Terry Nichols wears a cheap grey sports jacket and white shirt. No tie. He looks more like a harried insurance salesman after a hard day at work than the only accomplice to the single worst act of domestic terrorism in American history. He sits wearily at the defence table, listening as his lead defence attorney delivers the opening statement to the jury.
It’s 22 March 2004, and Nichols is on trial for his life.
He’s already serving a life sentence for the killing of eight federal law enforcement officers in the bombing of the Alfred P Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City on 19 April 1995. Now, nearly a decade later, the State of Oklahoma has charged the 49-year-old federal prisoner with the murder of the other 160 people (and one fœtus) who perished in the blast. Nichols’s co-conspirator, Timothy McVeigh, is already dead, executed in 2001.
The prosecution has spent the morning telling the jury that Nichols was not only involved in the bombing, but was a willing participant in terror. Defence attorney Brian Hermanson has countered that Nichols, an Army buddy of McVeigh’s, was duped by his old friend.
Some of the jurors lean forward in their seats as Hermanson attempts to portray the trial as “about friendship, manipulation, and betrayal.” McVeigh was bingeing on methamphetamine and becoming increasingly paranoid about Russian tanks and black helicopters in America, staple symbols of the fringe right belief that a demonic “New World Order’ is imminent. And, Hermanson says, “the evidence will show that others were involved, both in Kansas and Oklahoma.”
These mysterious “others’ will be the cornerstone of any defence.
It’s an unseasonably warm afternoon in the crowded courtroom on the second floor of the county courthouse in downtown McAlester, Oklahoma. It will take courthouse maintenance workers a couple of days to change over from the boiler system to the chiller, Judge Steven Taylor explains to the jury. He apologises, and orders a large industrial fan to be placed just outside the courtroom’s open door. The whirring of the big blades contributes just a touch of white noise to an atmosphere that is already veering deep into the surreal.
There’s a lull as the judge asks counsel to approach the bench.
One of the suit-and-tie reporters in the press section of the audience leans across the back of a bench and smiles wickedly at an affable-looking bearded man in an open-collared blue shirt, busy taking notes.
“Hey, J D,” the reporter says, “you got any meth?”
“Shut Him Up Forever”
J D Cash smiles politely at the inappropriate joke but does not reply.
Cash, flanked by reporters from some of the largest news organisations in the country, is covering the trial for the McCurtain Daily Gazette, circulation 6,500. The Gazette is located in Idabel, in extreme south-eastern Oklahoma, as far from Oklahoma City as one can get and still be in Oklahoma. But the Oklahoma City bombing is the only story Cash has ever covered, and so far he’s written hundreds of articles about it. For years, he has chipped patiently away at the bombing, taking the time that big-name reporters, rushing off to cover the next breaking story, can’t afford to invest. Even The New Yorker, culturally some distance from rural Oklahoma, took notice and ran a story on Cash. And, in ways that would make mainstream journalists cringe, JD Cash has himself become part of the Oklahoma City bombing story.
Cash only decided to become a reporter when he lost a friend in the Oklahoma City bombing. He’d grown up in Oklahoma City, and had even worked in the Alfred P Murrah building for a time as a teenager.
Having made the decision to write a book about what he saw as a tragic, but significant, historic event, Cash soon uncovered some problems with the official story. First, he discovered that seismic instruments in the area had registered two blasts, some six seconds apart. There had been talk of box after box having been removed from the rubble of the building, but these were explained as ‘training devices’. Authorities then admitted that an armour-piercing TOW missile had been stored in the building by US Customs; it was being used as bait in a ‘sting’ operation involving a motorcycle gang. While its warhead had been removed, it was still full of fuel – hence the second explosion. Cash won a first-place investigative reporting award for his very first story, about the seismic readings, and has continued to ask difficult questions about the government’s version of events ever since.
Taking advantage of the awkward silence following the bad joke, I ask Cash if he thinks the whole truth about the Oklahoma City bombing will finally come out during the state trial.
