Last week, the FBI released previously secret videotapes of the moments immediately before the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The Bureau produced 26 of 244 security tapes in its possession. All those made public were recorded from private buildings near the bomb site, and while they all have some periodic blank spots, four of the best-positioned are missing sections in the minutes before the blast.
I found these blank periods, revealed courtesy of a Salt Lake City attorney’s Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, suspicious. In the spring of 1997, I traveled through Oklahoma and rural Kansas pursuing the question of whether others helped Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, the two convicted of the bombing. I conducted dozens of interviews, at a time when people’s recollections were still fresh. Prompted by the release of last week’s tapes, I revisited whether the FBI might be hiding something. I gained access to sealed grand jury testimony as well as FBI field reports, written by agents in the earliest stages of the investigation. Those never-before-released FBI files, with my interviews, and the blank portions of the surveillance tapes, raise new questions about whether at least one accomplice is still at large in the greatest American-on-American act of terrorism.
In the bombing’s immediate aftermath , the FBI conducted a massive manhunt for “John Doe 2,” based on the account of one of three employees at the place where McVeigh rented his Ryder truck.
The government’s case is simple: McVeigh, a 23-year-old Army veteran who was executed in 2001, was the plot’s mastermind. He arrived in Oklahoma on Friday, April 14. On April 17, he paid cash to rent a Ryder truck, and the following day, he and his accomplice, Terry Nichols, built a two-ton fertilizer bomb along the shore of a lake in a 415-acre Kansas state park. The very next day, McVeigh, alone, drove the Ryder back to Oklahoma and parked it in the circular driveway of the Murrah building only minutes before the blast. That’s the very time when the blank portions on the surveillance tapes might have caught the truck pulling up and have recorded who was inside.
In the bombing’s immediate aftermath, the FBI conducted a massive manhunt for “John Doe 2,” based on the account of one of three employees at the place where McVeigh rented his Ryder truck. Then in February 1997, 22 months after the terror attack, federal prosecutors filed a brief contending that John Doe 2 was merely a case of mistaken identity.
A Daily Beast review of the government’s still-classified files on the bombing indicates that credible early eyewitnesses raised alternative scenarios: the possibility of a second Ryder truck; and an additional accomplice (other than Terry Nichols and Michael Fortier, who admit to having been with him some of that time), who may even have accompanied McVeigh that fateful morning when he parked the bomb-rigged truck at the Murrah building.
Regarding the chance of a second Ryder truck, the still-secret FBI field reports reveal that James Sargent, an ex-Army sergeant, recalled seeing a Ryder at the Kansas state park at the precise place where the plotters assembled the bomb. But Sargent saw it the day before McVeigh was even in the state. Sargent was certain of the date, he told FBI investigators, because it was his first day of retirement and he celebrated it by visiting the park’s lake for fishing. “The day you retire is one of those days you don’t forget,” he told me.
Real-estate broker Georgia Rucker also saw a Ryder truck at the same location before McVeigh had rented his. She was precise about her dates because she passed that spot when taking her sons to school. They went on school break for Easter before McVeigh had rented his own Ryder. And on Easter Sunday, the day before McVeigh got his truck, Rick Glessner and his wife passed a Ryder in the park while driving to his parents. He thought it an “odd day to be moving.” And Elwin Roberts, an engineering technician, spotted a Ryder at the lake about six hours before McVeigh had his.
The FBI was originally concerned that a second Ryder might have been involved either as a decoy or as a backup in case anything went wrong with McVeigh’s truck. But the Bureau dismissed the four witnesses as “mistaken.” Moreover, the FBI points to two state workers who were there during the time of the purported early sightings and failed to see any truck. I interviewed those workers—Kerry Ktchener and Elwin Roberts—and reviewed their work records. They were only there a few hours a day when the early witnesses saw a second Ryder. Their account does not preclude a second Ryder being at the lake, where the bomb was assembled, before McVeigh arrived with his truck.
If there was a second Ryder, is it linked to McVeigh? In the FBI field reports, there were some accounts that at first seemed persuasive. Three guests at the Dreamland Motel, where McVeigh had checked in as a guest five days before the bombing, saw a second truck, McVeigh and several other men. The problem with their statements is that they admitted to the FBI they were meth users, who had also used marijuana and drank heavily while at the motel.
But there are other accounts that are not rendered unreliable by witnesses addled by drugs and alcohol. The sealed FBI field reports reveal a sighting of McVeigh with another man, and two Ryder trucks, on Good Friday, five days before the bombing. Three local churchgoers stopped at a Denny’s after Mass. They later told the FBI they saw a man they recognized after his arrest as McVeigh, with two other men, neither one of which was Nichols. There were two Ryders parked in the lot. The women were so frightened that they later refused to cooperate fully with investigators. The FBI report says, “they were frightened…and did not want to get involved in talking with the police or possibly testifying at a trial.” One of them, Lenora Hall, confirmed to me the accuracy of the FBI account.
