In the early 1990’s an extremist militia movement was flourishing in the United States – Michigan, Texas, Idaho, and Arizona were strongholds. The common denominator of core beliefs for these groups was an anti-American government sentiment, Christian identity, the mentality of a coming “doomsday” apocalypse and survivalism. These groups often used explosives, firearms and violence in the advancement of their causes – each squarely in the wheelhouse of ATF’s investigative jurisdiction.
April 19 became an important date representing the ideologies and events of those causes. For me, April 19 is a day on the calendar that holds sadness for the friends I would lose or find injured and for the other victims who would be killed and murdered on that date, but, it also represents the joy of befriending and working alongside some of the bravest ATF Agents ever to carry the badge.
A brief history.
On April 19, 1775, the opening shots are fired during battles of Lexington and Concord, the first in the American Revolution. Those first shots were fired by American militiamen.
On April 19, 1861, a mob of radicals holding a desire to succeed from the Union attacked United States Army troops as they marched through Baltimore.
On April 19, 1865, the funeral of Abraham Lincoln was held.
On April 19, 1985, ATF Agents captured and contained the Arkansas training compound of a white-supremacist group calling themselves the The Covenant, The Sword and The Arm of the Lord. The CSA held close ties to the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nations. The CSA drew ATF’s direct attention based on their illegal acquisition of an anti-tank rocket and large amounts of assault weapons. Focus on the CSA increased when member Richard Snell murdered a pawn store owner believing the victim was Jewish and then later, an African American Arkansas State Trooper.
Later, during training related to survival of combat shootings, I would become friends with ATF Agent Bill Buford who led the CSA raid.
In the late 1980’s ATF surged in hiring new agents. They were men and women each young and eager to be involved in the most dangerous aspects of the job. We wanted in the mix and made up the core of our Special Response Teams (SWAT) and undercover operators, mentored by our experienced veterans. Training and working together, they would become some of my most beloved friends and trusted partners.
In 1992, in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, ATF arrested a survivalist named Randy Weaver for his possession of a sawed-off shotgun. The initial capturing of Weaver was performed using the undercover ruse of a broken down vehicle, bluffing the dangerous Weaver into assisting so the arrest could be made safely without a raid. My classmate, mentor, friend, and eventual undercover partner Steve Gunderson pulled that off without incident. Weaver was released on bail but failed to appear for his court hearings. The second attempt to capture Weaver resulted in the murder of United States Marshall William Degan, who I had met during an earlier undercover operation, and the deaths of Weaver’s wife and son.
On April 19, 1993, 51 days after ATF had attempted to raid the compound of the Branch Davidian’s in Waco, Texas, the siege ended when fire broke out during a second attempt to secure the structure and occupants. Tragically, 81 people were killed.
During the initial raid four ATF Agents and friends were murdered – Steve Willis, Robert Williams Todd McKeehan and Conway LeBleu. We were friends as a part of the same hiring and training cycles. Bill Buford was again involved, this time suffering significant gunshot injuries.
ATF Agent Pete Mastin, who had investigated my second combat shooting and with whom I had become close, was a team leader that day. On Pete’s team was ATF Agent Kenny King, yet another friend. Kenny was severely wounded in the assault suffering near-fatal gunshot wounds and falling from a roof inside the compound walls. With Kenny trapped and immobilized, Pete quickly organized a rescue party of my young peers to save him. With Pete leading the way, not a man to ask any young agent to do anything he wouldn’t first do himself; together they placed their lives in real-time risk to retrieve a fallen brother. Kenny was saved, survived by a shoestring and later recovered to lead one of the most remarkable “beating-the-odds” stories in ATF history. Heroism, loyalty, dedication and love were put on full display. My very limited involvement in the event helped me form friendships that have lasted a lifetime and set for me an example of our commitment to each other.
In 1995, a home-grown terrorist named Timothy McVeigh held a burning hatred for ATF behind the Waco and Ruby Ridge events. His mission was to identify a location for attack, one that housed ATF. A potential target he scouted was the United States Federal Building in Tucson, Arizona, where my office was located.
