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Ex-Wife Describes Nichols's Letters; Defendant Moved to Tears

By Tom Kenworthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 20, 1997; Page A03

DENVER, Nov. 19—Oklahoma City bombing defendant Terry L. Nichols, crying during some of his ex-wife's testimony, today heard her recount how she discovered a letter in which he urged Timothy J. McVeigh to "go for it" five months before the bombing.

Wiping his eyes as his attorney put a hand on his shoulder, Nichols for the first time in his trial dropped his calm demeanor as ex-wife Lana Padilla described going through a collection of letters left for her and McVeigh in the event Nichols did not return from a trip to the Philippines in November 1994.

The letter that caused Nichols to break down in tears instructed Padilla to divide his property between his new wife Marife and a son he and Padilla had had during their eight-year marriage.

But defense hopes of presenting Nichols in a favorable, human light may have been tempered by the second, potentially incriminating, letter, which was to be forwarded to McVeigh. Padilla first disclosed the contents of this note in a book she wrote in 1995, "By Blood Betrayed," and later in an interview with the "American Journal" television show.

"Your [sic] on your own; go for it," Nichols wrote to McVeigh. "As far as heat, none that I know. This letter would be for the purpose of my death."

How Nichols's emotionalism will affect the jury of seven women and five men is impossible to predict. But a clear goal of Nichols's legal team since the trial began has been to humanize him by presenting him as a family man who, in defense attorney Michael Tigar's opening statement, "was building a life, not a bomb."

And it stood in marked contrast to McVeigh, who barely blinked during weeks of heart-wrenching testimony during his trial, including pleas by his family to spare his life. McVeigh was convicted in June and sentenced to death for the April 1995 bombing that killed 168. Nichols also faces the death penalty if convicted on the same 11 counts of murder and conspiracy.

The letter from Nichols to McVeigh was contained in a sealed grocery bag package he gave Padilla with instructions to open it if he had not returned in two months. But his former wife, frequently sobbing as she testified that she was worried about Nichols's state of mind, said she opened the package and letters the next morning.

"I cared about Terry and I was concerned there was something awful and he was not coming back," she testified.

Following instructions in the letter to her, Padilla the next month searched behind a kitchen drawer and discovered $20,000 that Nichols had instructed her to send to his second wife, Marife, for the care of her and their daughter. The package also included keys to a Las Vegas storage locker rented by Nichols.

That same day, Padilla testified, she and a grown son from a previous marriage inspected the contents of the locker and found gold, silver, jade and a bag containing makeup, panty hose, a ski mask and wig.

"I recall saying to Barry, 'What is he doing, robbing banks?' " Padilla testified.

Under questioning by prosecutor Larry Mackey, Padilla said she could not interpret the cryptic message "As far as heat, none that I know. This letter would be for the purpose of my death."

"When I read that last line, nothing else mattered," said Padilla. "I just thought he was not going to come back."

Nichols began crying when his former wife first described opening the package, which in addition to the letters to her and McVeigh contained a life insurance policy, powers of attorney to sell securities, and "some small ounces of precious metals."

"I have the most trust in you . . . to do as I've written," Nichols wrote to Padilla in the letter, which described how she should distribute the cash behind the kitchen drawer, the valuables in the Las Vegas storage locker, and other items.

Padilla also testified that earlier that month, before he left on his overseas trip, Nichols phoned her from Manhattan, Kan., in response to her written plea to discuss a problem she was having with their son, Josh. But Nichols, she said, was far more interested in talking about the fiery government siege of the Branch Davidian religious compound near Waco, Tex., a year and a half before and the prospect of civil insurrection.

"There was some discussion about civil unrest and people killing off people," said Padilla. "It was a really difficult conversation."

Nichols's attorney, Ron Woods, used an extensive cross-examination of Padilla today to portray Nichols as a gentle man, a loving father and thoughtful ex-husband, someone who gardened and cooked and, when his son Josh was thinking of running away from home, flew across country to be with him for his first football game.

"Did you ever hear him advocate violence against anyone," Woods asked Padilla.

"No, never," she replied.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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