He shakes his head:
“We’ve never had Congressional investigation into Oklahoma City like we did with the World Trade Center attacks,” he says. “This trial isn’t about the truth – it’s about killing Terry Nichols, which would shut him up forever.” Cash is convinced that other people were part of the conspiracy, and that the evidence has been suppressed to make the bombing case seem straightforward – and to hide information the government might find embarrassing.
In fact, just days before the Nichols trial began in McAlester, the Federal Bureau of Investigation publicly announced that not all available leads had been pursued into the bombing and that the investigation was being re-opened.
The FBI revelation came after a decade of work by reporters and independent investigators who pieced together a bizarre tale of a conspiracy that placed Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh among some pretty strange company.
At war with the government
The press called them the Midwestern Bank Bandits, but they called themselves the Aryan Republican Army (ARA). They were a group of White Supremacist criminals who waged a shadow war against the federal government through the mid-1990s, hitting at least 22 banks across the Midwest in an attempt to finance an all-out race war. The two men at the centre of the gang were an unlikely pair: a cross-dressing neo-Nazi in search of a sex-change operation and a former Navy SEAL who allegedly murdered interracial couples for sport.
The gang members were all adherents of Christian Identity, a curious blend of ideas from 19th century British Israelites and American Mormons. Christian Identity holds that Anglo-Saxons represent the 10 lost tribes of Israel, and as such are the true Chosen People of the Bible; that modern Jews, blacks, and all non-whites are ‘mud people’ without souls; and that a cataclysmic war between good and evil is imminent.
The gang’s leader was Peter Langan, a charismatic outlaw who called himself “Commander Pedro,” taunted the FBI, and – unknown to most other members – led a secret life as a cross-dresser named “Donna.”
The FBI’s announcement that it would reopen the investigation came after the now incarcerated Langan indicated to Associated Press reporter John Solomon that some members of the ARA were involved in the bombing. The connection may well have been a two-way one; there is also evidence to suggest that Timothy McVeigh was the getaway car driver for at least some of the gang’s robberies.
But McVeigh took most of what he knew to the grave with him when he was executed at 7.14am on 11 June 2001, at the Federal Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, without saying a word.
“He's my wife”
The house at 1103 S. Elm St in Pittsburg, southeast Kansas, is inconspicuous, sitting on a quiet street not far from the state university, in a neighbourhood that changes with the ebb and flow of the student population. It still looks much as it did in the mid-1990s, when it was the safe house of the Aryan Republican Army. It was here in Pittsburg, in early 1995, that the gang made a drunken, two-hour recruiting video (intended for the White Supremacist organisation Aryan Nations) that was introduced as evidence during the federal trial of the gang’s leader.
“Our basic goal,” Langan growls through a ski mask on the tape, “is to set up an Aryan republic.” He waves a Heckler & Koch 91 assault rifle and intones: “Don’t mistake us for cultists. We, ladies and gentlemen, are your neighbours.”
As the gang get increasingly inebriated, things get steadily stranger. Between the racist rants, they perform a couple of “Saturday Night Live”-style sketches, mock ads for “Blammo Ammo” and “Second-Chance Body Armour.” The gang recommends The Turner Diaries, a novel by William Pierce that tells of a coming race war and features the FBI headquarters in Washington being blown up with a truck bomb. (The book is a gun-show staple, and a copy was found in McVeigh’s getaway vehicle when he was arrested – for a traffic violation – after the bombing).
At one point a book is held up to the camera: Vigilantes of Christendom: The Story of the Phineas Priesthood, by Richard Kelly Hoskins. It advocates a “guerrilla holy war” to be conducted by “individual white warriors,” and urges readers to use it as a handbook for the revolution.
Phineas is a Biblical figure, mentioned in Numbers 25, who saves Israel from the wrath of God by slaying an Israelite who had paired with a woman of another race he met at an unholy rite. Extremists use the biblical passage to justify the use of violence to deter race mixing.
