By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
The national trauma caused by the Oklahoma City bombing was only 9 days old when an affable, soft-spoken furnace builder got the surprise of his life. Standing outside his suburban Oklahoma City home, he suddenly came face to face with FBI Special Agent Jim Ellis.
“He asked me my name, and then he said, ‘We have some good news and some bad news for you. The good news is, we found your truck. The bad news is, it was used in the Murrah bombing.’”
Ellis’ words left him feeling elated that his truck was recovered, but stunned by its implications. The factory worker recounted the story to the Weekly on the condition that he not be named. “I couldn’t believe my truck was used in this awful crime. It really shook me up.”
Agent Ellis, his partner and an officer from the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation interviewed the man on April 28, 1995, nine days after a massive bomb inside a Ryder truck detonated outside the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. The blast’s shock wave ripped apart the concrete-and-steel facing of the nine-story building, killing 168 people, including two pregnant women, and wounding more than 500. The agent told him that someone had removed the license plate and obliterated the vehicle identification numbers and that he was tracked down with the help of a bank-deposit slip found under the seat.
Nine years later, the Weekly’s investigation into the missing pickup has only deepened the mystery, and questions persist about whether a broader conspiracy was responsible for the bombing. The federal government continues to insist it resolved the case long ago with the death sentence meted out to McVeigh and the conviction of Terry Nichols, as his sole co-conspirator, on eight counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of conspiracy. Nichols is serving a life sentence in federal prison and now faces new charges on 161 murder counts and the possibility of the death penalty.
Answers could start emerging this week in Oklahoma, when opening statements begin in Nichols’ second trial. Witnesses expected to testify at the trial include David Paul Hammer, who served with McVeigh on federal death row and claims that McVeigh told him others were involved in the Oklahoma City bombing. Another is Peter Langan, a former member of a white-supremacist bank-robbery gang, who is serving a life term. He has said that at least three fellow gang members were in Oklahoma around the time of the bombing and that one had told him of his involvement in the bombing.
One of the more provocative lines of inquiry over the past decade has been whether the plot included Middle Eastern terrorists. In the hours immediately after the blast, law enforcement publicly focused on that possibility. But the arrest of McVeigh, within hours of the bombing, and Nichols, who turned himself in two days later, wiped that theory from the national consciousness. Over the years, the possibility of a larger conspiracy has piqued the interest of only a handful of people with the power to pursue the questions, including a member or two of Congress.
Suspicion that the bombing involves a Middle Eastern connection begins with an all-points bulletin issued by the FBI three hours after the explosion for a truck like one stolen from the blue-collar Oklahoman. It was a brown Chevy pickup, with tinted windows, seen speeding away from the area, with two Middle Eastern–looking men inside. Later that day, the FBI canceled the alert, and has never said why. When Timothy McVeigh, a disillusioned Gulf War vet, was arrested and charged on April 21, questions about that mysterious brown truck and its Arab-looking occupants faded away.
One of the first journalists to air reports on the aborted FBI alert was Jayna Davis of KFOR-TV in Oklahoma City. Her TV stories generated confidential phone tips about a group of local Iraqis, including one who seemed to match an FBI profile sketch of John Doe No. 2.
Davis collected interviews, witness statements and stacks of documents suggesting that the conspiracy went beyond McVeigh and Nichols. She chronicles her investigation and the FBI’s probe in her book, The Third Terrorist, due out in mid-April.
Two years ago, when Davis’ work began drawing national attention, U.S. Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) wrote FBI Director Robert Mueller asking for his comments on Davis’ findings. The Bureau met with representatives from the House Committee on Government Reform, and Thomas Swanton, an assistant U.S. attorney assigned to Specter’s office. It’s not clear what was said at the meeting, but weeks later, Eleni Kalisch, FBI’s section chief for government relations, sent Specter a confidential six-page letter responding to questions raised at the meeting.
In the letter, Kalisch did not comment on what role, if any, the pickup may have played. Instead, she noted, “The FBI was aware this truck was stolen in Norman, OK, and a known car thief was the suspect.” According to Norman Police Department documents, however, police never identified a suspect. The truck was stolen outside the plant where the owner worked on December 5, 1994, more than four months before the attack.
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