When retired FBI agent Danny Defenbaugh thinks about the Oklahoma City bombing, a playful image of childhood innocence cut from colored construction paper pops into his mind.
Driving up to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, he recalls, quickly revealed to any visitor that there were children as well as adults inside.
“You go up a little grade and as soon as you crest that small grade the building is right there. As soon as you look at the building, the first thing you see is all these little cutout hands, cardboard and balloons,” Defenbaugh said. “You knew, and he knew and anyone else couldn’t help but know that that there was a child day-care center there.”
He is Timothy McVeigh, the man executed for bombing the federal office building in the worst act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history. What Defenbaugh doesn’t describe, but many vividly remember, is the raw and massive bite the explosion took out of the downtown office tower April 19, 1995, killing 168 people including 19 children.
Two decades later, Defenbaugh, 64, who was the lead investigator for the FBI, rarely talks about a case that filled the American public with fear and consumed almost three years of his life. Described as being “FBI through and through” because he spent most of his adult life working for the bureau, he holds his emotions close but becomes forceful, and then quickly turns quiet, when talking about it.
His by-the-book, no-stone-unturned approach to the investigation earned him praise from those who worked with him 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for years.
As a result of his work, McVeigh was convicted of carrying out the attack along with Terry Nichols, who got life without parole. Two other co-conspirators, Michael and Lori Fortier, made deals after agreeing to testify for the prosecution.
“He followed every single lead and answered every single question,” said Larry Mackey, a former federal prosecutor who worked with Defenbaugh from the beginning on the McVeigh and Nichols cases. “He made us run down every rabbit hole that popped up, and there were thousands.”
While Defenbaugh steadfastly defends the work of his task force, others, including conspiracy theorists in a number of books about the bombing, lament over leads not followed.
Stephen Jones, McVeigh’s attorney, has great respect for Defenbaugh and has worked with him since on other cases, calling him “no-nonsense” and “strictly professional.” But he said Defenbaugh was ordered by his superiors in Washington, D.C., to conduct what he considers a faulty investigation.
“Danny executed the orders he was given to focus on McVeigh and Nichols and he did a competent job of that,” Jones said. “I didn’t always agree with what he did, but he is an honest and straightforward guy. … When he told you something, you could count on it.”
Stuart A. Wright, who wrote a book on the bombing and worked on McVeigh’s defense team with Jones, is far more critical of Defenbaugh’s task force, saying that a broader network of people were involved than the case against McVeigh and Nichols may suggest.
He specifically rejects any description of McVeigh as a “lone wolf” terrorist.
“I think they dropped the ball. … I would say it is flawed and incomplete,” said Wright, chairman of the sociology, social work and criminal justice department at Lamar University in Beaumont. “There are just too many unanswered questions.”
Defenbaugh shrugs off much of the criticism. Now a private investigator and security consultant in Dallas, he said new information has surfaced in recent years that he wished he had known 20 years ago, but he’s not so sure it would have made any difference.
“I still honestly feel that the results would have been the same,” Defenbaugh said.
Right man for the job
The numbers are staggering.
Defenbaugh said his task force checked out 43,250 investigative leads, including 26,256 that came through a hotline set up after the bombing. Since McVeigh used a Ryder truck, they scanned 1.3 million rental contracts as part of the case.
The physical evidence that came from the collapse of a nine-story building would have filled a football field, and they filled a semi-tractor trailer with the records from the “fleabag motels” McVeigh and Nichols stayed in across the country as they plotted the bombing.
The investigators also analyzed airline and phone company databases containing millions of records. “We were developing so much information so fast … that on a given weekend the FBI shut down its [computer] system long enough to add space just for these records,” Defenbaugh said.
The Oklahoma City bombing investigation, which eventually cost about $86 million, was the biggest investigation of its kind until 9-11.
“I worked with Danny and his team day in, day out, night in, night out, and if there was ever a need for a strong compelling leadership it was the Oklahoma City bombing,” Mackey said. “It was essential to success and to justice that the FBI have someone like Danny Defenbaugh in charge.”
Defenbaugh was arguably the perfect man for the job.
The son of an Ohio deputy sheriff, Defenbaugh went to work at the agency when he graduated from high school in 1969, working as a clerk and a messenger while he went to college. He even delivered mail to the legendary FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
Defenbaugh earned a degree in administration of justice from American University and eventually a master’s in forensic science from George Washington University, both of them in Washington, D.C. He became an agent in February 1976.
He became an expert on explosives and hazardous devices, doing two tours of duty in the lab. While he knows how to defuse a bomb, Defenbaugh said, being a specialist takes it “a step further to where it is like putting a puzzle back together after the bomb blows up.”
“The resources and the ingenuity of how to build that bomb many times can become extremely unique, particularly if you are dealing with terrorist organizations,” Defenbaugh said. “They like to put their stamp, their bomber’s signature, if you will, onto those components.”
Defenbaugh worked at FBI offices in Chicago and Miami and also investigated bombings overseas, including three terrorist attacks against American installations in Beirut. Based in Mobile, Ala., Defenbaugh had just been named one of the agency’s six inspectors and was preparing to move to Washington when he was assigned to OKBOMB, as it became known.
He got to Oklahoma City about a week after the blast.
