Evidence may aid 2 bombing suspects Testimony could lead to separate trials in Oklahoma City case

March 12, 1996|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

DENVER -- In evidence that could lead to separate trials in the Oklahoma City bombing case, two key government witnesses maintain that Timothy J. McVeigh and Terry L. Nichols had a falling out in the period between when the bomb ingredients were purchased and the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was destroyed.

According to legal documents filed here since the case was moved from Oklahoma City, lead prosecutor Joseph Hartzler said witnesses Michael and Lori Fortier were aware of a split between Mr. McVeigh and Mr. Nichols over whether to carry out the blast that ultimately claimed 168 lives in April.

"Lori Fortier testified [to a grand jury] that McVeigh was upset in early 1995 because Nichols wanted out and did not want to mix the bomb," Mr. Hartzler wrote in a letter to defense attorneys.

Furthermore, he added, "Michael Fortier testified that McVeigh solicited his assistance in the bombing in early 1995 because Nichols was expressing reluctance."

The Fortiers' testimony about a rift between Mr. McVeigh and Mr. Nichols indicates the defense may be able to make a strong case for separate trials. If reports of the disagreement are true, the defendants could be forced to attack each other during the trial.

The Hartzler letter, along with FBI interviews with Eldon Elliott and Vicki Beemer taken at the truck rental agency, were filed Friday as part of a McVeigh defense motion arguing that the government is not cooperating in turning over evidence that could benefit the defense.

According to those files, U.S. Attorney Patrick Ryan of Oklahoma City initially advised the McVeigh attorneys that the FBI had collected no evidence helpful to the defense.

Mr. Hartzler, in his Feb. 22 letter to Mr. Jones and Ronald G. Woods, an attorney for Mr. Nichols, conceded that the Fortiers' testimony, along with that of Ms. Beemer and others, could be seen as advantageous to the defense.

The testimony from the Fortier couple is exceptionally significant because they are the two most important government witnesses.

Fortier, a former Army buddy of Mr. McVeigh and Mr. Nichols, has already pleaded to a limited role in the bombing case and is serving 23 years in prison -- a deal struck in return for his testimony against his friends at their trial. His wife, Lori, was granted immunity from prosecution.

Their testimony also hints at the grounds on which the defense attorneys will attack the credibility of the Fortiers.

For instance, the Hartzler letter suggests that both Fortiers have had their own personal problems.

"She [Lori] stated that Nichols called during the first two weeks of April inquiring about a VCR that McVeigh was obtaining for him," Mr. Hartzler wrote, a suggestion that the two men were still talking up to the time of the bombing and were planning to meet.

But, he said, "Mrs. Fortier also stated that she had used illegal drugs, including marijuana and speed, during part of this relevant period."

As for Michael Fortier, Mr. Hartzler wrote: "Mr. Fortier admitted to having initially lied to the authorities. He also admitted to having used illegal drugs, including marijuana and speed, in early 1995."

Pub Date: 3/12/96

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