The Phineas symbol (a capital P with a horizontal line through it, forming a cross) was familiar to members of Christian Identity; it was to be seen, for instance, painted near the entrance to the Christian Identity church run by Mark Thomas in eastern Pennsylvania.
According to JD Cash, there is little doubt that Langan and fellow ARA member Richard Guthrie were members of the Phineas Priesthood – although how Langan squared his sexual identity with his religious fundamentalism is hard to understand. During the gang’s time at the Pittsburg safe house, the contradictions in Langan’s life seem to have sent him into severe emotional turmoil; apparently Guthrie even threatened to kill the cross-dressing Commander Pedro at this point, prompting Langan to establish his own hide-out in Overland Park, a suburb of Kansas City, where his habits would attract less attention.
Here, Langan established an unusual relationship with a woman from the aptly named Peculiar, Missouri. Her name was Cherie Roberts. Roberts, who later appeared in a suit and tie at Langan’s trial in Columbus, Ohio, said she was a transsexual as well. They had met through a Kansas City group called Crossdressers and Friends.
“He’s my wife; I’m his husband,” she explained.
Her pet name for Langan was “Donna”. Their plan was to obtain sex-change operations for both, and then to marry.
Funding The Revolution
Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the recruiting video is the talk of other cells, and of threats to bomb a federal building. Langan declares that he is tired of funding these other cells and, in the opinion of author and criminologist Mark S Hamm, “one of the cells he’s talking about is the one composed of Tim McVeigh and Terry Nichols, that (the gang) funded through the robbery of a gun dealer in Arkansas.”
Hamm, 54, is a professor in the criminology department of Indiana State University and wrote a 1997 book titled Apocalypse in Oklahoma: Waco and Ruby Ridge Revenged. In 2001, after years of prison interviews with Langan, he published In Bad Company: America’s Terrorist Underground, which asserted that the Aryan Republican Army participated in the Oklahoma City bombing.
To understand the bandits, according to Hamm, one must understand America as it was in the mid-1990s. Debacles such as the shooting of Randy Weaver’s wife and son at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and the fiery end to the 51-day siege at Waco, Texas (see FT133:34-38), had soured many people’s feelings towards the federal government.
“These guys came out of this political culture,” says Hamm. “No doubt about it, Langan and Guthrie had declared war on the government. They chose Pittsburg because it’s in the area where Jesse James once lived. They patterned themselves after the James-Younger Gang, and they referred to this several times. They even taunted the authorities and left press releases behind them, just like Jesse James.”
Langan, the son of a CIA agent, had grown up in Vietnam. The family moved back to the United States when he was six. Living in a suburb of Washington, DC, he became fast friends with Guthrie. Langan’s race hatred was born, Hamm says, when he landed in jail after a series of juvenile misadventures and found himself on the prison floor, being raped by a group of black gang members. At least, Hamm says, that’s the story Langan has told him.
Meanwhile, Guthrie joined the Navy, but washed out of the SEAL programme and was court-martialled in 1983, when he painted a swastika on the side of a ship.
By 1989, Langan and Guthrie were together again, raking in thousands of dollars in a scam targeting Kmart stores, and then robbing a Pizza Hut in Lavonia, Georgia.
Langan was arrested as a result, but Guthrie, still at large, had attracted the attention of the Secret Service, which wanted to talk to him about threats made against President George HW Bush.
The Secret Service then found Langan in jail in Georgia, and struck a deal: in exchange for his becoming an informant and spying on his old friend Guthrie and other right-wing extremists, federal authorities would arrange Langan’s release and set him up in Ohio.
In early 1993, Langan was released, and immediately set about forming his gang.
His inspiration was The Order, also known as the Silent Brotherhood, a 1980s White Supremacist group supposedly responsible for the death of Jewish talk show host Alan Berg in Denver and, allegedly, a .8 million armoured-car heist in California. The leader of The Order was Robert Mathews, who burned to death during an FBI siege and shootout near Seattle. The gang had distributed large amounts of stolen money to right-wing causes, including Christian Identity, hoping to fund a racist revolution.
