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Timothy McVeigh: The Path to Death Row

Aired June 9, 2001 - 11:30   ET



ANNOUNCER (voice-over): From small-town America, he could have been the boy next door.

ELIZABETH MCDERMOTT, MCVEIGH FAMILY NEIGHBOR: He was a happy-go- lucky kid, very outgoing, even at a young age.

ANNOUNCER: He served his country in war and served with distinction.

DAVID DILLEY: He was the best soldier I met while I was in the Army, by far. Everything we did, he excelled at.

ANNOUNCER: But the life of the young man with such promise took a terrible turn.

LOU MICHEL, CO-AUTHOR, "AMERICAN TERRORIST": A number of times he confessed, "I bombed the Murrah Building, it was me alone. It was my idea."

ANNOUNCER: The story of Timothy McVeigh, now on PEOPLE IN THE NEWS.


DARYN KAGAN, HOST: Welcome to PEOPLE IN THE NEWS. I'm Daryn Kagan.

For Timothy McVeigh, time has nearly run out. His delayed execution is back on for next week. He is sentenced to die for the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people.

McVeigh has been called the personification of evil for his terrorist actions. Yet others remember him quite differently, as the nice boy next door or as the good soldier.

We chronicled the journey of a once-promising young man who later would be convicted of the worst act of domestic terrorism.

Here's CNN's Susan Candiotti.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) DAN HERBECK, CO-AUTHOR, "AMERICAN TERRORIST": As he's walking out of the building, his head is slowly scanning from side to side, and he's looking into nearby buildings for snipers. He didn't want to be the next Lee Harvey Oswald.

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Biographer Dan Herbeck says Timothy McVeigh told him he was looking for snipers after he was accused of the worst act of terrorism ever committed on American soil.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE TV REPORTER: About, about a third, about a third of the building has been blown away.


CANDIOTTI: April 19, 1995, a nation is stunned -- 168 dead, 19 children, more than 500 injured in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City.

LOU MICHEL, CO-AUTHOR, "AMERICAN TERRORIST": A number of times he confessed, "I bombed the Murrah Building, it was me alone. It was my idea."

CANDIOTTI: "Buffalo News" veteran reporters Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck spent some 75 hours interviewing Timothy McVeigh over the last two years and present a chilling portrait in their biography of McVeigh, called "American Terrorist." He not only confessed to them, they say, but he was proud of being the man responsible for the bombing.

MICHEL: He did a little almost theater class with me on "A Few Good Men," imitating Jack Nicholson -- "You can't handle the truth. Because the truth is, it was me. It was only me that did it."

CANDIOTTI: But who is this man charged to die for such a heinous crime? Perhaps the one thing most agree on who know McVeigh is that he is an extraordinary contradiction.

MICHEL: He has a boylike way about him, and then he has a clinician's view of the bombing.

HERBECK: You could talk to him for hours and find him a very affable, knowledgeable young man.

PHIL BACHARACH, FORMER REPORTER, "OKLAHOMA GAZETTE": In this letter, he goes on a bit about...

CANDIOTTI: Phil Bacharach had the same experience with McVeigh, who wrote him more than 20 letters when Bacharach was a reporter for an Oklahoma City weekly newspaper. In his letters, McVeigh could be thoughtful and charming.

BACHARACH: "Phil, hope your Christmas season is bright with joy and cheer. Hope every day is happy too till Christmas comes next year."

CANDIOTTI: Or he could be deadly cold.

BACHARACH: "Listen, Phil, I have nothing against the citizens of Oklahoma except the continuing `woe-is-me' crowd." He obviously was talking about the bombing victims and survivors who, frankly, have had difficulty moving on. And it's definitely the most disgusting thing he ever wrote me.

MICHEL: He is contrary to most people on death row. The lack of remorse is astounding, astonishing, at this atrocity. It would be very easy for us to turn our backs and just dismiss Timothy McVeigh out of hand as a crackpot, say, as a sociopath, a psychopath. That's the easy way. But when you talk to him, you see that his mind is disturbingly clear.

CANDIOTTI: Roy Sells (ph) is very clear on what he thinks should happen to McVeigh. Sells lost his first wife in the bombing.

ROY SELLS, HUSBAND OF VICTIM: I said I thought they should put him in a building that they're going to implode, you know, chain him to it somewhere, and then let me have the detonator and let me do the job at my own time.

CANDIOTTI: The man sitting on death row for the murder of 168 people, who inspires such hatred in men like Roy Sells and so many others, spent his early years in surroundings straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting.

