THE MAN SUSPECTED in the Oklahoma City bombing was deeply hurt by his parents' separation, and never managed to fit in at school. After the Gulf War, the Army let him down, too. But he found friendship among right-wing extremists.
It's hard to read an explanation for calm atrocity in the ordinary details of a life. Nothing can account for it.
There are clues in Timothy McVeigh's 27-year path to explain anger and maybe even a neurosis or two - a broken home, exposure to war's horrors in the Persian Gulf, frustrated ambition in the Army, a growing strain of outraged idealism - but how do they add up to the most murderous act of terrorism in American history?
McVeigh so far is the only person charged in the April 19 Oklahoma City bombing.
He was 10 when his parents split in 1978. His mother and little sister, Jenny, moved to Florida. Tim and Patty, then 13, stayed put with their father in Pendleton, N.Y., a Lake Erie shorefront suburb 15 miles from Niagara Falls. It was mostly rural, a patchwork of farms and cornfields broken more and more by new ranch homes set along country roads.
Neighbors there last week remembered years of trouble between Mildred "Mickey" McVeigh and her husband, Bill, a career employee at a General Motors auto-parts plant in nearby Lockport. The family's Roman Catholic priest, the Rev. Paul Belzer, remembered that Mickey twice took off and returned before leaving Bill for good. Inside the tiny house with cream-colored siding and the flagpole out front, there were predictable consequences.
"Tim changed and his sister Patty became very angry," said Pat Waugh, a neighbor. "As (my) kids became teenagers, I didn't want them to go over to his house, because with no mother there and their father at work, they were unsupervised. It was just a bad deal. His father worked nights. . . . It was tough."
Bill McVeigh's friends and coworkers said he did his best to provide a normal life for his children. He volunteered to help with the Boy Scouts, and coached baseball and bowling leagues.
"He's just a real nice guy who gives a lot of his time to other people," said co-worker Terry Bennetti.
Never forgave mother
Tim McVeigh's friends said he never forgave his mother for what he viewed as her desertion of the family. They say he has had little contact with her.
"He wasn't too happy with his mom because she left when he was younger," said a close female friend who has kept in touch with him. "He loved his dad, and would do anything for him."
At Starpoint High School, McVeigh was an awkward, unremarkable student who sought vainly to become a part of the "in crowd."
"Tim wanted to be accepted, and he wasn't, really," said Krista Haas, who was two years behind McVeigh and whose brother was one of his friends. "He was not in a cool crowd. I don't remember him having a crowd of friends. He was just always kind of skinny and geeky. He was desperate to be liked by people. You could see it in his eyes."
Adolescence stretched him into a rail-thin 6-footer with a baby face, broad smile and a full head of fine, light-brown hair that he then wore neatly styled down over his ears and long in back.
McVeigh dabbled in basketball, football and cross-country, but his senior yearbook, the Starpointer, doesn't list him on any of those teams. Classmate Christopher Schell said "the only strange thing" he remembered about McVeigh was his attempt to make the football team one year:
"He was really slight, tall and gangly - he could barely fill the football uniform he was so scrawny. We had a really good football team. Why did he want to play football? Did he really want that much to belong? I thought that was odd."
His classmates teasingly voted the shy McVeigh "Most Talkative." In describing himself, he wrote, "Take it as it comes," and for his ambition he wrote "Lamborghini and California girls."
All in all, an aggressively average American boy.
Guns and ambition
Old friends remembered two things about McVeigh that may figure more important in understanding him today. First, he was fascinated by weapons. Like many boys in Pendleton, McVeigh enjoyed shooting at tin cans with a .22 rifle. Jeff Camp worked with McVeigh as a security guard in Buffalo shortly after graduation. He recalled that the young McVeigh had a near-obsession with guns, at times bringing pistols and ammo to work.
"He always loved guns," said Camp. "He talked about them all the time. He would bring two or three different ones. One time he had a Desert Eagle with him, a pistol. Another time he had about 25 shotgun rounds with him, and an AR-15 (a semiautomatic rifle) with a scope."
A neighbor, Joseph Panepento Jr., remembered meeting McVeigh at a flea market and talking with him about guns - "He was thrilled about having his gun. . . . I could say maybe he was a little too much into guns."
Second, McVeigh was ambitious. As a boy he earned nickels and dimes holding roulette games in his front yard and charging children to view the "haunted house" he set up in his basement. The ambition was there in his frustrated efforts in track and cross-country, and in endangering his scrawny frame on the football field. And despite falling short in these things, he retained the motivational belief, inscribed under his yearbook photo: "People are able because they think they are."