The ARA operated for nearly three years. Their take, according to official sources, was about 0,000, although Hamm believes the actual figure may have been at least twice as much.
The gang’s bank robberies followed a pattern.
“It would begin,” according to Hamm, “with Langan running in first, with the others behind… Then Langan would take a running leap and jump over the counter, brandishing his assault rifle, and yell, ‘No alarms, no hostages.’ Twice.” They used two-way radios to communicate with one another and with gang members outside. All were dressed in camouflage and combat boots. When not wearing ski masks, they often wore Hallowe’en masks of American presidents – a bit of theatre that may have been inspired by the 1991 movie, Point Break.
While Langan cleaned out the teller drawers, Guthrie would guard the lobby, yelling foreign-sounding gibberish. They never went to the vault, because that would take too much time. When they were finished, they would often toss a smoke grenade behind them, leaving the bank clouded in green, noxious fumes.
After racing away in a cheap ‘drop car’ they would use another, more reliable car for their real getaway, monitoring police frequencies as they went.
In 1995, on the front seat of a Ford Fairmont they had bought using the name of a retired FBI agent who had worked on White Supremacist cases, they left an article about McVeigh being charged with the Oklahoma City bombing. After Jim Nelson, a St Louis FBI agent, publicly announced that the bank robbers had political motivations, they sent out press releases that announced the appointment of Nelson as their “spokesman”.
The Cruellest Month
To the racist right in America, there is no more important date than 19 April.
The FBI raid that ended the Christian Identity compound known as the Covenant, Sword and Arm of the Lord (CSA) near Branson, Missouri, began on 19 April 1985, while the federal siege at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, ended in flames on 19 April 1993. And Richard Snell, a former member of the CSA compound, was scheduled for execution by the State of Arkansas on 19 April 1995. Snell had shot and killed a Texarkana, Arkansas, pawnshop owner he mistakenly believed was Jewish, and earlier had killed a black Arkansas state trooper who had stopped him for a traffic violation.
One of the witnesses to Snell’s execution by lethal injection was Robert Millar, patriarch of a Christian Identity compound on the Oklahoma-Arkansas border called Elohim City.
The morning of his execution, Snell watched the news of the Oklahoma City bombing. Before he was executed by lethal injection, his last words were a warning to the governor of Arkansas: “Justice is coming.”
Millar transported Snell’s body back to Elohim City, where some Christian Identity members predicted that Snell would rise after three days, signalling the start of the final conflict between good and evil. The last I heard, Snell was still buried beneath a simple wooden cross on a wooded hillside at Elohim City – a location whose name would surface again and again in the Oklahoma City bombing investigation.
Timothy McVeigh was ticketed for speeding by an Arkansas state trooper on the morning of 12 October 1993, just a few miles from the compound. And on 12 September 1994, he checked into the El Siesta Motel in Vian, Oklahoma, about 30 miles (48km) from Elohim City.
Millar denied that McVeigh had ever visited, but, according to court records, McVeigh tried to call Millar at the compound just two weeks before the bombing.
McVeigh also told a member of the defence team, a polygraph expert named Tim Domgard, that he had written a letter to Millar in mid-March 1995. Domgard, who administered a lie-detector test commissioned by the defence, concluded that McVeigh was being deceptive when he said there were no other conspirators besides Terry Nichols. According to JD Cash, three members of the Aryan Republican Army were full-time residents at Elohim City.
Badge and Pink Toenails
The end for the gang came when their first recruit, Shawn Kenney, a teenage former security officer for the Aryan Nations in Ohio who had backed out before participating in any robberies, talked to authorities.
When Guthrie was captured in January 1996, he in turn told investigators where to find Langan, and “Commander Pedro” was arrested after federal officers confronted him on a residential street in Columbus, Ohio.