McVeigh grew up outside of Buffalo, New York, in a rural setting in the small towns of Pendleton and Lockport -- church bingo, high school football, and bowling leagues, where Tim's mother and father first met.


WILLIAM MCVEIGH, TIMOTHY MCVEIGH'S FATHER: When we moved out, it was 1977, so Tim was 10 years old. All four houses we lived in, we always had a pretty good-sized garden. And every year they'd want to help me plant. They weren't too interested in weeds and stuff like that, but they'd help me plant it, and they'd help me pick it.


CANDIOTTI: This videotape about Tim's childhood was played in court during his trial. Prepared by his defense team, it is narrated by his father, Bill, now a retired factory worker at the Harrison Radiator Plant in Lockport. He talks about a simpler time, a happier life.


MCVEIGH: If it wasn't down at the Mauers' (ph) playing hockey, it was down the other side to Scott's house, doing something with him, or across at Hodge's. They were always doing something.


CANDIOTTI: Bill and Mickey McVeigh were married in 1965. Tim was born in 1968, the middle son of three children. He has an older sister, Patty, and a younger one, Jennifer, with whom he became close as they grew older.

ELIZABETH MCDERMOTT, MCVEIGH FAMILY NEIGHBOR: He was a happy-go- lucky kid, very outgoing, even at a young age.

CANDIOTTI: Elizabeth McDermott was the McVeighs' next-door neighbor. Tim baby-sat her children. He even planted a peach tree for them in their back yard. To her family, he really was the boy next door.

MCDERMOTT: The McVeighs had a swimming pool in their back yard, which was, during the summertime, you know, kind of the center of activity. And Tim was pretty much in charge. He was always the one, you know, Don't run on the deck, and that kind of thing.

CANDIOTTI: When Tim was 16, the family split up. He stayed with his father while his sisters headed south to Florida with his mother.

Tim was bullied when he was young for being skinny. Noodle McVeigh, that's how kids teased him. Once some older boys dangled him by his feet, trying to stick his head in a flushing toilet. When he finally freed himself, he promised he would never be bullied again.

McVeigh did well at Starpoint High School and won a small scholarship, but got quickly bored at a local business college and didn't last a year. He then took odd jobs, first at a Burger King and later as an armed security guard.

McVeigh loved guns as a child. His grandfather, Ed McVeigh, let Tim practice with his .22-caliber rifle. They had bonded over the time they spent shooting tin cans in the country. Tim not only loved guns but loved reading about them. He once found an ad in "Soldier of Fortune" magazine for a book called "The Turner Diaries." It would change his life forever.

(on camera): Lived and breathed "The Turner Diaries," was a strong believer in that.

HERBECK: That's a very racist book.

CANDIOTTI (voice-over): The novel, by a former American Nazi Party official, is the story of Earl Turner, a racist and gun fanatic. He reacts to the government's restrictions on private firearms by making a truck bomb and blowing up FBI headquarters in Washington.

MICHEL: He says that with "The Turner Diaries," it was more the message against the government.

CANDIOTTI: But McVeigh's next move was to pledge an oath to forever protect the United States government.

When PEOPLE IN THE NEWS continues, a story of a soldier full of promise who would eventually turn against his government.

DAVID DILLEY: He was the best soldier I met when I was in the Army, by far. He was the best, always.


ANNOUNCER: PEOPLE IN THE NEWS will be back in a moment.




UNIDENTIFIED DRILL SERGEANT (singing): My friends will ask me why, oh why...

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIERS (singing): My friends will ask me why, oh why...

UNIDENTIFIED DRILL SERGEANT: (singing): ... why, why, I want to die.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIERS (singing): ... why, why, I want to die.

CANDIOTTI: Without warning, Timothy McVeigh startled his father by joining the Army in May of 1988. He found himself at Fort Benning, Georgia, in basic training.

McVeigh took to Army life right away. He loved everything about it, the discipline, the toughening-up, the order. He set his sights on Special Forces and wearing a green beret.

DILLEY: He was a perfectionist when it came to anything to do with the Army.

CANDIOTTI: David Dilley served in the Army with McVeigh and became one of his few friends there.

DILLEY: He was the best soldier I met when I was in the Army, by far. He -- everything we did, he excelled at. He was the best, always. And if he wasn't the first time we did it, the next time coming around he would be.

CANDIOTTI: He says for McVeigh, it was always about being prepared for the worst.

