box he was delivering to the Branch Davidian compound. Six months later, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) got a warrant for the arrest of Koresh, which they tried to carry out on Sunday, February 28, 1993. But Koresh was prepared, and when the agents came to the compound where he lived, a gunfight broke out. Four ATF agents and six members of the Branch Davidians died, and government agents began a long standoff.
After weeks of unsuccessful negotiations, on April 19 the FBI attacked the house, using armored tanks to spray tear gas inside. A fire started and the building burned to the ground. It is unclear whether Branch Davidians set the fire or whether it was caused by the FBI's raid.
The deadly outcome of the siege instantly sparked outrage among many people, particularly extremist groups. Critics believed the raid was evidence the government was trying to take away Americans' constitutional right to bear firearms.
Among the many people who went to see the compound during the siege was Timothy McVeigh, who staged his attack on a federal office building on the second anniversary of the FBI raid.
of the sect (see box). The Waco incident was viewed by some people as further evidence of a government plot to take away their firearms and force a dictatorship on the United States. McVeigh was one of them.
Wandering time bomb
McVeigh had already quit his armored truck job and left his father's house in January 1993. He lived out of his car while traveling the country, sometimes visiting two old army buddies: Terry Nichols in Decker, Michigan, and Michael Fortier in Kingman, Arizona. He also visited the site of the siege at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas. McVeigh worked a series of jobs and tried to make money by selling weapons at local gun shows.
Although the government raid on the Branch Davidians apparently had deeply upset him, McVeigh did not join any of the militant groups found throughout the West, including Arizona and Michigan. But he did begin planning revenge for the government raid at Waco. McVeigh came to see himself as a warrior against what he believed was a growing government plot to take away people's freedoms. The date April 19 took on a special importance for McVeigh. Not only was it the date of the Waco fire, but it was also the date that Revolutionary War patriots had their first shoot-out with the British army in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts: April 19, 1775.
McVeigh's disappointment with his life after the army, his growing extremist political views, and his obsession with firearms made him a walking time bomb—a bomb that went off on April 19, 1995.
April 19, 1995
In early spring 1995 McVeigh persuaded Nichols to help him put together a fertilizer bomb. A large quantity of fertilizer, combined with diesel fuel, can be turned into a deadly bomb, and the materials are easy to find, especially in rural areas.
McVeigh rented a large Ryder truck, loaded about 7,000 pounds (3,182 kilograms) of the lethal fertilizer–fuel oil mixture in the back, and drove it to Oklahoma City. On the morning of April 19, he parked the truck outside the large Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, where various government agencies had offices. Inside on the second floor, just above where the truck was parked, was a day-care center.
A few minutes after 9 a.m., the truck bomb exploded. The explosion shattered the building, completely destroying one-third of it. The front of the building fell away, exposing offices inside. Several floors of the building collapsed, leaving a mound of rubble. Shattered glass from the bomb's blast injured people blocks away from the site.
"May I see your license and registration?"
Ninety minutes after the blast, an Oklahoma Patrol officer near Perry, Oklahoma, noticed a 1977 yellow Mercury Grand Marquis without license plates. The patrolman pulled over the car, whose driver got out to talk to the officer. The driver said he had just bought the car and did not have license plates or other documentation. Then the patrolman noticed that the young man was carrying a pistol. The officer drew his own gun and arrested the driver.
The driver was twenty-seven-year-old Timothy McVeigh. The patrolman took McVeigh to the nearby Noble County Jail and charged him with unlawfully carrying a weapon, carrying a loaded gun in a car, failure to have current license plates, and failure to have proof of car insurance.
As McVeigh waited in jail for a bail hearing on his traffic violations, the FBI identified the rented truck from the wreckage and quickly interviewed the person who had rented it out. The FBI investigation led to a motel, where an employee recognized an artist's sketch as a man registered as Timothy McVeigh. When the FBI punched that name into a law enforcement computer system, they discovered that a man by that name was currently sitting in the Noble County Jail. McVeigh was about to be released on bail on April 21 when word came in that he was a suspect in the Oklahoma City bombing.
McVeigh on trial
McVeigh's trial was moved from Oklahoma City to Denver, Colorado, on the grounds that potential jurors in Oklahoma City would not be able to give him a fair trial.
The government presented 141 witnesses against McVeigh. Among those testifying were his sister Jennifer and his two friends Michael and Lori Fortier. The Fortiers testified that McVeigh had shared with them his plans to bomb the
Murrah building in the mistaken belief that the ATF had offices there. Lori Fortier said at the trial: "We turned the news on early that morning … and we seen what happened … we saw that the building had been blown up, and I knew right away that it was Tim."
The jury reached its verdict after three days of deliberations: McVeigh was guilty. The federal judge sentenced him to die by lethal injection.
In a separate trial, Nichols was found guilty as an accessory to the crime and was sentenced to life in prison with no hope of parole. Michael Fortier, who also helped in the planning but who testified against McVeigh, was sentenced to twelve years in prison for his failure to warn the police about the upcoming attack.
On June 11, 2001, McVeigh—who had dropped his legal appeals—was executed in a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.
For More Information
Michel, Lou. American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Tragedy at Oklahoma City. New York: Avon Books, 2002.
Padilla, Lana, and Ron Delpit. By Blood Betrayed: My Life with Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh. New York: HarperPaperbacks, 1995.
Serrano, Richard A. One of Ours: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing. New York: Norton, 1998.
Stickney, Brandon M. All-American Monster: The Unauthorized Biography of Timothy McVeigh. New York: Prometheus Books, 1996.
Fletcher, George P. "Unsound Constitution: Oklahoma City and the Founding Fathers." New Republic, June 23, 1997, p. 14.
Green, Michael. "Shadow Warriors: Suspected Bomber Timothy McVeigh Was Nourished in a Bizarre World of Soldiers and Survivalists." People Weekly, May 8, 1995, p. 58.
Hackworth, David H., and Peter Annin. "The Suspect Speaks Out." Newsweek, July 3, 1995, p. 22.