Stillwater News Press

April 17, 2010

Oklahomans reflect on bombing

By Anita Pere
Stillwater NewsPress

STILLWATER, Okla. — Perry, population 5,230, was turned upside down when word spread that the suspect in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building bombing was being held in the Noble County Jail. But as much as reporters and curious bystanders wanted to glimpse Timothy McVeigh as he was led out of the jail, they wanted to meet the highway patrol trooper who arrested him.

“There was some enterprising young man there who knew me and where I lived, so he had drawn out maps to my house and was selling it to the media at $20 a pop,” Hanger recalled.

He arrested McVeigh April 19, only hours after a fertilizer bomb packed inside a rental truck exploded outside the Murrah building in downtown Oklahoma City.

Hanger started his day at the Oklahoma Highway Patrol regional headquarters, in Pawnee at the time. While at headquarters, he heard chatter on the police scanner about police units being sent to Oklahoma City. He was dispatched, too, but while on his way he was told to disregard his orders and stay in the area.

While he was en route to do a followup investigation of a wreck the previous day, Hanger passed a yellow Mercury without a license plate.

He pulled the driver over on northbound Interstate 35 in Noble County.

Hanger made everyone he stopped get out of the car to speak with him, he said, and this man was no exception.

The man explained he didn’t have a license plate because he just bought the car. The driver didn’t have a bill of sale or proof of insurance, but he did have a driver’s license. His name was Timothy James McVeigh, a 26-year-old white male from Michigan.

But when McVeigh reached into his back pocket for his driver’s license, Hanger noticed a bulge under his jacket. McVeigh admitted he had a weapon when Hanger told him to slowly unzip his jacket. Hanger drew his weapon. He ordered McVeigh to turn around and put his hands up.

“He made a statement at that time that I think he was trying to intimidate me with, and he said ‘my weapon is loaded,’ and I nudged him with the barrel of my pistol right at the back of his head and I said, ‘well, so is mine.’”

Hanger called in the serial numbers on McVeigh’s gun and car. Neither had been reported  stolen.

McVeigh consented to a search of his car, and inside the trooper found a yellow legal-size envelope. McVeigh requested Hanger leave the envelope in the car.

The highway patrol trooper later discovered the envelope contained excerpts from The Turner Diaries, a book notorious for depicting a violent overthrow of the federal government. Even more chilling, Hanger found a business card in the back seat of his patrol car where McVeigh had sat while being transported to jail and on the back of the card from an army surplus store in Wisconsin was a message. More TNT would be needed May 1.

Hanger arrested McVeigh on preliminary complaints of unlawfully carrying a weapon on his person, no license plate and no insurance.

Back then, state law prohibited residents from carrying concealed weapons.

Hanger went home to Perry later that Wednesday. He didn’t think again about the incident until he got a call at home Friday and was summoned to OHP troop headquarters.

When he returned to Perry, Hanger found his town in chaos. Noble County commissioners had abandoned their offices in the courthouse, and about 3,000 onlookers crowded the courthouse lawn. A TV media crew set up equipment in the bed of the tooper’s truck without his permission.

Reporters were already camped out at his house.

“The phone would not quit ringing,” Hanger recalled. “I couldn’t even call out.”

The frenzy died down about a week later, after the highway patrol organized a news conference.

Hanger spent the next two years traveling to Denver for meetings with federal prosecutors and the FBI.

Despite the doubts of some, he’s convinced Timothy McVeigh and co-conspirator Terry Nichols acted alone.

“(Prosecutors) had volumes of evidence. They had more evidence than they knew what to use,” Hanger said.

Nichols was found to have stolen guns in Arkansas, Hanger said.

“If they had other people actually supporting them or funding this, I don’t think they would have had to went to those extremes to steal things to buy the components to make the bomb,” he said.

He said he’s learned a lot through being in the spotlight, including public speaking skills. Hanger travels the country giving speeches to law enforcement agents.

For arresting the American terrorist without incident, Hanger received the Trooper of the Year Award in 1995, the J. Stannard Baker Award for highway safety and other honors. He is now sheriff of Noble County.

