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U.S. Ready to Indict 3 in Oklahoma City Blast : Courts: Sources say grand jury will be asked to charge key suspects McVeigh and Nichols, along with Fortier.

August 06, 1995|RICHARD A. SERRANO and RONALD J. OSTROW | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

OKLAHOMA CITY — The government is preparing to seek grand jury indictments of at least three people in the Oklahoma City bombing case, including Michael Fortier, a friend of the two principal suspects who is expected to plead guilty and become a key government witness, sources close to the case said Saturday.

A gun enthusiast who has a deep distrust of the federal government, Fortier is not expected to be named as a direct participant in the April 19 bombing of the federal office building here--the worst mass murder on U.S. soil.

Rather, the sources said, authorities are considering asking the grand jury to indict the 26-year-old Kingman, Ariz., man for knowing about the bombing conspiracy without alerting authorities, giving false statements to federal agents and trafficking in illegal weapons.

Also expected to be named as defendants in the long-awaited grand jury indictments, which could come as early as Thursday, are Fortier's former Army buddies Timothy J. McVeigh and Terry L. Nichols.

Fortier and his wife, Lori, apparently have been talking to federal investigators since early summer. McVeigh and Nichols were charged in a criminal complaint in the days after the bombing and are being held at a federal penitentiary in El Reno, Okla.

In return for Fortier's guilty plea and cooperation as a witness against the other defendants, he is likely to receive no more than a 15-year sentence, sources said. His wife would be given immunity from prosecution and thus avoid any prison sentence, enabling her to care for the couple's young daughter, the sources said.

"Michael Fortier has always been seen as a wanna-be in this case," said one government source, describing Fortier's relationship with McVeigh and Nichols. "I don't think we thought of him as a hands-on guy."

The Fortier couple's two defense attorneys could not be reached for comment Saturday about the possibility of pending charges. But the lawyers have steadfastly refused to discuss any aspects of the ongoing grand jury investigation.

The indictment, although it will raise the possibility that other conspirators "both known and unknown" exist, will be the first official confirmation that the government does not believe a large number of individuals carried out the attack.

This could alleviate some fears among the public of large-scale conspiracies involving potential domestic terrorism in this country. At the same time, the conclusion that as few as three seemingly ordinary men could kill so many people because they bear a grudge against the government is likely to prompt calls around the country for more precautionary steps by federal authorities and tighter security measures.

The bomb exploded at 9:02 a.m. April 19 in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building here. The explosion claimed 168 lives, including 19 children, and left hundreds injured.

The blast came on the second anniversary of the government's final assault on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Tex., which ended in the fiery deaths of about 80 followers of David Koresh.

McVeigh and Nichols, along with some of their colleagues, have been portrayed as incensed by the government's handling of the Waco siege and reportedly viewed it as evidence that the government has violated too many civil liberties.

It was also learned Saturday that McVeigh, who reportedly visited the Waco site, has been asked to testify before the grand jury.

Lead prosecutor Joseph H. Hartzler said in a letter to McVeigh's defense attorney, Stephen Jones of Enid, Okla., that "your client is a target" of the federal grand jury's investigation. Jones was told that if he wishes for McVeigh to appear before the grand jury, he should report there Tuesday or Wednesday.

"Of course," the Hartzler letter said, "your client's decision to testify must be completely voluntary, and he must understand that his testimony could be used against him."

Inviting a target of a federal grand jury to testify before the panel is usually not done because prosecutors expect the individual to refuse to do so, and they are under no legal obligation to ask him to appear, according to Victoria Toensing, a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's criminal division.

But "it's more a matter of style, and there's no downside," said Toensing, who is now a Washington defense attorney. "You don't want a defense attorney to say: 'He would've told you all about it, but you never called him.' "

Jones, maintaining McVeigh's innocence, said he does not want his client to testify because doing so would provide prosecutors with a preview of his defense. Jones said he is especially bothered that the government has refused to share any of its evidence with the defense lawyers, and he renewed allegations that some key witnesses have been advised by the FBI not to cooperate with defense investigators.

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