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In Concert at a Killer's Death

Sure to be controversial, David Woodard's 'prequiem' is intended for Timothy McVeigh's final hours.

May 09, 2001|SUSAN CARPENTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The one-room office with overflowing bookshelves and Maria Callas playing quietly in the background isn't the likeliest setting for a storm of controversy. Nor is its slender, soft-spoken inhabitant a likely target for angry finger-pointing.

But Los Angeles composer David Woodard could easily incense the friends and family of those who were killed in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing when he performs a musical "prequiem" for Timothy McVeigh shortly before his execution next Wednesday. Woodard's hope in performing the 12-minute piece, he said, is to "cause the soul of Timothy McVeigh to go to heaven."

McVeigh, 33, has been in contact with Woodard and is helping him coordinate the performance. McVeigh killed 168 people, 19 of them children, when he exploded a truckload of ammonium nitrate and racing fuel outside the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City. He has never expressed remorse for his actions.

"That's not my understanding of the way you get to heaven. I didn't know you could sing your way into it," said Kathy Wilburn, who lost two grandchildren in the blast, when told of Woodard's plan. "I've actually prayed for Timothy McVeigh. . . . But there's nothing in the Bible that says the way to heaven is by having someone write a song for you. . . . I think Timothy McVeigh is going to have to answer to God."

Paul A. Heath, who was injured in the blast, said "I'm sure this person [Woodard] is sincere, but it is terribly insensitive to the reality of pain and grief caused by this delusional, suicidal coward [McVeigh]."

Woodard's composition--originally written for "doctor of death" Jack Kevorkian--was at first titled "Farewell to a Saint," but Woodard changed the name because he thought it might be offensive to Oklahomans. The music of "ethereal dissonance" is now called "Ave Atque Vale," Latin, Woodard says, for "Onward Valiant Soldier" although other translations put it as "Hail and Farewell." Few people would consider McVeigh either valiant or a saint, but Woodard says he is not championing McVeigh's cause, merely "awed by who [he] is and his circumstances."

"I cannot think of a precedent in history . . . of a man who without any direct psychological support for his ideas is able to withstand the duress of the death penalty or hopeless imprisonment and seem completely satisfied that he did the right thing," said the mild-mannered Woodard, a friend of the late writer William Burroughs.

Woodard plans to conduct the ensemble being assembled to perform the piece during a vigil at a church in Terre Haute, Ind., not far from the prison. The piece is expected to be broadcast later on a local radio station so McVeigh can hear it. Meanwhile, Woodard says he is in negotiations with various networks that might broadcast the performance.

McVeigh's scheduled execution has already taken on the air of a media spectacle. Some 1,400 journalists will report on the event from tents at the prison grounds in Indiana; and writer Gore Vidal has accepted an invitation from McVeigh to witness the death firsthand before writing about it for Vanity Fair magazine. Three hundred of the bomber's victims and their relatives will watch the lethal injection via closed-circuit TV.

Woodard's initial intention was to perform "Ave Atque Vale" at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, where McVeigh is being held, but prison officials denied his request. "We have so many law enforcement initiatives going on that we're just not going to allow for that to occur," said Janet Perdue, a spokeswoman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Woodard was informed of the prison's decision in mid-March and wrote McVeigh a letter requesting his assistance. He didn't receive a response until mid-April, after he wrote McVeigh a second time and enclosed a copy of an interview a Kansas City music publication had done with Woodard regarding his prequiem.

McVeigh's purported letter to him said, "It is difficult to find time these days to respond to all who write, but your recent mailing calls out for a response." It went on to tell Woodard he was "the first person I've heard of [or from] that has figured me out"--that admission from the death-row prisoner who has repeatedly said he wants to "remain a mystery."

"With your reflections on 'collateral damage,' " McVeigh's neatly handwritten letter to Woodard said, "I breathe a huge sigh of relief--maybe there is hope yet for the species!"

Woodard believes McVeigh's use of the term "collateral damage" to describe the 19 children who were killed in the Oklahoma City bombing was meant to "drolly echo the rhetoric of Bush, circa the Gulf War, and Janet Reno following Waco." As for McVeigh's letter to him, Woodard said, "It justified my secret feeling that he is a master high comedian, above all."

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