He takes little credit for making the arrest, attributing his actions not to his expertise and intuition, but to “divine intervention.”

Hanger wasn’t the only Perry resident whose life was changed by the arrest of Timothy McVeigh.

Jailer says McVeigh a quiet inmate

Former Noble County jailer Marsha Moritz says she nearly fainted when she realized the inmate she watched coverage of the Murrah bombing with was the man behind the devastating crime.

She was at home Friday after the bombing when she heard on her police scanner that there was a lock-down at the county courthouse. When she turned on the TV, she saw the face of the young man Trooper Hanger brought into the jail two days before.

Moritz remembers the only flack McVeigh gave her when she checked him into the jail was when she asked for emergency contact information.

McVeigh reluctantly gave her the phone number for James Nichols, Terry Nichols’ brother.

Before he was led into the jail, he watched TV news coverage of the bombing for a few moments with Moritz and Hanger.

“I asked Charlie when he walked in (the sheriff’s office) with Timothy McVeigh, I said, ‘I guess you heard about the bombing and everything’ and Charlie and I were discussing it and watching it with Timothy,” she said.

“He never made any comment ... he showed no emotion.”

Moritz took McVeigh’s mug shot, and placed his clothes in a paper grocery bag. She put his valuables into a bank bag.

“The FBI said I couldn’t have secured those clothes any better way,” she says now.

Bomb residue on the clothes made them a valuable piece of evidence to the prosecution.

Moritz also spent the next several years traveling to Denver, preparing to testify against McVeigh.

“Those two years were rough,” she said.

Moritz was nervous about testifying, but not scared.

“I’d never testified, really. One other case I testified a little piece, and then I’m in federal court on the biggest terrorist case of that time,” she said. “I just wanted to get him convicted.”

She and Hanger also testified at Terry Nichols’ trial in 2004.

Moritz is now a jailer in Stillwater.

She shares Hanger’s certainty that McVeigh and Nichols were the only people involved in the bombing.

Allen presided over court appearance

McVeigh’s initial appearance in Noble County District Court was pushed back because Associate District Judge Dan Allen’s son missed the bus.

Allen didn’t arraign McVeigh on his misdemeanor charges until Friday after his arrest. McVeigh was scheduled to come before the judge a day before but Allen had a custody hearing that afternoon, rescheduled from morning because Allen had to take his son to Stillwater for a band outing.

By Friday morning, court employees had heard rumors that the man who would be arraigned that afternoon was a suspect in the Oklahoma City bombing. But since Allen wasn’t presented with evidence of McVeigh’s connection to the bombing, he said, the judge set McVeigh’s bail at $5,000. McVeigh’s hearing was on a misdemeanor charge, Allen said, so a larger bond would have been inappropriate.

“If he were indeed ... the bomber, then whatever I set bond at at that point in time, the feds knew where he was,” he said.

Later Friday afternoon, District Attorney Mark Gibson dropped McVeigh’s misdemeanor charges and he was taken into custody by federal agents.

Nurse rushed to help in OKC

Many of Paula Greene’s memories of the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing exist as snapshots in her mind — a lone red high heel shoe on the sidewalk, a tidy office left intact when its exterior wall was blown away.

Greene, a nurse who lives in Pawnee, went to Oklahoma City to help after the bomb ripped the face off the Murrah Federal Building. Her boss at a now-defunct home health  business corralled about five nurses to go to Oklahoma City. After a quick stop to get blankets and water bottles, the women were on their way.

Two blocks from the site, they joined a group of other nurses and doctors. It was only about two hours after the blast.

“We got there even before the fence was up to (prevent entrance to) the site,” she said.

A nurse she knew spotted Greene in the crowd.

The nurse had federal clearance and asked Greene if she wanted to go into what was left of the Murrah building.

Greene has vivid memories of scenes in the parking garage- level of the building. Rescue workers carried past a covered body on a stretcher. A leg with a cowboy boot dangled from under the white sheet. She could tell by the way the sheet fell on the stretcher that the body was decapitated.