That ambition would again be thwarted in the Army.
Army success, then bitterness
He enlisted in May 1988, and after basic training was assigned to Fort Riley, Kan., home of the U.S. Army's legendary "Big Red One," the 1st Infantry Division. Fort Riley is in Junction City, a post that looks like a well-maintained Midwestern college campus with big, rough-hewn stone buildings set on gently rolling hills.
But the town around it is strictly honky-tonk, with a huge supply of small, cheap, frame houses that soldiers rent and bars featuring strippers with fat thighs. Junction City has a reputation for being one of the tougher Army towns.
At first, military life agreed with McVeigh. Gregg Henry, who served with him, remembers watching a "Rambo" movie with him: "He used to say how cool that was, and how he'd like to be a mercenary over in the Middle East or something."
McVeigh supplemented his basic training in explosives with correspondence courses, according to Robert Copeland, a fellow infantry soldier through basic training.
By all accounts McVeigh served well as a gunner on a Bradley vehicle (a heavily armored and armed personnel carrier) during the Persian Gulf war. He was promoted to sergeant, and received a list of decorations that included the Bronze Star. His unit saw front-line action in the rapid "Hail Mary" attack that routed Iraqi troops in a broad sweep across southwest Iraq, encountering surrendering enemy troops and villages and troop sites that had been destroyed by intensive allied bombing.
McVeigh returned home in 1991, clearly proud of his part. With the Army's elite Special Forces program in mind, he undertook a stern physical-fitness regimen, training with a 100-pound backpack. However, he was dropped from the Special Forces assessment program - he said because of an injury, though the New York Times yesterday reported he was found psychologically unfit - and McVeigh was more than disappointed. He grew bitter.
He tried to get out of the Army by deliberately wetting his bed, his squad mates recalled. His sergeant didn't fall for it; he had to pay for the mattress. He got in trouble for speeding and other petty offenses.
During this period, McVeigh frequented the Rock House tavern on Riley Street in nearby Ogden with his buddy Terry Nichols. Bartender Geri Schwenck says she remembers them coming in together to drink beer.
Schwenck said McVeigh was always "bitching about the Army."
Drifting toward extremism
It was during 1991, in his last year of service, that McVeigh and his friend Nichols began to associate with some of the right-wing extremists who befriended soldiers. These were men from groups who were convinced that America was selling out to left-wing groups, participating in a "Jewish" conspiracy to form a world government, planning to seize arms from citizens, building concentration camps to house libertarians, hiding information about UFOs . . . the whole litany of right-wing, survivalist, white-power paranoia.
He was honorably discharged on New Year's Eve, and returned home to Pendleton, bragging about his war record. He told stories of having captured 500 Iraqi soldiers (not remarkable, given the eagerness of Saddam Hussein's troops to surrender), and complained about the brass' decision not to push on into Baghdad and topple Hussein.
He took a job with Burns International Security Services in Buffalo, and for nearly a year worked as a guard at the Niagara Falls Convention Center. His supervisor, Lynda Haner-Mele, recalled a punctual young man who showed up every day but was also short-tempered, belligerent and lackadaisical.
"He could become very argumentative," said Haner-Mele. "He couldn't deal with people. He was a loner, very introverted." He was also, she said, "very cocky." She gave McVeigh duties away from the public.
"He was the kind of person you would have to give orders to," she said. "He was not the kind of person who on his own initiative would say, `OK, I'll do this and this.' He would have to be told what to do. He was not serious about a lot of things and he was not organized. . . . "
McVeigh told fellow workers some of his theories about the government, particularly how it was planning to take away citizens' right to bear arms. He told others that the Army had implanted a computer chip in his buttocks, part of a secret project to monitor citizens. Some of his emerging philosophy also came out in two rambling letters he wrote that year to his local newspaper in Lockport, N.Y.
One advocated doing away with slaughterhouses, saying everyone who wanted to eat meat should hunt and shoot their own game.
"Since the beginning of his existence, man has been a hunter, a predator. He has hunted and eaten meat to insure his survival. To deny this is to deny your past, your religion, even your existence."
In the other he railed against the American political system: "Do we have to shed blood to reform the current system? I hope it doesn't come to that. But it might."
The bits and pieces add up to an adolescent jumble of outrage, an insistence that the world shape up to his frustrated expectations. McVeigh had become self-righteous, paranoid and political enough to be spreading his views and seeking out those on the right-wing fringe who shared them. He quit his job with Burns at the end of 1992, and began two years of wandering. Holding a variety of jobs, he was continually on the move through Midwestern states, from Michigan to Kansas to Texas to Arizona.
