Twelve years before the federal building in Oklahoma City was bombed, a group of white supremacists with close ties to the neo-Nazi group Aryan Nations drew up a plan to bomb the same building in much the same way, according to evidence gathered by a federal prosecutor.
The plot, conceived at the end of October 1983, called for parking a van or a trailer in front of the federal building and blowing it up with rockets detonated by a timer, the prosecutor, Steven N. Snyder, recalled in a recent interview.Strangely, and perhaps only coincidentally, Richard Wayne Snell, an Oklahoman identified by a government witness as a participant in that plan, was executed in Arkansas on April 19, the day of the actual bombing. He was 64 years old, called himself a prisoner of war and had been convicted of two murders.
Although no evidence links Snell to last month's bombing or to either of the suspects now charged with it, his impending execution had been protested by right-wing paramilitary groups, which called him a patriot and termed the federal government "the Beast."
Timothy J. McVeigh, the prime suspect in the Oklahoma City blast, has never mentioned Snell, and federal officials who investigated Snell on other charges said they considered it unlikely that he or his supporters had been involved.
Snyder - who had uncovered evidence of the 1983 plot, including Snell's role in it, while preparing for trial in a sedition case against a group of white supremacists - declined to say whether he had brought the similaries between the 1983 plans and the bombing last month to the attention of investigators in Oklahoma City.
Although the existence of an earlier plot does not itself demonstrate any links between those identified as plotters then and those accused now, it does suggest that the idea of bombing this particular federal building could have been a subject of discussion among small extremist groups for more than a decade.
The only links between McVeigh and people identified as the earlier conspirators are extremely tenuous. McVeigh once got a traffic ticket in the Fort Smith, Ark., where some of them lived, and several months ago his sister Jennifer subscribed to The Patriot Report, a newsletter published there.
The details of the 1983 plan came from James D. Ellison, the founder of the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord, an anti-Semitic paramilitary group that now appears to be defunct but once flourished in northern Arkansas.
Ellison's account first came to light when Snyder, an assistant U.S. attorney in Fort Smith, interviewed him in preparation for his role as the principal prosecution witness against 14 other white supremacists, including 10 charged with plotting to overthrow the government by force. The trial was held in 1988, and all the defendants were acquitted.
In addition to Snell, who was already on death row, the defendants included Richard Girnt Butler, chief of the Aryan Nations, a neo-Nazi umbrella organization for white supremacist groups that is based in Hayden Lake, Idaho; Robert E. Miles, a former Ku Klux Klansman who headed the Mountain Church of Jesus Christ the Saviour in Cohoctah, Mich.; and Louis Ray Beam Jr., former grand dragon of the Texas Ku Klux Klan and "ambassador at large" of the Aryan Nations.
According to notes Snyder took before the trial, Ellison said he attended a meeting of extremist groups in Hayden Lake in July 1983 and told them of the death of Gordon Kahl, a member of yet another right-wing group, the Posse Comitatus.
Kahl was a tax protester who fled North Dakota in early 1983 after a shootout with federal agents and was subsequently shot to death in a gun battle with agents in Smithville, Ark.
"Kahl was the catalyst that made everyone come forth and change the organizations from thinkers to doers," Ellison said, according to Snyder's notes.
In late-night meetings, Ellison told Snyder, the leaders at Hayden Lake discussed how to topple the government, using as a sourcebook "The Turner Diaries," an extremist novel that envisions the government's overthrow by right-wingers who then systematically kill Jews and blacks.
Ellison told Snyder that he himself had volunteered to assassinate federal officials in Arkansas.
According to Snyder's notes, Ellison told him that the Ellison organization had discussed plans to bomb federal buildings and the Dallas office of the Jewish Defense League.
At the 1988 trial of the 14 white supremacists, Ellison testified that in October 1983, Snell and Steve Scott, an associate,"asked me to design a rocket launcher that could be used to destroy these buildings from a distance."
"On one of the trips when I was with Wayne," Ellison said of Snell, "he took me to some of the buildings and asked me to go in the building and check the building out. This kind of thing."
And before the trial, Ellison told the prosecutor that at Snell's request he had entered the federal building in Oklahoma City to gauge what it would take to damage or destroy it.
Afterward, he testified in court, he made preliminary sketches and drawings. Rocket launchers were to be "placed in a trailer or a van so that it could be driven up to a given spot, parked there, and a timed detonating device could be triggered so that the driver could walk away and leave the vehicle set in position, and he would have time to clear the area before any of the rockets launched."
Although his trial testimony did not specify which building Ellison had entered - that detail came only in the pretrial questioning - Snyder confirmed in a recent interview that it was the federal building in Oklahoma City.
"I remember this," Snyder said, "because I thought it was strange that they would go all the way to Oklahoma City" from Arkansas.
"Ellison said that Snell was bitter toward the government because of the IRS," Snyder said, "and I think these were agents from the Oklahoma City office, and they had taken him to court, and his property had been seized by the FBI and other agents in a raid. But you can't be sure about any of this, because a federal raid, to a lot of these people, is any time the postman brings the mail."