OKLAHOMA CITY — From his unique vantage point, Michael Fortier had the clearest picture of what was happening inside Timothy J. McVeigh's head.
They had soldiered together and, after the Army, he watched as McVeigh drifted across the country in search of the next gun show. Together they were enraged by the federal assault at Waco, Texas. And when Fortier last saw him early in April, driving away from the Kingman, Ariz., trailer home they shared, he knew McVeigh was once again leaving "for parts unknown."
So when the FBI asked him about McVeigh and the April 19 explosion in Oklahoma City, Fortier tried to explain the fury inside his friend, struggled to tell the disbelieving agents how McVeigh might justify something like that in his own mind.
"If he did indeed blow up the federal building," Fortier said, "Tim would simply consider it to be a rational act on his part." Fortier's descriptions come from sealed FBI reports of interviews the agency conducted with him in the days after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. These are his first explanations to law enforcement, at a time when the FBI was still learning how wide and how deep the bombing conspiracy had grown.
Later Fortier would admit to much greater knowledge of the attack than he did in these sessions and plead guilty to charges as part of a plea bargain. In prison today, he is beginning a 23-year sentence for running stolen weapons that federal agents believed helped finance the bombing.
But even his reluctant early words, when he was still trying desperately to escape the dragnet, provide a clear view of the crucial part he will now play in determining whether the two men accused of the terrorist attack, McVeigh and Terry L. Nichols, are judged responsible for the deaths of at least 168 people.
In these confidential reports Fortier appears, at different times, in each of the conflicting roles the prosecution and defense will cast for him in the bombing trial later this year--the plot insider who is taking the stand to finally tell all he knows, and the scared, self-contradicting witness possibly willing to say anything to save his skin. Which one the jury believes may help decide the outcome of the case.
From the beginning of his negotiations with the federal government, the reports show, Fortier was under tremendous pressure to cooperate.
The statements show a confused, conniving young man, a 26-year-old father suddenly thrust into a panic as agents descended around his home, his family, his friends and his employer in Kingman. Over and over, they demanded clues into the life of McVeigh in the days and months before the bombing.
In language sure to bolster the government's case, he described for them McVeigh's transformation from loyal Army sergeant to antigovernment fanatic. According to the interrogators, he talked of McVeigh's extraordinary love of guns, their excursions delivering weapons, and their exploits test-firing explosives in the desert.
But he also often contradicted himself, and sometimes came across as someone defense attorneys could attack as shifty and unreliable when he faces cross-examination on the witness stand.
In the reports, Fortier at first maintained that he had lost contact with Nichols after the Army, then later admitted he had not only spoken with him but had given him money.
He insisted that he had no inkling that McVeigh or Nichols was involved in the bombing. But later in his plea bargain, he confessed in court that he knew about the bombing plans and failed to alert authorities.
And much like McVeigh and Nichols, he railed against big government, taxes and the deadly 1993 FBI assault on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco. When agents challenged him and suggested that the bombing had nothing to do with Waco, Fortier blurted out:
"I strongly disagree. . . . Tim believed that the federal government committed the murder of 80 or so people who were killed there."
The intensity of the questioning and his attempts to dodge blame repeatedly pushed Fortier into brambles of contradictions, the reports show. This process helped bring him to his final decision to cooperate, but also can be used to discredit him.
At one point, Fortier told the agents that McVeigh "did not appear to be fanatical about the [Waco] issue." On the other hand, he said, McVeigh strongly believed that the government never really conducted an investigation into the Waco incident.
"If in fact it was conducted," Fortier said McVeigh told him, "it would have shown the federal government to be at fault."
And then, like an aside or somehow an explanation, Fortier suddenly added: "Tim also has a general feeling that there are too many taxes in this country."
In separate FBI reports on interviews with Fortier's wife, Lori, she appeared exasperated that McVeigh had been arrested. She said she "seriously doubted that he would be involved in the bombing."