The breadth of the tragedy of the Oklahoma City bombing was, it seems to me, lost on the majority of Americans. When I heard that the apparent perpetrators were Americans, and not the Hollywood-demonized Middle Eastern terrorists, tears literally welled up in my eyes. Like the first bombing of the World Trade Center, Oklahoma City, it seemed to me, had limited staying power in the media. This offended the hell out of me. The truth is, the public interest and media coverage didn’t come close to O.J. Which may have been as great a tragedy as the bombing itself. Of course, 9/11 seems to have raised the bar on national tragedy. Frighteningly, there is little doubt that our enemies will endeavor to top that, and probably succeed eventually.
A colleague was killed in the Murrah Building, on his 39th birthday. His name was Paul Broxterman. He had arrived in Oklahoma City only a couple of weeks before the explosion. Paul had recently left the Department of Agriculture (which administers the food stamp program), where he had been a special agent, doing undercover work investigating food stamp fraud by retail stores. He had taken a position with HUD, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, because the geographic location was better for his family than the Agriculture job, which had been based in Phoenix.
Everybody who knew Paul liked him. He was part Native American, and he dressed like a real Westerner. He took his food stamp cases so seriously that he took a good deal of ribbing for it. The most repeated Paul story was his speech at a going away dinner for U.S. Attorney Rick Pocker, where Paul rambled on about what a great guy Pocker was until he got himself so worked up that he started to cry. But that was Paul. Whether it was work or personal, I guess he wore his heart on his sleeve. No pretension; what you saw was what you got. A lot of agents from some of the other, more well known agencies, the ones which do the “big” cases, would do well to take a page from Paul’s book. They would do well to emulate Paul’s humility and work ethic.
Anyway, myself and many others in my office were deeply saddened by Paul’s death. A couple of day’s after the bombing, Howard Zlotnick told me that the Attorney General (Janet Reno), had contacted every district in the country, and wanted a resume from the top trial attorney in each U.S. Attorney’s office. A team of prosecutors would be selected from among the nominees to handle the Oklahoma City case. I was the nominee for the District of Nevada. I was deeply honored, but I told no one else in the office. There was nothing to be gained, and I didn’t want any of my colleagues to feel slighted.
Fast forward several weeks It happened that Terry Nichols, one of the suspects in the case, had an ex-wife and a teenage son living in Las Vegas. A search warrant was to be executed at their home, where Nichols had stored a box and a television in the garage for some time. Nichols had visited at Easter, when he picked up the television from the garage. He then traveled to the midwest, bringing his son along, and at one point left the boy at a motel while he delivered the television to Timothy McVeigh. The box, however, remained in the garage. Jay Angelo was assigned the task of drafting a search warrant to obtain the box and any other evidence pertaining to the bombing which might be in that garage.
As always, based upon the concept of teamwork and the theory that two heads are better than one, Jay and I were kicking ideas back and forth concerning what we might reasonably list as items sought in the warrant. We pondered what could be in the box. We wanted to include everything which might be valuable from an evidentiary standpoint, so that there was no question that the material was covered by the warrant and seized legally; but we couldn’t specify any items which might be beyond the scope of the probable cause we had at that time, for fear of drafting a warrant that was overbroad, and therefore legally challengeable. At the time, this was perhaps the most important criminal case this century, and we wanted, in the worst way, to contribute to the effort.
After hours of fine tuning, it was ready to go. That’s when I heard one of the most disheartening thing I ever heard as a state or federal prosecutor.
A veteran agent who had been assigned to
coordinate the execution of the search warrant made what he thought was an off-handed comment. Upon hearing it – from a guy who I thought was no superstar, but I at least regarded as a competent agent, and a decent person – I felt what can only be described as revulsion.
“I sure hope we don’t find anything in that garage. I’m due to retire in a few months, and the last thing I need is to be subpoenaed to Oklahoma City a year from now to testify at a trial.”
This guy, who was a member of an “elite” agency, would have done well to take a page from the book of Paul Broxterman.
I also handled, a number of domestic terrorism cases that grew out of the OKC case, directly or indirectly. These were addressed in a blog (below) by Jay Dobyns, probably one of the the most famous – or infamous – ATF agents ever. Jay goes into these matters, from the investigative perspective, in great detail. He wrote a best selling book about his incredible infiltration of the Hells Angels.
His blog is theDobynsGroup.com