An Enigma Awaits Death

Timothy McVeigh is spending his final weeks as he has spent the past six years, confined 23 hours a day to a 6-by-10-foot cell with a few small windows, reading newspaper clippings, writing letters, staring at a small black and white television.

But the Oklahoma City bomber has an added focus to his monotonous prison existence: meticulously and secretly planning for his execution and funeral, down to precisely where and when his cremated remains will be scattered.

In 12 days, McVeigh, 33, will become the first inmate executed by the federal government in 38 years. He was condemned to die for detonating a massive truck bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building that killed 168 people, injured hundreds more and forever shattered the nation's sense of complacency about domestic terrorism.

McVeigh has spoken out periodically since the April 19, 1995, attack, and in an interview with the authors of a recent book he admitted culpability for the first time. But after one of the most extensive and expensive criminal investigations in history, countless journalistic exposés and the unusually candid revelations of his defense psychiatrist, McVeigh will die an enigma.

Law enforcement officials know little more about what drives McVeigh than the rote anti-government propaganda he spews. His stubborn refusal to express any remorse, coupled with his engaging and polite personality, has incensed prosecutors and victims and tormented his father.

Although McVeigh has finally offered a rationale for the bombing, he has otherwise shed little light on how a bright, kind boy known as "Timmy," and a decorated Persian Gulf War veteran admired by his fellow soldiers, came to commit one of the largest mass murders in American history.

He has instructed his attorneys to reveal nothing about his final hours until after he is dead - not his handpicked execution witnesses, not his last meal, not his last words, not how he wants his remains disposed of.

McVeigh is allowed 15 minutes of phone time a day for media interviews, but his attorney Rob Nigh Jr. said he is not using it - although he continues to write journalists. He has selected five of the six witnesses he is permitted to have in the death chamber when he is executed by injection on May 16, but he won't reveal their identities. Sources say that two of them will be his attorneys - Nigh and Nathan Chambers - and a third will be Lou Michel, co-author of "American Terrorist," a recent book on McVeigh. But he has asked his family to stay away, and no priest or spiritual adviser will be present.

McVeigh has, however, written about a dozen people asking them to be outside the death chamber to "balance the media coverage," said one person who received the letter. Bob Papovich, a Michigan family friend of Terry Nichols - McVeigh's convicted co-conspirator - will be there. Allen Smith, a friend from the Army, said he will also be there at McVeigh's request to help safely transport his remains from the federal penitentiary back to New York state, where he was born - a security concern of both McVeigh's and the government's.

But one woman, who has known McVeigh since he was a child and who had agreed to be there for him, has changed her mind. Liz McDermott, a friend and former neighbor of the McVeigh family, said that for six years she has taken a tiny bit of solace in believing that McVeigh was the fall guy for a larger conspiracy. But after she read "American Terrorist," in which McVeigh boasts of being the mastermind behind the bombing, she was devastated.

"I guess I had blinders on," she said. "The book was just awful to read. I still love Tim. I just hate what he did."

'I Can't Make Sense of It'

In "American Terrorist," Michel and Dan Herbeck detail the progression of McVeigh's anti-government sentiment and his growing sense of isolation and rage. McVeigh, who cooperated with the project, for the first time acknowledged blowing up the Murrah Building to avenge the 1992 government siege at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, during which an FBI sniper killed the wife and son of separatist Randy Weaver, and the 1993 federal raid on the Branch Davidian religious sect near Waco, Tex., in which about 80 people were killed, including 22 children.

But Michel and Herbeck, whose book has provoked considerable controversy because McVeigh's words go largely unchallenged in it, did not succeed much better than anyone else in penetrating his emotions. What could make a man hate so much, and feel so little, that he would kill 19 children and later call them "collateral damage"? Or ridicule the relatives of his victims as the "woe-is-me crowd"?

There are some clues: a broken home and chronic low self-esteem, the death of his beloved grandfather and his profound disappointment with the Army after the Persian Gulf War, and finally his frustrating inability to find a suitable job or develop a meaningful adult relationship with a woman.

But those closest to him refuse to accept that the intersection of life's routine disappointments can even begin to mitigate what McVeigh did.

"There are so many kids in that position. ... But I can't imagine anyone doing such a horrendous thing," said McDermott, who has tried hard to reconcile the deed with the boy she knew. "I can't," she says simply. "I can't make sense of it."

And McVeigh's father, Bill, recently told USA Today that "nothing can adequately explain why he did what he did."

