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If you think health care is expensive now, wait until you see what it costs when it's free. -- P.J. O'Rourke
May 11, 1995
In the seven years before he turned 40, Terry Nichols' life had been a string of quiet failures.
He quit the military, gave up farming, got divorced, racked up debt and dragged his new family through a series of cheap motels and small-town gun shows as his hatred for the government grew.
Nichols also had another life, one in which he used aliases, hoarded explosives and sent secret letters that were to be opened "in the event of my death."
On Wednesday, U.S. Atty. Randy Rathbun walked across a carpeted federal courtroom and dropped a small sheaf of papers onto the broad wooden desk where Nichols sat.
"He has been formally served," Rathbun told U.S. Magistrate Karen Humphreys.
The documents, filed in Oklahoma City Tuesday and unsealed in Wichita Wednesday, charge Nichols with taking part in the bombing of Oklahoma City's Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 167 people in the deadliest act of terrorism on American soil.
His prim mouth pulled into a frown, Nichols studied the papers for a moment, then indicated to Humphreys that he understood their content.
"It's a relief to finally have charges," said his court-appointed attorney David Phillips after the hearing Wednesday. "He's ready to get down to Oklahoma and start defending the case."
Later U.S. marshals flew Nichols to Oklahoma City, where preliminary hearings are expected to begin Thursday. Officials said they will seek the death penalty if he is convicted.
Authorities reportedly have information that Nichols may have driven to Oklahoma City in the rental truck that allegedly carried the explosive mixture of fertilizer and fuel oil.
Law enforcement sources said the evidence against Nichols also includes a receipt for ammonium nitrate found in his Kansas home, with McVeigh's fingerprint on the receipt.
Along with Nichols, investigators said, they still are looking at McVeigh's sister, Jennifer, "with great interest," though no charges are imminent against her. She illegally shipped ammunition to her brother at one time and shares his anti-government zeal, the sources said.
There also is keen interest in David Paulsen, who lives in the Chicago area and is connected with Paulsen's Military Supply in Antigo, Wis.
"There was substantive communication between these two men (McVeigh and Paulsen) and we'd like to know more about that," one source said.
Investigators feel they're looking for only a "small group" of several conspirators.
"We'd be surprised if it's more than 10. . . . Ten people don't keep a secret, not on something this big. Not for 2 million bucks," said one law enforcement official, refering to the reward offered by the government.
As they piece together the details of Nichols' life, authorities Wednesday continued to question his 12-year-old son Josh, who reportedly visited Nichols in the days before the bombing.
Law enforcement officials stressed Wednesday that the boy was being questioned for information and not as a participant in the attack. One official discounted speculation that the boy is fugitive suspect John Doe No. 2, calling it "highly unlikely."
The official said the witness who saw McVeigh and John Doe No. 2 at the rural Kansas business where they rented the truck used in the bombing is "a very good witness" who gave an excellent description of McVeigh before his arrest and is not likely to confuse a 12-year-old boy with a grown man.
Authorities have provided therapists for the boy and a home-school program so he will not fall behind his classmates, a person close to the family said.
Since April 21, Josh Nichols has been sheltered near Las Vegas, along with his mother, Nichols' ex-wife Lana Padilla. But family friends said the boy spent a lot of time with his father before and after the breakup.
"He spent the biggest share of his time with Terry," said Dallas Tobias, a former sales partner of the boy's mother in Decker, Mich. "They were going through that divorce . . . Terry had a lot of free time, and Lana was kind of a workaholic. She worked some pretty long hours, and she was always on the road" selling insurance and real estate.
Terry Nichols, dressed in a blue short-sleeved shirt and tan slacks, was barely audible when he addressed the bench Wednesday.
Three years earlier, when Chase Manhattan Bank sued Nichols in a Michigan county court because he owed $17,860 in credit-card debts, he had refused to come before the bench, shouting at Sanilac County Circuit Court Judge Donald Teeple from the back of the room until he was restrained.
