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Frank Keating : After the Explosion--the Heat and Light in Oklahoma City

January 28, 1996|Richard A. Serrano | Richard A. Serrano, a reporter for The Times, has been covering the Oklahoma City bombing incident since it occurred

OKLAHOMA CITY — He is a devout Catholic in the thick of the Bible Belt; a Republican in the conservative Southwest. He is a former FBI agent, a former federal prosecutor and former head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. In April, he was suddenly thrust into the national spotlight--minutes after the worst attack against the federal government. Frank Keating was just weeks into his first term as governor of Oklahoma when an explosion rocked the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in the state capital. The blast killed 169 people and injured more than 600 others.

In the days and weeks since the bombing, Keating seems to have been everywhere. He helped co-ordinate rescue efforts. He helped muster 7,000 blood donors. He created, with his wife, Kathy, trust funds that raised millions to pay burial costs and also help the injured and orphaned and their families. He has been active in rebuilding more than 350 downtown structures that were damaged or destroyed. At one fund-raiser, when a benefactor questioned where all the money was going, Keating walked him over to meet a young boy in a wheelchair, paralyzed on the left side, an ugly hole in his head. "I showed him where his money was going," Keating says.

The governor even embarked on a goodwill "Thank You, America" tour across the nation to credit thousands of out-of-town firefighters, policemen, rescue workers, construction workers and volunteers who, on April 19, set aside their own problems to come here to help. And in the process, Keating has grown increasingly controversial, because many insist he has used the tragedy to gain national prominence.

Tuesday, Keating will again be center stage. The criminal case against defendants Timothy J. McVeigh and Terry L. Nichols enters into a weeklong series of hearings on whether the trial should be moved out of Oklahoma to insure a fair proceeding. Prosecutors want it held here. Keating might be their greatest champion. He can recite a briefcase full of reasons why an Oklahoma jury ought to judge an Oklahoma crime.

But unlike others in Oklahoma--and plenty disagree with him--Keating says McVeigh and Nichols could have acted alone. He is not hung up on conspiracy theories. Or the search for a John Doe No. 2. Or an unidentified leg found in the Murrah rubble.

He also differs with many Oklahomans who, in their anger or alienation, suspect the government may have had a hand in the bombing, or at least known about the conspiracy but failed to warn the public. Keating, the former FBI man, scoffs at such talk. "What's the motive for blowing up your best friend?" he asks.

Others in the state applaud his leadership. Polls show his favorability hit 78% this winter--highest of any governor in the nation. His name is offered as a future senatorial candidate, even as a candidate for vice president.

Keating, 51, is ruddy in face, his hair thinning a bit. While his drive is strong, he, too, has had his weak moments. One afternoon not long after the bombing, away from the crowds and the cameras, he lay down on his office couch and sobbed. It is in this same office that he sat down last week to talk about the bombing and its aftermath.


Question: Nine months after the bombing, how would you describe the people of this state. At first there was this sense of great grief and sorrow, and that seems now to have been overtaken by anger.

Answer: I think that's not unnatural. People that are victimized senselessly by savagery first are grief-stricken and then are angry and vengeful. But there is a contrast between hating the crime and being open-minded as to the criminal.

And I am utterly, vengefully, intolerantly angry about this. For whoever did this. The question is: Are these the guys? I don't know. That's up for the jury to decide. But all of us in Oklahoma want a trial by a judge of ours, in our community; and if these people are responsible, we want a conviction and we want an execution. Because what happened here was utterly, selfishly, intolerantly unacceptable to our people.

Q: Three little questions. If they keep the trial in Oklahoma, where should it be? If they move it outside the state, do you have a preference? And explain why the trial needs to be close to the victims.

A: The state has a right to a fair trial. The defendants have a right to a fair trial. The public has a right to a fair trial. The victims have a right to a fair trial.

An act of criminal arrogance like this should be tried where it occurred by a judge of the community and by a jury of the community; and the victims should have access to the courtroom. Probably the city in Oklahoma that has the facilities and most objectivity would be Tulsa.

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