DILLEY: He believed in survivalism. He thought something was going to happen -- famine, war, I don't know, something -- some kind of catastrophe we were having, and he was going to be ready.

CANDIOTTI: McVeigh was more than ready when he was called up for combat in the summer of 1990 for the Gulf War as part of the famed First Infantry Division, the Big Red One. McVeigh soon became a sergeant and a gunner in the 216th of Charlie Company on a Bradley fighting vehicle, which he named Bad Company, after a song by the '70s rock group of the same name.




CANDIOTTI: When the war ended, he was one of a select group of soldiers assigned to protect General Schwarzkopf during the Iraqi surrender. McVeigh was awarded the Bronze Star for his war service and invited to try out for the Green Berets.

But McVeigh was out of shape when he returned from the Gulf War and refused to put off his tryout. The training was too physically demanding for McVeigh, and he washed out in three days. His once- bright military future was fading.

At the end of 1991, only nine months after the end of the Gulf War, McVeigh left the Army and returned home to Pendleton, angry, depressed, and even suicidal, according to McVeigh's biographers.

He started traveling to gun shows, buying and selling weapons, preaching a message like the one in "The Turner Diaries," a message about the evils of government.

His travels also took him to rural Michigan to visit the family farm of his old Army buddy, Terry Nichols. Nichols left the Army on a hardship discharge because his wife and children needed him at home. He never served in the Gulf War. Nichols' brother James was running the farm and always welcomed Tim. They had all shared the same view of the government.

JAMES NICHOLS, TERRY NICHOLS' BROTHER: Government at its best is a necessary evil, at its worst is a tyrant.

CANDIOTTI: They also shared the same love of guns and fierce defense of the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms, which they thought was being slowly eroded by an evil government.

McVeigh also traveled to Arizona to see another like-minded Army pal, Michael Fortier, who lived near Kingman, an area popular with militia members and where McVeigh felt comfortable.

In the summer of 1992, McVeigh was incensed by a standoff at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. FBI agents killed the wife and son of white separatist Randy Weaver, wanted for selling illegal sawed-off shotguns to police informants.

McVeigh saw the siege as a government plot by self-righteous federal agents to take guns away from the common man.

MICHEL: He has an uncontrollable rage for the federal government. This was his war against the government for what he believed were intrusions on the civil rights of lawful gun owners. You have Waco. CANDIOTTI: Waco, spring 1993, the federal government finds itself in a six-week standoff with the Branch Davidians and cult leader David Koresh over possession of illegal firearms. McVeigh pays a visit there to see what's happening. He tells a young reporter from Southern Methodist University the Waco standoff is just the beginning, as Americans will never give up their guns.

By April 19, federal agents storm the compound when the Davidians refuse to surrender. About 80 perish in a firestorm, including 21 children.

McVeigh watched the drama unfold on television back in Michigan while visiting Terry and James Nichols.

NICHOLS: We stood there in disbelief, total disbelief. We knew what happened, that it was being burned on purpose.

CANDIOTTI: The government has always maintained it did not cause the bloodshed, but McVeigh believed government agents were murderers. Waco became the most defining moment in McVeigh's life. It was his battle cry.

MICHEL: Then in 1994, Congress was percolating with the assault ban weapon (sic) in the spring, and by the fall, September, President Clinton signed it into law. And at that point, he decided that he needed to go into a, quote, "action mode."

CANDIOTTI: Moving into that "action mode," McVeigh enlists the help of Terry Nichols and Michael Fortier to get materials for making a bomb, a bomb McVeigh wanted to use to teach the government a lesson it would never forget.

McVeigh wrote his sister Jennifer a haunting letter. "Something big is going to happen in the month of the Bull," the month of April.

When the story of Timothy McVeigh continues, the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building and why McVeigh claimed he wanted authorities to find him.

MICHEL: He explained to me how he intentionally left a trail to get caught, right up to taking the license plate off of his getaway car.


ANNOUNCER: PEOPLE IN THE NEWS will continue after this.





UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: With regard to this proceeding, basically there are four elements that I have to receive information about...


CANDIOTTI: At 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995, a 7,000-pound bomb explodes in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, gutting the nine-story structure. The explosion is caught on an audiotape of a state water resources board meeting going on across the street.

INSPECTOR JERRY FLOWERS, OKLAHOMA CITY POLICE DEPARTMENT: We ran outside immediately. We thought first an airplane had crashed.

CANDIOTTI: Inspector Jerry Flowers of the Oklahoma City Police Department is one of the first on the scene to help.

