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McVeigh Shows a Defiance Even as His Execution Nears

February 11, 2001|RICHARD SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — When he was sentenced to death four summers ago, armed federal marshals flew him away to prison. They took him by helicopter high up over the Colorado Rockies.

His hands and feet were shackled but his eyes rarely left the window. He could see the mountain streams coursing, the deer and elk running free. He smiled. "Just let me out," he said. "Give me a head start."

For Timothy James McVeigh, the race is almost over.

This spring he is scheduled to die for the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The blast killed 168 people and injured more than 500 others. It stands as the worst act of terrorism in the United States.

There are many who wish McVeigh dead--most of his living victims and their families, much of the public, the federal government. Oddly enough, so too do many in the same far-right movement that led the Persian Gulf War veteran to pack a Ryder truck with explosives in hopes of igniting a second American Revolution.

McVeigh has always been the silent, stoic soldier. Now, against the best advice of his attorneys, he has abruptly abandoned his legal appeals and asked for a swift execution.

Barring a last-minute attempt for executive clemency, the Oklahoma City bomber will die on May 16.

Why the sudden change of resolve? Why give in after so much fight? Why would McVeigh, a gun nut from the Buffalo, N.Y., area, surrender to the enemy?

McVeigh has declined so far to fully explain his decision. His lawyers said that he simply doesn't want to put off the inevitable. "It's not in his nature just to stall for the sake of delay," said attorney Rob Nigh.

Others who are close to McVeigh said he relishes being crowned a martyr, that he believes his death finally will spark a national revolt. By dismissing his appeals, they said, he believes he will die on his own terms and not at the hand of the hated federal government.

Many in the anti-Washington crowd reject such a notion, pointing out that the Oklahoma City tragedy actually triggered tougher gun laws and other government restrictions. "He never was a part of the Patriot movement," scoffed John Trochmann, a high-profile militia leader in Montana.

Some said that McVeigh, having already tasted fame, is merely seeking more celebrity and that, in his own twisted thoughts, dreams that he will live on after death.

In fact, in a letter published today in the Sunday Oklahoman, McVeigh seeks public broadcast of his execution and questions the fairness of limiting the number of witnesses.

A psychologist who studied him at length for the government said that McVeigh's strong narcissistic tendencies, coupled with years of prison isolation, have brought on a grandiose sense of self. "There's even a sense of immortality here, that somehow execution or death is not real," the psychologist said. "Instead of being frightened of death, he embraces it."

McVeigh is now the first in line on death row at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. His death would mark the first federal execution in nearly 40 years. He will have just turned 33. He will be strapped to a gurney and given a lethal injection.

*

Since April 19, 1995, the day of the Oklahoma City bombing, the world has heard little from McVeigh.

He remains thin and pale, with close-cropped hair.

He still reminisces about his Army days, the one bright spot in his young life. Something as simple as a recent letter from James "Bo" Gritz, once a decorated Army colonel, now deep in the militant antigovernment movement, addressing him as "Sgt. McVeigh" is enough to prompt a quick reply from the man who killed Iraqi soldiers from his post in a Bradley fighting vehicle.

In prison he has been polite and of little trouble. Officials said he "gets along." When he is moved, he critiques the precision and safety of the guards who escort him up or down the prison hallway.

He knows his notoriety extends far beyond the others on death row. Yet he manages to live alone, calling on the survival tactics he learned a decade ago when preparing--unsuccessfully--for the Army's Special Forces Unit.

And while McVeigh has been described as a voracious reader of history and other nonfiction books, some said that he prefers pornography. Sometimes he has clipped out magazine photos of young women like Britney Spears and sent them to pen pals, with his own crude inscriptions.

For a while, he received stacks of letters from European women who felt romantically drawn to the troubled inmate. During another period he was mailed enough Gideon Bibles to fill a Holiday Inn.

He can present himself as a great thinker. But in his cell he watches old movies or scans the dial for "The Simpsons" or "Star Trek" reruns. He often would rather talk football than politics or gun control. He tends to be more interested in the Buffalo Bills than the Brady bill, which became a law regulating the sale of hand guns.

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