In the fall of 1993, he was living with Terry Nichols in Decker, Mich., and working on the farm of Nichols' brother James, and espousing his increasingly shrill beliefs. That year he bought a TEC-9 semiautomatic assault weapon (legal then, now banned). Those who knew McVeigh in Michigan say he was always armed.
He attended at least one meeting of the "Michigan Militia," a paramilitary right-wing group that is preparing to violently defend its right to bear arms against the government crackdown it foresees. But by now, McVeigh's rhetoric was too harsh even for this crowd.
John Simpson, a militia member in Decker, said McVeigh spoke at a meeting about tax revolt, complained about having to carry a driver's license and called for eliminating the government. The group was sympathetic to his views, but "we did not believe in his tactics," Simpson said. "Particularly the stuff about a revolt."
Philip Morowski, a farmer and rural chaplain who met McVeigh on a visit to Nichols', watched as the two experimented with mixing household chemicals to make bombs.
"It was just something they did to relieve the boredom," he said.
Last year, McVeigh was living in Kingman, Ariz., at the Canyon West RV and Mobile Park. He frightened some of his neighbors by firing his weapons in nearby fields.
"Quite frankly, it scared the hell out of me," said Jeff Arrowood, a neighbor. "He pretty much went crazy, emptying on anything - trees rocks, anything there. He just went ballistic."
Hardened in hate
The "shy and geeky" Starpoint High School teen had matured into a proud and virulent fanatic. He now took every opportunity to spread his message of fear and hate. His proselytizing troubled Chris Kelesides, who worked with him last summer at the True Value Hardware store in Kingman.
"He believed that Holocaust was a hoax," said Kelesides, a 21-year-old sales clerk. "He believed the Jews had taken over a lot of the businesses of this country. Most of his politics was against the Jews. I didn't know where he got it from."
McVeigh set up booths at the gun shows, where he passed out pamphlets that railed against the "New World Order" and criticized the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms for raiding the Branch Davidian compound at Waco and for the deadly standoff with white supremacist Randy Weaver in Idaho.
"He expressed extreme anger about the Waco incident," Kelesides said. McVeigh was particularly incensed that there were children among the 82 who died in the blaze. "He said the government plans on going to people's homes and separating men and women and children and putting them in camps," Kelesides recalled. "People who owned guns, he said, they would shoot outright."
Kelesides said McVeigh made repeated trips to Waco "to see what actually happened." He also drove to Idaho to see the site of the Weaver standoff, and concluded that ATF agents "went in with the intention to kill, not to disarm them."
On other "fact-finding" excursions, McVeigh drove to a desert military site about 100 miles from Kingman. He told his friend he planned to "infiltrate" the guarded site, which has been used as a nuclear test area.
"He said they were testing certain crafts that were not of this world - UFOs," Kelesides said.
McVeigh left Kingman sometime last summer, traveling to Michigan, New York and other states, returning periodically to Arizona.
One week before the bombing, McVeigh was back in Kingman, checking in to the Imperial Motel on Andy Devine Avenue.
On Friday, April 14, McVeigh moved to the Dreamland Motel in Junction City, Kansas.
On Sunday, he was in Oklahoma City. He phoned Terry Nichols and asked him to pick him up. Nichols has since told authorities that on their way back to Junction City, McVeigh told him:" Something big is going to happen."
The men reached Junction City early in the morning of April 17, the day McVeigh rented the Ryder truck.
At 6 a.m. on Tuesday, April 18, McVeigh checked out of the Dreamland. He drove off in the Ryder truck, leaving the yellow Mercury behind.
People who work at the motel cannot remember seeing anyone drive the Mercury away. But at some point during the day, it disappeared from the motel lot.
A missing license plate
At 10:20 a.m., Wednesday, April 19, 60 miles north of Oklahoma City, state trooper Charlie Hanger stopped a rusting yellow 1977 Mercury Marquis that was missing a rear license plate. It was 78 minutes after the explosion, but Hanger still knew nothing of the bombing.
As the driver reached for his wallet, Hanger noticed a bulge under his jacket.
"I got a gun," Tim McVeigh said.
Hanger pulled his .45 and pointed it at McVeigh's head.
Hanger didn't know who he had. Neither did Noble County Sheriff Jerry Cook."
Two days later, at 10 a.m. on April 21, shortly before McVeigh was to be released, Cook got a phone call. Chris Peters, an ATF agent, had a question: Was the sheriff still holding Timothy McVeigh?
Cook thumbed through some 3-by-5 jail file cards. Then got back on the phone.
"He's still here," he said.