Timothy McVeigh: USA’s Largest Domestic Terror Attack

In my last blog, we met Charles Schmid, the so-called “Pied Piper of Tucson.” This week, we look at the gut-wrenching case of Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing. McVeigh’s attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building killed 168 people, including 19 children.

Timothy McVeigh

Timothy McVeigh grew up in upstate New York, After his parents divorced when he was ten years old, he lived with his father. McVeigh claimed he was bullied at school, causing him to retreat into a fantasy world. In this world, he imagined extracted revenge against bullies.

In May 1988, when he was twenty, McVeigh enlisted in the United States Army and attended training at Fort Benning, Georgia. He showed an acute interest in weapons, sniper tactics, and explosives. Promoted to sergeant, he exhibited overt hostility to the Black soldiers in his unit.

Timothy McVeigh in the U.S. Army
Timothy McVeigh in the U.S. Army

After serving in the Gulf War, McVeigh tried to join the Army’s Special Forces. He joined the selection program but washed out on the second day of the 21-day program. Deciding to leave the army, he received an honorable discharge in 1991.

Timothy McVeigh Becomes a Radical

Frustrated with working long hours in dead-end jobs, McVeigh began expressing increasingly right-wing, anti-government views. He traveled to Waco, Texas during the siege of the Branch Davidian compound to show support. While he was there, he distributed pro-gun literature and bumper stickers. From there, in April 1993, he went to the Michigan farm where former roommate Terry Nichols lived. When he wasn’t watching continuing coverage of the Waco standoff, Nichols’ brother taught him how to make explosives from household chemicals.

When fire destroyed the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, it enraged McVeigh. He began spouting increasingly radical, anti-government rhetoric. It was then he started selling Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) hats riddled with bullet holes. He also peddled a flare gun he claimed could shoot down an ATF helicopter.

Timothy McVeigh, Terrorist

McVeigh told a friend, Michael Fortier, that he planned to blow up a federal building, but Fortier refused to join the plot. He (Fortier) did tell his wife, however. About this time, McVeigh began telling friends that he’d progressed from the “propaganda” to the “action” phase.

At first, McVeigh considered assassinating federal officials. His hit list included Attorney General Janet Reno, Judge Walter S. Smith, Jr. of the Federal District Court, and Lon Honuchi. Smith was the judge that handled the Branch Davidian trial. Honuchi was a member of the FBI Hostage Rescue Team who shot and killed Vickie Weaver during a standoff at Ruby Ridge, Idaho.

Bombing the Murrah Federal Building

At a lakeside campground near McVeigh’s old army post, he and Nichols constructed a bomb. It was an ANFO (ammonium nitrate and fuel oil) device consisting of about 5,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate and nitromethane. They mounted the device in the back of a rented Ryder truck.

The Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building before its destruction
The Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building before its destruction

On the morning of April 19, 1995, McVeigh parked the truck in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He then lit a two-minute fuse and made his way to a parked getaway car. At 9:02 a.m., as the offices in the building were opening for the day, the bomb detonated. The explosion destroyed the north half of the building and killed 168 people. The dead included 19 children at a day care center on the second floor. Another 684 people suffered injuries in the blast.

The Murrah Federal Building after McVeigh's bomb destroyed it
The Murrah Federal Building after McVeigh’s bomb destroyed it

McVeigh later claimed he hadn’t known about the daycare center and might have chosen a different target if he had. Nichols told a different story. He said the pair did know about the daycare and didn’t care.

Oklahoma City fire Capt. Chris Fields carries 1-year-old Baylee Almon, in this file photo shot Wednesday, April, 19, 1995 at the Alfred Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City.  The child died of her injuries. (AP Photo/Charles H. Porter IV, File)
Oklahoma City fire Capt. Chris Fields carries 1-year-old Baylee Almon, in this file photo shot Wednesday, April, 19, 1995 at the Alfred Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. The child died of her injuries. (AP Photo/Charles H. Porter IV, File)

Arrest and Trial

The FBI quickly traced the truck by a vehicle identification number found on an axle in the wreckage. It had been rented in Junction City, Kansas by a man calling himself Robert Kling. Staff at the rental agency helped develop a sketch of “Kling.” The manager of the Dreamland Motel in Oklahoma City identified the sketch as McVeigh.