Born in rural Michigan on April 1, 1955, he was an unremarkable student who played junior varsity football at Lapeer High School in Michigan, and joined the ski club. His classmates predicted he would be a lawyer. But after his parents divorced, Terry and his brother James stayed close to the 160-acre farm his mother bought in 1975 for $48,000.
They experimented with organic crops and exchanged pamphlets about the illegitimacy of the federal government. They married sisters.
Terry ground his own flour and baked his own bread, taking care to avoid chemical-laced ingredients.
In 1988, with his marriage falling apart and his life going nowhere, Nichols, then 33, joined the Army, and was stationed in a close-knit unit with McVeigh.
While Nichols was in the military, his wife, Lana, filed for divorce. At around the same time, Nichols met a Filipino woman, Marife Torres. It is unclear when they married, but in 1992, she filed court papers in Michigan giving him power of attorney as her husband.
While his buddy McVeigh rose through the ranks, Pvt. Nichols left the military after less than a year in May 1989, winning a hardship discharge for reasons the military will not disclose.
Back on the farm in August 1992, Nichols sent a handwritten letter to the Evergreen, Mich., township clerk renouncing his right to vote because "there is total corruption in the entire political system from the local government on up through and including the President of the United States, George Bush."
The statement came as Nichols was being pursued by creditors for a variety of debts, including about $40,000 in unpaid credit card bills.
Nichols and his brother came to share a view that has gained some currency among beleaguered farmers: that U.S. money except gold and silver dollars lost all value in the 1930s, when the country went into debt. The two men also renounced their driver's licenses.
In November 1993, his 2-year-old son Jason died on the Decker farm. He was suffocated by a plastic bag while Terry and Marife were packing to move. The death was ruled an accident. The couple moved West.
In March 1994, Nichols was staying in a hotel in Junction City, Kan., when he answered a help-wanted ad in a farm journal, and took a job on a Marion, Kan., ranch.
"He was a very neat appearing individual. Very mannerly," said Jim Donahue, 62, owner of the Hayhook Ranch.
On March 16, 1994, a few days before he started the ranch job, Nichols mailed an affidavit to Marion County officials notifying them that he was not subject to the laws of the U.S. government, which he called a "fraudulent, usurping octopus."
Nichols complained about taxes being taken out of his paycheck. So the ranch, using exemptions allowed for farmworkers, deducted only social security taxes.
In late August 1994, Nichols gave Donahue 30 days notice, saying he was going into the gun-dealing business with a friend.
On Sept. 22, Nichols or McVeigh, using an alias, rented a storage shed outside nearby Herington.
On about Sept. 28, a cache of dynamite and detonator caps were stolen from a nearby quarry.
On Sept. 30, Nichols left. McVeigh helped him pack, Donahue said.
Nichols was back on the family's Michigan farm in January 1995, when he sought out local real estate dealers to buy a home in Herington, Kan.
He purchased the house on contract for $25,000 in February, putting down an undisclosed amount of cash and agreeing to pay the seller in monthly installments.
"We all thought he was just a little bit different," Herington real estate agent Georgia Rucker said. "We had to pry any information out of him."
On March 10, he stopped at Herington City Hall and asked computer coordinator Janet Novak what sort of chemicals were in the city's water, and if it contained fluoride.
When she told him a water department employee would have to get back to him, Nichols "appeared to be a little upset, but he never followed up," Novak said.
Nichols' ex-wife told the syndicated TV show "American Journal" that Nichols gave her a package in November 1994 and told her to open it if he failed to return in 50 days.
She opened the package the next morning and found letters of instruction for her and McVeigh. The letter to McVeigh, which she said she never delivered, said to clean out a storage unit "in the event of my death."
Padilla's co-worker said that Nichols had lived in the area intermittently since 1991. "He was in and out for quite some time," Kay Bignotti told reporters. "He was just some ex-husband hanging around for a while, spending time with his boy."
Bignotti added, "That boy loves his dad. . . . He can't admit or acknowledge that he may be involved in something so terrible."
By David Jackson, Tribune Staff Writer. Tribune staff writers Linnet Myers in Washington and Flynn McRoberts in Chicago contributed to this report. Copyright Chicago Tribune
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