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Mangled Truck Axle Led Swiftly to Manacled Suspect : Investigation: Finding ID number on rental vehicle plus some luck led to arrest barely 48 hours later.

April 23, 1995|WILLIAM C. REMPEL | This story was reported by Times staff writers Stephen Braun, Richard A Serrano and William C. Rempel. It was written by Rempel

OKLAHOMA CITY — The bomb's eruption of heat and pressure--which blew the 1993 Ryder rental truck into thousands of charred and mangled pieces--destroyed windows, walls and hundreds of lives, but it did not destroy the key evidence.

A truck axle, hurled two blocks from the blast site, held the vehicle identification number that pointed investigators to a stoic, crew-cut Michigan man and his friends.

Of course, luck would have its role as well.

Ironically, it was the World Trade Center bombing in New York in 1993 that would help hasten the swift arrest.

As it had after the trade center explosion, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms instantly scrambled two of its four regional bomb response teams. The teams are composed of bomb technicians, investigative experts and forensic chemists.

As they had in New York, the investigators found telltale parts of the Ryder rental truck that had carried the massive bomb, this time on the axle.

But in trade center blast, a similar part had languished in the police lab for two days, delaying identification of the bomb carrier (also a Ryder rental van).

Not so last Wednesday.

The First Day

Jim Adamcik, assistant special agent in charge of the Los Angeles ATF office, was designated supervisor of the National Response Teams. Among his previous cases was the deadly Dupont Plaza Hotel arson fire in Puerto Rico that killed 97 on New Year's Eve in 1987. ATF veteran Dan Boeh, team leader of the trade center investigation, was also dispatched from Baltimore.

Their first challenge was protecting evidence scattered around an unusually wide area. Even as urgent rescue and recovery operations continued, bomb investigators were starting their search of the outermost reaches of the blast perimeter, some of it five blocks from the destroyed federal building.

"Two things made this different from the trade center bombing," said Bob Holland, retired ATF agent and creator of the National Response Team system. "First, the size of the crime scene was mammoth; debris was scattered for blocks around. Second, was the children. When you start finding itty bitty bodies . . . well, it'll affect everyone. You can't prepare for that."

Knowing exactly what they were looking for, agents swiftly located the axle. The truck was traced to Ryder Rentals of Miami, where company officials said it was assigned to a rental franchise in Kansas, Elliott's Body Shop of Junction City.

It was still Wednesday. Smoke was still rising from the morning's blast, but the identity of the truck had been established. It had happened so fast, it would turn out, that even one of the fleeing suspects was still in the state.

"That was a lesson learned in New York," Holland said. "Everyone knows now how valuable that information is."

FBI agents called on Elliott's Body Shop. They were told that two people had rented the truck on Monday. The one with the crew cut gave his name as Bob Kling of Redfield, S. D. He was heading for Omaha, Neb., he said.

All of the information was bogus, but because of the quick trace to Elliott's Body Shop, FBI agents were able to get detailed descriptions of the two men. On Thursday, the rental agency employees helped a police composite artist sketch the suspects.

The Second Day

Authorities in Oklahoma City and Atty. Gen. Janet Reno in Washington held press conferences in which the composite sketches were displayed. By midday Thursday, a sizable slice of the nation's population had seen them.

That same day, FBI agents interviewed three witnesses who were near the scene in the moments before the explosion. The witnesses also were shown the drawing of "John Doe No. 1" and, according to an FBI affidavit, "identified him as closely resembling a person the witnesses had seen in front of the building" that morning.

The witnesses said they saw the man about 8:40 a.m. as they were entering the office structure. They said they saw him again 15 minutes later, still in front of the entrance as they were leaving the building. Nine minutes later, the bomb exploded.

The drawings also were shown to employees of motels and other businesses in the Junction City area.

Employees at the Dreamland Motel told agents that a man resembling "John Doe No. 1" had been a guest from April 14 to April 18. They said he registered under the name of Tim McVeigh, listed an Arizona automobile, and provided a home address in Decker, Mich.

He was seen driving "a Mercury from the 1970s." The manager also remembered that while checking his license number in the parking lot she had noticed it was dangling, about to fall off. She meant to tell her guest, but she got busy.

Computerized motor vehicle records in Michigan confirmed McVeigh's identity, and further listed his date of birth as April 23, 1968.

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