The Life Of Terry Nichols
Detroit Free Press: Seattle Times News Services
------------------------------------------------------------------ THE 40 YEARS OF TERRY Lynn Nichols' life are a study in frustration. A close look at the second man to be charged in the April 19 Oklahoma City bombing reveals a contradictory picture: bright flashes of promise combined with dead ends, false starts and failures. ------------------------------------------------------------------
Terry Nichols was flustered.
Neatly dressed and well-groomed, he strode into the public safety building in Herington, Kan., on April 21 and questioned a dispatcher. His name had been mentioned in news broadcasts about the Oklahoma City bombing.
What was going on?
Public Safety Director Dale Kuhn invited Nichols in and offered him a chair and a cup of coffee.
First of all, Kuhn asked, could you spell your name, please?
He ran a check and then dialed the FBI. Nichols tried to press his edgy questioning. Kuhn hushed him.
"He was nervous, he wanted to talk, to question me about what was going on," Kuhn said. "I told him it was best to just wait."
Within a half hour, agents showed up, escorted Nichols to an office and closed the door. Five hours later, the agents took him away.
The next day in a federal courtroom in Wichita, Nichols was stammering that he didn't understand what was happening.
"I don't know if I ever will," he told a federal magistrate. "It's all a jumble in my brain right now."
Terry Lynn Nichols' 40 years are a study in frustration.
His resume reads like a checklist of bright promise stymied by dead ends, false starts and failures. Not quite a drifter, Nichols nevertheless caromed across the country like a man unable to get his feet or his dreams planted.
2nd person charged
Yesterday, Nichols became the second person charged in connection with the bombing, and was flown from Wichita to Oklahoma City. Today, news services reported that Nichols accompanied the Ryder truck from Kansas to Oklahoma City, where it was used to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
Since surrendering himself, Nichols had been sitting in a Wichita jail, held as a material witness in the bombing - allegedly committed by his friend and old Army buddy Timothy McVeigh - and charged in a bombmaking conspiracy in Michigan with his brother James. That case is not directly related to the Oklahoma City bombing.
As investigators continue to sort out his alleged participation in the bombing, those who knew him shake their heads at the path his life has taken.
`Just wasn't into farming
Raised on a family farm outside Lapeer, Mich., Terry is the third son of Joyce and Robert Nichols. Farming was his heritage, but he seemed eager to find his calling away from the land.
"Everybody thought he'd become a doctor, a lawyer or a cop," said Kathy Smith, a schoolmate. "He just wasn't into farming."
Others remember him as a bright student in the Lapeer High Class of 1973, but quiet and shy. His brother James, a year older, was more outgoing.
The brothers were well-liked, and they hosted hayride parties on their farm during summertime.
The year Terry Nichols graduated, his parents divorced. Terry, James and a younger sister, Suzanne, stayed with their mother in the Lapeer area. Older brother Leslie moved to Imlay City, Mich. with their father.
After the divorce, Nichols' mother bought a 160-acre farm just outside Decker, Mich., for $48,000.
Terry had dreams of medicine or the law; a community college was his first stop. It lasted just a year. His father said Terry sold insurance for awhile, but that, too, failed to hold him. The next few years saw a succession of jobs, including manager of a co-op grain elevator in Cass City, Mich.
"He was sharp, business-wise, communicated with people very well," said Bob Biebel, a Cass City farmer. "He was one of the most calm people you'd ever want to meet - non-excitable."
He attracted the attention of Lana Ostentowski. Nichols was a quiet and shy dreamer; Ostentowski was an outgoing businesswoman with a growing real estate business. She'd been married twice and had two sons.
They were married in a civil ceremony in Caro, Mich. in 1981. Later, James Nichols would marry Lana's sister, Kelly. Terry and Lana set up housekeeping in Snover, not far from the Decker farm.
While managing the elevator, Terry Nichols tried his hand at some land deals with Lana, and had some success. They had a son, Joshua.
A friend, Bob Papovich, recalled the time the Nicholses volunteered their lawn for a three-day yard sale to raise money for playground equipment. They fed workers with a steady stream of hot dogs.
Papovich also said that Lana more often appeared to be the hard-charging, career-oriented spouse; Terry took on homemaking duties.
