Go to Main Story

Go to Oklahoma Bombing Page


Go to Today's Top News

Go to National Section

Go to Home Page



The Prosecutor at Ground Zero

By Lois Romano
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, March 31, 1997; Page D01

DENVER -- When jury selection finally begins here today in the Oklahoma City bombing trial, it's unlikely that the lead prosecutor will pause for a photo op outside the federal courthouse. When microphones are thrust in his face, don't ex\pect Joe Hartzler to lambaste accused bomber Tim\othy McVeigh on national television.

If Hartzler even slows down the motorized scooter he has used since being stricken with multiple sclerosis, it'll be a rare moment.

The obsessively discreet Hartzler is managing perhaps the most complex, massive and emotionally charged criminal case in U.S. history. With 168 innocent people dead, an American community ravaged and the death penalty requested, the stakes are enormously high -- for the government and for Hartzler.

Still, it is a job that Hartzler, 45, eagerly sought -- almost from the moment he heard that a 2 1/2-ton truck bomb had exploded in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. He was driving home from his job at the U.S. attorney's office in Springfield, Ill., on April 19, 1995, listening to radio reports about the blast when the magnitude of the crime hit him. Like many Americans who sat glued to the news that first chaotic day, Hartzler was horrified by the rising body count. Television cameras captured the pandemonium -- screaming children, blood-drenched government workers pinned under rubble, scattered dolls and coloring books from the building's day care center. It looked like footage from Bosnia -- not America's heartland.

Hartzler, a career federal prosecutor, told a friend in the days after the explosion: "Whoever did this should spend some time in Hell." To reporters, he was more measured when he later described that moment in his car: "I thought I should just keep going to Oklahoma City."

Instead, he promptly called a former Chicago colleague who was working at the Justice Department in Washington. Figuring correctly that the government would be inclined to assemble a national prosecution team rather than rely solely on the local U.S. attorney's office in Oklahoma City, Hartzler asked friend Mary Frances Harkenrider to put his name on the table. At the same time, Attorney General Janet Reno asked every U.S. attorney's office in the nation to recommend its superstars.

Two weeks later, Joseph Hartzler sat across the desk from Reno.

Why the Springfield prosecutor? Of course Hartzler's resume sparkled: first in his class at American University Law School, stints as head of both the criminal and civil divisions in the high-profile U.S. attorney's office in Chicago in the '80s, and broad prosecutorial experience from political fraud to judicial bribery cases. What's more, a decade earlier he had successfully prosecuted Puerto Rican nationalists accused in a Chicago bombing plot against the "evil colonial empire." That complex investigation had striking similarities to the anti-government overtones of the Oklahoma bombing.

But there was something else. With the circus atmosphere of the O.J. Simpson case looming large at the time, Justice officials did not want a lawyer who would become better known to the public than the victims -- or the defendants. They wanted a prosecutor who personified Middle America -- a Sunday school teacher, a man who gave up a partnership at a hot-shot Chicago firm to raise his three little boys in a smaller community, a father who coaches softball from his wheelchair. (Days before getting the appointment, he was anointed Multiple Sclerosis Father of the Year at a White House ceremony, after his wife, Lisa, had recommended him.)

They wanted someone who could make clear to a jury that this case was really about the Joe Hartzlers of America. If someone could detonate 4,800 pounds of explosives in front of a bustling office building, destroy families and kill 19 children -- could the country ever again feel safe? Hartzler, the Justice Department concluded, was the perfect person to answer that question.

"We were looking for someone who could represent the best of the department to the country as well as to the jury," said departing Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick. "The fact that he was from the Midwest, and so straightforward, not flashy, had a passion for the case but could never be called a zealot, his devotion to his family, his empathy to these victims -- these were all factors."

