Key witness in Oklahoma bombing trials to go into protection program
OKLAHOMA CITY – On Friday, Michael Fortier will cease to exist.
A new identity. A new hometown. A new life story.
They’re all part of a deal struck with federal authorities that resulted in Mr. Fortier being the only known Oklahoma City bombing insider to be free again.
“He was the only inside person really able to testify to the motivation and the activities prior to bombing,” said Irven Box, an Oklahoma City criminal defense attorney who covered the McVeigh and Nichols trials for CBS affiliate KWTV.
“He was a witness the government thought it needed,” Mr. Box said. “Could it have gotten a conviction without him? Maybe. … But it was a deal made in the early stages of the investigation. Prosecutors didn’t know if two were involved or 100 were involved.”
Former U.S. Attorney Patrick Ryan, who helped prosecute the federal cases against Mr. McVeigh and Mr. Nichols, did not return a message left at his Oklahoma City law office Wednesday afternoon.
Now 37, Mr. Fortier was imprisoned for failing to alert authorities to the plot, selling stolen guns and lying to federal agents after the bomb shredded the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people.
Mr. McVeigh, portrayed by prosecutors as the attack’s mastermind, was executed in 2001. Mr. Nichols, now 50, is serving a life-without-parole sentence at a federal prison in Florence, Colo.
Mr. Fortier’s upcoming release became public after the federal Bureau of Prisons alerted bombing survivors in a letter that arrived in their mailboxes Tuesday.
The notice renewed debate over Mr. Fortier’s role in the bombing – and his 12-year sentence. Some survivors and victims’ families think his penalty was sufficient. Others contend he deserved much harsher.
“McVeigh already got his punishment, and Nichols will be in prison for the rest of his life,” Jim Denny, whose two children, Brandon and Rebecca, were injured in the blast, told The Associated Press. “Let this guy get out and get on with his life.”
But Dr. Paul Heath, a former Veterans Affairs psychologist who survived the blast, called Mr. Fortier “the luckiest man in the world.”
He said he found it ironic that Mr. Fortier was given a reprieve by the very system he and the others sought to attack.
“Fortier, by being willing to do a plea bargain, won the Powerball lottery of the justice system.”
While no longer behind bars, Mr. Fortier will be subject to three more years of federal supervision.
As the key witness against his former Army buddies-turned-anti-government zealots, Mr. Fortier’s safety – both while in federal custody and upon his release – was evidently a source of much concern and debate.
Federal authorities, for example, steadfastly refused to identify his whereabouts during his decade-plus behind bars. Further, his attorney, Michael McGuire of Tulsa, Okla., declined to discuss specifically what will become of him now.
Mr. McGuire did say, however, he expects Mr. Fortier, his wife Lori and two children will – at first – be “holed up, spending a lot of quiet time, personal time, getting caught up.”
“I don’t think they know for sure what they’re going to do and where they’re going to go,” he said, adding that once they are relocated, “It’s going to take them a while to settle in.”
Mr. McGuire said one certain thing about the Fortiers’ future is they will not live in Kingman, Ariz., where they resided at the time of the bombing.
By participating in the federal witness protection program, the Fortiers essentially agree to disappear. They are forbidden from doing media interviews. They are required to cease all contact with friends. And they can contact family only through federal agents.
The government will provide new identities and housing for the Fortiers and their children.
Mr. Box, the legal analyst, said he believes authorities agreed to the witness protection plan for the Fortiers because they could be targets of either anti-government groups that feel he sold out the cause or aggrieved survivors who believe he was not punished enough for failing to make the call that could have saved their loved ones.
“They [prosecutors] made the deal and they’re going to live with it,” Mr. Box said. “It’s something that would benefit him in the long run. If nothing else, it keeps him out of the public eye, from being scrutinized by all who know he could have saved all those lives in Oklahoma City.”
Recruited by McVeigh
Mr. Fortier, Mr. McVeigh and Mr. Nichols all served in the Army together. Mr. McVeigh was Mr. Fortier’s best man when he married Lori.
Mr. McVeigh recruited Mr. Fortier to participate in the bombing – retaliation for what they viewed as the government’s mishandling of the deadly 1993 standoff with Branch Davidians near Waco and the 1992 raid on white separatist Randy Weaver’s compound near Ruby Ridge, Idaho.
At the trials, Mr. Fortier testified that Mr. McVeigh showed him the target – the nine-story Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City – when the pair drove from Kingman to Kansas in December 1994.
Mr. Fortier said he and his wife allowed Mr. McVeigh to stay with them for a time before the bombing. Mr. Fortier and Mr. McVeigh also broke into a National Guard armory in Kingman, stealing a few small items. And Mr. Fortier said he sold guns stolen from an Arkansas gun dealer, a robbery carried out by Mr. Nichols to help finance the bomb plot.
Mr. McGuire said he believed Mr. Fortier fulfilled the obligations in his plea agreement, truthfully answering investigators’ questions and testifying in Mr. McVeigh’s and Mr. Nichols’ federal trials and in Mr. Nichols’ state trial.
Mrs. Fortier also testified in the federal case, but she was not prosecuted as part of the plea agreement. She returned to Kingman to care for the couple’s two young children.
“Fortier has been held accountable for everything he did,” Mr. McGuire said. “He’s done his sentence. He owes nobody at this point.”
Mr. McGuire said he wouldn’t attempt to compare Mr. Fortier’s shattered life with those who lost loved ones in the blast, but added: “He will always carry the burden and personal anguish of what he should have done and didn’t do before the bombing.
“That will never leave him.”
Jan. 18, 2006