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Tale From Attorney Could Complicate Prosecution of Oklahoma City Bomb Case : Probe: Lawyer says he saw McVeigh driving near federal building minutes before blast. His story seems to contradict government's version of events.

August 26, 1995|RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OKLAHOMA CITY — In a development that could complicate prosecution of the Oklahoma City bombing case, a local attorney has given an eyewitness account of movements by defendant Timothy J. McVeigh minutes before the explosion that seem incompatible with the government's version of what happened.

In the account the government has been using, McVeigh parked a Ryder rental truck laden with explosives at the north side of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building the morning of April 19 and then fled in a nearby getaway car before the bomb exploded.

However, James R. Linehan, in an interview with The Times, said that shortly before the blast he saw McVeigh driving erratically in a car--not the Ryder truck--around the federal building and then suddenly disappearing into its underground parking area.

Linehan's description of the car matches the battered yellow 1977 Mercury Marquis that McVeigh was driving when he was arrested the day of the blast.

Thirty-nine years old and a lawyer since 1986, Linehan has been interviewed by the FBI and other investigators but was not called to testify before the grand jury that indicted McVeigh and alleged accomplice Terry L. Nichols earlier this month.

While the government account portrays McVeigh as the central figure directly responsible for putting the bomb in place, Linehan's version would appear to cast him as a possible getaway driver or in some other secondary role.

Neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys in the case would comment on Linehan's account.

But, coming as it does from a seemingly reliable and disinterested citizen, it could pose a test of prosecutors' ability to reconcile the disparate accounts that have been given by witnesses at the blast scene.

"I just know what I saw. And if you're asking me if that was the yellow vehicle [the yellow Mercury], well, that was the yellow vehicle," he said in an interview.

Linehan specializes in representing federal employees in Social Security and workers' compensation claims. On the morning of April 19, he was driving from his Midwest City, Okla., office to a hearing in downtown Oklahoma City when he pulled up to a red light on the south side of the Murrah building.

"It's 8:38 in the morning," he said. "Why do I know? Because I'm on my way to a hearing and I naturally look down at the clocks [in his black Jeep] because I don't want to be late."

The bombing occurred at 9:02 a.m.

Linehan said he smiled at a woman stopped in a red pickup truck across the intersection and then looked to his right.

"That's when I notice a yellow vehicle beside me," he said. "The driver of this vehicle is hunched over the wheel. It's a white person because there's a white hand showing.

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"I cannot see a face because there's either hair or a hood covering his head and because the driver is hunched over the wheel and looking up at the Murrah building."

He said the driver was alone.

"The next second this vehicle just peels out," Linehan said. "Peels out across this intersection. I thought I'd missed the light, but the light was still red.

"And this is not your normal somebody late to court or somebody trying to catch the light on the fly. This is just flooring the gas and moving across the intersection."

Linehan noticed the rear of the car. "All I remember is I don't see a tag," he said. "If there was a tag, it's rusted over, it's brownish-red or something. It's just a dark area there."

When McVeigh was arrested near Perry, Okla., about 70 minutes after the bombing, his Mercury Marquis did not have a rear license plate.

When the light turned green, Linehan said, he drove forward, thinking "what an idiot" the driver of the other car was. He then noticed that the driver had slowed and swerved far into the left lane and was craning his neck and looking up at the Murrah building.

Linehan said he was forced to pull into the oncoming traffic lane to avoid hitting the car. "My whole concern is I'm driving a new Jeep and I don't want yellow cruddy paint all over my Jeep," he said. "I'm also thinking how there are always federal marshals standing out here smoking cigarettes and what a place to have a wreck, you idiot."

At this point, Linehan could see into the car again.

"The person driving it is leaning over the wheel so much, trying to look at the Murrah building," he said. The two men then looked at one another.

"Just for a split second," Linehan said. "What I saw was either a hood or hair or something dark that covered the left eye completely. All I could see was the end of a sharp nose, no facial hair and a kind of sharp chin. It was smooth features."

That description appears to match McVeigh, except that until this time he has never been pictured wearing a hood or hat to help cover his face.

"I saw no eyes," Linehan said.

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