Although Langan claims he never shot first, or even returned fire, agents pumped about 30 rounds into his white Chevy van. Langan was not seriously hurt. When authorities got him out of the van, they found he was carrying a US Marshal’s badge. His toenails, it was discovered, were gleaming with a fresh coat of pink polish.
In the vehicle, authorities found 3,400 rounds of ammunition, assault weapons, 11 pipe bombs, five hand grenades, FBI hats, police uniforms, fake IDs, and a hollow Bible made to conceal a gun. In his apartment, there was also a box of blasting caps wrapped in Christmas paper. The infamous recruitment video was found in an envelope addressed to the Rev. Richard Butler, head of the Aryan Nations, in Idaho.
A month later, in February 1996, a routine traffic stop by a St Louis police officer led to the discovery of guns, a rocket launcher and other items belonging to the Aryan Republican Army that had been kept in a storage locker in Joplin, Missouri. Nicholas W Guthrie, 31, brother of Richard Guthrie, was pulled over for drifting on to the shoulder of the road. When Guthrie and his father, Richard Guthrie Sr, became nervous, the officer searched the vehicle and found the weapons – and another Aryan Republican Army videotape – in the trunk.
The Guthries, who were headed to their home in Sterling, Virginia, told authorities they had been asked to clean out the Joplin locker by Richard Guthrie Jr.
Nicholas Guthrie was charged with a felony weapons violation, but the 72-year-old father was released.
Langan was convicted, in two separate trials, of robbing two banks, assaulting federal officers, using a deadly weapon in a crime, and being a felon in possession of firearms and a pipe bomb.
He was convicted in February 1998 on five charges involving bank robberies in Columbus, Ohio, and Springdale, Ohio, a Cincinnati suburb. In October of that year, he was found guilty on one assault charge, two gun counts and one bomb count in relation to his arrest.
Langan, then 40, received life without parole plus 35 years. During sentencing, he testified that he was a transsexual and said he wanted to have a sex-change operation in prison. He also claimed he wasn’t trying to hurt anyone who wasn’t trying to hurt him, and that his beliefs put him in conflict with the federal government.
He was given a mental and emotional evaluation at the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, then sent to serve his life sentence without hope of parole. To date, he has been in a number of federal maximum-security facilities, including the dreaded Supermax Prison at Florence, Colorado.
Guthrie, meanwhile, had committed suicide.
The day before he was to testify against Langan in 1997, he was found hanged with a bed sheet in his jail cell. He had already pleaded guilty to 19 bank robberies, and shortly before his death had told a reporter for the Los Angeles Times that he had written a manuscript that would tell all. Guthrie was 38.
“Who are these others?”
In 2000, Hamm had finished writing the book about the Midwestern Bank Bandits and, having developed Langan as a source, sent the manuscript to him at the Supermax prison for comment.
“Langan said, in essence, ‘You’re missing the part about the Oklahoma City bombing,’” Hamm recalls. Specifically, Langan told him to review the work of the unconventional reporter JD Cash.
“So, I go back and revisit the work done by Cash, and that leads me to believe that there may have been three or four members of the gang in Oklahoma City. From 5 April to the bombing, McVeigh is seen with several other people. Who are these others? I say, look to the Aryan Republican Army for that answer.”
Hamm discovered that the activities of the bank bandits closely matched those of McVeigh in the months before the bombing. Also, says Hamm, he received a copy of Guthrie’s 300-page prison manuscript from an undisclosed FBI source. In all, Hamm said, three FBI agents approached him offering him copies of the manuscript. In it, Guthrie speaks of a gang member called “Tim” or “Speedy” who drives the getaway car.
“I theorise McVeigh may have been that getaway driver on more than one occasion,” states Hamm. “And, a crime of the magnitude of Oklahoma City requires three things: ideology, skill and organisation. Now, McVeigh had the first, but for the second and third things, he just didn’t have what it takes.”