At his high school 10th reunion, Nichols cast himself as a homegrown capitalist, listing his higher education in the program as "the School of Hard Knocks." Among his pastimes were outdoor sports and exploring investments. His goal was financial independence within five years.
But life at home was rocky. The two interfamily marriages were strained; James and Kelly parted in a bitter divorce with allegations of child abuse. Terry also started looking toward new fields away from Michigan's Thumb area.
The break came in May 1988. On May 23, according to court records, Terry and Lana parted. She moved to Bay City; he entered the Army the next day.
Enlisting is a common way for a young man to set a course in life. It is far less common, however, for a man in his 30s with children.
On May 30, 1988, he assembled with the other recruits at Fort Benning, Ga., for basic training in Echo Company, 4th Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Training Brigade.
His age set him apart from the other recruits, according to one of his drill sergeants, but there was more.
"He stood out as older than most trainees," said the former sergeant. "He was more mature, knew more of the world, so he was given more responsibility. He was a platoon guide, which is a top leadership position for a trainee."
The ex-sergeant said Nichols demonstrated the qualities to succeed in the Army: maturity, responsibility, intelligence, loyalty, initiative.
Others saw something else: A fellow soldier, Robin Littleton, said Nichols struck up a fast friendship with a lanky recruit from upstate New York, Timothy McVeigh. They were drawn to each other like magnets, with a common interest in weapons and similar views.
Nichols and McVeigh were to become angry opponents of the federal government, but the ex-sergeant said he saw no evidence of that.
"First of all, a man who hates the government is not going to be joining the Army," he said. "Anything along those lines must have come later."
After basic training, the men went to Fort Riley, Kan., assigned to the 1st Infantry Division, popularly known as the Big Red One. Nichols was one of the thousands of soldiers on the sprawling base.
While his buddy McVeigh would shoot through the ranks to become a sergeant, Nichols remained a private first class. And like his other paths, his Army stint was short-lived.
Lana Nichols left Michigan, eventually ending up in Las Vegas. She left Joshua with relatives in Michigan.
On May, 15, 1989 - less than a year after joining - Nichols left the service with a hardship discharge so he could care for his son, friends said. Returning to Michigan, Nichols eventually moved to Cass City.
From third grade on, Joshua lived with his mother in Las Vegas, spending summers with his father, who sometimes took up residence there.
From fall 1990 through spring 1991, Nichols was a carpenter for Cass City contractor Danny Ulfig, remodeling kitchens and baths.
"He wasn't fast, but he was very meticulous," Ulfig said.
Meanwhile, James Nichols was undergoing a profound transformation. His divorce and child custody fight seemed to embitter him about the courts - and government in general.
In the early 1990s, James tried to renounce his citizenship. Terry would follow suit in 1992, telling the Evergreen Township clerk in a letter that he was turning in his right to vote because "there is total corruption in the entire political system."
Nichols becomes rambler
Nichols had become a rambler, never settling in any spot. Sometimes he lived at the farm with his brother, other times in the Las Vegas area.
The Las Vegas move, Ulfig recalls, was part of his plan to start investing in real estate with his ex-wife.
Despite hoping to have a business relationship with his ex-wife,
Terry in November 1990 went the mail-order route for a second wife.
A woman he met through a bridal service in the Philippines introduced him to Marife Torres.
Terry visited and they engaged in a brief courtship by mail, said Torres' father, Eduardo. The two were married in a Cebu City restaurant.
After protracted legal hassles, he brought Marife into this country.
Marriage apparently was the bright spot in his life. Otherwise, it was a series of legal tangles, small-time jobs and increasing disaffection.
Nichols, according to court records, was sued several times in 1992 over credit cards and other debts totaling about $40,000. Bills from the credit card companies were returned with "dishonored with due cause" written across them. He tried to submit his own "certified fractional reserve check" for the accounts and jousted with lawyers that his credit was as worthy as that backing U.S. currency.
The jaunt to Las Vegas didn't work out as he had planned; soon he was back in the Thumb. Joining him there was his old Army buddy, McVeigh, who also had left the service. McVeigh, a decorated Persian Gulf War veteran, pitched in around the farm.