FLOWERS: And people everywhere, that -- profusely bleeding from the head, body parts laying on the ground around the north side of the building here.

CANDIOTTI: For Gulf War hero Timothy McVeigh, it wasn't a crime but a mission, delivered as government payback on the second anniversary of Waco.

HERBECK: He views himself as someone who carried out a mission and accomplished his mission, and all those who died were considered collateral damage.

CANDIOTTI: McVeigh claims he wanted his attorneys to mount what he called a necessity defense. He would admit to the bombing, arguing he had to do it to wake up America to a government he believed was waging war against its own citizens.

In the end, McVeigh never used that tactic, but he did play this documentary, "Waco: The Big Lie," in court as part of his defense. The video claims the government intentionally set fire to the Branch Davidians' compound in an overzealous attempt to seize their weapons.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Here, tanks methodically push what remains of the house and evidence into the fire.


CANDIOTTI: McVeigh had very specific reasons for targeting the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City.

MICHEL: Because there was open space around the Murrah Building, it was, in his words, "photogenic." He knew that those images of a destroyed federal government building would be broadcast around the world. He called it "the shot heard around the world."

I said, "What did you think when you saw the Murrah Building?" And I'm paraphrasing right now. He said, "Damn, I didn't knock it down."

CANDIOTTI: McVeigh says his one miscalculation was the daycare center.

MICHEL: He said basically that it would be a public relations nightmare for him, that children being killed would dwarf his antigovernment message, but that it was collateral damage.

CANDIOTTI (on camera): He wasn't sorry that the children were killed.

MICHEL: He said if he'd known ahead of time, it would have given him pause to change targets.

CANDIOTTI (voice-over): The only time McVeigh came close to showing any emotion about his crime was during his only television interview, with "60 Minutes," taped before he admitted to the bombing.


TIMOTHY MCVEIGH: I thought it was terrible that there were children in the building.


CANDIOTTI: The authors contend McVeigh wanted to get arrested. He wanted a platform for his hatred of the government.

MICHEL: He explained to me how he intentionally left a trail to get caught, right up to taking the license plate off of his getaway car. That's the wild card he dealt himself.

CANDIOTTI: He even used his real name to register at the Dreamland Motel in Junction City. It wasn't far from Gary Lake (ph), where he and Terry Nichols mixed fertilizer and nitromethane racing fuel, building a bomb in the back of a Ryder truck.

Amazingly, a camera in the Regency Towers apartment captured the truck as it passed en route to its final destination in front of the Murrah Building.

Some extraordinary police work and a bit of luck led investigators to McVeigh just two days after the bombing. Authorities found the 250-pound rear axle of the Ryder truck almost two blocks from the blast. The vehicle identification number on the back enabled investigators to find out where the truck was rented.

CHARLIE HANGER, OKLAHOMA STATE TROOPER: I have said all along that this was fate, you know, God put me at the right spot at the right time.

CANDIOTTI: Ninety minutes after the bombing, veteran Oklahoma State Trooper Charlie Hanger pulled over McVeigh because of a missing tag. He was 65 miles north of Oklahoma City. Hanger also noticed McVeigh with a bulge in his jacket.

HANGER: And he said, "I have a weapon." And at that time I reached and grabbed the bulge on the outside of the jacket, and I was holding him, and I said, "Come around, put your hands over your head." And as he was turning around, I drew my weapon and stuck it to the back of his head.

CANDIOTTI: A chance arrest on a weapons charge eventually led to McVeigh's bombing conviction. He is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection in this death chamber at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. He has asked that his family members not be present.

His father, Bill, saw his son for the last time in early April. He spoke about the visit at his home in Pendleton with us but would not talk on camera. He asked his son if he would apologize. Quoting the father, "He said, if he did apologize, he'd make a lot of people happy -- but he'd be lying."

McVeigh told authors Michel and Herbeck that he believes historians will one day call him a patriot. In McVeigh's words, "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."

But that is not how most Americans see him. McVeigh will go down in history as a mass murderer.

This is how Oklahoma City chooses to remember its own -- a memorial, 168 chairs representing each victim, the small ones for the children.


KAGAN: There's also a new museum next to the memorial in Oklahoma City which celebrates the lives of the victims and the rescuers.

For more on Timothy McVeigh, please log onto our Web site at

Next week, he is the greatest golfer of his generation, maybe the greatest of all time. A look at Tiger Woods on the weekend of the U.S. Open.

That's all for now. Thanks for watching. For all of us here at PEOPLE IN THE NEWS, I'm Daryn Kagan.



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