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MOUNTAIN VIEWS: A COUPLE OF REAL NEWSMEN ON DUTY
OLEAN — We never know when the slightest passages of life, seemingly insignificant incidents, will later connect to important pieces of history.
About 15 years ago, Buffalo News reporter Lou Michel was buying a house for his family near Wilson. He was about to close the deal when the real estate agent casually asked “Oh, by the way, did I mention there’s a man who lives in the garage?”
The man was a homeless and stuttering old farmer named Ben who had nowhere to go. Michel, a religious, charitable man, decided to let him stay. In return, Ben taught Michel everything he knew about gardening, which was a bunch. About eight years ago this spring, Michel — then the Buffalo paper’s man in Niagara County — was working sporadically on a book about Ben.
Then, in mid-April, 1995, Michel got a call from the news desk. A young combat veteran named Timothy McVeigh from Pendleton was suspected in the truck bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, which killed 168 and injured 500-plus, the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in this nation’s history.
Michel wanted to interview the father, Harrison Radiator worker Bill McVeigh, but the Pendleton home on Meyer Road was nightly bathed in light, with five or more patrol cars parked outside — to prevent retaliation for the mass murder.
Finally, after about five days — when it became clear most people felt sorry for the father — the patrol cars left. Michel arrived just as the reluctant father came down the driveway and a kindly neighbor lady came up it.
“You don’t have control of your grown children,” she said to comfort the father.
Striving to start a conversation, any conversation, Michel asked Bill McVeigh what he thought about that.
The grieving father put his hand on his chest: “You still have feelings for your children.”
As Michel stopped by the father’s house more and more frequently, they more often than not would start talking about Bill McVeigh’s big hobby: Gardening.
“It was my big in with him,” recalls Michel. “I could talk all about gardening.”
The gardening that old Ben, his garage tenant, had taught him.
Through his initial incarceration and trial, the truculent McVeigh did not want to talk to journalists. However, when McVeigh was convicted after a faltering defense strategy he disagreed with, the bomber asked his father if he “knew a journalist who would tell my story fairly.”
Bill McVeigh thought of Lou Michel.
Michel and his co-author Dan Herbeck described this genesis last week when they visited the campus of St. Bonaventure University to talk about “American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing,” their best-selling book on the mass murder — and to donate valuable records, original notes, documents, manuscripts, McVeigh’s letters and taped conversations to the archives of the Friedsam Memorial Library here.
McVeigh’s first call from prison to the Michel home is eerie. The killer — beefing in conversational tones about his lawyer and court deadlines for filing motion papers — sounds completely normal on the tape, like he’s arranging a bowling tournament or something.
“The banality of evil,” whispered a colleague who sat listening.
Once Michel got to look at McVeigh’s correspondence, he understood more about why the mass murderer picked him out of scores of journalists clamoring for the role. Some were condescending, some mawkish, some deliberately angering in order to instigate a response. One, knowing McVeigh was a fan of the Buffalo Bills, dumped all over the team in insulting, curse-filled rhetoric. It didn’t work.
“I always wrote back to McVeigh like he wrote me, in hand on a yellow legal pad,” recalled Michel. “I never tried to put myself above him.”
At one point McVeigh backed out.
Michel, actually, was glad: “Something told me this was going to be a very dark story.”
Then the feds moved McVeigh to the state-of-the-art SuperMax prison in Pueblo, Colo. — just down the hall from a guy named Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber.
Kaczynski began hinting that McVeigh ought to explain himself for posterity — like the Unabomber had in his infamous manifesto, “Industrial Society and Its Future.”
Later, Kaczynski was quite critical of McVeigh, opining the truck bomber had no need to take out a building so full of victims to make his point. Kaczynski actually wrote Michel to state as much. A true incidence of the pot calling the kettle black.
McVeigh called. He was back in. Michel — who’d worked for more than a decade at the Tonawanda News (“my purgatory,” he calls it) — went to his Buffalo News mentor Herbeck, who signed on.
