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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Walter Moody: Startling Mail Bomb Murder for Revenge

Our case last week was that of Thomas Piper, the infamous 1875 Boston Belfry Murderer. This week takes us to Birmingham, Alabama where in 1989, Walter Moody killed two people with mail bombs.

Walter Moody

Walter Leroy “Roy” Moody, Jr. was born and raised in Georgia, where he showed a measure of mechanical ability. After graduating from Peach County High School, he served in the military until 1961.

Walter Leroy Moody
Walter Leroy “Roy” Moody

When his military career ended, Moody considered becoming a neurosurgeon. He took classes at a small college but didn’t make grades good enough to get into medical school. Later, he took some law school classes.

Walter Moody’s First Bombing Conviction

On May 7, 1972, Walter Moody’s wife, Hazel, opened a package she discovered in her kitchen. The package contained a pipe bomb that exploded when she opened it. She survived but required six surgeries to repair the damage caused by the bomb.

Moody apparently made the bomb intending to send it to a car dealer who had repossessed his car. In a somewhat odd compromise verdict, a jury convicted him of possessing the bomb but acquitted him of making it. He received a sentence of five years in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary (Moody served four years). Not surprising, Moody and Hazel divorced shortly after his conviction.

Moody’s Mail Bomb Murders

It was almost Christmas, Saturday, December 16, 1989. Federal appeals court judge Robert S. Vance was at his home in Mountain Brook, a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama. When he opened a package that had come in the mail, the bomb inside exploded. The blast killed Vance instantly and severely injured his wife, Helen.

Federal appeals court judge Robert S. Vance was Moody's intended target
Federal appeals court judge Robert S. Vance was Moody’s intended target

Two days later, another mailed bomb exploded in the Savannah, Georgia office of civil rights attorney Robert Robinson. Robinson, too, died when he opened the package.

Civil rights attorney Robert Robinson, the second victim
Civil rights attorney Robert Robinson, the second victim

Authorities intercepted two more bombs before they reached their destinations. One was addressed to the Eleventh Circuit Court in Atlanta. The second targeted the NAACP office in Jacksonville, Florida. Neither of these bombs injured anyone.

Walter Moody Arrestws and Convicted

The FBI attempted to build a DNA profile from the bomb packaging, including the stamps. But their break came from an ATF explosives expert. He recognized the 1989 bombs as similar in design to the 1972 bomb that injured Moody’s first wife, Hazel. With this lead, a thorough investigation was able to link all four of the 1989 bombs to each other—and to Walter Moody.

Moody in shackles on his way to Federal Court
Moody in shackles on his way to Federal Court

Police arrested Moody and his second wife, Susan McBride, on July 13, 1990. McBride agreed to testify against her husband in exchange for immunity. Prosecutor (and future FBI director) Louis Freeh presented the government’s case. A federal court jury convicted Moody on all counts, and he received a sentence of seven life terms without the possibility of parole.

The federal trial was for charges related to making and sending the bombs. After the federal court convictions, the State of Alabama tried Walter Moody for the murder of Judge Vance. He was convicted in that case, too, and sentenced to death.

Walter Moody shortly before his execution (Alabama Department of Corrections)
Walter Moody shortly before his execution (Alabama Department of Corrections)

Epilogue

On April 19, 2018, Walter Leroy Moody died by lethal injection at the Holman Correctional Facility near Atmore, Alabama. At 83, he was the oldest inmate executed since executions in the United States resumed in 1976.

Moody never officially explained his motive in murdering Judge Vance. Prosecutor Louis Freeh believes the Vance murder and the Eleventh Circuit bombs were twisted revenge for the Court’s refusal to expunge Moody’s 1972 conviction. Ironically—and tragically—Vance was not on the panel that reviewed Moody’s case, nor was he involved in the decision. The murder of Robinson and the attempt to bomb the NAACP office were red herrings to make investigators think the bombings had a racial motivation.

Ray Jenkins published a book about the case in 1997, Blind Vengeance: The Roy Moody Mail Bomb Murders. An earlier book, Priority Mail, by Mark Winne appeared in 1995.

