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Prosecution Rests in McVeigh Trial

By Tom Kenworthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 22, 1997; Page A01

DENVER, May 21 -- Just 18 days after they began, government prosecutors today concluded their lean and emotionally riveting case against Oklahoma City bombing defendant Timothy J. McVeigh, who faces the death penalty if he is found guilty of the April 1995 bombing.

"Your honor, on behalf of the United States, I am pleased to announce we rest," chief prosecutor Joseph H. Hartzler said late this morning, after the government put on three final witnesses who described the horror of the explosion, the dramatic and hazardous rescue effort that followed, and the grim task of identifying the 168 people who died in the blast.

On Thursday, McVeigh's defense team will begin to try to shred the prosecution's case that McVeigh, out of an escalating hatred for the federal government and with chilling premeditation, rented a Ryder truck, packed it with a 4,000-pound homemade bomb and detonated it in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building at 9:02 a.m. on the symbolically important date of April 19.

Today, U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Ryan began the government's final day with the dramatic account of how 18 employees of the Federal Employees Credit Union office perished on the third floor of the Murrah building.

Florence Rogers, the credit union's president, described convening a meeting with seven colleagues in her office that morning. "I had leaned back in my chair, to kind of relax while one of them started talking, when literally the whole building started to blow up," Rogers said. "All the girls who were in the office with me had totally disappeared."

"I never saw them again," she said, as one juror and several spectators wept.

Rogers was followed on the witness stand by Mike Shannon, the special operations chief of the Oklahoma City Fire Department, who dispassionately described the difficulties of rescuing victims and removing the dead from a building whose front had pancaked into a heap of rubble.

The effect was "like squeezing grapes," Shannon said. "Body fluids were dripping through, and it would just drip onto your gear as you were crawling through, onto your helmet."

In a case that took nearly two years to bring to trial and three weeks to select a jury, the government moved with stunning speed after opening arguments were delivered April 24.

In less than a month, prosecutors paraded 137 witnesses to the stand, 27 of them in one whirlwind morning alone.

Rather than risk numbing the jury with days of technical testimony and the account of every last one of the hundreds of potential witnesses in the most extensive criminal investigation in U.S. history, Hartzler shed unessential parts of his case like a balloonist jettisoning ballast to gain altitude. All the while, the jury of seven men and five women appeared rapt.

The government's case was not seamless, however.

Among the holes are persistent eyewitness reports that McVeigh was accompanied by a second, unknown person when he rented the Ryder truck, the lack of fingerprints on the rental agreement and on the truck key found in Oklahoma City, and the absence of explosive residue in the lockers the government alleges were used to store the fertilizer before the bomb was constructed. The bomb was constructed of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and fuel oil. Also still looming over the government's case is a scathing Justice Department report of shoddy evidence handling and prejudicial conclusions about the case by officials at the FBI laboratory in Washington.

After the prolonged legal agony of the O.J. Simpson criminal trial, said University of Colorado Law professor Christopher Mueller, "this is a trial the way a trial ought to look."

"I think the prosecution has presented a very strong, almost compelling case," added Mueller. "The biggest payoff is in the abandonment of much of the scientific proof that would have been enormously distracting" to the jury.

Hartzler and his assistants chose to tell what is, in the view of the government, a fundamentally simple story. A story of a decorated veteran of the Persian Gulf War, already suspicious of his government who was transformed into a seething enemy of the state by the FBI's raid on the Branch Davidian religious sect near Waco, Tex., on April 19, 1993.

On the second anniversary of the assault, according to the government's case, McVeigh took his revenge against the "fascist tyrants" he held responsible. According to one prosecution witness, he hoped to ignite "a general uprising in America hopefully that would knock some people off the fence and urge them into taking action against the federal government." He chose the Murrah building, according to testimony, out of the mistaken belief it housed the federal law enforcement officials who ordered and carried out the Waco raid.

Among the 168 killed were 15 children crushed in the second-floor day-care center and another four who were in the building by happenstance.

Hartzler and his colleagues on the prosecution team let those closest to McVeigh tell his story. Key witnesses included a younger cousin who McVeigh sought to indoctrinate with "The Turner Diaries," a fictional account of a rebellion against an oppressive government that includes an eerily similar truck bomb attack on FBI headquarters; his sister and confidante, Jennifer McVeigh, who said her older brother told her of moving from the "propaganda stage" to the "action stage" and warned her that "something big was going to happen" that spring; Lori Fortier, the wife of one of McVeigh's closest friends, who reported how McVeigh outlined his plot to blow up the Murrah building -- an "easy target" he had cased in the winter of 1995 -- and finally, Lori's husband, Michael, the government's star witness, who told the jury that McVeigh was so intent on killing agents of the "evil empire" he was willing to drive the bomb truck through the front door of the Murrah building in a suicide mission.

That story line was buttressed by the physical evidence and other testimony. McVeigh was identified as the person who used the fictitious name Robert Kling to rent the Ryder truck in Junction City, Kan. Lori Fortier told how she helped McVeigh make a phony driver's license in that name. The truck was identified by a number stamped into an axle propelled a block and a half by the blast. The key to the truck was found in an alley where Michael Fortier said McVeigh told him he planned to leave his car when the two men cased the building several months before the explosion.

Though no eyewitness placed McVeigh at the scene in the truck, a video camera captured the same size Ryder truck cruising toward the Murrah building moments before the explosion.

McVeigh's fingerprint was identified on a receipt for ammonium nitrate fertilizer allegedly purchased by his co-defendant, Terry L. Nichols, who will be tried later.

FBI witnesses said explosive residue was found on clothing and a set of earplugs taken from McVeigh after his arrest about 80 minutes after the explosion, 78 miles north of Oklahoma City.

With an adroit sense of pacing, prosecutors larded the 18 days of testimony with frequent emotional testimony from federal employees who survived the explosion and from the relatives of the dead victims. Their vivid stories -- of grievous wounds, of dramatic rescues, of frantically looking for babies in the wreckage, and of lives forever altered -- left jurors, spectators, lawyers and reporters in tears.

Staff writer Lois Romano contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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