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THE MCVEIGH VERDICT

McVeigh's Hometown Suffering a Genuine Case of Heartbreak

Reaction: Those who saw murderer grow up express shock, misery, anger. 'We just loved the kid,' one says.

June 14, 1997|JUDY PASTERNAK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PENDLETON, N.Y. — Above all, John McDermott intended to stay stoical when he opened the screen door of the red-brick house where a teenage Tim McVeigh was once the regular baby-sitter. He had just learned that his trip to Denver to testify last week on his onetime neighbor's behalf had been in vain.

The boy was going to be executed.

The same federal jury that had convicted McVeigh of the worst act of domestic terrorism in American history had deemed that the proper punishment for the taking of 168 lives in Oklahoma would be for McVeigh to sacrifice his own.

"If he had gotten life in prison, he probably would have gotten killed anyway," McDermott said. He spoke slowly and blinked fast. "There are going to be all sorts of appeals. It's going to be more expensive for the taxpayers this way."

Then McDermott's mouth crumpled and tears slid out the sides of his eyes, just as they had in court. "It's just hard to believe he was even involved with this."

His voice cracked and rose in pitch. "We just loved the kid."

Pendleton, on the banks of the Erie Canal, was Timmy's town. On Friday, once again, the 5,000 people who live here had to confront the grown-up Timothy J. McVeigh, the one they learned about two years ago after his arrest. The polite, funny, smart young man who left for the Army grew to hate the federal government enough, apparently, to bomb a building.

*

His hometown, where every third house seems to wear a U.S. flag or patriotic bunting, is suffering a classic case of heartbreak.

As the citizens learned the fate of their native son, they displayed the full range of symptoms, from sodden misery to ravaging anger to simple shock.

Worst of all, the day was just a flare-up of a chronic ache--and it was far from over, will not be for years.

Don't look in Pendleton for defenders of Timothy McVeigh.

"You won't find much sympathy for Tim in town," said Mike Darlak, whose younger brother and McVeigh bought wooded property together years ago so they'd have a place to shoot. "You'll find sympathy for his family."

Darlak and a friend turned on the radio in Darlak's sign shop when they realized the verdict was about to be announced. His friend thumbed a copy of Fly Fisherman magazine, listening to a report that seemed to stretch out forever.

"He's gonna fry," said the friend. Darlak rubbed his own throat with his fingers.

"Doesn't look good," said the friend. Darlak studiously polished the gold letters on a wooden sign he'd just completed for a dental practice.

"Death," the radio said at last. "Tim McVeigh has been sentenced to death."

The friend muttered a farewell and abruptly left.

Darlak looked down at the floor. "I didn't think they'd have the gumption. I thought they'd give him life [in prison]," he said softly. His brother, David, had gone camping in Canada to escape this moment.

"I don't think he feels sorry for Tim," Darlak said. "I think he's angry at Tim. It's plain that he did it."

Tony Miller, too, professes to be going on with his life, concentrating on the final days of the academic year at Starpoint Central School where he once taught Timmy McVeigh. But on the chalkboard ledge, he has propped a copy of "The Light in the Forest," a novel by Conrad Richter. Inside the front cover are signatures of the students who have used the text. One belongs to Tim McVeigh ("is a Jew" reads graffiti scrawled after his name).

*

In his black briefcase, Miller keeps the subpoena he was issued by McVeigh's defense team. McVeigh requested his testimony in the penalty phase.

At the last minute, Miller was informed he wasn't needed, and he was so relieved. He could have said that Tim got good grades, in the high 90s, and that he'd read "The Martian Chronicles" and "The Time Machine" in class. He could have said that he was "floored" when he heard that the gentlemanly, witty kid had been charged in the bombings.

But he didn't particularly want to. He didn't want McVeigh to get the death penalty, but only because he simply doesn't believe in executions. "I think," Miller said, "sometimes life in prison can be far harsher."

McVeigh has cost him sleep. His blue eyes are red-rimmed behind his spectacles. "What happens to him happens," Miller said, thick-voiced. "He brought it on himself. He's part of my past and I want to get on with my present."

Ominous thunderheads built up here as the second day of penalty deliberations wore on in Denver. The rain rushed down upon the orchards and wheat fields, the lawns and flower beds. Just as the storm ended, the news poured upon a fresh and glistening Pendleton.

The house where McVeigh's father, William, and sister, Jennifer, live stood empty, curtains drawn and blinds down, with Jennifer's teal and silver pickup truck parked in front. They and their grief were still in Denver. The American flag that had been lowered to half-staff after the bombing, to memorialize the dead, flew at the flagpole's top.

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