A drifter frantic to buck the system

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The Independent Online
Timothy McVeigh yesterday spent his 27th birthday under heavy guard in a federal prison, awaiting the day when he will be tried by a nation in which many already believe that he committed the worst act of domestic terrorism in US history.

As the manhunt continued for his possible co-conspirators, a portrait began to emerge of the man who may - or may not - have used a massive car bomb to blow up Oklahoma City's Murrah federal building, exacting a death toll that may rise to more than 200.

Former associates describe an isolated, paranoid, gun-obsessed individual who has grown increasingly right-wing, sharing the same anti-federalist views as the angry white males who comprise the core of America's extremist militia groups.

The FBI claims that he hired the truck used in the bombing, which coincided with the second anniversary of the FBI's storming of the Branch Davidian cult's headquarters in Waco, Texas - a disastrous operation that led to around 86 deaths, and which, according to investigators, infuriated Mr McVeigh.

He is believed to have joined the US Army after leaving school, served in Operation Desert Storm as a gunner in a Bradley fighting vehicle and rose to the rank of sergeant. But he became so disaffected that he left in 1992, wildly complaining to friends that the military had planted a computer chip in his buttocks to track him.

After drifting through several jobs, Mr McVeigh ended up living in a trailer park in Kingman, a small town in western Arizona, a hotbed of fringe survivalist militias who oppose taxation, guns laws, the federal government's ownership of land and virtually all other forms of control from Washington. In recent months there has been a spate of small bombings, threats, and acts of sabotage in the West, including a bomb that blew out windows in a US Forest Service office in Carson City, Nevada.

After his arrest, dozens of federal agents began searching the desert near Kingman where a militia group called the Arizona Patriots reportedly conduct training exercises. According to the New York Times, the authorities have also reopened an investigation into an incident in which a small bomb exploded in a field near a residential area.

Mr McVeigh worked in a hardware store in Kingman, surprising his boss by turning up each day in army fatigues. He wanted to be security guard, a job that required him to take a shooting course. It was an occasion that Jeff Arrowood will not forget. Mr McVeigh suddenly began a shooting frenzy, firing off 150 rounds at random. "It scared the hell out of me. He pretty much went crazy, shooting at trees and rocks."

The former trooper's interest in weaponry ran deep. When an Oklahoma highway patrolman stopped his car 90 minutes after the bombing, he was carrying a 9mm pistol,"cop-killer" bullets, and a hunting knife. Some 63 miles away, the world was getting its first glimpse of the scenes for which he would be held responsible.

But some of those who knew him as a child told a different story. The son of a car plant worker, he was brought up in Pendleton, New York state, where former neighbours remembered him as a quiet boy who was abandoned by his mother at the age of ten, when his parents divorced. Some spoke of a youth with a fondness for cars and computers. "He was the quiet one," said his former teacher, Coleen Conner. "A lot of the quiet ones are the ones who have ended up doing scary things. You never know what you have sitting in the classroom."

As the years passed, he became far less sociable, although his friends included James and Terry Nichols, two brothers whom the US authorities are holding as "material witnesses" in the bombing, and who also reportedly hold strongly anti-government views. Agents have been searching James Nichols's organic farm, where Mr McVeigh used to work. Three years ago Terry Nichols wrote to his local town clerk renouncing the right to vote on the grounds that there was "total corruption in the entire system".

Last night that system was training its full wrath on Mr McVeigh, who faces the death penalty if found guilty. His lawyers have suggested moving the case out of Oklahoma City, where he is due to appear in court for a preliminary hearing on Thursday, because it will be impossible to guarantee him a fair trial, such is the city's anger. They have a point: no one in the heartland seems to doubt that the lean-faced, cropped ex-soldier they saw being led away in handcuffs on Friday is the same man who slaughtered their own.