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A grandmother's quest for truth

Kathy Graham Wilburn, whose grandsons died in the Oklahoma City bombing, asks the hard questions in 'Terror From Within.'

November 24, 2002|Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writer

At 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995, Kathy Graham Wilburn was watching her daughter, Edye, cross the room to blow out the candles on her 23rd birthday cake when a powerful explosion shook the downtown Oklahoma City office building where their co-workers had gathered for an office birthday party.

Someone yelled then that a nearby bank had just been blown up, and Wilburn and her daughter dashed outside as shards of glass rained from the sky and smoke billowed over the city.

But it wasn't a bank. It was the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, and inside was a day-care center with Edye's two children, 3-year-old Chase and 2-year-old Colton, who would perish in the blast.

"I stood and watched my daughter crumble," Wilburn recently recalled. "She said, 'My babies! My babies!' I said, 'Edye, it's going to be all right.' But I knew in my heart it wasn't going to be all right."Now, a feature-length documentary titled "Terror From Within" is raising disturbing questions about the Oklahoma City bombing, which claimed 168 lives, including 19 children. It asks whether a more complex mastermind was behind the blast than Timothy McVeigh, who was executed last year, and his imprisoned co-conspirator, Terry Nichols.

A driving force behind the film is 49-year-old grandmother Kathy Wilburn, who, as associate producer, has been on a years-long mission to unearth facts about the event that took the lives of her grandsons.

Like the divorced mother of three who took on a corporate giant in "Erin Brockovich," Wilburn has been waging a crusade against the secrecy and power of the federal government almost since the day of the bombing.Her quest has taken her to England and Ireland to conduct interviews, and she has befriended relatives of McVeigh and Nichols, hung out of a helicopter guiding cameras over a white separatist settlement in rural Oklahoma that McVeigh telephoned in the weeks before the bombing, and even entered the Aryan Nations compound in Idaho, where hatemongers wearing swastikas shouted "Heil Hitler!" and saluted a life-size bust of the Fuhrer.

"It made me feel sick," she said of her visit to the compound, but Wilburn still managed to charm Aryan Nations founder Richard Butler into giving her an on-camera interview by telling him: "My name is Kathy Wilburn. I lost both my grandchildren in the Oklahoma City bombing, and I don't like the story the feds are telling me.' "

Whenever someone balked, Wilburn would "guilt" them into cooperation by showing them a small artist's rendition she carries of her two grandchildren with angel's wings.

Before the bombing, Wilburn had been in charge of employee hiring at the Internal Revenue Service in Oklahoma City. Her husband, Glenn, was a certified public accountant. Two years after the bombing, he would die of pancreatic cancer, a condition, he was convinced, precipitated by stress caused by the bombing and its aftermath.

"We were the kind of people who got up in the morning, we went to work, we came home and played with the babies and worked in the yard," Kathy Wilburn recalled. "Never had a political agenda. I would have never believed this could have happened if it hadn't happened to me."

Now a motivational speaker, Wilburn has been seen on numerous television programs, including "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "CBS This Morning," "The Today Show" and "America's Most Wanted."

Director and producer Jason Van Vleet, 32, credits Wilburn with not only providing valuable research for the documentary, but also with landing key on-camera interviews from people who normally might shun professional journalists.

"What was unique is, we were able to get into some of the places that most reporters don't get into," Van Vleet said.

Wilburn not only worked behind the scenes but is also featured on camera, as is Jannie Coverdale, who also lost her grandchildren in the blast. Visiting the gravesites of the children, the women lend poignancy to an otherwise hard-edged documentary.

"Terror From Within" screened in September at the International Documentary Assn.'s "DOCtober" showcase in Santa Monica, in a qualifying run for Academy Award consideration. The documentary was produced by Colorado-based MGA Films, which has a domestic television distribution deal with Solid Entertainment of Santa Monica and an international distribution deal with Sound Image Broadcast Sales out of London. The documentary won the grand jury award at this year's Houston Film Festival.

The 90-minute film claims that right-wing extremists had targeted the Murrah building as far back as 1983 and notes that April 19 loomed large in militia circles for several reasons.

April 19 not only marked the second anniversary of the day the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, went up in flames, but also the 10th anniversary of the day in 1985 that federal and state authorities laid siege to the Arkansas compound of a military group called the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord.

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