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Judge: Return Hardware Thought Linked to Nichols

A federal judge ordered authorities Thursday to return nine computers and hundreds of disks confiscated from a consultant thought to have images relevant to the trial of Oklahoma City (searchbombing conspirator Terry Nichols (search).

U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III (searchsaid he was satisfied consultant John Culbertson would cooperate in the investigation and police should not have executed a search warrant to seize material they probably could have gotten with a subpoena.

"The search appears to be excessively broad," he said. "This was a howitzer (doing) what a BB gun could have accomplished."

Culbertson was a consultant in the investigation of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and told the court he is a journalist. Investigators thought he had images of the building before, during and after the explosion.

But Culbertson said he turned over relevant images to the House Judiciary Committee several years ago and does not have what authorities are looking for. He agreed to help them find material on his computers when he gets them back. He said he has eight frames, but they do not show what investigators are seeking.

Fairfax County police seized the computers and disks Friday from Culbertson's home in Centreville, Va., and sent them to Oklahoma City, where authorities are preparing for the state trial of Nichols, charged with 161 counts of murder.

He has already been convicted of federal charges in the deaths of eight federal law enforcement agents in the April 19, 1995, bombing, and is serving a life sentence. Authorities said Nichols helped Timothy McVeigh pack the bomb inside a truck the day before the attack. McVeigh was executed in 2001.

Police officers searched Culbertson's home last Friday in hopes of finding video containing footage of a truck exploding near the Murrah building, but they found no such tape, according to Culbertson.

"They're looking for the magic bullet in the Oklahoma City case," he said. "It's a huge fishing expedition," he said. "They are chasing a tape I never have had."

Culbertson, a former congressional aide, said his correspondence, sources, work information and student records went out the door with the officers. Culbertson lectures at Oral Roberts University.

The property was shipped to Oklahoma on Monday morning and hasn't been opened or copied.

The judge ruled the property had to be returned immediately and Culbertson would identify and allow authorities to copy whatever is of interest to them.

Oklahoma City police inspector Mark Easley said in an affidavit that Culbertson may have video or still photographs of the truck before and during the explosion. Easley's affidavit said Dallas attorney Thomas W. Mills Jr. saw video on Culbertson's computer on Aug. 26, 1998, and described it to defense attorneys, who then filed the information in the motion.

Mills said the video included images of the bombing aftermath and a series of pictures showed the building before the bombing, then with a "small glow" at its base, then with a "ball of fire rising from the building," Easley said in the affidavit.

Culbertson told Mills the images came from a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent, according to the affidavit.