James Nichols also took a liking to the lean New Yorker, even setting aside a bedroom for his exclusive use.
But, according to federal investigators, the brothers and McVeigh had more than farming on their minds. According to investigators' reports, they started experimenting with homemade bombs. Terry Nichols' ex-wife has told interviewers that he taught Joshua, now 12, how to make a bomb.
By November 1993, Terry and Marife Nichols and their 2-year-old son, Jason, were ready to pull up stakes again for the West.
On the night of Nov. 22, they put Jason to bed. The room was cluttered with half-packed clothing, boxes and plastic bags. During the night, the boy got out of bed and became trapped in a plastic bag. He died in what police described as "a tragic accident." The loss hit Nichols hard.
"That baby dying knocked the pudding out of him," said Phil Morawksi, a Michigan friend. "Cute little guy, sunshine face, when he'd see you, his face would light up."
Marife and Terry had a second child, Nicole, and made their way to Las Vegas, where they rented a $550-a-month condominium in December 1993. Neighbors found the family unremarkable.
After only three months, Terry and Marife moved out, selling most of their furniture.
"He told us he was having trouble finding employment," said real estate agent Howard Solomon.
In the three months they lived in Las Vegas, Terry commuted to Kansas, repeatedly staying at a motel in Junction City near Fort Riley.
He told acquaintances he was trying to set himself up in the military surplus business and was going to gun shows.
The hired hand
A month after leaving Las Vegas, the former farm boy who dreamed of being a doctor was offering himself as a hired ranch hand in Marion County, Kan.
Tim Donahue, whose family owns a huge farm, said Nichols told him he'd been farming with his brother but that they couldn't get along.
At this time, Marife was lonely. "They just had one car, and he drove it to work, so she was left at home with her daughter," Donahue said.
Marife told a neighbor, Alice Richmond, that she'd come to the United States "because it had more educational opportunities. She wanted to go to college and be a pharmacist, but it didn't work out."
She was thinking about returning to the Philippines. Her husband "didn't have much of a steady income" and was always away at gun shows, Richmond recalled.
Terry made clear his feelings about government, writing the county attorney that he was not subject to government authority. He told his boss he did not want to pay taxes. But the ranch insisted on withholding Social Security and Medicare.
"He said he thought government was too big. . . . I know he listened to a lot of talk radio shows. He tended to believe a lot of that stuff," said Donahue's daughter-in-law, Lisa.
She recalled Terry making small talk once and telling her he knew how to make a bomb out of fertilizer. She thought it odd but didn't dwell on it.
At the end of last August, Terry gave 30 days notice. By then, Donahue said, Terry had made $12,000.
Back in Philippines
In November, the family returned to Cebu City, spending Christmas with the Torres family and making arrangements to live in an apartment there.
Terry was troubled about life in the United States, his father-in-law said, complaining that the assault weapons ban made it harder to make a living.
"He told us it was hard looking for a job. He was talking about raising children and his job wasn't good enough," Torres said.
Terry returned to the United States in January, but Marife stayed behind until March, studying biology at Southwestern University in Cebu City, her father said.
The Nichols' apartment in Cebu City sits furnished but unoccupied, Torres said. Local authorities have informed him his daughter is in protective custody in the United States but is not a suspect.
Nichols returned to the Fort Riley area. He settled in Herington, just a few miles away. He told people he wanted to live closer to the base, but rents were too high.
In February, Nichols contacted Georgia Rucker, looking for a house. He was interested in buying, she said, but he wanted to deal directly with the seller and avoid using a bank.
He looked at a farm or two, but settled instead for a small two-bedroom house on South Second Street.
He had other business to tend to, as well. He rented a storage shed under an assumed name and paid a visit to Pat's Pawn Shop near Fort Riley.
Twice in the first part of the year, Nichols came in and slapped down $600 for a Glock .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol. Owner Pat Livingston said Nichols wasn't interested in any other guns: Glock he wanted, and Glock he bought.
McVeigh was another Glock customer at Pat's, and he also had access to the rental storage shed.
