NORMAN, Okla. — Twenty-five years after 168 people were killed and more than 680 people were injured in the deadliest incident of domestic terrorism in U.S. history, conspiracy theories still abound about the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
Following the attack — which caused an estimated $652 million in damage — bomber Timothy McVeigh was arrested, convicted and eventually executed by lethal injection.
Accomplice Terry Nichols was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Another accomplice, Michael Fortier, testified against Nichols and McVeigh and was sentenced to up to 12 years in prison and fined for failing to warn authorities.
To put conspiracy theories to rest, Norman, Oklahoma, resident Ben Fenwick, writer of an article published in Playboy magazine that revealed McVeigh's confession to his defense team, has published the nonfiction book “McVeigh: The Inside Story of the Oklahoma City Bombing.” Fenwick is a former reporter for The Oklahoman newspaper and the alternative weekly Oklahoma Gazette.
The book, now available on Kindle, covers the inside story of the attack and how Fenwick's article affected McVeigh and his defense.
“I want people to know what really happened. I want to absolutely nail it down completely that this crime happened, that this guy did it, and that I saw firsthand how it was done and that it's real,” Fenwick said. “And we need to pay attention to people like this because they're going to do it again. So, I want to arm people with the truth.”
Covering the bombing
After the bombing happened at 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995, Fenwick said he asked someone he knew for a ride to downtown Oklahoma City and arrived within an hour. The man dropped him off and loaned him his cell phone, and Fenwick started reporting. Using a recorder that he borrowed from KGOU radio, he called in stories live for the radio station and wrote freelance for other publications regarding the bombing.
Fenwick said a friend of his survived the bombing, and that source has the last word in his book. However, after learning of victims' while studying their biographies, “It is such an awful thing that they’re gone, that they were taken from us. And I feel, on a personal level, I wish I knew them. I wish I could find them and talk to them.”
Soon after, a former coworker asked him if he could freelance for Reuters, so he took the job, quit working as a journalism graduate assistant at the University of Oklahoma and began a thesis project over the OKC bombing.
Eventually, Fenwick said, media coverage of the bombing died down and McVeigh's court case began to develop.
He met up with an old friend who had become a private investigator. He soon found out the friend had been hired to work for McVeigh's defense team, and his friend told him McVeigh had confessed to his attorneys.
“My friend had guilty feelings and felt troubled,” he said, and those feelings led to the friend leaking documents to him, including the basis of the Playboy magazine article, a chronology of McVeigh's life and details about the terrorist attack.
According to Fenwick's book, he approached one of his OU journalism professors about publishing the chronology, and the professor suggested sitting on the documents for a year so McVeigh could have a fair trial. So, Fenwick took his advice.
Fenwick said he considered writing a book about the chronology and approached publishers. After none were interested, he shopped it around to some magazines.
“Playboy magazine immediately wanted it,” Fenwick said.
The story, based on the 66-page chronology and confession, became national news and gained him TV air time. It also revealed a new witness for the prosecution, he said.
After his story was published, Fenwick traveled to Denver to cover McVeigh's trial, which started April 24, 1997. Prior to the court case, he said, McVeigh's attorney had traveled abroad in search of the “real bombers,” creating several alternative theories regarding the terrorism attack.
“There weren't others involved except for Michael Fortier and Terry Nichols,” Fenwick said.
In his book — which leans heavily on unsealed court documents, notes from biographers and death-row interviews — Fenwick writes about how McVeigh tried to get new representation several times, but someone always talked him out of it. At one point, McVeigh requested to meet with the judge about new representation, but the judge refused the request, finding the meeting inappropriate. Ultimately, he stayed with attorney Stephen Jones and his team.
Fenwick said McVeigh's defense team threatened to have him subpoenaed after his article was published, but that never happened.
During the first hearing in Denver, he said he arrived early and sat on the front row.
“I wanted them to see me, just to let them know I wasn't scared. It's pretty scary when you do that. I … wanted them to know I was there,” Fenwick said. “And McVeigh came out and he sat in this seat and he turned around and looked at me and his face just got this flat expression on it, and I think he was trying to give me his sniper look or something, and so he just stared at me and I stared right back at him and I did not break glance with that guy.
“Finally, someone gave him something to sign, so he looked away. I thought, 'Yeah, yeah. I got you, buddy.' They didn't arrest me. I covered that whole trial and my story found a witness that nobody had, and you know what? How about that?”
That witness was a Texas racing fuel salesman named Tim Chambers, Fenwick said.
The trial ended June 2, 1997. McVeigh was found guilty on 11 counts of murder and conspiracy, eventually being executed June 11, 2001.
Revisiting the case
It wasn't Fenwick's idea to write the book. Joe Hight, the University of Central Oklahoma’s endowed journalism ethics chair and owner of Edmond’s Best of Books, suggested it, citing the upcoming 25th anniversary, Fenwick said.
Fenwick told his friend he didn't want to get into McVeigh's head for a year, but he finally decided to revisit the case.
He described the experience as upsetting and hard, but he said writing everything down was a way to get the story off his chest and put it to rest.
“I got to say what I wanted to say about it. It was cathartic, but it was also hard,” he said.
Fenwick said he can't believe it's been 25 years since the bombing and that he remembers life before the terrorist attack.
“Before, people could go right up to the front door of the Oklahoma City airport and just get out and park your car there. There wasn't security everywhere. You could go down to the courthouse to go in … and park right in front of the courthouse, and there was no fear of each other,” he said.
Shortly after the bombing, Fenwick said he traveled to Washington, D.C. All of the parking meters in front of the National Archives had been removed, and giant, concrete truck-sized planters were placed in front of buildings to keep vehicles from running into them.
“It changed everything, and we kind of had to quit being innocent about stuff. I remember that, and I miss that world,” Fenwick said.
Fenwick said a lot of content in the book haunts him and probably always will.
“Honestly, the reason I decided to go ahead and write this book was to go ahead and confront it. It's awful what happened to those people. It's awful. Losing those innocent people and those children should haunt us, and we should make sure it never happens again,” he said.
Fenwick said he hopes what people take away from his book is that ignoring people like McVeigh will not make them go away. Rather, they must be confronted or they will attack. Fenwick said McVeigh was a member of the Ku Klux Klan and associated with the white supremacy movement.
Fenwick, who now works as a writer and editor at a technical firm, said the bombing showed how strong Oklahomans are, and for the longest time, he thought the bombing would define him as a journalist. However, he later became a war correspondent in Afghanistan for six months in 2004 and Iraq for about two months in 2008.
“I realized that I'm a lot more than just one thing I've ever written. I was able to move on because of that. There's a lot of stuff going in the world that needs to be taken care of, and we're never going to run out of stories and times where we are needed there,” he said.
Berry is a staff writer for The Norman (Okla.) Transcript, which published the original story.