FBI spearheading massive manhunt

April 26, 1995|By Boston Globe

WASHINGTON -- The manhunt for "John Doe No. 2" and the inquiry into the Oklahoma City bombing have become perhaps the largest U.S. criminal investigation ever, with thousands of federal agents from dozens of agencies tapping a vast network of computers, corporate data and other sources in trying to solve the case.

The federal government, with an array of elite and little-known investigative units, is deploying every resource available -- from the Bomb Data Center, which tracks chemicals that can be made into explosives, to the FBI's behavioral squad that assembles psychological profiles of criminals.

"In my memory, this is the largest investigation the FBI has ever conducted," said Thomas Strentz, a former agency official and vice president of the Academy Group, a security firm with many retired FBI and CIA agents. "There have probably been 10,000 people" at various agencies "involved at one point or another because of the immediacy of the event."

One thing seems clear: The FBI, an agency that has been both glorified and vilified over the years, has its reputation on the line. Just asthe military sought to end the "Vietnam Syndrome" with its success in the Persian Gulf war, the FBI hopes to ride a tide of popular support by catching the bombers. President Clinton fired the previous FBI director, William S. Sessions. And the current director, Louis J. Freeh, has been trying to put the agency back on track.

Just as the FBI was once known for trying to snare "Public Enemy No. 1," it is now -- in businesslike Freeh style -- targeting John Doe No. 1 and No. 2.

One of Mr. Clinton's first decisions about the bombing was to put Mr. Freeh, a former prosecutor and judge, in charge of the multiagency investigation.

"This certainly burnishes the FBI's image and perhaps allows it to overcome some of the black eyes that they have gotten in the past," said Ronald Kessler, author of "FBI: Inside the World's Most Powerful Law Enforcement Agency."

Mr. Kessler said the capture of the alleged John Doe No. 1, Timothy McVeigh, was not just luck but rather a combination of old-fashioned detective work and high-tech sleuthing.

An FBI spokesman and other federal officials declined to be interviewed on the record for this story, saying they didn't want to reveal anything that would compromise the Oklahoma City case. But several sources described the effort on condition of anonymity.

It is an investigation for the high-tech age: Every lead has been checked against a database, and every database has been explored for possible clues.

For example, the Ryder truck was tracked down after agents found a part with the vehicle identification number, and traced it to a Kansas dealer who described the suspects. Similarly, the chief suspect, Timothy McVeigh, was identified after agents combed Social Security records.

Even some of the smallest details of the case are being handled in high-tech ways: When the FBI released sketches of the two John Does, they weren't sketches at all but computer-generated graphics.

No longer does an artist sit down with a witness to draw a picture; the new technique is like a child's computer program in which details of a person's face can be changed with a punch of a button. A witness picks out a chin from a database of chins, and so on, until a composite is completed.

Agents also tracked paint fragments from the exploded truck, which were traced for chemical content. Experts at the FBI's Bomb Data Center were then able to enter the information into a computer that provides information about where the vehicle was manufactured.

When Mr. McVeigh was identified, his name was punched into computers at the National Crime Information Center, which tracks everyone arrested by local, state and federal agencies.

The FBI also has a database of items that can be used in a criminal act. If a machine screw is suspected in criminal activity, the FBI should be able to figure out where the screw was made and where it was sold.

The latest search involved matching a likeness of John Doe No. 2, who remains at large, with a database of photos of U.S. military personnel who served with Mr. McVeigh.

And, with special photo enhancement gadgets, federal agents are analyzing security videotapes that they hope will show the bombers at the scene with the Ryder truck.

The sweep of the investigation has occurred partly because the bombing was a federal crime that targeted many federal agencies and killed federal workers.

As a result, many agencies immediately deployed investigative resources on the case. Aside from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, that includes the IRS, the armed forces, the Secret Service and the Treasury Department.

Federal authorities are checking thousands of tips called in to a toll-free hot line. Every tip is entered into a data base.

Every tip is entered into a database. Every interview with survivors and witnesses is transcribed into another database.

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