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Nichols Explains His Woes, but Words Are Falling Short

Sentencing judge demands more answers in Oklahoma bomb case. However, state charges limit conspirator's options.

April 02, 1998|RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Terry L. Nichols has finally begun to speak, yet it appears he has a lot more explaining to do.

Nichols, the convicted co-conspirator with Timothy J. McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing, recently sent a 16-page letter to the federal judge in Denver who will decide whether he will ever be allowed to walk out of prison a free man.

The letter, along with 28 notes from Nichols' relatives, friends, teachers and former employers, sought to show him as a loving family man, a hard-working, shy, perhaps clumsy fellow who had the misfortune of being used by McVeigh, an old Army pal.

"I'm a very private person," wrote Nichols, once a farmer in Michigan and Kansas. "All I've ever wanted was to live a quiet, peaceful life where no one bothers me and I don't bother others."

But no sooner had U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch reviewed the letters than the judge was telling Nichols that if he truly hopes to ever win his freedom, he better start talking about matters more substantial than his desire to raise blueberries and make pinatas for children's birthday parties.

Last week, Matsch held a presentencing hearing and warned Nichols that while he is leaning toward giving him life in prison with no parole, he might hand down a lighter punishment if Nichols provides insight into how he and McVeigh pulled off the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history.

"If the defendant . . . comes forward with answers or information leading to answers," the judge said, "it would be something that the court could consider in imposing sentence."

Together, Nichols and McVeigh assembled an ammonium nitrate and fuel oil bomb. On April 19, 1995, with the bomb packed in barrels stacked in the back of a rented Ryder truck, McVeigh delivered it to the front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. The blast killed 168 people and injured more than 500.

McVeigh was convicted and sentenced to death in June.

In a second, separate trial, Nichols was acquitted of first-degree murder but found guilty of conspiring with McVeigh to plan and prepare for the bombing. But because the jury in January could not reach a consensus on how he should be punished--which eliminated the prospect of the death penalty--it fell to Matsch to come up with the appropriate penalty.

With the judge expected to sentence Nichols in May, federal prosecutors have asked for the maximum: life and no parole. Nichols' lawyers have suggested as little as the time he has served since surrendering two days after the bombing.

To that end, the defense filed the batch of letters with the court, hoping to personalize Nichols and stress that McVeigh is the more evil of the two.

It may be foolhardy for Nichols to tell the judge anything more, given that state prosecutors in Oklahoma hope to try him on bombing-related charges and gain the death penalty for both. Anything Nichols might tell Matsch could be used against him in state court and send him to death.

Thus, for now, all the public may hear from Nichols, who turned 43 on Wednesday, lies in the neat, all-capitalized words he composed March 10 from his prison cell.

Of McVeigh, once his compatriot in the anti-government movement, Nichols said:

"I can not change the past, no one can. Perhaps I should have listened closer to what McVeigh was saying. Perhaps I should have questioned McVeigh more about certain things. Perhaps I should have been more serious in all I've done in my life, but I can not change these things that has happened in the past.

" . . . In regards to the things McVeigh was saying and doing, I should have taken more seriously those things. But if one steps back before April 1995, whoever heard, let alone thought, of an American doing a terrorist bombing in his own country?!

" . . . I never in my wildest dreams ever thought that I would know someone that would do a horrible terrorist act as what happened in OKC. I never thought that an American [he underlined that word] would carry out such a terrorist act on his own country. You only hear about that in other countries, not in America!"

To the victims, many of whom will make statements to the judge at the sentencing, Nichols offered: "I've tried and tried but there are no words that I can express . . . I can only pray that God will help heal their suffering and give them hope to carry on."

Of the toll on one of his children, he said: "Josh ended up failing in every class in school. He would show little to no respect toward adults. He fell in with a wrong group of kids and got into a little trouble. And worse of all he tried drugs. This use of drugs really tore me up because if there is one thing that I truly hate it is drugs and learning that my son was using them devastating to me. I felt as though I had totally failed as a parent."

And should he be allowed to go home, Nichols promised: "I would begin my blueberry crop . . . . The nearly three years in prison has made me truly realize how precious my freedom is. I surely will not take it for granted again and I'll do my best to instill that in my children . . .

"I miss so much the clear blue sky, the soft white clouds, the fresh clean air, the green grass and trees, the sounds of the birds and animals . . . "

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