Leah McGown, owner of the Dreamland Motel, where McVeigh stayed, also saw a second Ryder and told the FBI that McVeigh had visitors other than Nichols and Fortier. There was, she said both to the Bureau and to me in several interviews, a second Ryder parked in her small parking lot over the Easter weekend.
McGown, a German immigrant who the FBI found credible, had a habit of walking around her small hotel several times a day to make certain there were no problems. Near midnight, on Easter Sunday, she overheard McVeigh carrying on an animated conversation with another man inside his room. The next day she warned him that guests were not allowed. Neither Nichols nor Fortier were in Junction City, Kansas, home of the Dreamland.
Another Dreamland guest, Shane Boyd, told the FBI that he once saw a tattooed man come out of McVeigh’s room. Jeff David, the deliveryman for a local Chinese restaurant, delivered food on Saturday night to McVeigh’s room, and after the blast told the FBI the man who answered and paid was not McVeigh, Nichols, or Fortier.
Besides the eyewitnesses who told the FBI they had seen someone with McVeigh before the bombing, there are also some accounts that he was with someone the day he parked his deadly payload directly in front of the federal building. The FBI files reveal that 25-year-old Mike Moroz was an auto mechanic at a station six blocks from the Murrah building. A Ryder truck with two men pulled up and the driver was having difficulty with the one-way street layout of the downtown neighborhood, in reaching Fifth and Harvey (the site of the Murrah building). The next day, when Moroz saw the drawings of the two John Does released by the FBI, he immediately called the Bureau. Three days later, he picked McVeigh out of a police lineup as the driver. The passenger with McVeigh, says Moroz, was bigger and had short brown hair. The FBI asked him directly whether McVeigh might have been accompanied by Nichol’s 13-year-old son, Josh, who was big for his age. “I know the difference between a child and an adult,” he told me.
The station manager and another of Moroz’s co-workers also told the FBI there were two men in the truck that pulled in for directions.
The government never called Moroz before the grand jury and the prosecution did not use him in the trial. His refusal to back off the sighting of a second man in the truck, only 15 minutes before the blast, meant he was too problematic to fit into the official story.
One last witness possibly tying somebody else to McVeigh on the day of the attack is Daina Bradley, herself a victim of the bombing. The 21-year-old Bradley is the only person who actually lived to recall the arrival of the Ryder truck. She had gone to the Social Security office, inside the Murrah building, with her mother, sister and two children, to fill out paperwork to get her 3-month old son a Social Security number. Bradley’s children, mother, and sister were killed in the blast. She was severely injured and lost a leg. She recalls looking out the plate glass window of the Social Security office a few minutes before the explosion, and watched as a yellow Ryder truck pulled into the circular driveway. The truck was there for several minutes, she later told the FBI. She did not know that inside McVeigh was hastily lighting the fuse on the homemade bomb. The FBI report says she saw “an olive-skinned, white male exit the passenger side of the Ryder truck. This unidentified man was wearing a dark blue jacket…and a baseball hat with white on the side.” (Not the clothes McVeigh was wearing when later arrested). He walked off in a westerly direction. The next thing she remembers is electricity running through her body and a sensation as if she was falling into jagged rocks. In the background, she heard people screaming and children crying.
The FBI and prosecutors contend Bradley is a trauma victim and therefore her account isn’t reliable. The government declined her offer to undergo hypnosis to see if she could recall any additional information.
But Bradley’s account is also supported in a Secret Service document written shortly after the bombing, describing the “security videotapes” as showing the “Ryder truck pulling up to the Federal Building and then pausing (7-10 seconds) before resuming into a slot in front of the building” and “the truck detonation 3 minutes and 6 seconds after the suspects exited the truck.” (emphasis added).
Bradley’s account, like that others, and the Secret Serivice account, might have been settled definitively if some of the tapes released by the FBI last week did not go blank at basically the same time, leaving gaps in the critical run-up to the blast. All four cameras start working again, within minutes of each other, after the explosion at 9:02 a.m. The four cameras were all focused on key streets leading to the Murrah building.
An FBI spokesman says, “The FBI made no edits or redactions in the processing of these videos. The tapes are typical security cameras—the view switches camera to camera every few seconds.” The FBI would not elaborate further on why the tapes all seemed to be shifting or cycling coincidentally near the same time.
“Even in the blank frames, a car could have been passing, or even the Ryder,” says Jesse Trentadue, who successfully petitioned for 10 years for the release of the tapes. "The real story is what's missing,"
Gerald Posner is The Daily Beast's chief investigative reporter. He's the award-winning author of 10 investigative nonfiction bestsellers, ranging from political assassinations, to Nazi war criminals, to 9/11, to terrorism. His latest book, Miami Babylon: Crime, Wealth and Power—A Dispatch from the Beach, will be published in October. He lives in Miami Beach with his wife, the author Trisha Po