Timothy McVeigh in court
Timothy McVeigh in court

Not long after the blast, Oklahoma State Trooper Charles J. Hanger spotted McVeigh’s yellow 1977 Mercury Marquis about an hour north of Oklahoma City. Hanger stopped the car because he noticed it had no license plate. The trooper arrested McVeigh for driving without plates and possessing an illegal firearm. Three days later, McVeigh was identified as the subject of the nationwide manhunt for the bomber.

Oklahoma City National Memorial at the former site of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Oklahoma City National Memorial at the former site of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Because of publicity, McVeigh’s trial took place in Denver instead of Oklahoma City. On June 2, 1997, the jury found him guilty of all 11 charges in the Federal indictment. On June 13, the jury recommended a death sentence, and Judge Richard Paul Matsch obliged. Because he’d already received a death sentence from the federal court, Oklahoma declined to prosecute for 160 the civilian deaths.

Epilogue

On June 11, 2001 McVeigh died by lethal injection at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. His body was cremated and his ashes given to his lawyer.

On Christmas Eve, 1997 a federal jury convicted Terry Nichols of conspiring with McVeigh after deliberating for 41 hours. Since the jury couldn’t unanimously agree on the death penalty, he received a sentence of life without parole. The State of Oklahoma then tried Nichols on state homicide charges but again the jury couldn’t agree on the death penalty. He received 161 consecutive sentences of life without parole.

Terry Nichols prison mugshot (Bureau of Prisons)
Terry Nichols prison mugshot (Bureau of Prisons)

Nichols now resides at the Federal Supermax prison (USP Florence ADMAX) near Florence, Colorado. The only way he’ll get out is in a pine box.

Numerous books discuss Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing, including One of Ours by Richard A. Serrano, American Terrorist by Lou Michael and Dan Herbeck, and McVeigh: The Inside Story of the Oklahoma City Bombing by Ben Fenwick.

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Charles Schmid: Strange Misfit Makes for a Horrific Killer

Last week’s case of missing Pennsylvania mom Lori Ann Auker ended with her ex-husband’s conviction for murder. This week, we travel (virtually) to southern Arizona. There we meet Charles Schmid. The press dubbed him “The Pied Piper of Tucson.” This cutesy moniker belies the fact that Schmid killed three teenaged girls and buried them in the Arizona desert.

Charles Schmid

Charles and Katharine Schmidt adopted the baby born on July 8, 1942 when he was only one day old. They gave him his adoptive father’s name, Charles Howard Schmid, Jr. The couple owned and ran a nursing home in Tucson, Arizona. As a boy, Charles often butted heads with his father (his adoptive parents eventually divorced).

Charles Schmid in high school
Charles Schmid in high school

Intelligent and courteous, young Charles was nevertheless no standout as a student. But he did excel as an athlete, He led his high school team to a state championship in Gymnastics in 1960. He quit the team in the middle of his senior year, though. Shortly after that, the school suspended him for stealing tools from the school’s shop. Charles never went back and never graduated.

Charles Schmid, Attractive Misfit

With no job and no prospects, Schmid moved into his own place on his mother’s property. She eve gave him an allowance of $300 a month (equivalent to almost $3,000 in 2022 dollars). With that steady income and no need to work, he spent his time cruising the main street of Tucson trying to pick up girls or throwing wild parties at his place.

Charles Schmid
Charles Schmid

Schmid was vain and narcissistic. He dyed his hair jet black and often wore makeup to make himself look more like his idol, Elvis Presley. He attempted to compensate for his short (5’3”) height by wearing oversized cowboy boots stuffed with newspapers, rags, and flattened beer cans. As he moved from his teens into his early twenties, people his own age saw him as a creep. But 14- to 18-year-old kids admired him. By now in his early twenties, he was still hanging out with a high school crowd.

Charles Schmid Commits His First Murder

On May 31, 1964, Schmid, his girlfriend, Mary French, and another friend, John Saunders were hanging out and drinking. Schmid suddenly announced, “I want to kill a girl tonight. I think I can get away with it.” He chose 15-year-old Alleen Rowe as his victim. Alleen lived with her divorced mother and knew Mary French. Mary convinced Alleen to go on a “double date” with her, Schmid, and Saunders. Instead, they drove to an isolated spot in the desert where Schmid raped the girl and then beat her to death with a rock. French stayed in the car listening to the radio while Schmid and Saunders buried the body.

Alleen Rowe
Alleen Rowe

Alleen’s mother, Norma Rowe, reported her daughter missing but police simply assumed she was a runaway and put little, if any effort into finding her.