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The Los Angeles Times: An Astonishing Terror Bombing

From serial killer John Jourbet last week, this week we look at another bombing case. In 1910, labor unrest led to the bombing of the Los Angeles Times office building.

The Los Angeles Times is Bombed

At 1:07 a.m. on October 1, 1910, a powerful dynamite bomb blasted the three-story Los Angeles Times building at First Street and Broadway. The bomb consisted of a suitcase containing 16 sticks of dynamite and a windup alarm clock as a detonator. The bomber left the suitcase in an alleyway known as “Ink Alley” between the Times building and the Times annex. Nearby were barrels of flammable printer’s ink.

The Los Angeles Times building at First and Broadway in Los Angeles
The Los Angeles Times building at First and Broadway in Los Angeles

Even with 16 sticks of dynamite, the bomb didn’t have the power to destroy the entire Times building. But the explosion ignited the natural gas piped into the building. As a result, the building was almost completely devastated. At least 20 Times employees working on an extra (the Times was a morning paper) lost their lives. Many more suffered injuries.

A second bomb was placed outside the homes of Harrison G. Otis and Felix Zeehandelaar. Otis owned the Times. Zeehandelaar was secretary of a company having a dispute with the Bridge and Structural Iron Workers Union.

Harrison Gray Otis, publisher of the Los Angeles Times in 1910
Harrison Gray Otis, publisher of the Los Angeles Times in 1910

The Los Angeles Times Investigates

Otis printed numerous anti-union editorials. He was also leader of the Merchants and Manufacturing Association, a well-connected group of business owners. Believing he was the intended target of the bomb, Otis hired detective William J. Burns to find the bombers. (Burns would later head a little-known bureau in the Justice Department called the Division of Investigation. At least he did, until J. Edgar Hoover replaced him.)

Detective William John Burns arrested the McNamara brothers for the Times bombing
Detective William John Burns arrested the McNamara brothers for the Times bombing

Burns’ investigation led straight to the Bridge and Structural Iron Workers Union and its treasurer, John J. McNamara. After wringing a confession out of one Ortie McManigal, Burns tracked down McNamara and his brother, James. Skipping the legal niceties of extradition, Burns got the two brothers to California where they faced prosecution for the bombing.

James (L) and John (R) McNamara, the Lost Angeles Times bombers
James (L) and John (R) McNamara, the Lost Angeles Times bombers

Union members and supporters raised a substantial defense fund. The union pleaded with famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow to take the case for $50,000. Darrow reluctantly agreed.

The Los Angeles Times Bombers on Trial

Public opinion clearly supported the McNamara brothers. But Darrow’s own investigation kept turning up evidence that the brothers were guilty. Worse still, members of the defense team were trying to bribe the jury. But in all fairness, they were only trying to match the prosecution’s own bribery tactics.

Defense attorney Clarence Darrow
Defense attorney Clarence Darrow

Darrow managed to work out a deal where the brothers would avoid the death penalty by pleading guilty. Consequently, they did. As a result, James confessed to setting the explosives and received a life sentence. His brother, John, received 15 years in prison for an unrelated bombing.

Attorney Earl Rogers got a mistrial in Darrow's bribery trial
Attorney Earl Rogers got a mistrial in Darrow’s bribery trial

Epilogue

Nobody was truly happy with the compromise verdict. Otis arranged for Darrow’s prosecution on bribery charges. Earl Rogers, a notorious alcoholic but also a formidable defense attorney took Darrow’s case and won a mistrial. Later, a second trial acquitted him.

The Iron Workers union left Clarence Darrow in the lurch. It refused to pay his fee for the McNamara case and declined to help with is bribery case. Therefore, he had to fight the charges on his own.

A 2015 book by Lew Irwin, Deadly Times, discusses the case.

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Olympic Park: Powerful Bombs Make for Terror and Panic

This week we leave the mountains of southwestern Utah, where last week we learned about the massacre at Mountain Meadows. Now we focus our gaze on Atlanta, Georgia. It was there, in 1996 that powerful pipe bombs exploded in the Centennial Olympic Park. Miraculously, the blast only killed one person (another died of a heart attack). The low death toll was because of the heroic actions of security guard Richard Jewell. Sadly, the FBI initially suspected Jewell and the media vilified him, but the real bomber was Eric Rudolph.

