1995: The year the future began
HLN aired recently a two-installment retrospective about the Oklahoma City terrorist bombing of 1995, as part of the cable outlet’s “How It Really Happened” crime series.
The program’s timing was odd, given the absence of any anniversary on which to peg a look back at the bombing in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. How it happened has long been well-known: The attack that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah federal building and killed 168 people was carried out by a disgruntled Army veteran, Timothy McVeigh. He was reluctantly supported by a couple of former Army buddies, Terry Nichols and Michael Fortier. Theirs was a ragtag plot never conclusively tied to any wider, anti-government movement.
McVeigh was a delusional lone wolf who thought the truck-bombing would teach the U.S. government a grievous lesson for what he considered a series of exesses and outrages — notably, the fiery assault federal authorities mounted two years earlier at the compound of the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas.
To its credit, the HLN treatment about Oklahoma City steered clear of the strange and elaborate conspiracy theories that have grown up around the attack and have persisted in the years since. These theories include the extravagant and implausible yarn, spun by McVeigh’s legal defense team, that he was a pawn in a vast international conspiracy that figured Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, mastermind of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center.
Fueling speculation about elaborate conspiracies was a phantom suspect known as John Doe No. 2. He was, for a time after the bombing, thought to have been with McVeigh when McVeigh rented the Ryder Truck into which he built the 7,000 pound bomb that tore apart the Murrah building. In renting the truck at the now-defunct Elliott’s Body Shop in Junction City, Kansas, McVeigh said his name was “Robert Kling.”
Employees at the body shop gave federal authorities descriptions that were turned into sketches of two men, one of whom resembled “Kling,” or McVeigh. The other sketch was of the chimerical John Doe No. 2, who looked to be a beefy guy with a square jaw, dark hair, and a tattoo showing on one arm.
The FBI circulated no fewer than three sketches of John Doe No. 2, one of which showed him in profile, wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with a zig-zag design.
As I wrote in my book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, the release of the sketches of John Doe No. 2 “brought an avalanche of tips — and to the arrests of at least a dozen men — including a fugitive in Arizona, an Army deserter in California, a drifter in Missouri, an Australian tourist who was held at gunpoint in Canada. None of them was the elusive suspect and the manhunt came up empty.”
For a time after the bombing, “sightings of John Doe 2 were about an common and about as credible as sightings of Elvis,” a federal prosecutor later said.
The presumed John Doe No. 2 was neither Nichols nor Fortier.
Ultimately, federal authorities said John Doe No. 2 was an Army private named Todd Bunting who had nothing to do with McVeigh or the bombing. Bunting was stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, in 1995 and had gone to Elliott’s Body Shop about twenty-four hours after McVeigh rented the truck.
Bunting accompanied an Army sergeant, Paul Hertig, who rented a Ryder truck for a move to Georgia. Bunting and Hertig were off-duty and wearing civilian clothes. Bunting had a tattoo on his arm. And the cap he wore had a zig-zag design.
The authorities theorized that the Elliott’s employee whose recollections were used to sketch John Doe No. 2 had confused McVeigh’s visit with that of Bunting and the sergeant, a memory error known as “unconscious transference.”
As I wrote in 1995, “The unending speculation about John Doe No. 2 — and the notion that unpunished conspirators were still at large — led in 1997 to the empanelling of a grand jury in Oklahoma City. The grand jury took testimony over eighteen months and in the end endorsed the FBI theory that John Doe No. 2 was Todd Bunting and that Bunting had no connection to McVeigh or the Murrah Building bombing.
“In its report, ” I noted, “the grand jury went to lengths to underscore just how improbable John Doe No. 2 was, and how erratic and uneven the witness descriptions of him really were. The grand jury said 26 witnesses testified that they had seen someone resembling the phantom suspect — but the witness accounts differed dramatically.”
Based on those disparate and copnflicting accounts, the grand jury said, John Doe No. 2 stood anywhere from 5-feet-3 to 6-feet-3. He weighed anywhere from 140 pounds to 210 pounds. He was described as slim, stocky, skinny, or muscular in build. He was reported to be white. Hispanic. Middle Eastern. Asian. His complexion was said to be white, or olive, or dark. His hair color was dark blond. Red. Brown. Black. He was reported to have worn a crew cut. Or he wore his hair was 2 inches long. Or shoulder-length. He had mustache. Or he had no facial hair.
Reported sightings of the presumptive John Doe No. 2 varied that much.
The HLN program mentioned John Doe No. 2 near the close of its first installment, and then not at much length. Which seemed appropriate.
Still, the elusiveness of McVeigh’s presumed accomplice certainly represented an intriguing subtheme to what was and remains the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in American history.
Even now, nearly 25 years after the bombing, it is puzzling that John Doe No. 2 could have been seen so often and by so many people before the bombing but afterward concealed himself so thoroughly as to remain at large since 1995.
In that contradiction rests persuasive testimony that John Doe No. 2 was but a phantom.
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