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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