Caught on tape
Brash bomber gets justice
By Henry Schuster
Editor's Note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit, has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on the people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism and efforts to combat those. He is the author of the newly published book, "Hunting Eric Rudolph."
OKLAHOMA CITY, Oklahoma (CNN) -- The hooded man rushed up to the doorway of Temple Bnai Israel, a Molotov cocktail in his hand. Seconds later, he threw the firebomb and ran off.
A security camera at the synagogue captured the action, but this wasn't the only video to catch this April 1, 2004, terror attack. The shrouded man, later identified as Sean Gillespie, also turned a camera on himself that day, offering a rare glimpse of a solitary terrorist in action.
Plenty of adjectives could be used to describe Gillespie: proud, cocky, adamant, verbose, ill-advised, rash, even stupid. Whatever one's assessment of his mental make-up or views, he was dangerous.
Gillespie, 21, appeared nonchalant during his brief trial, even as prosecutors played both videos.
He didn't flinch when prosecutors played five audiotapes, recorded while he was in jail awaiting his day in court. On them, Gillespie told friends and family that he'd firebombed the synagogue.
At one point, his father reprimanded him, saying, "Hate's a bad thing, man." No one was killed or injured in the synagogue attack, but the blast rattled the local Jewish community.
The federal courthouse, where Gillespie's trial took place, stood across the street from the memorial to the Oklahoma City blast, where Timothy McVeigh's massive fertilizer and fuel oil bomb killed 168 people at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
Days before jurors found Gillespie guilty, federal, state and local officials joined victim's family members in marking the 10th anniversary of that bombing.
Not that the connection, it seems, bothered Gillespie. He told the Federal Bureau of Investigation agents who arrested him that he supported McVeigh.
'See the damage'
Gillespie spent a great deal of time bragging to authorities and espousing his views when he was detained after the firebombing.
He told them he thought he was being arrested for racial attacks that occurred in Little Rock, Arkansas, and he claimed to have been involved in a string of hate attacks from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Spokane, Washington.
Gillespie said he once had been a member of the white supremacist group Aryan Nations, but later left the group. At the time of his arrest, he told authorities that he was a racist skinhead, acting on his own.
Those admissions notwithstanding, Gillespie's hubris may have sealed his fate -- certainly from a legal standpoint -- in the synagogue bombing case. He gave the agents permission to search his truck, and that's where they found a video camera and tape.
On it, Gillespie first talked into the camera about committing violent crimes. He kept recording as he drove around Oklahoma City looking for a target of opportunity. (He later revealed he'd originally planned to find a Jewish-sounding name in a phone book then target that person, but abandoned that strategy when he couldn't find the address.)
At Bnai Israel, Gillespie once again turned to face the camera. He laughed, and called the synagogue a "Zionist training center."
I will film it for your viewing enjoyment, my kindred. White power!
-- Sean Gillespie, on a video detailing the Oklahoma synagogue attack
"I'm going to firebomb it with a Molotov cocktail. Destroy the window first, then throw the Molotov cocktail in for maximum damage. I will film it for your viewing enjoyment, my kindred. White power!"
Then the camera cut briefly to the synagogue's doorway, showing the flickering flames.
"See the damage," Gillespie said excitedly in the background.
Track record of hate
Gillespie thought he had erased the videotape, but when confronted with it, he didn't back down. Rather, he told authorities that if only he had thrown the firebomb on the roof, he could have caused more harm.
While not alone in his anti-Jewish and racist beliefs, Gillespie was a bit unusual for a lone wolf. Unlike many other domestic terrorists not aligned with specific groups, from Eric Rudolph to McVeigh, he left tracks all over.
The Anti-Defamation League, which follows hate groups, had a file of Internet postings from Gillespie -- including lonely heart messages looking for an Aryan mate -- compiled over three years.
He e-mailed a photo captioned "Jewkiller" to another Web site. It showed Gillespie doing a "Sieg Heil" salute in a T-shirt featuring a Nazi swastika.
The FBI had even questioned him a few months before the synagogue attack, at about the same time he was kicked out of the U.S. Army for his racist behavior. He says the FBI was trying to recruit him, but he told them to get lost.
Gillespie, it seems, couldn't keep his mouth shut, even after the blast. A member of the white supremacist underground tipped off federal authorities that he'd made a videotape of the Oklahoma firebombing.
Gillespie filmed himself before and after the attack, possibly as a training tape for other white supremacists.
When agents tracked him down, Gillespie was working at a Burger King and living in a trailer home in Arkansas.
An example for others
U.S. Attorney Robert McCampbell said he believes Gillespie was making a training tape that he wanted to share with other white supremacists.
Al Qaeda members sometimes make tapes like this one, usually before they die in a suicide attack. Whatever Gillespie's motivations were, the tape proved a windfall for prosecutors.
The defense didn't call a single witness. During his closing argument, Gillespie's public defender limited himself to arguing the crime didn't rise to the level of a federal offense.
As the jury filed into the room, Gillespie seemed aware for the first time that he was in trouble.
When the jury foreman read the verdict -- guilty on all counts -- Gillespie's pale face turned red, especially his nose. He wiped at the corners of his eyes and looked like a petulant child.
After the judge left for her chambers, Gillespie glared at the prosecution table.
"I hope you're f***ing happy, you a******!" he shouted before being led away by U.S. marshals.
The damage to the synagogue was never great, at least physically. But Ann Dee Lee, a congregant at Bnai Israel, says it has left everyone there feeling vulnerable. Even with Gillespie imprisoned, the incident heightened concerns in the Jewish community that some see them as a target -- and the next attack, if there is one, could be much worse.
Gillespie faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 35 years without parole.
"The penalty [is] just," Lee said.