How an American soldier became the terrorist next door
He is a soldier in his own strange, twisted war.
He sees himself as a patriot, not for the Bronze Star he won in a faraway desert but for blowing up a federal government building in the heart of America.
He cries for those who died in the flames of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, not for the 168 people killed by the 7,000-pound bomb he unleashed in Oklahoma City.
Six years ago, Timothy McVeigh drove across Oklahoma's dusty flatlands and into the nation's nightmares, his mysterious rage packed tighter than the 55-gallon drums of ammonium nitrate he hauled in the back of his rented Ryder truck.
On May 16, the stone-faced man who became a symbol of homegrown terrorism will be executed in a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. The 33-year-old Gulf War veteran faces death without apology. For him, the bombing was necessary to take down a bully - the U.S. government.
"My decision to take human life at the Murrah Building - I did not do it for personal gain. I ease my mind in that. … I did it for the larger good," he told the authors of the recently published "American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh & The Oklahoma City Bombing."
And the 19 children buried in smoldering debris? He called them "collateral damage" - military argot for civilian deaths in a military strike.
It's a shocking description, but Richard Burr, a Houston lawyer who represented McVeigh for five years, offers an explanation: McVeigh saw the bombing as a military mission and sealed off his emotions.
"He doesn't in his mind see individual people with smiling faces he killed," Burr says. "He can't let himself think about people killed. He still can't. It would be overwhelming. He could not tolerate it. He couldn't stand it emotionally."
McVeigh's bombing of the federal building on April 19, 1995 - the worst terrorist attack ever on U.S. soil - was more than a tragedy. It touched a nerve in the nation's consciousness, heightening anxieties over terrorism that once seemed a far-off, foreign phenomenon.
America had encountered terrorists before - notably the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 - but this was different. This was not Islamic radicals.
This was the boy next door.
"We no longer had a feeling of invulnerability," says Jerrold Post, director of the political psychology program at George Washington University. "We knew it can happen here, it may happen here, and it may happen again."
What makes McVeigh even more baffling, Post says, is that he appears in some ways to be a regular guy.
"The fact that he seems indistinguishable from our neighbors when you look and talk to him - that adds an aura to him," Post says. "Even though he talks about collateral damage and comes across as heartless, he doesn't seem crazy. That, in itself, is troubling."
Much of McVeigh's life, in fact, has been quite ordinary.
He was a scrawny kid from a broken home who loved comic books, "Star Trek" and fast cars and grew up to be a fan of "The Simpsons" and "King of the Hill." A young man who longed for a serious romance. A soldier's soldier who dreamed of becoming a Green Beret and who, one former Army buddy says, had potential to be a general.
Burr notes that "there are pieces of his life that are very sad to him," especially not having a lasting relationship with a woman. The tears that have come are not for his own disappointments, but for something that evolved into a bitter personal cause.
"He cries frequently when he thinks about the people in Waco," Burr explains. "There occasionally are flickers of that depth of feeling about family members, about lost opportunities in life. … He is not a monster."
But his monstrous act still baffles some friends and neighbors, who wonder how a good kid and a proud soldier turned into a terrorist.
"It doesn't seem to be Tim, the stories they tell," says Monsignor Paul Belzer of Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Pendleton, N.Y., where McVeigh was confirmed and where his father still attends Mass. "He would have had to change his personality drastically. That's possible. But I just don't think that he did."
In interviews and letters, McVeigh has drawn his own map of the troubled road he followed to the Murrah building:
Disillusionment with the hunger and death that went hand-and-hand with America's success in the Gulf War. Anger over a new assault-weapons ban. And two episodes that sent so-called "patriot" fringe groups into an uproar - the FBI standoff with white separatist Randy Weaver and his family at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and the federal raid on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, that ended in the fiery deaths of some 80 people.
"In his view, this happened out of necessity," Burr says of the Oklahoma bombing. "It was needed to prevent the future deaths of many, many people at the hands of the U.S. government. He believed that totally."
It would be hard to see many warning signs from McVeigh's childhood.
Timothy James McVeigh grew up in Pendleton, a rural community about 20 miles north of Buffalo, a middle child surrounded by two sisters.