On April 19, 1995, having determined his prime location, McVeigh detonated a weapon of mass destruction at the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. 168 innocent American’s died that day. 19 were children. 3 were pregnant women. It was a manufactured device of scale and power that America had never seen on our own soil.
My friend, ATF Agent Luke Franey, was inside the building at the time of the bombing and somehow, both remarkably and miraculously, survived.
This date also marked the execution of the CSA’s Richard Snell for the murders he had committed.
ATF’s overt involvement in the bombing was clear and easily seen. ATF investigates bombs and bombings. Alongside the nation’s local, state and federal law enforcement, ATF Agents across the country mobilized chasing any lead into any cranny.
Another friend, ATF Agent Lowell Sprague (below, sunglasses) was ordered not wear his ATF raid jacket or anything identifying him as an ATF Agent as he helped lead McVeigh from the jail in Perry, Oklahoma. The FBI wanted to make sure they got all the credit. Lowell had covered me as a Sniper on many undercover operations.
(Of Note: Oklahoma State Trooper Charlie Hanger made the actual arrest. And, unrelated but very telling, when the first World Trade Center attack occurred, ATF Agents were slung on a makeshift rig and lowered into the deep blast seat searching for evidence. They recovered the van part that was stamped with the VIN of the bombs delivery vehicle only to lift the evidence out of the hole, hand it to waiting FBI Agents waiting in a safe and stable location and then held up for cameras to display their success, but I digress.)
Investigation into McVeigh’s co-conspirators was intense. A nationwide “all-hands-on-deck” call went out. The investigation took the umbrella operational name of OKBOMB.
Terry Nichols helped McVeigh build the bomb. Michael Fortier helped him devise the plan and scout locations. Both Nichols and Fortier were McVeigh’s Army buddies. Fortier was his roommate.
McVeigh and Fortier had lived in Kingman, located in the northwest corner of Arizona. This area, in addition to the southern tip of Nevada, was a hotbed for militia groups and training. Intelligence quickly developed that indicated McVeigh had associated with some of those groups.
The untold story.
At the time of the bombing I was working undercover in Las Vegas, a mostly uninteresting and mundane investigation into militias. Some gun and drug buys had been the result but, nothing that would raise anyone’s eyebrow. After OKBOMB, that quickly changed. The possibility that one of my targets might have been involved or have information related to the bombing became hot.
Unlike the massive blue-wave that worked in plain view to figure out the who, how and why, this covert phase of the investigation would stay quiet.
ATF Las Vegas Agents Terry Clark – the case agent, Ed Verkin – the supervisor (below), and Darrin Gil – himself a phenomenal undercover operator but unable to use that tactic on this case due to his potential previous exposure to those groups in the area, formed the core.
ATF San Francisco Agents Frank Wandell and Dave Loftus were brought in for support and surveillance.
ATF Explosives legend Jerry Taylor was our device expert.
Las Vegas Metro Officers Gayland Hammack, Pat Fielding and Eric Cruse joined the team and mission.
ATF needed an undercover “hitter” for me to work alongside with. They got ATF Atlanta Agent Vince Cefalu. The first time I met Vince we were both peeing off the second story balcony of a favorite bar near our academy.
The team was set and the pace for an undercover operation was unusual. It was characterized as “urgent, as in right now!”
With that we all went to work. During the months that followed my wife became upset. Not because I was working away from home again but because our baby boy took his first steps in Tucson while I was likely sitting in some broke-dick bar trolling for terrorists.
I introduced Vince to the targets I had met and we cast our nets outward. We ultimately infiltrated and joined a group calling themselves the “Nevada Volunteers”.