Then announcements came that more bombs would go off. She was inside what was left of the Murrah building.

“They told us to lay down on the ground and open our mouths,” Greene said.

That was the first time she remembers feeling scared since coming to the scene.

No second bomb exploded, but everyone inside the building was forced out shortly after when the structure started to shift.

“You could feel the movement of the building,” she said.

Greene left the scene at about 3 the next morning. She and the other nurses from Stillwater went to a nurse’s home in Oklahoma City for some food and coffee.

“We just sat there a long time,” Greene said. “I think we just talked about everything.”

She returned home at noon the day after the bombing. She hasn’t been back to the site of the Murrah building.

Greene kept up with the news of Timothy McVeigh’s capture, conviction and punishment. He was executed.

“I just couldn’t see how his death made up for all the pain and death he had caused,” she said.

After witnessing the massive destruction, Greene thinks McVeigh didn’t act alone.

“There were more people that should have been … put on trial for this ... I don’t think he was the only one ... I  truly believe, this wasn’t just something two boys thought up. Somebody who didn’t have enough sense, they drove a vehicle with no tag, thought this up and did it?”

The attorneys who defended McVeigh agree.

Attorney remembers McVeigh

Stillwater attorney Cheryl Ramsey got to know McVeigh well in the hundreds of hours she worked on his defense.

“He pulled my chair out for me every time we came to court. He was very nice, very quiet,” Ramsey recalls. “He was a perfect gentleman at all times.”

Lead defense attorney Stephen Jones brought Ramsey on board for her experience with death penalty cases, she said. She coordinated the defense’s interactions with all Oklahoma witnesses, including Marsha Moritz and Charlie Hanger. She worked 18- to 20-hour days from January to June 1997.

“From the standpoint of seeing a conclusion to any case that you work on, yes, we were all certainly glad to see the trial was over from that aspect. None of us, obviously, were happy with the result because of the death penalty that was given to Tim. But it was real stressful,” Ramsey said.

She thinks the plot to bomb the Murrah building was extensive and intricate, involving more conspirators than McVeigh and Terry Nichols.

“This was a well thought out, financed operation. Not that Tim wasn’t smart, but definitely (others were involved), and that’s something that we’ll never know,” she said. She doubts the case will ever be revisited.

Lead defense attorney harassed

Lead defense attorney Stephen Jones kept a loaded gun at his office and home during the years he represented Timothy McVeigh.

The Enid attorney remembers harassing calls to his home, and a few times security guards suspected photographers were snapping photos of his house.

“Frankly I was so busy it was not uppermost in my mind,” Jones says now.

The U.S court administrator’s federal defender service paid about

$18.3 million for McVeigh’s defense since he couldn’t afford attorneys, Jones said. His defense team included 17 lawyers, six investigators and 10 office personnel.

Jones described McVeigh as clean-cut and respectful.

Jones thought McVeigh’s charges of murder, conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and use of a weapon of mass destruction, destruction of federal property by explosives might be dropped or reduced. But media reports tarnished the public’s perception of McVeigh, he said. One particularly harmful story was a Dallas Morning News article that cited documents on a defense team member’s computer hard drive. The rogue attorney was fired, Jones said.

Jones also accuses federal officials of stonewalling the defense’s efforts to find others who could have been associated with the bombing.

He said the perception that justice has been served for the attack is inaccurate.

“I don’t anticipate any effort to reopen it will be successful,” he said.

Despite all the stress and strain of the trial, Jones found a few calm moments. There was the two-year anniversary of the bombing when he heard church bells toll 168 times. The bells rang once for each person who died.

“The sound and the effect of it was quite enormous,” Jones said.

After the conviction, the attorney said, Pope John Paul II wrote a letter to President Bill Clinton, asking him to pardon McVeigh.

“(That) added a touch of humanity to what we were trying to do,” Jones said.

On June 11, 2001, Timothy McVeigh was executed. He was 33.

On Aug. 9, 2004, co-conspirator Terry Nichols was sentenced to life in prison for 161 counts of murder. He told the judge, “I am truly sorry for what occurred.”