“My first thought was that it was just like it was back in Beirut,” Defenbaugh said. “It was a very large explosion. Very high-order type of damage that you are going to find parts and pieces.” The roughly 4,000-pound bomb, made of ammonium nitrate and fuel, had shattered glass a mile away.
Defenbaugh wasn’t surprised or shocked about being appointed to lead the Oklahoma City bombing task force, but he quickly felt the heavy weight of responsibility. President Bill Clinton quickly promised that the responsible “evil cowards” would be brought to justice.
“You can probably well appreciate how large of an investigation it was. Literally every resource within the FBI touched that investigation case. It was probably the largest investigation at that time that had been conducted by the FBI,” Defenbaugh said.
Defenbaugh never let members of his team ever forget their mission.
“There was always a drive to make sense of the evidence, to start at the bottom of a bomb crater and go find someone for killing Baylee Almon on her first birthday,” Mackey said. Almon is the child in the famous photograph of an Oklahoma City fireman carrying a child away from the rubble.
Looking for ‘unsubs’
The first big break in the case came long before Defenbaugh arrived on the scene.
McVeigh, then 27, was taken into custody about 90 minutes after the blast for driving a rusty 1977 Mercury Marquis with no license plates. An alert Oklahoma state trooper discovered a loaded 9 mm Glock pistol on McVeigh and anti-government propaganda in the car.
Agents also found traces of the chemicals used in the explosion on his clothes and a business card on which McVeigh had written, “TNT @ $5/stick, need more.”
His arrest eventually led them to Nichols, a longtime associate, in Herington, Kan.
At the bomb site, one of the first key pieces of evidence discovered was the confidential vehicle identification number that was on the frame of the Ryder truck, Defenbaugh said. It was found 100 yards or so away.
From that, and records linking McVeigh and Nichols to the Ryder truck, the hotels where they stayed and the purchase of explosive materials, the federal government built its case against the two.
Their investigation determined that McVeigh’s motive was to avenge the final deadly assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco two years before. Nichols also expressed a wide range of anti-government sentiments and had ties to the militia movement, Defenbaugh said.
The arrests focused the investigation, Defenbaugh said, but that was only the beginning. What the public did not realize is that agents and analysts were investigating other leads and “unsubs,” or unknown subjects, rather than focusing on McVeigh and Nichols.
“That is where the investigation took on its magnitude,” Defenbaugh said. “We had one team that was to look at all of the conspiracy theorists and the videotapes and accusations made and either prove them or disprove them. All of them were disproven.”
Defenbaugh stayed with the case through the trials, which were held in Denver — McVeigh was convicted in 1997, Nichols in 1998. Defenbaugh had been living out of his suitcase for 34 months. Of the 39 people who worked on the case full time, 19 of them, like Defenbaugh, got divorced.
He’s also convinced that the life of a paralegal was cut short by stress. Defenbaugh said after the bombing that she went to five funerals in a day and that one of the youngest victims was buried in a blanket she made.
“You not only eat and sleep and breath it, but I think you live it also,” he said.
And even after all the years spent with the bombing, Defenbaugh can’t understand why they did it.
“It is still the hate that somebody can kill a person that they don’t even know. And then you just look at this and it is not just a person, it is all of these deaths and all of this devastation completed by one person who has got in his jaded mind that this is the right thing for him to do,” Defenbaugh said.
In 1998, Defenbaugh was named head of the Dallas FBI office, at the time the 10th-largest post in the country, with 240 agents and 160 support staff members working cases in 123 counties. After 11 transfers over 28 years, he was ready to make Dallas his home with his new wife.
Defenbaugh was quoted as saying, “Every time you hear criticism of the FBI, you never hear about the Oklahoma bombing case.”
But eventually people did start talking about it.
In 2001, Defenbaugh was criticized in a report by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General for mishandling about 1,000 documents that were not turned over to the defense during the trial. The discovery led to the postponement of McVeigh’s execution.
The inspector general didn’t find any proof that the task force members intended to conceal evidence, but he recommended that Defenbaugh, who was highly decorated with a spotless record, be disciplined. Still, nothing was found to derail the case, and McVeigh was executed in June 2001.
“They were as insignificant to the case as a wisp of wind across an Oklahoma plain,” said Mackey, who reviewed the documents after they were found. “It was silly for anyone to think there was anything of significance in those records.”
Additional information has also surfaced about McVeigh’s connections to white supremacist groups, other accomplices and government informants. Defenbaugh didn’t always know about it and wishes he did. But he’s not sure it matters.
Eventually, Defenbaugh, after 33 years, decided to retire in 2002 when the bureau tried to transfer him to Washington.
Keeping his distance
Since the bombing, Defenbaugh has worked on a number of high-profile cases, including an inquiry into political corruption by Dallas County constables.
Defenbaugh, who Jones said is not a “cuddly bear” and doesn’t have the “warmest,” most “outgoing personality,” has mostly maintained a distance from the bombing case and its victims. He did go to the 10-year anniversary ceremonies, and he has visited the downtown memorial quietly on his own.
He also that he has talked to the family whose son was injured in the blast and had to undergo a lot of therapy and multiple surgeries. Defenbaugh did it just to see how he was doing.
“That’s the nearest I’ve allowed myself. I don’t need the haunting,” Defenbaugh said.
Max B. Baker, 817-390-7714