They were a hodgepodge cluster of people ranging from paramilitary types, to bikers, to the common man but all holding a shared viewpoint that a Zionist Occupational Government, or ZOG, was nearing. They feared an economic and world police takeover that would disarm the citizenry. Some stockpiled weapons. Others lined their bomb shelters with canned peas and MRE’s. Still others did both while cashing in their savings for gold coins. Their bible was the Turner Diaries, a novel describing a violent citizen revolution, government takeover, the bombing of FBI headquarters and race purification created with the extermination of Jews, gays and anyone “non-white”.
The book was found alongside McVeigh in his get-a-way car.
Vince and I dove in. Our personal base of operations – our office – was the tavern at the Glass Pool Inn just outside McCarron airport on Las Vegas Boulevard. We operated from there buying machine guns, sawed off shotguns, homemade nitroglycerin and entertained as our “friends”; anyone who hated America and wished for her destruction.
We befriended “all-stars” of the movement like Johnny Bangerter, leader of the neo-Nazi’s in Utah whose plan was to turn the Zion National Park into a whites-only skinhead compound. He wore military camo that had American, Confederate and Nazi flags sewn on the breast and held a plan to assassinate Utah Senator Orrin Hatch. His bodyguards slung M-16’s on their backs. We briefly trained with Bangerter and the members of his Army of Israel.
Another high profile target we got close to was Bo Gritz, a highly decorated Special Forces vet from Vietnam and Vice-Presidential candidate running mate of Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke.
We had the opportunity to get much closer to both but were stood down and told to “disengage the target”. When we asked if the FBI was making that call the answer was “higher”. When asked if it was Attorney General Janet Reno, the answer was the same, “even higher, and don’t ask again.” Our only conclusion was the direction was coming from the White House or CIA.
Our efforts to work on the “shotcallers” were shortstopped but it unwittingly led us to a much more dangerous target. His name was Jeffery James “J.J.” Tenpenny. Vince and I quickly abandoned JJ as his moniker and affectionately nicknamed him “The Dime.”
As it turned out The Dime was only loosely affiliated with the militia cause but was greatly inspired by their effectiveness. After buying guns and drugs from him at his home on several occasions, gaining his trust and confidence, he revealed his plan – implode three Las Vegas Casinos and brutally murder a corporate attorney. Coming from such a low-level target it was simply not believable.
The Dime explained that he had a deep-seated hatred for Steve Wynn, the Las Vegas mogul known as King of the Strip. Wynn owned and operated the Mirage, Treasure Island and Golden Nugget casinos, each an anchor and landmark representing everything Vegas. The Dime had a legal dispute the Wynn Corporation and wanted to create “Oklahoma City Part II” as a part of his payback.
But, there was an evil twist, not before Vince and I were to splash Wynn’s attorney in the face with acid and shoot her to death in front of her children as she delivered them to school. “I want those kids to see her face melt off first.”
We confronted The Dime with the senseless brutality of his proposed crimes. We tried to give him an out and call his bluff. This was so dynamic and extreme that even a hack defense attorney would have a good shot to defend his client by alleging entrapment. How would a nobody like Tenpenny ever orchestrate such a massive attack let alone ever pull it off? It had to be a scapegoat setup? That question at trial would be the first and most obvious to come.
The Dime fixed that for us. Vince asked him, “Do you realize that you are going to kill thousands of innocent people? Grandma’s and Grandpa’s and babies?”
The Dime pulled back his shirt and revealed a solid black tattoo of a heart on the left side of his chest. “You see that? That heart is black. I have a black heart and I don’t give a fuck.”
Problem one solved. He was committed and predisposed. The second problem was the one that we were sure would make his claims nothing more than street talk. How?
Tenpenny fixed that for us as well. He introduced us to an associate who held a reported degree in chemical engineering. Together they had calculated the amount of C-4 it would take to implode the casinos. Unbelievably he also had blueprint diagrams of the casinos themselves. He spread them out on a table at the Glass Pool for us to examine. Later, he walked us through the target locations and casually pointed out where the devices would be placed to create maximum structural damage. As he did I saw a toddler doing a babies “Frankenstein” style walk and thought of my boy.
The Dime sunk himself still further when he ordered the devices with specific detail.