According to Hamm, McVeigh was a “slash and burn” terrorist, and there is nothing to suggest that he had the patience or tenacity to engage in the long-term planning necessary for the Oklahoma City blast.
Also, he says, it probably wasn’t the diminutive and bespectacled Terry Nichols who robbed gun dealer Roger Moore, in Royal, Arkansas, to finance the bomb materials. Moore described the ski-masked man who robbed him as robust and dark, and said he was not wearing glasses.
The deeply tanned Guthrie, says Hamm, was a much better match, physically and psychologically, for the masked intruder who stole guns and precious jewels from Moore’s ranch.
“I created a timeline for the bandits, and I also had a timeline for Timothy McVeigh. When I merged the two, I saw that there were too many instances when McVeigh and the Aryan Republican Army came together just to be a coincidence.”
They were, Hamm claims, at the same Overland Park, Kansas, gun show together; they were in Fort Smith, Arkansas, near Elohim City; and they were in the Kingman, Arizona, area at the same time. And McVeigh’s whereabouts are unknown for some days before and after many of the bank robberies.
“What has always been the weakest part of the government’s case,” Hamm says, “is how did McVeigh support himself during his years on the road, when he didn’t work? The offerings on the gun show circuit were meagre, and sometimes he couldn’t even afford a table.”
Also, McVeigh once gave his sister Jennifer a trio of 0 bills he said came from a bank robbery he had helped plan.
So Hamm rewrote his book. He now suspects that as many as three or four members of the Aryan Republican Army were with McVeigh in Oklahoma City and elsewhere in the days before the bombing. That, he said, may explain why so many witnesses who claimed to have seen McVeigh with another man have given such varied descriptions.
Hamm believes that Langan’s sexual identity crisis was the trigger for the seven-state crime spree. Also, in a five-page letter written from prison, Langan describes his stay in Overland Park, Kansas – where he dressed as a woman and went shopping with Cherie Roberts – as the happiest time of his life.
“I’ve been an assistant warden, I’ve worked death row, and I’ve been a criminologist for 25 years,” says Hamm, “but Langan is beyond a doubt the most fascinating criminal I’ve ever met, and also the most competent. Commander Pedro was an alternate identity to compensate for the shame he felt for dressing as a woman.”
On 26 May, after only five hours of deliberation, the Oklahoma jury found Terry Nichols guilty on all 161 counts of murder. Judge Taylor had refused to allow the defence to bring up any evidence about the Aryan Republican Army, citing a lack of credibility in their argument.
The prosecution had successfully argued that Nichols had bought the ammonium nitrate fertilizer and stolen the detonation cord and blasting caps used in making the Oklahoma City bomb. Also, they claimed that Nichols had robbed Roger Moore, the Arkansas Gun dealer. But there were no witnesses who identified Nichols as the man who bought the fertiliser, stole the explosives, or committed the robbery.
By June, the jury had reached a deadlock on sentencing Nichols, meaning that the death sentence was no longer a possibility. On 9 August 2004, Judge Taylor described Nichols as “the number one mass-murderer in all of US history,” and ordered him to serve 161 consecutive life terms. Nichols had never testified during either his state or federal trials, but now he asked forgiveness and for “everyone to acknowledge God”.
Meanwhile, the FBI’s review of the bombing investigation continues. Perhaps the strongest piece of evidence, apart from Langan’s testimony, are those blasting caps found in his Ohio apartment. McVeigh had carried blasting caps with him in the months before the bombing as well, and distributed them – in Christmas wrapping – to his friends. The caps had been stolen from a rock quarry in Kansas. Some were used to detonate the Oklahoma City bomb. Also, the gang possessed an Arkansas driver’s license with the alias of the gun dealer who was robbed.
So, with Oklahoma having failed to “shut him up forever”, perhaps Terry Nichols will one day provide the missing pieces of the jigsaw and reveal the real story of the Oklahoma City bombing.