And so, when Hartzler delivers the opening statement at McVeigh's trial in the next few weeks, publicly revealing for the first time the government's strategy, the symbolism of the two men at the center of the drama will be lost on no one, particularly not the Justice Department. The trial is suiting up just as the government envisioned it nearly two years ago: Joseph Hartzler, a paragon of American values and Midwestern virtues, vs. Timothy McVeigh, a symbol of those who would tear such treasures down.

Lying in Wait?

Hartzler has scrupulously maintained a low profile since taking over the case in May 1995. He declined to be interviewed for this story, saying he didn't want to be portrayed as some sort of "celebrity" lawyer. "This case is not about me," he said. "It's about the job we have to do."

Indeed, while his Chicago friends insist he is engaging and witty, Hartzler has worked hard in the past 22 months to cultivate the public persona of a humorless bureaucrat. While McVeigh's lawyer Stephen Jones has spun reporters into a frenzy with endless conspiracy theories, and the theatrical Michael Tigar (who's representing co-defendant Terry Nichols in a separate trial) quotes literature with a flourish, Hartzler often communicates to the media with shrugs, eye-rolling or raised eyebrows.

Even during the endless series of pretrial hearings, Hartzler stayed in the background, choosing not to go head-to-head with his flamboyant opponents. Members of his team argued -- and in some cases lost -- some important motions. U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch last year granted a defense request to move the case to Matsch's own court in Denver, saying the defendants could not receive a fair trial in Oklahoma; Matsch also granted separate trials for McVeigh and Nichols, a setback for the government, which had hoped the defendants would point the finger at each other at trial.

Still, Hartzler just watched from the government's table. He likes to say he prefers delegating to the team of eight prosecutors at his disposal. But some who have worked with him suggest that his reasons for lying low are much more tactical. "Don't be fooled," said one attorney who tried a case with Hartzler and did not particularly enjoy it. "He's a micromanager. He delegates and then tells you what he wants and how he wants it. There is no aspect of this case that he is not controlling."

Indeed, while lawyers in the Oklahoma City U.S. attorney's office refuse to discuss Hartzler today, their bruised feelings about his determination to control this case are well known. His initial mandate was to run the prosecution from Oklahoma City using the local federal staff. But, according to Oklahoma sources and Hartzler allies, things deteriorated quickly. Some in the Oklahoma City U.S. attorney's office had lost friends in the blast and saw Hartzler as a cold interloper with little understanding of the community and the depth of its loss.

For his part, Hartzler, according to those familiar with the rift, felt the local office was not up to handling a case this big. Before too long, he began importing his own team of high-powered prosecutors from Washington and around the country -- and the Oklahomans were either taken off the case or relegated to peripheral roles. Today, only two Oklahoma City lawyers remain on the team -- U.S. Attorney Patrick Ryan and Vicki Zemp Behenna. The other six prosecutors were brought in by Hartzler.

Colleagues from Chicago surmise that Hartzler has kept a low courtroom profile to prevent the defense from studying his style. "He doesn't want to lose the advantage," said one. He has been saving both barrels, they say, for the audience he considers most critical of all: the jury.

"Juries tend to see him as the person in the room telling the truth. He exudes self-confidence and they like him and believe him," said Dan Webb, a prominent criminal lawyer who, when he was U.S. attorney in Chicago, was once Hartzler's boss. "He has both a command of the facts and the right demeanor."

Lawyers who have worked with Hartzler say he can even get the opposition to trust him.

Michael McGuire, attorney for Michael Fortier -- a McVeigh friend turned government witness -- said he was at wits' end during the summer of 1995 trying to negotiate a deal for his client, who has admitted having advance knowledge of the bombing plot. "I really didn't know who to trust or who had the power. It was very tense. It's the kind of thing you can lose sleep over when you've got someone's life in your hands," McGuire said. "Finally, Joe shows up and shook my hand and I felt a sense of relief. We started talking about the Cubs. And I said, 'Joe, who has the authority here to make the deal?' He said, 'I do. You can trust me.' And that was it."

The core contention of the prosecution is that McVeigh, 28, and Nichols, 41, fueled by an intense hatred of the government, targeted the nine-story Murrah building to avenge the federal assault on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Tex. They have pleaded not guilty.