Jerry Taylor in a mad-scientist way that only Jerry could pull off, built actual functioning devices to fit the request. One was disguised inside a picnic cooler. The other in a briefcase. Even more C-4 was provided for the third location. Each were built to be detonated using a model airplane hobbyist’s remote control and servos.
The reality is that even a bomb of that power would not, in and of itself, compromise the structural integrity of a Las Vegas casino. Not to the likes of the Murrah Federal Building but, the death volume in a location of that type would be catastrophic.
To build a solid and prosecutable case the devices had to be real. No fakes. The last potential criminal defense of such an outrageous scheme would be to argue in court that although Tenpenny may have talked a good game, the actual devices he received were not real bombs and therefore had not committed a real crime. Jerry made sure they were real. No dummy bricks of plastic explosive for anything Mr. Taylor was going to put his name on.
On takedown day Vince and I delivered the bombs to Tenpenny in his darked-out garage. It was truly creepy as hell. Vince may not admit it but I know I was uncomfortable and it wasn’t the heat mirages coming off the street as we moved out of the sunlight. In near total darkness The Dime examined the devices with a flashlight. An ATF cover team make up of our ATF and Metro partners staged in the alley. This was at a time when Agents were still allowed to handle their own business without engaging a major SWAT operation to put handcuffs on a suspect. A lot of long days and nights had come to pass for this moment.
Vince was to deliver the bust signal. Because of the sensitivity of the devices and our proximity to the C-4, we didn’t wear body wires that day. A jump-over signal from our transmitter to the remote detonating servo would make sure that the only thing blown up was Tenpenny’s garage, and us.
Prominent in the news at that time was the name Joey Buttafuoco whose 16-year-old girlfriend shot his wife in the face after confronting her on their affair. The bust signal was set.
The Dime gave us the plan. He would place the devices and leave the casinos in a timed coordination with Vince and I murdering the attorney. Everything was agreed to.
Vince was determined to have Tenpenny call in his own assault. He’s crazier than most of the suspects we worked. That’s a part of what made him great. He started to light a cigarette but I waved him off, eye-shrugging at the bombs.
“Dime, what’s the name of that guy who had the affair with the little girl and then she blasted his old lady in the head?”
Tenpenny was clearly not the brightest of bulbs. “John Bobbitt.”
I tried to fix the answer for The Dime. “No that’s the guy whose wife cut his dick off and then threw it in the woods.” The Dime just couldn’t come up with the code. We could hear footsteps from the bust team approaching anxious to make the arrest and put an end to our games.
In frustration Vince gave in. “Joey Buttafuoco you idiot.” “BUTTAFUOCO!” That was all it took. Doors unhinging, glass breaking and me ready to wet myself again alongside my partner. “Please don’t detonate. Please don’t detonate.”
Moments later Tenpenny was proned out, Taylor de-activated the devices and unfortunately, The Dimes loyal and massive Rottweiler, Bear, laid dead on the driveway after attacking an Agent trying to protect his beloved master.
The subsequent search of Tennypenny’s house found a copy of the Turner Diaries in his nightstand.
Tenpenny was indicted and convicted on explosives charges. At his sentencing and in an attempt to clear his conscience when the Judge asked him if he had anything to say The Dime offered, “Your honor, I might as well get this out. I sold those guys some sawed-offs and a bunch of meth too.”
This portion of the OKBOMB story has never been fully told and it’s not fully told here. The Las Vegas media knows where their bread is buttered. The case was buried deep in the local paper and described only in minor detail.
Ed Verkin received a very nice fruit and nut basket from the Wynn Corporation in gratitude.
After a cumulative years’ worth of investigation, ATF awarded Vince and I $300.00 dollar cash bonuses. $167.73 after tax and withdrawals. We were grateful and likely took our cash to a bar.
On April 19, 2013, as ATF Agents assisted in the search for the Boston Marathon bombing suspects and worked to identify the bomb itself, bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed in a shootout with police.