McVeigh was coy at first, but then began to open up. Incredibly meticulous in his planning of the huge explosion, McVeigh was unbelievably sloppy in his getaway. He drove a vehicle with no license plate. He possessed no driver’s license. He carried a firearm illegally in Oklahoma. He wore a provocative T-shirt and had incriminating documents on the front seat. He wanted to get caught. He wanted his story known. McVeigh admitted as much to Michel. He told him it was “deluxe suicide by cop.” McVeigh quoted Mary Beth Whitehead poetry about “trotting among the stars.”
It was detailed stuff. Soon, McVeigh was describing his case of nerves driving up to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building with the smell of fumes from the two fuses he had just lit filling up his Ryder truck cab.
“I almost fell off my chair,” recalled Michel.
This was not easy to write. Michel couldn’t stop thinking of his favorite John Steinbeck novel, “The Grapes of Wrath,” in which poor, innocent, honest Oklahomans move out of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s through great hunger and travail to seek a better life in California. Now, here came a child of relative privilege from a New York State suburb to blow a new generation of plain, honest, innocent Oklahomans to Kingdom Come, on a personal whim of ire.
“It was a reverse ‘Grapes of Wrath’ and it was heart-wrenching,” said Michel.
Herbeck described the aftermath.
He recalled getting the “book” phone call from Michel in April of 1999.
“Lou said McVeigh had agreed to tell him his life story,” remembered Herbeck. “It was a life-changing phone call. The writing of the book, at times, was emotional and exciting, but at other times we thought it would put us in our graves. Suddenly, we found ourselves on the other side of the reporter’s notebook.”
McVeigh was huge news as the book took shape. He was the first convict to be put to death by the federal government in 38 years. Herbeck and Michel had interviewed more than 150 persons and waded through two years of dogged research for their book, and it shaped up as full of exquisite detail about the mass murder that still lingered in the national psyche.
McVeigh abandoned by his mother as he entered puberty. McVeigh performing bravely and honorably in Desert Storm. McVeigh burning with the slow fire of hatred for the federal government after the Waco inferno.
But as McVeigh headed for execution, and word of the blockbuster book got out, the authors found themselves pilloried by people who hadn’t even read it. Because they’d gotten deeper into McVeigh’s motivation and the mind of a mass murderer than anyone had, a wave of media ignorance washed over the two authors. Almost every interview was filled with baiting questions about being “anti-victim” and causing the families of dead ones pain.
Wal-Mart, that arbiter of Middle American taste, refused to sell the book in its 2,700 stores. State legislatures passed resolutions urging citizens to shun the book. People yelled insulting questions from the audience during television interviews. And the book hadn’t even come out yet.
“It hurts to be prejudged,” recalled Herbeck.
“Didn’t you feel like reaching out and grabbing McVeigh by the throat?” asked the ever-provocative Geraldo Rivera. But give Rivera his due. At least he read the book the day before the interview.
“He told us during a commercial break he’d have been bashing us, too, if we were on 24 hours earlier,” said Herbeck.
When they got to Oklahoma City, they were prepared for the worst. But the host of the first radio show they were on said the book “takes you straight into the killer’s mind” and averred he “couldn’t put it down.”
Their reception there was warmer than back in New York City.
“Lou and I made the decision we would never criticize the families of the bombing victims,” said Herbeck.
A student’s question about international terrorism triggered interesting insight. McVeigh, unlike most Americans, knew who Osama bin Laden was, and admired him.
“If someone was an enemy of the federal government, McVeigh was their friend,” recalled Michel.
The authors believe the conspiracy did not extend beyond those charged. They don’t get mad when people keep suggesting a larger conspiracy, but McVeigh convinced them with his startling narration of detail that the bombing was his baby and only a couple of sidekicks helped him.
“It’s startling, but it was a relatively simple project,” said Herbeck of the Oklahoma City bombing.
McVeigh, 33, was executed in an Indiana prison on June 11, 2001.
Three months later, to the day, the Sept. 11 terrorist catastrophe changed the nation forever.
Herbeck and Michel believe there was no connection.
John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at Hanchette6@aol.com.