John R. Smith, a court-appointed psychiatrist who evaluated McVeigh for 25 hours in 1995, concluded that his patient was deeply depressed and singularly focused, but not insane.

"I'm sorry, but he is not evil," said Smith, who was given permission by McVeigh to talk publicly about their sessions together. "This was an isolated incident which occurred because he was an idealistic young man," Smith said. "He was determined to broadcast to the world his belief that the federal government had become excessively oppressive and deceitful."

In Smith's opinion, McVeigh is not mentally ill, because he does not suffer from any "cognitive defects or psychiatric illnesses." He was able to rationally make the decision to bomb the building and "fully understood the consequences," Smith said. "He had a underlying depression, but he was not anti-social."

Smith does not believe that McVeigh, if he had the opportunity, would engage in violence again. "It was a one-time crime."

'I Can See How He Justified It'

By all accounts, Timothy James McVeigh did not start life angry or bad. The son of an autoworker and a travel agent, McVeigh grew up in rural Pendleton, N.Y., riding bikes and playing cowboys up and down his street. He developed a lasting bond with his paternal grandfather, Ed, who was the first person to show young Tim, at age 7, how to handle a rifle.

His parents loved him, but their feelings toward each other were another story. Bill and Mildred "Mickey" McVeigh fought loud and hard and often, and by the time Tim was 10, his mother had determined the marriage was over. She decided to move to Florida, and the parents gave the three children, two girls and Tim, the option of going or staying. The girls went; Tim stayed behind with his dad. Within six weeks, Mickey was back. The couple split for good when Tim was 16.

McVeigh has adamantly denied that the troubled marriage affected him. But Smith said McVeigh's family life contributed mightily to his "emotional immaturity."

"There was a lot of dysfunction and misery in this family, and Tim learned how to separate his emotions to cope," Smith said. "When you're from a destructive family, you don't achieve, you tend to always underestimate yourself. You become insecure.

"He was pretty angry with his family. I believe he was chronically depressed and lonely as a child. He dealt with it by fantasizing. He was always the hero and fighting the bad guys in his mind. Eventually the bad guy became the federal government."

After graduating from high school, McVeigh received a small state Regent's scholarship but soon dropped out of a community college and drifted. He worked briefly as a security guard. When nothing else clicked, he decided to enlist in the Army in 1988 at age 20, and for a brief time the government was his salvation.

"He told me it was the happiest time in his life," said author Michel.

McVeigh relished the discipline and structure of life in the Army and threw himself into his assignments with rigor. During his 1997 trial, his Army colleagues lavished praise on McVeigh. He was credited with saving one man's life during the Persian Gulf War, with being the most skilled Bradley gunner in the unit, and with simply being "the best soldier" in the company. He received a Bronze Star and an Army Commendation Medal, among other citations. He was promoted to sergeant more quickly than most.

But even then, his buddies suspected McVeigh had an odd, dark side. His longtime interest in survivalism became consuming. Army friends have said that he rented a storage locker near Fort Riley, Kan., and kept as many as 20 guns, an obsession of his. He fretted over his Second Amendment rights. He stockpiled Army MREs (meals ready to eat). He often read survivalist magazines and was seen dog-earring "The Turner Diaries," a racist anti-government novel about bombing the FBI headquarters in Washington, which prosecutors presented as McVeigh's blueprint.

Today, some of the same soldiers who admired McVeigh try to match the man they knew with the one who killed 168 civilians. "You just try to understand the best you can, and try to make sense of it," said David Dilly, once one of McVeigh's closest friends. "If I take myself back to the war mind-set, I can see how he justified it.

"It was just another military mission in his mind. He was not worried about casualties. When you're clearing out a trench, you don't stop and think that someone might be at the bottom of it that I shouldn't kill. His thinking process is not like a normal person. He's still in the military 'the ends justify the means' mode."

After returning from the Persian Gulf in March 1991, McVeigh was recruited to try out for the elite Special Forces, commonly known as the Green Berets. But after three months in the Gulf, McVeigh was not close to being ready for the physical demands of the training. He washed out after only two days, after developing debilitating blisters on his feet. Despite the Army's offer to give him another try later, McVeigh left the program embittered. By the end of 1991, McVeigh had become disenchanted with the Army and was honorably discharged.

He returned to New York with bright hopes for a new life, and he began looking for a steady job and a relationship with a woman. He found neither. He felt out of place and too old to be staying at his father's home, where his room had been given to his younger sister, Jennifer, and he slept on the sofa.