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McVeigh Friend Takes Plea Deal
By Pierre Thomas
OKLAHOMA CITY, AUG. 8 -- Michael Fortier, the Army buddy of the prime suspect in the April bombing of the federal building here, reached a tentative deal today to cooperate with federal prosecutors to avoid being charged as a principal participant in the worst terrorist assault in U.S. history, law enforcement sources said.
Under the proposed agreement, Fortier, 26, would plead guilty to charges related to illegal firearm trafficking, knowledge of the bombing and lying to federal agents. The terms of the agreement were not disclosed, but the proposed penalties constitute less than a life-in-prison sentence and would remove Fortier from the threat of the death penalty, sources said.
A source familiar with the case said Fortier testified today as the government moved closer to meeting a Friday deadline to seek indictments against Timothy James McVeigh, the prime suspect in the bombing, and Terry Lynn Nichols, who has also been charged in the bombing that left 168 people dead and more than 500 injured. His testimony is considered critical by some federal prosecutors because Fortier apparently is the only potential witness who has direct knowledge of the plot.
Through his attorney Fortier has already said that he and McVeigh had cased the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and that McVeigh confided that he planned to "blow" up the facility.
Fortier's wife, Lori, meanwhile, also testified today before a federal grand jury under the cloak of immunity approved by a federal district judge on Monday.
Mack Martin, Lori Fortier's attorney, confirmed her appearance before the grand jury, saying that she had testified for about two hours. "Her testimony had nothing to do with Mr. Fortier," Martin said. "Her testimony had to do with other people involved in the bombing." Martin declined to offer more specifics. He did note, when asked, that Michael Fortier and his attorney Michael McGuire were at Tinker Air Force Base, the site of the grand jury deliberations.
The testimony by Lori Fortier, who also had been under federal investigation, represents another example of a common strategy of law enforcement officials -- placing pressure on family members and friends of suspects.
Last week, Jennifer McVeigh, Timothy McVeigh's sister, testified before the grand jury. She too was under investigation for some time and then was granted immunity. She had previously given FBI agents two lengthy statements, including one in which she told investigators that McVeigh had said he participated in a bank robbery in which he nearly killed himself by having an accident in a car carrying explosives.
Stephen Jones, Timothy McVeigh's attorney, in a brief interview today renewed his questions about Michael Fortier's credibility. He said that Fortier had previously told a television interviewer he did not believe that McVeigh had anything to do with the bombing.
"I do not believe Tim blew up any building in Oklahoma," Fortier said on CNN on May 8. "There's nothing for me to look back and say, Yeah, that might have been. I should have seen it back then.' There's nothing like that."
McVeigh's attorneys said if Fortier does become a government witness, he should expect vigorous questioning. "It's impossible to evaluate what Mike Fortier says until he testifies in the court of law subject to the crucible of cross-examination," said Rob Nigh, one of McVeigh's attorneys.
"He's made different statements before a national television audience, now he's apparently saying something dramatically different. He's been subject to extreme pressure, as has his wife."
Both Nichols and Fortier are former Army buddies of McVeigh's; all served at Fort Riley, Kan. The Fortiers are residents of Kingman, Ariz., the area where Timothy McVeigh had lived in the months preceding the bombing. FBI agents had canvassed virtually the entire city of Kingman in a search for associates of McVeigh who were interested in the militia movement and who had espoused anti-government sentiment.
But when their investigation unfolded, they did not find a multilayered conspiracy involving a large number of accomplices, such as citizen militias. Instead, they came to focus on McVeigh, Nichols, and others, including Fortier and his wife, Lori. Agents monitored Fortier closely, searching his home twice and on one occasion confiscating at least seven guns.
Fortier's fate with prosecutors was recently complicated by the revelation that Fortier had sold one gun apparently stolen in an Arkansas robbery that may have provided financing for the bombing. It is unclear whether any of the seven weapons recovered were tied to the bombing.
In addition there were other indications that Fortier had directed a neighbor to hide in the desert ammonium nitrate, a key ingredient in the bomb. Some law enforcement sources, however, question the credibility of the neighbor, James Rosencrans. Fortier has maintained that although he knew of the bombing plot, he ultimately refused to participate. Indictments in the case are expected as soon as Thursday, sources said.
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