I spent my first night in Kansas in the same motel where Timothy McVeigh stayed a couple days before, and passed the place where he rented the Ryder truck that he filled with explosives to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City.
I wasn’t trying to be dramatic or morbid. There just aren’t too many places to stay in that part of Kansas.
My assignment was to cover the court proceedings involving Terry Nichols, and to try to find out as much as I could about the man, who used to be a farmer on the fringes of the Flint Journal’s circulation area.
The next morning I drove down to Herrington, the small town where Nichols lived. I was a day behind the media horde that descended on the town, and it worked out better than I could have hoped.
Police blocked off the streets around Nichols small home the day before as they searched the house for bombs and clues. But this day life had more closely returned to normal and people where back in their homes. I spotted some of Nichols’ neighbors talking in their backyard and they invited me to talk.
Later that night a local church hosted a memorial service for the bombing victims in the biggest room in the town.
I sensed a mixture of shock, shame and hurt. I think people had a hard time dealing with the idea that one of their own was somehow involved with such a horrible crime.
Herrington is one of those small Midwestern towns that John Mellencamp sings about. Everyone knows everyone. And I think people were shocked that they didn’t know what this man was capable of – or ashamed that they did and didn’t take him seriously enough to stop it.
The service was an outlet for these people, as if to say this man was from this place, but he was not one of us. There were a lot of tears. Reporters are supposed to be observers. I felt like an intruder.
I spent much of the next week in Wichita, the closest city and site of the court house where Nichols preliminary hearing would be held. Since we didn’t know which day that would be, I was essentially staking out the courthouse all day.
There were a couple of other reporters doing the same thing, and that leaves time for friendly banter. But one day in mid-week a new Chrysler Caravan pulled up with the Midwest Bureau from CNN.
I thought this was a sign that something was going to happen. I remember a couple of us asked the CNN reporter if she new what time Nichols was coming, and she replied in a strange, sing-song voice saying “I can’t tell you that,” with as much condescension as she could possibly muster. OK, battle lines were drawn and we now had an enemy.
All this staking out and posturing didn’t leave a lot of time for baseball adventures. Compounding the problem was that the Wichita Wranglers, a Royals Double-A farm team, were on the road all week, depriving me of a chance to check out a pre-stardom Johnny Damon. A challenge, certainly.
But I found Lawrence-Dumont Stadium and convinced the folks inside to let me look around and take some photos. They even opened the gift shop just so I could buy a cap and some other souvenirs.
I got to know the court people a little bit since I was hanging around the building all week. And late in the week they let me know that Nichols would be coming in the next afternoon and showed me the big courtroom where the proceedings would take place.
Early next day the media horde arrived. The court activity wasn’t going to take place until 1 p.m. but people started setting up to get a glimpse of Nichols being hustled into the building.
A deputy told us that we could start lining up to get into the courtroom at 10 a.m. I planned to hang outside with the others, and I knew the courtroom was plenty big. But something inside told me to get on line. After burning through the Journal’s money all week, if I did not get into that court I’d have a lot of explaining to do once I got back to Flint.
The court officers lined us up on a bench in a lobby down the hall from the courtroom. I was No. 11 on line, with an artists hired by television stations to make the courtroom sketches, an Associated Press reporter, a writer from the Wichita Eagle-Beacon and a woman from a Detroit television station.
We had nice time sitting there gabbing, taking turns going on food runs and letting the artist warm up by sketching us. The line got longer and longer as time passed – I counted well more than 100 people -- and it included the snotty reporter from CNN, who waltzed in right before the appointed hour.
A bailiff announced it was time to go in. He looked at the front of the line and counted off. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11 and 12, follow me.” I thought they were taking us down in small groups.
Walking down the long hall, the guy from the Eagle-Beacon joked that we were going to be “In the front row,” saying it in the famous Bob Uecker voice.
We entered the court and I could feel the door close behind me. The big courtroom was already filled with every lawyer, court employee and person with connections who wanted in. We were not in the front row. We were in the last row – and no one else was getting in.
The Eagle-Beacon reporter shot me a wide-eyed look that was part amazement and part sheer joy. We waited on line three hours and got in. People who came minutes after us were down the hall with the people who walked in right at 1 p.m. – and we could faintly hear the angry screams of people who would have to explain to their editors why they did not get in that courtroom.
The proceedings started, and the key testimony was someone who said Nichols told him that “something big was going to happen.”
There at the defense table sat Terry Nichols. I was struck that he looked so … ordinary.
Even after talking to his neighbors, I think I expected a monster. McVeigh, after all, with his buzz cut, focused stare and unrepentant expression, looked the part of someone who could blow up a day-care center.
But there sat a slight man with metal-framed glasses. He didn’t look like a killer. He looked scared.
The proceedings lasted a while. As a person left the room, a harried and grateful reporter who was nest in line was allowed in. And when it was over, people trapped outside swarmed around the Associated Press reporter and pinned him against a wall as he read from his notebook.
I hurried to find a payphone and caught the eye of the CNN reporter who was so nasty earlier in the week. A better person might have stopped and let her know what transpired. But I just kept walking. My adventure had taken me away from home for nearly two weeks and it was time to dictate my story and head home.