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Prosecutor Defends Oklahoma Bomb Probe : Investigation: In letter to victims and witnesses, U.S. Atty. Patrick Ryan denies charges that the FBI has ignored evidence of broader conspiracy.

November 04, 1995|RICHARD A. SERRANO and RONALD J. OSTROW | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The federal prosecutor in the Oklahoma City bombing case, attempting to knock down public criticism of the government investigation, has written letters to hundreds of victims and witnesses to assure them that investigators are still looking for evidence that additional plotters may have been involved.

The letters, sent this week by U.S. Atty. Patrick M. Ryan, were prompted by a growing number of allegations that the FBI has ignored evidence of a third defendant, identified by authorities only as "John Doe No. 2."

An Oklahoma state representative and a former federal grand juror have raised such allegations in recent weeks, contending that the FBI purposely has not sought to broaden the case beyond the two co-defendants, former Army buddies Timothy J. McVeigh and Terry L. Nichols.

"These charges are unfounded," Ryan wrote. "The FBI has conducted over 9,000 witness interviews and has followed every possible lead in an intensive effort to identify and bring to justice anyone who was involved in this disaster."

The Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was destroyed on April 19 in a blast that killed 169 people and injured 600. From the beginning, few observers, including investigators, believed that McVeigh and Nichols alone could have pulled off the worst act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history.

Many victims and their families, along with other Oklahoma residents, have become convinced that the government has overstated the breadth of its investigation.

State Rep. Charles Key has led his own review of the case and has drawn the support of many of the families of the dead and injured. In a videotape and companion booklet called "Oklahoma City: What Really Happened?" Key and others suggest that more than one bomb was detonated at the site, that there was a "Middle Eastern connection" in the bombing and that some federal agents who worked in the Murrah building had warning of the blast.

At $24.95 for the video and booklet, Key said Friday, more than a thousand copies have already been sold. He is now attempting to form a "people's grand jury" investigation into the bombing.

"I think it's an outrage," he said of Ryan's letter. "They're using their office propaganda to pander to some of these victims and survivors."

Agreeing with Key is Hoppy Heidelberg, a federal grand juror who was dismissed from the panel that indicted McVeigh and Nichols after he publicly criticized the federal investigation. A Blanchard, Okla., horse breeder, Heidelberg said Friday that family members gave him a copy of the letter this week.

"It's a joke," he said. "They called me, laughing about it. They thought it was amusing."

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But Steve Mullins, a spokesman in the U.S. attorney's office, said the letter is just one of six monthly updates Ryan has sent to victims and witnesses. He said the enormous number of people touched by the bombing has made it impossible for the office's victim-witness notification unit to adequately keep them apprised of progress in the case.

Mullins added that feedback from the families regarding the recent letter has been positive. "We've gotten a lot of people calling every day," he said. "We want to make sure they don't feel they're abandoned."

In his letter, Ryan accused Key and Heidelberg of using the intense media coverage of the bombing to spread their criticism. "No doubt news accounts suggesting a failure to adequately investigate both upset and concern you," Ryan wrote. "This is understandable."

But, he said, "these unfounded allegations and the associated negative news coverage frustrate all of us involved in the investigation and prosecution of this case."

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Ryan insisted that the government "has never maintained or even suggested that no other person or persons were involved with McVeigh and Nichols in the commission of these crimes." He said that investigations are continuing to determine if others are responsible.

Ryan added: "To suggest any of us would conceal or fail to investigate the identity of others involved in the killing of 169 innocent people is appalling."

He ended the letter with this closing: "You are always in our thoughts and prayers."

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