The blue-eyed boy who fled into extremism to escape his troubled past

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The Independent US

Popular thinking has it that Timothy McVeigh was spurred to plant the Oklahoma bomb by his anger at the federal government over two crucial incidents.

The first was in 1992, when federal agents fatally wounded a mother and her son during a stand-off at Ruby Ridge in Idaho.

The second was a year later, when agents laid siege to David Koresh and his Branch Davidians sect at their base in Waco, Texas. About 80 people died when the cult's headquarters erupted in flames.

McVeigh had been to Waco a month earlier to sell anti-government bumper stickers, while agents from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were driving around in tanks. "I'm out here to make a statement," he told a reporter. "It seems the ATF just wants a chance to play with their toys paid for by government money." A month later, on 19 April 1993, he was watching television as the Waco siege came to its deadly end. "Die, you spineless cowardice [sic] bastards," McVeigh would write soon afterwards in a comment aimed at those federal agents left on his sister's computer.

Those who knew him when he grew up in Pendleton, New York, remember a happy, smiling blue-eyed boy with golden, curly hair. They say he was a skinny child, who was bullied at school and cried for days when he saw a litter of unwanted kittens drowned.

But it is likely that McVeigh's disaffection began early. His parents, a travel agent and a car plant worker, fought often and eventually split up, leaving McVeigh, one son born between two sisters, feeling rejected.

He developed an early passion for guns, shooting in the woods near his home. At 14, he told friends he was a survivalist, stockpiling food and weapons "in case of a nuclear attack or the Communists took over the country", a neighbour said. At 20, he joined the army, bored with work as a private security guard. He was known as a dedicated soldier: his officers once said they would like "a hundred Tim McVeighs".

McVeigh served in the Gulf War, earning a Bronze Star and a reputation as a deadly accurate tank gunner. While still there, he was asked to try out for the Special Forces, but at their training camp in North Carolina he was forced to drop out on the second day. Soon after, McVeigh left the army, growing increasingly disaffected and finding like-minded individuals within far-right groups. He started reading extremist literature such as the racist tract The Turner Diaries, which described an attack on a federal building using a truck bomb.

In addition to becoming friends with his accomplice Terry Nichols, now serving life imprisonment, McVeigh fell in with a white supremacist group, the Aryan Republican Army. When McVeigh was stopped as he left Oklahoma City by a patrolman who spotted he had no licence plate, officers immediately found clues to lead them to think he was their man. On the front seat of the car was his "manifesto", clippings about high taxes and the "slaughter" near Waco.

When FBI agents interviewed him they asked if he knew why they were there. He said: "Yes. That thing in Oklahoma City, I guess."