His father, Bill, who worked at the same auto plant his own father had, was a homebody who tended his garden and ran bingo night at his church. His mother, Mildred, a travel agent nicknamed Mickey, was more outgoing. Their troubled marriage ended when McVeigh was in high school.
McVeigh was a mischievous, imaginative kid: He set up a skateboard ramp in his driveway and a haunted house in his basement (he charged admission), and organized flashlight tag games in the neighborhood.
"He had a very gentle way with little kids and he always had a great love of animals," says Liz McDermott, a former next-door neighbor who remembers McVeigh's two cats, Tough Clyde and Shakespeare - in honor of the April 23 birthday he shared with the bard.
McVeigh was an attentive baby-sitter for McDermott's kids.
"He got right into it - and the refrigerator," she says. "He always had a voracious appetite."
"He had a special twinkle in his eye," she adds. "He certainly won a place in my heart."
In high school, McVeigh was bright enough to win a modest scholarship, but his grades were unremarkable. In his yearbook, he listed his future plans: "Take it as it comes, buy a Lamborghini, California girls."
By the time he graduated, McVeigh had a growing interest in survivalism and guns. He and a pal bought 10 acres of land near Buffalo to use as a shooting range.
A short stint at a junior college ended in frustration and McVeigh became a security guard for an armored car service, once showing up in bandoliers. In May 1988, a month after he turned 20, he enlisted in the Army.
In basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., he first met Terry Nichols, a failed farmer from Michigan who embarked on his own new life by joining the Army at the improbable age of 33. They quickly found a mutual love of guns and a shared resentment toward any government interference, particularly when it came to restrictions on bearing arms.
Despite that seeming contradiction, McVeigh became by all accounts a model soldier - tough, strong, dedicated.
"He was a standout individual," says Maj. Terry Guild, who served as McVeigh's platoon commander briefly after the Gulf War. "When I knew him, you would have never questioned his loyalty or his integrity or his duty."
McVeigh seemed to find himself in the Army. His uniform was always dry-cleaned and pressed. He was always the first to show up for work details and the one who worked hardest.
"He was really into being committed to the military, probably more than the rest of us," says Sheffield Anderson, who served in the same 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kan. "He was very professional. Ninety percent of us thought of doing three years and getting out. He was the one you saw one day as becoming a general."
McVeigh shunned the drinking and carousing of other soldiers and instead showed an entrepreneurial streak, lending them money at high interest rates and supplying a "taxi service" that drove them home from the bars.
But there seemed to be two Tim McVeighs: The disciplined, super-efficient soldier who became a sergeant within 2 1/2 years and the budding survivalist who believed some kind of doomsday was on the way and rented a storage locker to stockpile supplies.
"He thought there was going to be a catastrophe and you had to be ready," says Dave Dilly, an Ohio corrections officer who was McVeigh's Army roommate for 11 months. "You had to have weapons, ammunition, food to last you for a long time."
McVeigh also began embracing the conspiracy teachings of extremist groups in which the federal government was the villain. He passed out copies of "The Turner Diaries," an ultra-right-wing fantasy novel about a clandestine paramilitary group that overthrows the government, attacking FBI headquarters in Washington with the same kind of truck bomb that would rain death on Oklahoma City.
McVeigh's goal was to wear the Green Beret of the Army's elite Special Forces. He worked furiously to prepare himself.
As Dilly recalls, he would return to the barracks after a 12-hour workday, change clothes and hike 15 miles carrying an 80-pound rucksack. Then more exercise, including 150 sit-ups. He would sleep three or four hours and begin again. Seven days a week.
The war brought his compulsive training to a halt, but McVeigh excelled on the battlefield, too. As a top-notch gunner in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, McVeigh was such a sure shot that Dilly still recalls with awe how he once killed an Iraqi soldier thousands of feet away.
But McVeigh was disturbed by what he encountered: Iraqis desperate to surrender, starving children, widespread destruction caused by American bombing.
"He began to think he was working for the biggest bully in the world," says Lou Michel, a Buffalo, N.Y., newspaper reporter and co-author of "American Terrorist."
McVeigh felt he had participated in a "terrible misdeed that had some genocidal qualities," Burr says, and soured on the military, which had been the best part of his life.
