One Arraigned, Two Undergo Questioning
By Edward Walsh
OKLAHOMA CITY, APRIL 21 -- Federal authorities said today they had arrested one of the men being sought in a nationwide manhunt as a suspect in the massive car bombing of the federal office building here, and were questioning two other men.
The arrested man was identified by the Justice Department as Timothy James McVeigh, 27, a former Army mechanic. The two being questioned were Terry Lynn Nichols, 39, and his brother James Douglas Nichols, described by law enforcement officials as associates of McVeigh who may be tied to the Michigan Militia, a right-wing paramilitary organization.
In a day of stunningly swift developments, Attorney General Janet Reno told a mid-afternoon news conference that McVeigh had been held since Wednesday by police in the small town of Perry, Okla., 60 miles north of here, where he was stopped for speeding just 80 minutes after the bombing. It was not until Thursday night that local officers recognized him from composite drawings of two bombing suspects distributed by the FBI. McVeigh had been identified only as "John Doe 1" in the arrest warrant issued yesterday.
McVeigh was brought to Oklahoma City in leg irons and handcuffs tonight by helicopter and was arraigned by a federal magistrate on charges of destroying federal property. If convicted, he could receive the death penalty.
Within hours of the news of McVeigh's apprehension, officials said, Terry Nichols went to the police station near his home in Herington, Kan., about 30 miles south of Junction City, where the truck allegedly used in the blast was rented.
At first investigators believed Terry Nichols might be the second "John Doe" they were seeking, but tonight they said he was cooperating with them and did not describe him as a suspect. A neighbor in Herington said Nichols looked nothing like the description of the man being sought who was described as being in his twenties.
Meanwhile, the official death toll from the blast rose to 78, as exhausted rescue teams continued to comb through the ruins of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building here. Nearly 150 others remained missing, but because of severe structural damage to the building, the search for additional victims remained agonizingly slow.
Reno said in Washington that law enforcement agencies were conducting searches "at several locations around the country." She cautioned that there was "a strong likelihood" that others were involved in the worst civilian bombing in U.S. history.
Reno refused to speculate about motives for the bombing, but as the day unfolded, it was clear that the trail of the suspects led not to Middle East terrorists -- as many experts had speculated early on -- but to rural America: small towns in Oklahoma, Kansas and Michigan. "At this point, every evidence indicates that it is domestic in nature," Reno said.
At the White House, President Clinton praised law enforcement officials for their rapid action. "Their continued vigilance makes me sure we will solve this crime in its entirety and that justice will prevail," said Clinton, who again promised authorities would seek the death penalty for those responsible.
Officials said the president and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton will attend a prayer service to be conducted by the Rev. Billy Graham on Sunday afternoon at the Oklahoma City State Fair Grounds. He also declared Sunday a national day of mourning. Addressing the people of this still shaken and anxious city, Clinton said, "You will overcome this moment of grief and horror, you will rebuild and we will be with you until the work is done."
In Perry, a town of about 5,000, law enforcement officers surrounded the four-story Noble County Courthouse where McVeigh had been held in the top floor county jail since his arrest. Police were also stationed on the roof of the courthouse while a helicopter circled overhead. At 6 p.m., the crew-cut McVeigh, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, was led from the courthouse in handcuffs and leg irons, placed in a van and driven to a helicopter at a nearby industrial plant, and flown to Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City. Authorities said he was arraigned before a federal magistrate at the air base early tonight.
Members of an angry crowd of several hundred people outside the courthouse cried "murderer!" and "baby killer!" as McVeigh was hustled to the vehicle. "His children should be shot!" one man shouted.
As police dogs barked in the carnival-like atmosphere outside the courthouse, Darrin Rucker, 25, expressed the rage felt by many in the crowd. "They should give him a taste of his own medicine and put him inside a bomb and blow it up."
The arrest warrant charged McVeigh with "malicious danger and destroying by means of an explosive a building or real property, whole or in part, possessed or used in the United States."
Reno identified McVeigh as "John Doe No. 1," described by law enforcement officials Thursday as 5-foot-10 to 5-foot-11 inches tall with light brown, crew-cut hair and was said to be right-handed.
"We continue to pursue absolutely every lead," Reno said. "We are determined that we will not rest until the people who perpetrated this terrible act are brought to justice."
But Reno and others warned that the investigation, while fast moving, was far from complete. Reno described the investigation as in a "preliminary stage" and Clinton said "this investigation has a lot of work still to be done in it."