Neighbors noticed that when Nichols moved in, he arrived first with a small U-Haul trailer. But then, for three successive nights, pickups arrived and men moved heavy crates into the house. The men also hauled large white buckets into the tidy house.
Nichols had business cards printed and visited an Army surplus outlet to sell military picks and shovels. He told people he sold surplus goods at weekend shows.
In April, he hit the road again. This time, it was back to Michigan and a surprise visit with his father.
But Terry Nichols was soon back on the road away from Michigan.
Less than a week later, back in Kansas, he got a call from McVeigh. The Army buddy and surplus partner was in Oklahoma City and needed a ride to Kansas.
On April 16, Nichols told federal authorities that he fetched McVeigh. On the overnight return trip, McVeigh said to Nichols that "something big is going to happen."
"Are you going to rob a bank?" Nichols said he asked.
McVeigh merely repeated himself: Something big was going to happen.
The arrived in Junction City about 1:30 a.m. and parted company. But the next day - April 18 - they met for a 6 a.m. breakfast. McVeigh wanted to borrow Nichols' blue pickup.
He also asked another favor: If I don't return, clean out the storage shed.
But McVeigh did return with the pickup. That night, Nichols talked with his brother James in Michigan. James said they talked about magnets for the farm water supply.
A few minutes past 9 the next morning, a Ryder truck erupted in a devastating fireball outside the Oklahoma City federal building. With 167 known fatalities, it is the worst act of terrorism and one of the biggest mass murders in American history.
The next day, Terry Nichols paid a visit to the rental shed and the local cable television company. He wanted a cable hookup right away. He wanted CNN's coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing, he told the clerk.
Nichols wanted man
Shock waves from the blast were about to flatten Nichols. Less than two hours after the explosion, McVeigh had been arrested in Oklahoma for driving without a license plate. He was taken into custody because he was carrying a Glock pistol. On his booking card, he listed the Nichols farm in Decker as his address and James Nichols as a friend in the "next of kin" space.
On Friday, April 21, Oklahoma authorities matched McVeigh with a sketch of one of the bombing suspects, and federal agents raced to track down his associates.
The name Terry Lynn Nichols was soon all over the airwaves.
Agents swooped down on the Nichols farm in Michigan and the small blue house on South Second Street in Herington. From the Kansas house, investigators made an astonishing haul: blasting caps, 33 firearms and an antitank rocket. Also taken were blue plastic barrels, which excited the searchers because blue plastic shards - believed to be from the bomb - were found at the blast site.
Marife fled into protective custody as Terry was detained as a material witness to the bombing.
Friends tried to relate the Terry Nichols they knew with the one in the news. His ex-wife said: "I think he was a wonderful father and gentle man. And I will believe in him until I can't believe in him anymore. That's exactly how Joshua and I feel."
Bob Papovich, too, cannot believe his old friend would be involved.
Yes, Papovich said, Nichols' life had turned out to a series of unsettled wanderings, but that did not make him a terrorist.
"I would assume it was like his earlier days, just searching for what he wanted to do," Papovich said.
"This thing is a mind-blower. This would be the equivalent of arresting your mother. . . ."
Detroit Free Press staff writers Laurie Bennett, Brenda J. Gilchirst, Steve Henderson, Tina Lam, Jim Schaefer and Alison Young contributed to this report. In addition, material from the Dallas Morning News is included.
------------------ TERRY LYNN NICHOLS ------------------
Education: Lapeer (Mich.) High School Class of 1973; one year community college.
Military service: U.S. Army, private first class, 1988-89, received personal hardship discharge.
Personal: Two marriages. First, to the former Lana Ostentowski, ended in divorce. They had one son, Joshua. Second marriage to Marife Torres; they had one son, Jason, who died in an accidental suffocation, and a daughter, Nicole.
Occupations: Insurance sales, real-estate investments, grain-elevator manager, farm hand, weapons-parts and military-surplus dealer.
Politics: Attempted at least twice to renounce voting rights.
Legal status: After being detained as a material witness for federal grand jury investigating Oklahoma City federal building bombing, was charged yesterday in the bombing, becoming the second person charged. Also charged in Michigan with brother James in an unrelated case as part of an alleged bomb-making conspiracy.
Detroit Free Press
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