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Victims of McVeigh Seek to Bear Witness

Bombing: Survivors, relatives have personal reasons to watch execution.

April 09, 2001|RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OKLAHOMA CITY — Diane Leonard lost her husband and turned her pain into counseling other victims. Bud Welch became an outspoken opponent of capital punishment and does not wish death for Timothy J. McVeigh for killing his daughter.

But unlike the hundreds of those injured and the families of those killed in the Oklahoma City bombing, Kathy Wilburn has gone far afield on her journey mourning her two grandsons.

She has hugged McVeigh's father in New York and wept with the wife of Michael Fortier in Arizona, the drug dealer who could have stopped the bombing. "A person's worst mistakes do not always define that person as a whole," Fortier later wrote her, seeking forgiveness.

On Tuesday, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft will visit Oklahoma City on a mission that would make King Solomon hesitate. Ashcroft must determine how to apportion just eight seats at McVeigh's execution among 250 relatives and survivors who believe seeing it will help to cleanse their grief.

Whatever Ashcroft decides, the anguish will go on, because each of the more than 500 people who were injured and the relatives of the 168 killed in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building blast here on April 19, 1995, has been changed in ways that nothing can erase.

Wilburn, for her part, has never believed McVeigh and Terry L. Nichols conspired alone in the bombing. She has visited the sites where they bought the bomb ingredients and the storage lockers where it was kept.

She has toured the lake in Kansas where the dynamite was attached to the ammonium nitrate, slept in the motel room where McVeigh spent his last night of freedom and knocked on the doors of white supremacy compounds from Oklahoma to Idaho.

She also has received some 100 cards and letters from Nichols, the man who was at McVeigh's side up until the bombing.

Writing from prison about his newfound religion, Nichols, a former atheist serving a life sentence, told Wilburn, "I wish I would have known these truths myself years ago. For it would have prevented me from making numerous mistakes over the years.

"But," he added, "that's the past, and no one can change it."

The letters to Wilburn from the two men are remarkable because Fortier has said nothing publicly beyond his court testimony, and Nichols has remained silent both during his federal trial and now as he awaits a second trial on state capital murder charges in Oklahoma City.

"What drives me?" asked Wilburn, whose grandsons Chase Smith, 3, and Colton Smith, 2, died in the explosion. "The need to know the truth."

She does not want the government to execute McVeigh, as planned for May 16. "I believe that when he dies, so dies the truth," she said.

And yet she hopes to get one of the eight seats for victims to watch the execution. "I lost two grandchildren. Don't I deserve to see it?" she asks.

Of some 2,000 people classified as "official victims," 250 have said they want be in the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., to peer through the glass as the thus-far unrepentant McVeigh is given a fatal dose of potassium chloride that stops his heart.

Ashcroft will determine how to pick eight people from that list but won't specifically pick the individuals. For those who don't get in, Ashcroft may allow closed-circuit viewings of the execution either here or in Terre Haute. He is unlikely to announce his decision Tuesday.

For Wilburn, however Ashcroft decides, her quest will go on.

She began her journey with her husband, Glenn, neither of them believing that two Army veterans like McVeigh and Nichols could have pulled off the worst act of terrorism in America. When Glenn died of pancreatic cancer in the summer of 1997, just after McVeigh's trial, she pushed onward.

Sometimes with a video camera, sometimes with a notebook and pencil, often suspecting the government itself knew the bombing was being planned, the determined woman trudged on.

She visited the Ryder rental agency in Junction City, Kan., where the owner, Eldon Elliott, still insisted that another man, known only as "John Doe No. 2," was with McVeigh the day he rented the bomb truck.

She stayed nearby at the Dreamland Motel, a low-rent stop on the interstate. She even rented Room 25, where McVeigh stayed in the days before the bombing. The room was "really creepy," she said; she left the light on at night.

"Have you ever been to the Dreamland?" she said. "It had chenille bedsheets and an old shag carpet."

She talked to proprietor Lea McGown, who told her about seeing other people darting in and out of McVeigh's room at night.

She went to Elohim City, Okla., and visited the far-right, anti-government compound run by the Rev. Robert Millar, which McVeigh had telephoned before the bombing and to which some believe he was headed afterward.

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