WASHINGTON — Federal law enforcement officials are deep in negotiations with Michael Fortier on an agreement under which he would plead guilty to limited charges in the Oklahoma City bombing in return for his testimony against former Army buddies Timothy J. McVeigh and Terry L. Nichols, The Times has learned.
Three federal sources close to the case said that Fortier, a Kingman, Ariz., resident who shares the two defendants' strong anti-government views, has been cooperating with federal authorities in Oklahoma City as they seek a broad conspiracy indictment from a grand jury there. The April 19 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building killed at least 167 people.
In a week of intense discussions between Fortier and the FBI, officials have been working on a written agreement under which he would plead guilty and become one of the government's key witnesses against McVeigh and Nichols, the only people now charged in the bombing, the sources said.
But they stressed that even with his cooperation, the government is not prepared to let Fortier go completely unpunished in the nation's worst terrorist bombing.
"There's no way we'd give him a total bath," said one knowledgeable federal source, implying that Fortier would not be given blanket immunity from prosecution. "This case is too high profile and there is too much pressure to get everyone who was involved."
Added another federal official, expressing the hope of many inside the federal law enforcement camp: "He's not getting off scot-free."
Exactly what charges would be filed against the 26-year-old Fortier remain unclear. Sources said that the potential felony counts range from having knowledge of the bombing conspiracy to giving false statements to law enforcement officials. The minimum penalty for those crimes is five years in prison.
"I'm not saying it's imminent," one source said of the agreement with Fortier. "But we all feel the sooner the better. This guy could be a crucial witness for us."
Mack Martin, an Oklahoma City attorney representing Fortier in his meetings with federal authorities, declined comment on the negotiations with federal agents.
However, Fortier's mother--who has strongly defended both her son and McVeigh--said in an interview Thursday in Kingman that she now holds McVeigh responsible for her's son predicament with federal authorities.
"He just got caught in the middle of something that is unexplainable," Irene Fortier said. "We just can't understand this. . . . We can't figure out how this guy [McVeigh] came over here and got him [Michael Fortier] in the middle of that. It's just beyond us."
She added that her son has instructed her not to talk to the media.
Defense attorneys are sharply critical of Fortier's credibility as a potential witness. They suggested that his apparent involvement in some of the steps leading up to the bombing could seriously damage him in the eyes of a jury. Their strategy would be to impeach his testimony.
Stephen Jones, the lead attorney for McVeigh, predicted that Fortier will crumble under cross-examination on the witness stand.
"Certainly, we will want to visit with Mr. Fortier concerning his previous statements," Jones said. "How can you believe somebody who's told a number of different stories? If we can't believe the first one, why would we believe the last one?"
The lawyer said he believes that Fortier has been under extreme pressure from federal authorities to cooperate in their investigation. He contended that officials will "go on a rampage" to get people to cooperate and he said that he suspects Fortier is being threatened with prosecution against his wife, Laurie, if he does not talk.
"Those are powerful inducements," Jones said.
"It is clear," he added, "that Mr. Fortier and his wife have been under significant physical surveillance by federal agents. [The agents] have not left them alone and it was probably inevitable that they would be worn down sooner or later. It was probably inevitable that they would say what the federal authorities hope they would say.
"Almost anyone, after all, would rather be a witness than a defendant."
Another criminal defense lawyer, Richard Anderson of Oklahoma City, who has been asked by the federal court to be available should other defendants need legal representation in the bombing case, said it appears to be in Fortier's best interests to "strike a deal" with prosecutors.
He said reports that Fortier has told the FBI that he and McVeigh inspected the Murrah building before the bombing appear to make him an active participant in the conspiracy. "With those words alone, he'd normally be another defendant already," Anderson said. "They have aiding and abetting laws in the federal system that are pretty harsh."
Federal authorities first turned their attention to Fortier after learning that he was McVeigh's best friend and that the two men had worked together at a hardware store in Kingman after their service ended in the Army.