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In Search of John Doe No. 2: The Story the Feds Never Told About the Oklahoma City Bombing

Federal officials insist that the Oklahoma City bombing case was solved a decade ago. But a Salt Lake City lawyer in search of his brother's killers has dug up some remarkable clues—on cross-dressing bank robbers, the FBI, and the mysterious third man.

Jesse filed a Freedom of Information Act request, and then a lawsuit, for documents containing information on these connections, and the bureau—after first claiming it had none—finally produced 25 documents comprising 150 pages, many of them heavily redacted.

The documents connect two investigations under way at the bureau in 1995 and 1996, both of them linked to Elohim City via informants: OKBOMB, run out of Oklahoma City, and BOMBROB, an investigation of the bank-robbing Aryan Republican Army. One of the memos, dated August 23, 1996—some 16 months after the bombing—was sent from fbi headquarters in Washington to the BOMBROB investigation. It read, "Information has been developed that [names redacted] were at the home of [redacted] Elohim City, Oklahoma on 4/5/95 when OKBOMB subject, Timothy McVeigh, placed a telephone call to [redacted] residence. On 4/15/95, a telephone call was placed from [redacted] residence to [redacted] residence in Philadelphia division. BOMBROB subjects [redacted] left [redacted] residence on 4/16/95 en route to Pittsburgh [sic], Kansas where they joined [redacted] and Guthrie." At that time, some ara suspects lived around Philadelphia, and Pittsburg, Kansas, was the site of an ara safe house. The document makes clear that the bureau was interested in communication between McVeigh and the ara immediately before the bombing, and that Guthrie himself was in Pittsburg—some 200 miles from Oklahoma City—three days before the attack.

In addition, the memos indicate that the fbi received reports of McVeigh calling and possibly visiting Elohim City before the bombing, at one point seeking "to recruit a second conspirator." The documents also have one source reporting that McVeigh had a "lengthy relationship" with someone at Elohim City, and that he called that person just two days before the bombing. (These documents were never shown to McVeigh's lawyer.) The Justice Department and the fbi would not comment on the documents; an fbi spokesman in Oklahoma City told me that the bureau is confident it has caught and convicted those responsible for the bombing.

Jesse believes that McVeigh's contact was Strassmeir, a fixture in many Oklahoma City theories. There has been much speculation, aired most recently on the bbc show Conspiracy Files this year, that Strassmeir had ties to U.S. and German intelligence and might (along with his government contacts) have had advance knowledge of the plot. In February 2007, Jesse filed a declaration in court signed by Nichols stating, "McVeigh said that Strassmeir would provide a 'safe house' if necessary. McVeigh...said that Strassmeir was 'head of security at some backwoods place in Oklahoma.'" Strassmeir left the country in early 1996; he was later questioned on the phone by the fbi.

Kirk Lyons, Strassmeir's U.S. attorney, who has defended a number of far-right figures over the years, says the reality is far simpler; Strassmeir came to the United States to take part in Civil War reenactments, liked it here, and, hoping to find a bride, ended up at Elohim City. Lyons insists that Strassmeir was never a spy, except in the minds of conspiracy theorists. ("These silly right-wingers think I am Mossad," he says. "I've given up arguing with these nutsy cuckoos.")

Reached at his home in Berlin, Strassmeir told me that he met McVeigh once, at a gun show in 1993, but that they never spoke again. He said he had no intelligence affiliations and had no clues to the Oklahoma City attack before it happened; but there were definitely informants at Elohim City, he added, and sometimes surveillance planes flew overhead—probably, he thought, to check out the marijuana fields that "some of the rednecks" had planted. He confirmed that two ara members were part-time residents of Elohim City, but said that "nobody knew much about them."

the oklahoma City bombing prefigured 9/11 in many ways. There were the missed clues; the federal informant who actually had contact with the conspirators; the turf-conscious agencies failing to share and act on vital information; and in general, a domestic-intelligence program incapable of translating surveillance into action. Just as they would misunderstand the nature of Al Qaeda, the fbi and other agencies never viewed the far right as a political movement with the strategic and tactical ability to deliver a major attack. Intelligence on these groups suffered from the broader inadequacies of domestic intelligence, especially in the use of untested freelance informants recruited under threat of prosecution. But with federal police forces and the Justice Department responsible for policing themselves, and the details of their work often shrouded in secrecy, the system remained unaccountable. The bombing "grew out of a definable social movement the authorities didn't understand," says Leonard Zeskind, a researcher who has tracked the far right for more than 30 years. "It went unsolved because of the character and gross mismanagement of the investigation. It was an outrageous crime, and the size of the crime magnifies the level of incompetence."

In fact, after the bombing law enforcement's failures were not corrected but rewarded. Congress passed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which severely restricted federal courts' ability to grant habeas corpus relief, paving the way for speedier executions (like that of Timothy McVeigh), and ultimately for Guantanamo. It also restricted the rights of immigrants, extended surveillance capabilities, and provided $1 billion in authorization for antiterrorism work, half of it for the fbi. The act raised only muted protest, perhaps in part because it was signed into law by a Democratic president. Yet there can be no doubt that the roots of the Patriot Act were planted not in the chasm of Ground Zero but in the dusty soil of Oklahoma.

For Jesse Trentadue, the ara-Oklahoma City connection has suggested what he believes is the missing motive in his brother's killing: Just as J.D. Cash posited in his first phone call, he now believes that whoever interrogated Kenney took him to be John Doe No. 2—and that Kenney died during an interrogation gone bad. He has no proof for that theory, though he continues to pursue all leads—interviewing McVeigh's death-row neighbor, David Paul Hammer; preparing to formally depose Terry Nichols; seeking to obtain a surveillance video he believes exists of the Murrah Building area shortly before the blast. But by now, Jesse is after more than his brother's killers. He has become an American archetype, the citizen-investigator—still propelled by the sense of justice that first drew him into the law, but no longer convinced of the government's ability to see that justice is done.

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