"It was where his talents and personality all came together," Burr says. "He had been struggling to find meaning in life before the Army and he found it there and lost it there. … His passion about the government began to turn against the government."
On returning home, McVeigh's tryout for the Special Forces ended abruptly when he quit after just two days, out of shape after months in the desert.
His Army pals razzed him.
"A lot of people say that was the turning point," says Royal Witcher, who was McVeigh's assistant gunner and shared a house with him for six months. "But he was still focused and wanted to do well."
At the end of 1991, however, McVeigh mustered out. He returned to New York with a slew of commendations and medals, but could find work only as a security guard.
In February 1992, his anger first became public with a letter to the Lockport (N.Y.) Union Sun & Journal railing about the decline of America, with its high crime and taxes.
"Is a civil war imminent?" he wrote. "Do we have to shed blood to reform the current system? I hope it doesn't come to that, but it might."
A year later, the siege at Waco so fired McVeigh's fury that he drove to the edge of the Branch Davidian compound, hawking anti-government bumper stickers. He was visiting the Michigan farm of Terry Nichols and his brother, James, when he watched the disastrous end on television.
Waco became McVeigh's obsession. Burr says he knew all the names of the people who died there and details of their lives. "He has great empathy for them," the attorney says.
McVeigh traveled back and forth between the Nichols' farm in Michigan and the Kingman, Ariz., mobile home of Michael Fortier, another Army buddy who had a "Don't Tread on Me" flag flapping outside in the desert wind.
McVeigh also became a regular at weekend gun shows where conspiracy theories ran wild about black helicopters, the New World Order and the government taking away guns from its citizens.
By the fall of 1994, McVeigh had hatched his bomb plot.
He chose the Oklahoma City federal building because it was an easy target. One night, he piled soup cans in the Fortier home to show how the barrels of explosives would be placed in the truck.
Fortier testified at McVeigh's trial that McVeigh and Terry Nichols picked the building because they believed - mistakenly - it was where the orders were issued for Waco.
McVeigh planned the attack for April 19, 1995, the second anniversary of Waco. It also was the anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and Concord in 1775, which launched the American Revolution.
Fortier also testified that McVeigh justified the large number of deaths by comparing the people to storm troopers in "Star Wars." "They may be individually innocent but, because they were part of the evil empire, they were guilty by association," he quoted McVeigh as saying.
As time passed, McVeigh's wrath grew.
Five months before the bombing, he sent a computer message to his younger sister, Jennifer, with whom he had a close relationship, saying federal agents would "swing in the wind one day" for their "treacherous actions against the Constitution."
Three months later, he wrote a friend: "My whole mindset has shifted from intellectual to animal."
The final preparations for the attack came the day before when, according to McVeigh's account in the "American Terrorist" book, he and Terry Nichols mixed and loaded thousand of pounds of explosives in the truck - the instrument of death.
On April 19, as the 9 a.m. start of the workday approached, McVeigh drove to the glass-and-concrete federal building, pulled up to a drop-off point, lit the fuse and walked away.
Years later, when he acknowledged carrying out the bombing to the authors of "American Terrorist," he described in detail the final hours leading up to it.
"He was very mechanical," says Michel, the co-author. "Several times he said, 'I know I'm not showing emotion, but I'm a professional and this had to be done.' "
He also told the authors he never intended to kill children and that if he had known a day-care center was on the second floor, he "probably would have shifted the target."
But his explanation had a chilling footnote: He said the public horror over the children's death distracted from his political message.
Bodies were still being removed from the ruins when a state trooper stopped McVeigh's 1977 Mercury Marquis near Perry, Okla. - 80 minutes after the bombing - for not having a rear license plate.
He was carrying a loaded .45-caliber Glock pistol. He also was wearing a favorite T-shirt he bought at a gun show. One side featured a drawing of Abraham Lincoln and the words SIC SEMPER TYRANNIS - "Thus ever to tyrants" - uttered by Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth. The other side showed a tree with blood dripping from its branches and a quote from Thomas Jefferson: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."
Two days later, after the FBI traced the rental truck to McVeigh, America got its first glimpse of the bomber when he emerged from an Oklahoma jail, his face as blank as a mannequin.
Someone in the crowd yelled "baby killer!" Timothy McVeigh didn't flinch.
