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Nichols Prosecutor Cites 'Avalanche of Evidence'

By Tom Kenworthy and Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 16, 1997; Page A08

DENVER, Dec. 15—An "avalanche of evidence" conclusively implicates Terry L. Nichols in the Oklahoma City bombing, a federal prosecutor dramatically told jurors here today during the government's 3 1/2-hour closing argument in the celebrated terrorism case.

"There is only one question in this case," prosecutor Beth Wilkinson told the seven-woman, five-man jury this morning as the government summed up its six weeks of evidence.

"Did Terry Nichols intentionally help Timothy McVeigh bomb the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and kill the people inside of it? We submit to you the answer is obvious, the answer is yes. This was no mistake, no coincidence. . . . They were together from beginning to end."

Wilkinson meticulously walked the jury through the government's complex, circumstantial case, using as a prop an eight-foot-wide color chart labeled "The Road to Destruction" that featured bookend photos of the Murrah building before and after the April 19, 1995, explosion.

But Wilkinson also aggressively attacked the defense's efforts to confuse jurors with the specter of additional accomplices, conflicting sightings of a Ryder truck at Geary State Fishing Lake in Kansas, where the bomb was allegedly built, and numerous sightings of onetime suspect John Doe No. 2 -- who the government now says never existed.

"Sightings of John Doe No. 2 were about as common as sightings of Elvis," said Wilkinson sarcastically.

When it was the defense's turn, Nichols's attorneys Michael Tigar and Ron Woods took umbrage at what they called Wilkinson's "personal attacks on us" for presenting witnesses.

"Anything that differs from the government's theory that they came up with on April 21 . . . they belittle and ridicule and discount," Woods told the jury.

In a free-form and at times humorous closing argument, Tigar assailed the character of the government's star witness, Michael Fortier, and accused federal authorities of conducting a slipshod investigation.

With exaggerated sarcasm, Tigar said of the admitted drug user Fortier: "Well, he cleans up pretty good." Fortier, another Army buddy, pleaded guilty to lesser charges in exchange for his testimony that implicated McVeigh and Nichols, testimony that Tigar charged "was bought and paid for."

Nichols, 42, stared straight ahead at the jury during the arguments, registering no expression or reaction. His mother, father, sister, brother and wife all were in the third row of the courtroom, along with relatives of victims and survivors of the blast.

McVeigh, Nichols's Army compatriot, was convicted on identical murder and conspiracy charges in June, and was sentenced to death for his role in the explosion, which killed 168 people and injured more than 500 others. After hearing six weeks of evidence, the Nichols jury will begin its deliberations in the death penalty case Tuesday.

Wilkinson said Nichols "started down the road to the biggest terrorist act in the history of our country" on Sept. 30, 1994, when he quit his farmhand's job in Marion, Kan., and allegedly made the first of two, 2,000-pound purchases of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, the major component of the homemade truck bomb.

The prosecutor went through the alleged conspiracy from that period on -- when the co-defendants allegedly began stockpiling explosives to avenge the federal government's bloody raid on the Branch Davidian religious headquarters near Waco, Tex.

Challenging the defense's claim that Nichols was "building a life, not a bomb," Wilkinson said that "instead of truly building a life, Terry Nichols left his job, sent his wife and child halfway across the world and joined up with Timothy McVeigh."

With the stealth of a true conspirator, said Wilkinson, Nichols tried to shield his activities by using a series of fake names and lying to his young Filipino wife, Marife. "Terry Nichols lied," Wilkinson said. "He lied to the FBI. He lied to his wife. He even lied to his ex-wife."

Wilkinson repeatedly refuted the defense lawyers' claims that Nichols had broken off his relationship with McVeigh well before the bombing.

In fact, said Wilkinson, the two men were virtually inseparable as the plot unfolded, frenetically working to buy and steal explosives, hide them in rented storage sheds, plot the robbery of an Arkansas gun collector to finance their conspiracy, build the bomb at Geary Lake and deliver McVeigh's getaway car to Oklahoma City. A receipt for a car oil filter purchased by McVeigh on April 13 and found in Nichols's wallet after the bombing, said Wilkinson, confirmed their association in the days before the bombing and uncovered Nichols's lie to the FBI that he had not seen his friend between January and April 16, Easter Sunday.

Marching through the seven main points on the prosecution's "Road to Destruction" chart, Wilkinson linked the two men through phone records showing they were in constant communication, the receipt for ammonium nitrate found in Nichols's kitchen bearing McVeigh's fingerprint, and the testimony of the government's star witness who placed the two men together at a Kingman, Ariz., storage locker containing explosives allegedly stolen by Nichols from a Kansas rock quarry. Some of those explosives also were found in Nichols's home.

Wilkinson told the jury that the testimony of Marife Nichols harmed her husband far more than it helped him. Marife Nichols, Wilkinson pointedly noted, had no idea where her husband was on April 18 -- the morning that the government alleged he helped McVeigh build the bomb and the day when no witnesses could corroborate his story that he spent the morning at a military surplus auction at Fort Riley, Kan.

"So Terry Nichols's alibi doesn't hold up for the most important day of the conspiracy," said Wilkinson, "for the day before the bombing."

Most damning of all, concluded Wilkinson, was the letter Nichols wrote to McVeigh and left with his ex-wife for delivery if he did not return from the Philippines in January 1995. That letter urged McVeigh: "Your (sic) on your own, go for it." Nichols, said Wilkinson, "wanted to insure that even if he died this conspiracy would go forward, he wanted to insure even if he died that the Murrah building was destroyed and the people inside it killed."

In his summation, Tigar tore into Fortier and the FBI agents and laboratory personnel who handled key evidence in the case.

Suggesting that Fortier was addled by chronic drug use and dazzled by the dreams of making millions for selling his story, Tigar said Fortier could not be trusted by the jury when he testified that McVeigh had told him he and Nichols were planning to take action against the government because of Waco.

"This is a man who speculated about getting a cool million," said Tigar. "This is a man who talked about movie contracts and book contracts and all the rest of it. And this is a man who the government says is a witness you are supposed to believe."

Referring to Fortier's drug of choice -- methamphetamine -- Tigar said: "This is a drug that keeps you up all night; this drug causes you to hallucinate; this drug causes your perceptions of reality to be distorted."

Turning next to the FBI, Tigar derided the prosecution's chief fingerprint analyst, saying he had reported different numbers of fingerprints on his lab notes and final reports, and mocking his ability to count.

"What's going on here?" asked Tigar. "What's wrong with a Federal Bureau of Investigation with 35 million fingerprint files on hand . . . and the agent they send in on the most important case in FBI history can't count fingerprints?"

Once the FBI had determined that McVeigh and Nichols were the conspirators, said Tigar, they gave up looking for other possible suspects.

"It was decided, 'We solved the case and we don't care anymore,' " said Tigar. "That's not good science and it's not good law enforcement and it's not fair and it's not right."

Tigar will resume Tuesday morning; his presentation will be followed by a rebuttal and jury instructions.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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