Two More Murders

Charles Schmid had an inexplicable ability to attract women despite his lack of prospects and dissipated lifestyle. One of those was 17-year-old Gretchen Fritz, daughter of a prominent heart surgeon and Tucson community leader. Schmid had told her about killing Alleen Rowe and, when he wanted to break up with Gretchen, she threatened to turn him in. Schmid bided his time. A few days later, on August 16, 1965, he strangled Gretchen and her 13-year-old sister, Wendy and dumped their bodies in the desert.

Murdered sisters Gretchen (L) and Wendy (R) Fritz
Murdered sisters Gretchen (L) and Wendy (R) Fritz

Despite his prominence, Dr. James Fritz had no better luck with the police than Norma Rowe had. Gretchen Fritz had been a difficult child, and one of her teachers once described her as “a psychopathic liar.” Police told the Fritzes their daughters were runaways.

Never content to keep his mouth shut, Schmid couldn’t resist telling his loner friend, Richard “Richie” Bruns about the murders. He took Bruns to see the bodies and enlisted his help in performing a hasty burial.

The Undoing of Charles Schmid

Richie Bruns didn’t say anything to authorities at first. But he’d taken a liking to Darlene Kirk, one of Schmid’s former girlfriends. Convinced that Darlene was going to be Schmid’s next victim, Richie began to hang out at her house. Darlene’s family finally called police and had Bruns arrested. He was ordered to leave town for three months, which he did, going to live with his grandmother in Columbus, Ohio. One night, he broke down and told his grandmother the whole story of the Fritz sisters’ murders. She convinced him to contact authorities in Arizona.

Richard "Richie" Bruns. In the foreground are oversized cowboy boots Charles Schmid had Bruns buy for him. Schmid stuffed the boots with rags, newspapers, and flattened beer cans to make himself appeartaller.
Richard “Richie” Bruns. In the foreground are oversized cowboy boots Charles Schmid had Bruns buy for him. Schmid stuffed the boots with rags, newspapers, and flattened beer cans to make himself appeartaller.

With Bruns’ information in hand, authorities quickly arrested Charles Schmid. On February 15, 1966, he went on trial for the murders of the Fritz sisters. The defendant was well-dressed and looked reasonably clean cut. Richie Bruns was the state’s star witness. Schmid’s attorney, William Tinney, attempted to place blame for the killings on Bruns. It didn’t work. It took the jury just over two hours to come back with a guilty verdict and a penalty of death.

Charles Schmid (R) with his lawyer, William Tinney
Charles Schmid (R) with his lawyer, William Tinney

Schmid still had to face trial for Alleen Rowe’s murder. After a postponement and involvement of high-profile attorney F. Lee Bailey, the trial began on May 10, 1967. On the second day of trial, Bailey was a no-show (he claimed to be ill). Tinney convinced Schmid to accept a plea deal and plead guilty to second degree murder. After some more legal maneuvering, Judge Roylston sentenced Schmid to fifty years to life.

Epilogue

In 1971, Arizona temporarily abolished the death penalty, which got Schmid off death row. He still had that sentence of fifty years to life though, so he tried to escape. More than once. He finally succeeded on November 11, 1972 when he and triple murderer Raymond Hudgens escaped from the Arizona State Prison in Florence. For a time, the pair held four hostages at a ranch near Tempe, Arizona before they split up. They were recaptures shortly thereafter.

Charles Schmid and Pima County Sheriff Waldon V. Burr searching for the desert grave of Alleen Rowe
Charles Schmid and Pima County Sheriff Waldon V. Burr searching for the desert grave of Alleen Rowe

Ever the narcissist, Schmid strutted around the prison with an attitude of superiority. This caught up with him on March 10, 1975 when two inmates attacked him with homemade shanks. Severely wounded, Schmid did not respond to surgery and died on March 30. His mother chose to have him buried in the prison cemetery, fearing his headstone in a public cemetery would attract vandals.

Legal bills for Schmid’s trials left his mother, Katharine, and her second husband virtually destitute. They ended up living in near poverty in Coolidge, Arizona.

Despite at least half a dozen teenagers knowing about the murders of Alleen Rowe and the Fritz sisters, no one came forward until Richie Bruns’ grandmother convinced him to call Tucson authorities. Bruns remained conflicted about turning in his erstwhile friend. He titled his book about his experiences I, a Squealer.

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