Defense attorneys looking for clues into how Hartzler uses facts dramatically at trial need look no further than his prosecution of Puerto Rican terrorists who were plotting to blow up buildings in Chicago as an anti-government statement. Unlike in the Oklahoma City bombing, the defendants were apprehended before committing the act, but Hartzler nonetheless managed to drive home the potential catastrophe.

"He came up with the idea of mounting on a huge board all the weapons that had been recovered from the safe house," said Chicago criminal attorney James Ferguson, who prosecuted the so-called FALN case with Hartzler. "When you came into the courtroom, this one exhibit dominated the proceedings. There were 12 semiautomatic guns, bomb-making materials, grenades, dynamite. It gave jurors a sense of the enormous damage that could have resulted."

Hartzler also had another idea to hit home his point. He had the government detonate all the explosives confiscated from the terrorists -- and then played a videotape of the explosion for the jurors.

Kaboom. All four men were convicted.

'The Big One'

Among the many questions Janet Reno had for Hartzler during their interview, one stood out: Did he have the stamina for the job?

Since he was diagnosed in 1988 with MS, a degenerative disease of the central nervous system, Hartzler's legs had weakened to the point where he was almost totally reliant on a motorized scooter to get around.

He assured the attorney general he could handle the case.

Hartzler had been coming to terms with his illness for a while. Several years before he was diagnosed, he knew something was wrong. "He felt numbing in his feet and tips of his fingers; there was some stumbling over irregularities in the sidewalk," said Gregory Smith, a friend from junior high who grew up with Hartzler in Ohio.

If these were troubling signs for a lifelong super-jock, Hartzler didn't let on. In high school he was varsity football, baseball, soccer. Co-workers recall him being the star of office softball teams and an aggressive tennis player. His friends in Chicago still talk about the diagnosis in tragic, hushed tones. Many of them have not even seen Hartzler try a case since he has been using a wheelchair and scooter. But Joe, they say, never displayed self-pity or anger.

"He was quite insistent that we continue to play tennis. His attitude was 'I a.m. going to play until I can't play anymore,' " said Bill Spence, a Chicago lawyer and friend. "Gradually, he started to get tired. So we'd play for 15 minutes, then rest on the side of the court. We played for two years like that."

Doctors believe that stress exacerbates MS, and those close to Hartzler say his family was particularly concerned about his taking this job. Even his adversaries are aware of the risks. "He more than anyone else in this case is paying the ultimate price," said Jones, McVeigh's lawyer. "He can never get back this time."

Justice Department officials insist that Hartzler has shown no signs of fatigue or stress, and that he will remain in place through the subsequent trial of Nichols, which has not yet been scheduled.

What Hartzler's precarious health does suggest, however, is that he will not grandstand the appointment into another job. He has said he intends to return to Springfield when the trials are over. Hartzler simply wanted the case, his friends insist, because he relishes wearing the white hat.

Hartzler has spent almost his entire career going after the bad guys for the federal government -- and with a passion. He once told a federal judge who handed down a sentence Hartzler deemed too lenient in one of his cases: "You blew this one." Another time, he literally went after a crook himself. "Once on the subway in Chicago he tackled a purse snatcher until the police came," Spence recalled. "He held the guy in a head lock. Joe is not a bystander. He has a very keen sense of right and wrong and acts on it."

For a couple of years in the late '80s, he joined one of Chicago's premier firms, Rudnick & Wolfe. But his heart wasn't in it, friends say. He felt he was on the wrong side of the fight. As his disease progressed, the decision to get off the fast track in 1991 and move to the U.S. attorney's office in Springfield seemed easier.

Those who know him quite well suggest another reason that he had to have this job. "It was almost as if he needed to make one last statement about his health and abilities," said a friend who has known him for years. "He wanted it to be known that he could still handle the Big One, that he still had it."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Co.

Back to the top