Now, six years later, Dave Dilly, the former Army pal, tries to explain how the bombing perversely suited McVeigh's need for purpose in life.
"He was looking for something to dedicate himself to - just like a lost soul," Dilly says.
"He thinks he's a catalyst for a new revolution and in 100 years, he's going to be like Samuel Adams or Paul Revere," Dilly adds. "I think Tim wanted to be a hero. His method for becoming a hero was taken away from him when he left the Army. This idea of overthrowing the government was his way."
In 1997, McVeigh was convicted by a jury and sentenced to death. With each passing year, he has not softened his defiance or his scorn.
In a series of letters to a former Oklahoma reporter, some of which recently were published in Esquire magazine, he talked mostly about favorite movies and television shows. But in one, he said: "I have nothing against the citizens of Oklahoma (except for the continuing woe-is-me crowd)' …"
He also wrote Fox News that he had considered killing former Attorney General Janet Reno to avenge the Waco disaster, labeling the Oklahoma City bombing "an acceptable option."
In April, McVeigh's father and sister Jennifer visited him in prison. Bill McVeigh told The Daily Oklahoman that his son declined to hug them when offered a chance. Instead, as they parted, they pressed their hands against the glass that separated them.
McVeigh, who has rejected further appeals, will be cremated and have no funeral. He is said to have chosen his final words from a 19th-century poem by William Ernest Henley that includes the famous lines: "I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul."
With the execution just days away, Burr, the lawyer who grew to know McVeigh over the years, insists he is not the robotic killer hated by millions.
"He is a full real human being with a full range of emotions," Burr says. "You would not expect such a human being to do something like this. That's what's so baffling and maddening to people trying to understand this."
Where they are now
Updates on key bombing figures
TERRY NICHOLS: In jail cell blocks from bombing site while preliminary hearings conducted for possible state trial on 160 counts of first-degree murder. Already sentenced to life in prison for federal convictions of conspiracy and involuntary manslaughter in deaths of eight federal law enforcement officers in bombing.
MICHAEL FORTIER: Serving 12-year federal sentence after pleading guilty to having prior knowledge of the bombing plan but not alerting authorities. Also admitted lying to investigators, hiding evidence and trafficking in firearms the government said were stolen to finance bombing.
STEPHEN JONES: Represented McVeigh in federal trial; now in private practice in Enid, Okla. Wrote 1998 book theorizing bombing was result of international conspiracy. Maintains McVeigh was a patsy who claimed sole responsibility to protect Nichols from possible murder trial in Oklahoma. McVeigh unsuccessfully tried to get new trial, in part by claiming Jones provided inadequate defense.
CHARLIE HANGER: Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper who pulled McVeigh over for missing license plate 1 1/2 hours after bombing; now in patrol's criminal intelligence unit in Oklahoma City. Hanger ordered McVeigh out of car at gunpoint after noticing bulge in his jacket. Has largely avoided public eye since bombing, except for occasional appearances before law enforcement groups around the country.
AREN ALMON KOK: Mother of Baylee Almon, the dying 1-year-old whose picture in the arms of a firefighter became lasting image of attack; now spokeswoman for private foundation urging the installation of shatterproof glass in buildings.
CHRIS FIELDS: Firefighter shown in Pulitzer Prize-winning photo cradling Baylee Almon's limp body; still firefighter in Oklahoma City. Recently joined Aren Almon Kok to announce new safety windows at local Head Start facility.
CHARLES PORTER IV: Amateur photographer who won Pulitzer Prize for picture of Baylee Almon; worked in downtown bank at time. Accepted last year to three-year physical therapy program at Hampton University in Virginia.
BRANDON AND REBECCA DENNY: Two of six children in federal building's day-care center who survived blast. Brandon, 9, spent months in hospital with severe brain injuries; still has trouble gripping with right hand. Rebecca, 8, carries scars. Father Jim Denny, political novice, announced candidacy for Oklahoma governor in December.
BUD WELCH: Outspoken opponent of death penalty since 23-year-old daughter, Julie, killed in bombing. Speaks against capital punishment at engagements across country. In 1998, met McVeigh's father, Bill. Preaches forgiveness for Timothy McVeigh, but would like him to express remorse for bombing.