TOPICS > Politics

Timothy McVeigh Trial

May 13, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: We go now to the Oklahoma City bombing trial. The man described as the prosecutions star witness completed a day and a half of testimony today. He’s Michael Fortier, a former army roommate and close friend of the defendant, Timothy McVeigh. Fortier has already pleaded guilty to knowing about the bombing plot beforehand and lying about it afterward. Court TV senior correspondent Tim Sullivan joins us now from Denver, where he has been covering the trial. Tim, thank you for joining. Fortier was billed going in as being the government’s most important witness. Did he live up to his billing?

TIM SULLIVAN, Court TV: Yes, Jim, he certainly did live up to his billing. When he came in here yesterday, he looked good; he had a short haircut, wire-rimmed glasses, and a business suit on, nothing like the disheveled, long-haired man with a goatee we saw a couple of years ago in so much videotape from Kingman, Arizona. And what he did for the government was tie many of the loose ends of the conspiracy theory the jury has been hearing about for a coupe of weeks altogether. Most importantly, he talked about Tim McVeigh telling him in detail about the plans for the bombing, about how he was going to mix the ammonium nitrate and fuel oil in the back of a Ryder truck, about the ratios he knew he had to use to mix those ingredients. He talked about a trip that he took with Tim McVeigh in which McVeigh took him to storage sheds and showed him the explosives that would be used in the bombing and tried to convince Michael Fortier to help with the bombing. And most importantly, he talked about a trip in which Tim McVeigh drove him into Oklahoma City and they cased the Murrah Building. They drove around the building.

JIM LEHRER: And when was that? How much before the bombing, itself, was that trip?

TIM SULLIVAN: That was about three months before the bombing, Jim, and that was when he said Tim McVeigh showed him where he would leave the getaway car.

JIM LEHRER: And he also said why McVeigh wanted to bomb that building, right?

TIM SULLIVAN: Yes, he did. He said McVeigh wanted to bomb that building because he believed that that’s where the orders for this final siege at Waco, at the Branch Davidian complex came from. He believed that those orders came out of that building, and he considered what the FBI and ATF did at Waco to be murder. He said the government has declared war against the American people. And he was ready to fight back, and he said he hoped that the bombing in Oklahoma City would cause a general uprising.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Fortier, how did he react to this when he was told this? Was he part of the conspiracy? Was McVeigh trying to get him to go in with him on this, or what?

TIM SULLIVAN: Well, McVeigh was trying to convince him to go in on it. He said that McVeigh told him late in 1994 and early in ’95 that Terry Nichols was getting cold feet; that Nichols was refusing to help mix the bomb; and that Nichols wanted out. And he asked Fortier to come in and help him put this plot together. Fortier says that he said, no, he would never do anything like that. He said McVeigh said, well, will you at least help me make my getaway, meet me in Las Vegas and drive me out to the desert, and Fortier said, no, he wouldn’t even do that.

JIM LEHRER: Now, what was the approach that the defense used in cross-examining Fortier?

TIM SULLIVAN: Well, in cross-examination Stephen Jones, representing Timothy McVeigh, of course, attacked his credibility, and he concentrated mostly on Michael Fortier’s drug use during the time he’s talking about. He’s talking about a year-long period when he paled around with Tim McVeigh, and he got Fortier to admit that he was a heavy drug user of crystal Methedrine during that time; that he dealt drugs, also that he had a real strong motive to lie, because he faced criminal liability in this. He had said–Michael Fortier said to the jury, “I knew Tim McVeigh did it, and I had knowledge of it, and I was afraid that I was going to be prosecuted and face the death penalty, myself.” So Stephen Jones tried to convince the jury that his motivation to make up these–all of these facts about Tim McVeigh that would fit the government’s theory, that what was behind that was his own fear of prosecution because he probably was more involved than he’s saying.

JIM LEHRER: Was Fortier asked directly by either the prosecution or the defense why you did not tell authorities that this building was about to be blown up?

TIM SULLIVAN: Yes, he was, Jim. Prosecutor Joe Hartzler asked him that on direct examination. He said, “You know, if you had picked up the phone and called the FBI, you could have prevented the deaths of 168 people.” And Michael Fortier said, “Well, yes, I could have. I know that now, and I live with that knowledge every day of my life.” And Hartzler asked, “Well, why didn’t you do it?”. And Fortier said, “I cannot offer any excuse for that.”

