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Fortier Gets 12 Years in Bombing Case

Michael Fortier shown in an image taken from television. (AP)
By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 28, 1998; Page A01

OKLAHOMA CITY, May 27—A federal judge sentenced an apologetic Michael J. Fortier to 12 years in prison and fined him $200,000 today for failing to warn authorities of his former Army buddies' plans for the bombing of a federal building here three years ago, which killed 168 people and forever scarred this community.

In handing down the sentence, U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Van Bebber seemed to seek a middle ground between anguished victims demanding that Fortier be handed a stiff sentence and federal prosecutors' recommendation that he receive consideration for the "meaningful and valuable" testimony he provided as a government witness in the case.

Van Bebber credited Fortier for the 34 months that he already has served, meaning the former hardware store clerk will spend nine more years in a federal penitentiary for his role in the massive truck bombing unless the sentence is overturned. His attorneys immediately filed notice of their intention to appeal.

Choking back tears, Fortier, 29, apologized to the victims and expressed remorse for not turning in Timothy J. McVeigh and Terry L. Nichols before they carried out their deadly plans.

"I deeply regret not taking the information I had to the police," he said, his voice breaking. "Dear people, please, I offer my apology and I ask you to forgive me. . . . Please, please don't let thoughts of me continue to hurt you."

For three hours before the sentencing, blast survivors and victims' relatives tearfully chronicled the grief and despair they have suffered since the bombing: stories of suicidal children, recurrent nightmares and an inability to work.

"All he needed to do was take responsibility and call. One phone call would have done it," said a sobbing Constance Favorite, speaking of losing her grown daughter, LaKesha Levy.

Fortier hung his head and wiped away tears as victims took their turn at the podium. Fortier's sister and his wife, Lori, also a government witness in the case, cried quietly from the third row of the courtroom.

In exchange for his testimony at the trials of McVeigh and Nichols, Fortier in August 1995 pleaded guilty to four lesser counts of transporting stolen firearms, conspiracy to transport the firearms, of lying to federal officials and of knowing about the crime and failing to report it.

Fortier told jurors at both trials last year that he knew of the conspiracy to bomb the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995 -- and had even cased the building with McVeigh -- but did nothing to stop the worst act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history.

McVeigh was sentenced to death last summer and is appealing; Nichols escaped the death penalty but could be imprisoned for the rest of his life when sentenced next week.

Van Bebber also ordered Fortier to pay $4,100 in restitution to Arkansas gun dealer Roger Moore, from whom Nichols stole firearms to finance the bombing. In his ruling from the bench, Van Bebber expressly found that Fortier had provided significant assistance to the government in the case. But two weeks ago, the judge rejected a defense plea for leniency, determining the federal guideline range to be 14 to 17 1/2 years -- even higher than the government requested -- before he would consider a reduction for Fortier's cooperation.

Still, for many of the victims, today's sentence was simply not enough.

"Nine years when he could have saved 168 people doesn't seem very much," said Donna Mae Hawthorne, whose husband, Thomas, was killed in the blast.

"Life in prison is what I would have considered enough," said Marsha Kight, who lost her daughter, Frankie Merrell. "I think he conspired. I think he helped buy components for the bomb. What do you call that?"

Prosecutors called the sentence "appropriate" and appeared unmoved by Fortier's declarations of remorse. "I think everyone in the courtroom had to think that it's a little too late and a little too little," said U.S. Attorney Patrick Ryan.

Earlier, however, prosecutor Joseph Hartzler told the court that Fortier had provided McVeigh's anti-government motive for the bombing as well as other "solid bricks of evidence" that helped buttress the government's largely circumstantial case against McVeigh and Nichols.

"Frankly, after Mr. Fortier testified, the case against McVeigh was all but over," said Hartzler. "We need for there to be some reward for cooperators."

Today's hearing was only the second legal proceeding here in more than two years, since U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch moved the case to his home court in Denver, ruling that the defendants could not get a fair trial in Oklahoma. Twenty-seven hundred victims and family members were notified that they could speak but only 16 mothers, wives, daughters and grandfathers chose to speak in open court of the effect the crime has had on their lives. All asked the court to prevent Fortier from ever profiting from the tragedy.

Van Bebber, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for Kansas, was appointed to handle the sentencing because the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 1995 that Oklahoma City federal judges had a potential conflict of interest in the case. The federal courthouse sits across the street from where the Murrah building once stood and itself was damaged by the two-ton explosive.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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