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McVeigh Case Hinges on the Circumstantial

March 31, 1997|RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DENVER — Two years in prison have not changed the man.

Timothy James McVeigh is still the thin, serious, pale-skinned figure the nation first glimpsed on the day of his arrest, escorted out of an Oklahoma courthouse in waistcuffs and leg irons, damned by a jeering mob as the worst mass murderer in the nation's history.

He still greets a visitor with a look from cold blue eyes, still proclaims his innocence, still demands a jury trial.

Yet this morning, when at last McVeigh goes on trial, there is one difference from two years ago: The case against him does not seem nearly as solid as it once did.

Can prosecutors, in fact, prove that this decorated Army veteran of the Persian Gulf War acted alone in driving a bomb-laden, yellow Ryder rental truck up to the circular drive outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City at 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995?

The government still cannot place the 28-year-old defendant at the site of the explosion that killed 168 women, children and men and injured 500 others. It cannot place in his hands the ammonium nitrate used in the bomb. It also has no confession, despite the leak of several reported McVeigh "confessions" that have tumbled into media accounts in recent weeks.

What prosecutors do have is a case that rests largely on circumstantial evidence.

Witnesses have identified McVeigh as the nervous customer renting the truck two days before the bombing. His jeans and T-shirt, knife and earplugs, reportedly were covered with forensic evidence matching chemical components found inside the truck. And he had ranted for years against perceived government abuses, especially the failed 1993 FBI raid in Waco, Texas.

But his defense lawyers have woven a pattern of doubt into the government's case.

They have highlighted widespread problems of contamination at the once-famed FBI crime lab, where McVeigh's clothing was examined. They have conjured up conspiracy theories indicating others may have had a larger role in the bombing. They have hinted about foreign terrorist cells operating in the Philippines and Europe.

And the defense lawyers hold a wild card--the FBI mug shot of John Doe No. 2, the elusive second suspect. Federal authorities say they now believe that McVeigh had no such companion, but the defense will argue that change of heart is simply an attempt to snip off a loose end that could tangle the prosecution's case.

His lawyers hope to use those elements of doubt to convince jurors that McVeigh is not guilty--or to let him live if there is evidence that co-conspirators were permitted to go free.

This morning, hundreds of residents of the Denver area and eastern Colorado are to converge in the second-floor courtroom of U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch for the start of jury selection.

*

The date--April 19--is Patriots Day. It is the date commemorated for the shots in Massachusetts--at Lexington and Concord--that opened the Revolutionary War in 1775. In 1993, it was the day that a failed FBI tank movement at Waco, Texas, ended in the deaths of more than 80 Branch Davidians. In 1995, that date marked the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history.

But this wasn't the sort of terrorism many Americans expected. If you believe the government, it didn't come from outside the nation. It was, instead, the work of a scrawny kid from upstate New York, the son of a good Catholic man in the small community of Pendleton, where the great local pursuits are as American as bingo and bowling.

McVeigh made it through high school but checked out of business college. He turned instead to the Army. It was there he found glory as a decorated tank gunner in the Iraqi desert.

Later, in his years after rejection from the Army's elite Special Forces led him to quit the service, he wandered the washboard of America, traveling throughout the Midwest, working gun shows and showing up at right-wing expositions where the watchword of "patriots" is, always, vigilance.

He worried that a "New World Order" would make the United States submit to a larger authority. He opposed U.S. soldiers fighting under a United Nations flag. He believed that black government helicopters spy on Americans in the night. During the FBI siege of the Branch Davidians at Waco, he turned up outside the compound, selling bumper stickers that complained about the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and warned of unreasonable gun control.

Prosecutors in Denver will say he could not control his hatred after what happened at Waco. They will argue that Waco was the catalyst--his spark, his trigger. Oklahoma City was his revenge.

Their critical pieces of evidence:

* A dealer at the Mid-Kansas Co-Op in McPherson, Kan., believes that it was McVeigh and co-defendant Terry L. Nichols--who will be tried separately--who purchased large bags of ammonium nitrate in the fall of 1994.

* Fingerprints on a sales receipt for ammonium nitrate that match McVeigh's.

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