Associated Press, May 5, 2003
Tim Talley, Associated Press
OKLAHOMA CITY – Two days before the Oklahoma City bombing, conspirator Terry Nichols called a U.S. senator’s office to complain about the fiery end to the Branch Davidian siege in Texas, an aide to the lawmaker testified Monday.
“He was very stern and told us about his thinking on the matter,” said Lee Ellen Alexander, who worked for then-Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker of Kansas.
The testimony came at a preliminary hearing to determine whether there is enough evidence to try Nichols on 160 state murder charges that could bring the death penalty. Nichols is already serving a life sentence on federal charges in the April 19, 1995, bombing.
The existence of the call to the senator’s office has never before been made public.
Alexander said Nichols also complained about gun laws and former Attorney General Janet Reno. The former aide said she heard days later that Nichols, who was living in Kansas at the time, was a suspect in the bombing, which came on the second anniversary of the fiery cult disaster at Waco, Texas, that left about 80 Branch Davidians dead.
“Oh, my God, I was literally surprised and shocked,” Alexander said.
Nichols, 48, was previously convicted on federal conspiracy and involuntary manslaughter charges for the deaths of eight law enforcement officers in the bombing, which killed 168 people. The state charges involve victims who were not part of Nichols’ federal trial.
Prosecutors intend to seek the death penalty and say a state conviction is needed to eliminate any possibility that he could get the federal conviction overturned on appeal and gain his freedom.
In other testimony, Nichols’ former wife, Lana Padilla, said she was surprised to discover several months before the bombing that he had amassed thousands of dollars in cash and supplies.
“I thought he was broke,” she said.
Prosecutors allege Nichols participated in a series of robberies and thefts to raise money to carry out the bombing. Details about the stolen money and supplies came out previously at other court proceedings in the case.
Padilla testified that when he went on a trip to the Philippines in late 1994, she discovered he had left $20,000 in $100 bills in a bag behind a drawer in her house. He also left a key to a storage facility where she found gold bullion, camping gear, a ski mask, makeup and a wig, among other things.
District Judge Allen McCall warned Padilla to tell the truth after she denied or said she couldn’t recall earlier statements she made to the FBI. One of those statements described Nichols as an anti-government, secretive survivalist.
“It’s my opinion that you are being evasive and not truthful with your answers,” the judge told her.
She hugged Nichols as people were leaving the courtroom for a lunch break.
Another witness, Sheryl Pankratz, who works at the court clerk’s office in Marion, Kan., testified that in March 1994 a man who identified himself as Terry Nichols turned in a document at the office that renounced his U.S. citizenship.
Prosecutors allege Nichols and Timothy McVeigh worked together to prepare a 4,000-pound fuel-and-fertilizer bomb that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
Nichols was at home in Herington, Kan., the day the bomb exploded. But prosecutors accused him of helping McVeigh deliver a getaway car to Oklahoma City and of working with McVeigh to pack the bomb inside a Ryder truck the day before.
McVeigh was convicted on federal murder charges. He was executed in June 2001.
Legal disputes, including complaints by Nichols’ court-appointed attorneys that his legal bills are not being paid promptly, have postponed seven other preliminary hearing dates. Nichols’ attorneys have been paid about $2.5 million so far.
The hearing could be complicated by revelations, first reported by The Associated Press, that the Justice Department received a letter before McVeigh’s execution warning a key prosecution witness against McVeigh might have given false testimony.
Steven Burmeister, now the FBI lab’s chief of scientific analysis, testified at McVeigh’s trial about the discovery of chemical residue that indicated the bomb was made of fertilizer.
But the letter suggests Burmeister gave misleading testimony at the trial when he disputed the possibility that the substance could have resulted from laboratory contamination.
Justice Department officials have said they do not believe the letter would have affected the outcome of McVeigh’s trial. And McVeigh confessed to the bombing in news interviews after his conviction.
State prosecutors said they have dropped Burmeister from their witness list.