WASHINGTON – Tipped they may have missed evidence a decade ago, FBI agents searched the former home of convicted Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols (search) and found blasting caps and other explosive materials apparently related to the 1995 attack, officials said Friday.
FBI officials said the material was found buried in a crawl space of the house in Herington, Kan., which wasn't checked by agents during the numerous searches of the property during the original investigation of Nichols and Timothy McVeigh (search).
"The information so far indicates the items have been there since prior to the Oklahoma City bombing (search)," Agent Gary Johnson said in a telephone interview from Oklahoma City.
FBI spokesman Jeff Lanza said in Kansas the materials were found in boxes, much of them wrapped in plastic, and were being sent to the FBI lab for analysis. The FBI (search) is operating on the assumption the evidence was from the original Oklahoma plot, he said.
In coming days, agents will be looking for any fingerprints and other clues on the evidence that might show where the explosives originated and who may have possessed them before they got into Nichols' home.
The extraordinary discovery, just three weeks from the 10th anniversary of the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people, is likely to prove a new embarrassment to an FBI already burned by missteps in this case and the pre-Sept. 11 period.
Nichols, who is serving multiple life prison sentences on federal and state charges, hasn't lived at the property in years, and FBI officials said the information that led to the discovery indicated Nichols had buried the evidence before the attack on April 19, 1995.
One of Nichols' attorneys said Friday the discovery was either a hoax or a major failure by the FBI to find all evidence after searching the home numerous times.
"They were there often," said attorney Brian Hermanson, who represented Nichols in last year's Oklahoma state murder trial that ended with Nichols' conviction. "It's surprising. I would think they would have done their job and found everything that was there."
"But I'm still suspicious that it could be something planted there," Hermanson said. "The house was empty for several years and if somebody wanted to put something there to incriminate Terry they had plenty of time to have done it."
Dan Defenbaugh, the retired FBI agent who ran the Oklahoma City investigation, said he was dismayed that his agency may have missed the evidence. "When you do a search warrant of that importance, you have to make sure it's thorough," he said.
FBI agents went to the property Thursday night and then summoned a bomb squad after finding the potentially dangerous materials, Lanza said. The search ended late Friday afternoon and the evidence was being shipped to the FBI lab outside Washington.
Lanza said the material was buried in the crawl space under about a foot of rock, dirt and gravel, an area that had not been searched during the original investigation.
"Depending on the situation, that's something that may not necessarily be searched, especially given the fact that there was no information there was anything in there, and even if you searched the crawl space at that time and dug through the rock and rubble you wouldn't find anything until you went at least a foot down," he said.
Lanza said the information that spurred the search indicated that "Nichols was responsible for hiding these devices" and "we are operating under the assumption that Terry Nichols put them there."
Nichols and McVeigh, who was put to death for his role in the Oklahoma City bombing, had used blasting caps, fertilizer and fuel to make the bomb used to destroy the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
McVeigh's trial lawyer said Friday he has known some materials gathered for the attack were never located by the FBI and this discovery could answer some of those questions. But he added it also could prove to be another black eye for the FBI, which was criticized for causing a delay in McVeigh's execution after it found new documents in the case.
"I think it is clearly embarrassing if it turns out to be true," McVeigh attorney Stephen Jones said. "We've gone from not producing everything for the defendants to failing to recover from one of the conspirator's homes evidence that clearly is material."
Georgia Rucker has owned the house in Kansas since 1997 and rented it several times. She said Thursday the last tenant was evicted in October and she had been preparing the home for sale. Rucker said she was contacted by two FBI agents Thursday and gave permission for authorities to search the premises.
Last year, the FBI ordered a review of some aspects of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing investigation after a series of Associated Press stories identified evidence that the lead investigator in the case said had never been shown to his team.
The evidence raised questions about whether a group of white supremacist bank robbers might have had some connection to the attack.