According to a senior law enforcement official in Washington, the identification of McVeigh as John Doe No. 1 resulted from a fortunate blend of technology, investigative skills and assistance from the public.
Although unknown at the time, the breakthrough in the case began Wednesday morning about 10:20 when Oklahoma State Trooper Charles Hanger spotted a yellow Mercury sedan speeding about 20 miles north of Perry on Interstate 35. After pulling the car over, the trooper noticed that the vehicle was missing a license plate. When he approached the driver he noticed the bulge of a shoulder holster, and pulled out his revolver. Putting the gun to the suspect's head, Hanger ordered: "Don't move."
Hanger told reporters he took a loaded Glock semiautomatic handgun from McVeigh and arrested him on five misdemeanors, including carrying a 5 1/8-inch knife.
A trace of the gun revealed McVeigh purchased the weapon near Fort Riley, Kan., where he was once stationed while serving in the Army. Fort Riley is near Junction City, where law enforcement officials say the suspects went to a Ryder outlet and rented a truck that was later packed with a deadly combination of several thousand pounds of fertilizer and fuel oil.
While they held the man on a possible weapons violation, Noble County Sheriff's Department officials were not aware of any link to the Oklahoma City attack. But that changed Thursday afternoon after federal officials issued descriptions and composite sketches of the two suspects. Later that day, local officials contacted federal authorities. This next morning, FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents were dispatched by helicopter to Perry to interview McVeigh.
Vicky Beier, a lawyer in Perry, and a second attorney who spoke on condition of anonymity told the Associated Press that the trooper who had arrested McVeigh recognized him from the sketch just hours before he was scheduled for an arraignment that could have resulted in his release on $500 bail for the gun and illegal-tag charges.
"He came desperately close to making bail," said Mark Gibson, assistant district attorney.
Gibson's boss, county District Attorney John Maddox, said McVeigh was "somber and uncommunicative" during the interrogation by federal agents.
According to law enforcement officials, during the investigation of McVeigh they obtained a two-year-old driver's license with an address listed as 3616 Van Dyke St. in Decker, Mich. They also learned that the Nichols brothers had also lived at the white, clapboard farmhouse there.
This afternoon, federal agents surrounded and entered the house in a rural area near Decker, about 70 miles north of Detroit. Sanilac County Sheriff Virgil Strickler said the farmhouse belonged to James Douglas Nichols.
Like his brother, Terry, James Nichols was being questioned tonight, according to federal authorities who said he was not immediately considered a suspect in the case. A federal law enforcement official said intelligence had revealed that the Nichols brothers had been associated with the Michigan Militia, a loosely organized group whose members are passionately hostile to the federal government and strongly oppose gun control efforts. The group is among those that condemned the siege of the Branch Davidian religious cult in Waco, Tex., as an example of government tyranny.
The Oklahoma City blast occurred on the second anniversary of the federal raid that killed 86 people at the Waco compound, leading to speculation that it may be linked to that event.
In the rubble on the street in front of the federal building here, rescue teams continued to uncover more smashed bodies of the victims and had little hope of finding survivors. The explosion left a 30-foot-wide, 8-foot-deep crater in the street that was covered by the wreckage of the building's upper floors.
"Our sensors are detecting absolutely no sounds of survivors," said Dan Schroeder of California's Urban Search and Rescue team. "Our cameras show only death."
The death toll of children remained at 12. Addressing the children of the nation, President Clinton said: "My message to the children is that this was an evil thing and the people who did it were terribly, horribly wrong. We will catch them and we will punish them. But the children of America need to know that almost all the adults in this country are good people who love their children and love other children. And we're going to get through this."
As the grim work of locating additional bodies continued under a brilliant, sunny sky, more rescue workers and volunteers continued to pour into this city. Local charities reported that they were overwhelmed by donations of food and clothing for nearby residents whose homes were damaged, and of knee pads, work gloves, dust masks and other equipment for the rescue workers.
The rapid action that led to the descriptions of the two John Does and named in the arrest warrants and McVeigh's arrest may have been aided by the presence of several surveillance cameras on a building near the federal building. "I can confirm that we have a film which has been sent for analysis," said FBI special agent Weldon Kennedy. "I cannot confirm what's on that film."
In another development, the Justice Department announced that a Palestinian American who have been detained in London and returned to the U.S. for questioning in the case had been released. "He cooperated," said Justice Department spokesman John Russell. "There is no reason for him to be held."
Staff writers Thomas Heath in Junction City, Kan., and Pierre Thomas in Washington and special correspondent Megan Garvey in Perry, Okla., contributed to this report.
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