JIM LEHRER: All right. Now his lying. He admits that he admits that he lied. After the bombing, he was asked if he knew anything about it, and he said no, and he lied, told several lies. How did he explain that?

TIM SULLIVAN: He explains that, Jim, by saying that he was so afraid of his own liability that he lied about knowledge of the bombing; he insisted that Tim McVeigh could not have done this; that his friend must have been innocent; and he went over and over again, he said that to the media, to the FBI for months, and to his friends and family, and he says now that the reason he was saying that was because he said, “I was afraid that if Tim McVeigh were perceived as guilty, then I would be perceived as guilty because I was so close to him.”

JIM LEHRER: Now he has already admitted–there’s been a deal made, right? Explain what the deal is.

TIM SULLIVAN: There has been a deal. Michael Fortier pled guilty to conspiring to transport weapons, stolen weapons interstate, to actually transporting those weapons. He admitted to having prior knowledge of the bombing and not telling the authorities about it, and he pled guilty to lying to the federal authorities about his knowledge after the bombing. And in exchange for that he faces a maximum of 23 years in prison, though if prosecutors are satisfied with his cooperation after these trials, they can recommend that he get less time than that.

JIM LEHRER: So he has a lot riding on the effectiveness of this testimony in these last two days, right?

TIM SULLIVAN: He certainly does, and his wife, as part of the deal, was given complete immunity from prosecution. She faces no time at all.

JIM LEHRER: She testified, when, a couple of days ago?

TIM SULLIVAN: Last week.

JIM LEHRER: Last week. And she essentially told–she told a similar story to what her husband had told, correct?

TIM SULLIVAN: Yes, she did. And part of the importance of his testimony was that he corroborated with more detail a lot of the stuff that she told the jury about Tim McVeigh’s plotting ans sharing with them the details of the plot.

JIM LEHRER: Just based on your experience in watching these kinds of things, Tim, how effective a witness was he?

TIM SULLIVAN: I think he was very effective. His wife might have been even a little bit more effective because she has less baggage, if you will, than Michael Fortier has, but he was very effective. He was–Fortier was well rehearsed. He knew his story and he stuck to it under a hostile cross-examination by Stephen Jones, but he didn’t waver. He seemed sincere. Two things I think helped his credibility. One of them was he admitted that he shared with Tim McVeigh this hatred for the federal government, this deep conviction that the federal government committed murder at Waco and must be made to pay for it, and also when he talked about all the lying he had done in the months after the bombing, the thing that bothered him most, he said, was lying to his father. He said his father was going through a nervous breakdown at the time because he was so upset that his son might be involved in this. And when he talked about his father asking him, “Tell me the truth, were you involved,” Mr. Fortier couldn’t even finish telling that story. He went completely to pieces on the witness stand, crying, and they had to stop the testimony for a few minutes while he regained his composure. And I think that even made him seem more credible than just the content of what he was saying.

JIM LEHRER: Now, just to bring the thing up to date, later today an FBI photographer testified that she took a photograph of a key. Now explain the importance of that and how that ties into what Fortier said.

TIM SULLIVAN: Well, the key is–prosecutors say this is the key to “the” Ryder truck that was rented in Junction City, Oklahoma, and carried the bomb to Oklahoma City. They’ve established through the serial number on a piece of that truck found at the scene that that–that they have traced that truck successfully. They say this is the key to the truck. And this FBI agent came in and said she photographed it in an alleyway behind the YMCA, about a block from the Murrah Building. That fits very well with Michael Fortier’s testimony, because he says that’s the alleyway that Tim McVeigh took him to a couple of months before the bombing and where Tim McVeigh told him he was going to leave the getaway car.

JIM LEHRER: How far is the prosecution away now from wrapping up its case?

TIM SULLIVAN: We expect that they’re going to rest the middle or the end of next week after what will only have been four weeks of testimony.

JIM LEHRER: That’s–that was not expected, was it?

TIM SULLIVAN: No, it wasn’t. They, themselves, were estimating before trial eight to ten weeks to put in their case, so I think they’ve even surprised themselves with the efficiency of this prosecution.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Tim Sullivan, thank you for being with us tonight.

TIM SULLIVAN: Thank you.