Centennial Olympic Park

Summer of 1996 saw the Olympic Games came to Atlanta, Georgia. As part of the millions spent on infrastructure improvements, the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games created a 22-acre park. The ACOG envisioned the park, named Centennial Olympic Park, as the “town square” of the Olympics.

Centennial Olympic Park in 2011 (Flikr: Olympic Park Panorama by Veggiefrog)

On July 27, 1996, thousands of people gathered in the park for a late-night concert by Jack Mack and the Heart Attack.

Bombs in Olympic Park

Shortly after midnight, someone planted a military field pack under a bench near the concert’s sound tower. The pack contained three bombs consisting of nitroglycerine dynamite and a pipe filled with smokeless powder, surrounded by 3-inch masonry nails. The pack contained steel plates intended to focus the force of the bombs in a specific direction. When the bombs exploded, the nails would act as shrapnel, ripping into anyone and anything nearby.

Olympic Park security guard Richard Jewell noticed the field pack under a bench leaning against the 40-foot-tall NBC sound tower. He alerted agents of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to the suspicious package. The GBI in turn called in the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). As the bomb squad prepared to investigate, Jewell and other security guards began clearing the area.

Richard Jewell
Richard Jewell

Two to three minutes into the evacuation, and while it was still underway, the bombs exploded. However, because security personnel had started moving spectators away from the area, the human damage was much less than it could have been. There was only one fatality from the explosion. Forty-four-year-old Alice Hawthorne died when a masonry nail pierced her skull. Another man, 40-year-old Melih Uzunyol died of a heart attack while running to the scene. Uzunyol was a cameraman for Turkish Radio and Television Corporation.

Shrapnel damage (R) to Olympic Park sculpture
Shrapnel damage (R) to Olympic Park sculpture

Richard Jewell Falsely Suspected

Security guard Richard Jewell’s actions in discovering the bomb and starting to evacuate the area probably saved many lives. Yet before long, the hero came under suspicion of setting the bombs. Although the FBI never arrested Jewell, they identified him as a person of interest and searched his home. Agents also dug extensively into Jewell’s background. Eventually, though, it became clear that Jewell had nothing to do with the bombings.

Bomb damage to the NBC sound tower at Olympic Park (Don Ramsey Logan)
Bomb damage to the NBC sound tower at Olympic Park (Don Ramsey Logan)

After clearing Jewell, the FBI had little to go on until the following year. Then additional bombings in Georgia and Alabama made it clear that the real Olympic Park bomber was still active.

The bombing of an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Alabama killed police officer Robert Sanderson and seriously injured nurse Emily Lyons. However, Lyons was able to give investigators a partial license plate number, which led them to identify Eric Robert Rudolph as their suspect.

Olympic Park Bombing Solved

Eric Rudolph went into hiding, dodging law enforcement for more than five years. He made the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list in 1998 with a $1 million reward offered

FBI wanted poster for Eric Rudolph
FBI wanted poster for Eric Rudolph

On May 31, 2003, at 4:00 a.m., rookie Murphy, North Carolina police officer Jeffrey Postell was on routine patrol. Postell saw what he though was a burglar prowling around behind a Save-A-Lot grocery store. It was Eric Rudolph, foraging for food in the store’s dumpster.

On April 8, government officials announced that Rudolph would plead guilty to four bombings, including the one at Centennial Olympic Park. Rudolph’s rabid anti-abortion and anti-gay views motivated the bombings. His confession formally exonerated Richard Jewell.

Epilogue

Richard Jewell did achieve his goal of becoming a police officer and later worked as a deputy sheriff. He died at age 44 on August 29, 2007, of complications from diabetes.

Eric Rudolph is serving four consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole at the ADX Florence supermax prison in Florence, Colorado. He still manages to have vitriolic screeds published through ultra-right-wing outlets.

Olympic Park bomber Eric Robert Rudolph
Olympic Park bomber Eric Robert Rudolph

Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwin published a book on the case, The Suspect, in 2019. That year also saw the release of Richard Jewell, a biopic about the hero security guard.

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