"SOMETHING BIG IS GOING TO HAPPEN"

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True, Timothy McVeigh didn't hold a steady job, but he never seemed to want for money. In the days leading to the Oklahoma bombing, he paid cash for his motel room in Junction City, Kansas; he paid cash for the Ryder truck that allegedly carried some 5,000 lbs. of explosives to Oklahoma; and he forked over $250 (and his old Pontiac) for the Mercury he was driving when he was arrested. In Kingman, Arizona, the owner of the trailer park where the suspect lived in 1993 says he saw McVeigh flashing around "a big wad of money." Investigators have told Time that McVeigh possesses some $10,000 in cash and bank accounts. The money, along with the precision and power of the explosion, are leading the feds to believe that McVeigh and his missing accomplice -- still known only as John Doe No. 2 -- were far from lone bombers. Instead the feds suspect the men were members of some sort of organized extremist group that provided them with financial and tactical support. McVeigh, say federal law-enforcement officials, could not have masterminded the plot alone. "He's not smart enough to have thought it would come out the way it did," one investigator told TIME.

For now, however, he is dedicated enough to his comrades and their cause to keep his mouth shut. Imprisoned at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma, McVeigh, when questioned, responds only with his name, his rank and his date of birth-obeying, as it happens, the instructions for pows in a manual published by the Michigan Militia. Even when confronted last week with photographs of the children carried from the crumpled Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building -- some bloody and numb with shock, others already dead -- McVeigh appeared unshaken. The accused bomber seems to have decided that he is a prisoner of war.

The criminal investigation into the Oklahoma City bombing may be proceeding without the cooperation of McVeigh, but it continues to lead to him. Last week U.S. magistrate Ronald Howland denied him bail and said "an indelible trail of evidence" linked McVeigh to the crime. Eyewitnesses place him near the scene of the bombing before the 9:02 a.m. blast on April 19. An fbi agent has testified that McVeigh's clothing tested positive for traces of explosive materials. With McVeigh in custody, the most urgent question facing federal agents is where else -- and to whom -- that trail leads. John Doe No. 2 remains missing, and may have left the scene of the bombing in a car with Arizona license plate No. LZC646-a number originally assigned to McVeigh.

The search for clues now runs from Kansas to Michigan to Arizona to Wisconsin to California. One possible new angle is that the bombing was financed by a series of unsolved bank robberies throughout the Midwest; in some of these incidents pipe bombs were left at the scene. Other investigators have turned to Paulsen's Military Supply in Antigo, Wisconsin. When McVeigh was arrested in Perry, Oklahoma, he left the store's business card in the patrol car. The father-son Paulsens are gun traders and may deal in the small explosive devices needed to set off bombs. Most important, the authorities are pursuing a theory that the plot was hatched by McVeigh and some former Army buddies from the First Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kansas, where both McVeigh and Terry Nichols served. Nichols and his brother James remain in custody as material witnesses.

"No link exists between Army-owned explosive components and the tragedy in Oklahoma, and no active-duty soldier has been identified as a suspect," Pentagon spokesman Dennis Boxx said last Thursday. But some 25 members of the Army's Criminal Investigative Command were assisting the fbi in the search for McVeigh's accomplices. McVeigh spent his military career in a single 110-man unit-what the military once called a "cohort unit." Membership in such a unit meant that McVeigh went through basic training, on to Fort Riley and then to the Persian Gulf War with the same individuals. fbi agents are tracking down and questioning members of McVeigh's unit. "We're not saying this contributed to his problems," one Army official said, "but it meant he spent a long time with the same people, developing relationships. That could cause trouble if some of them were nuts."

U.S. troops have been forbidden since 1969 to participate actively in "organizations that espouse supremacist causes." However, such allegiances do exist among the rank and file. In 1986, for instance, three Marines from North Carolina's Camp Lejeune were ousted for membership in a white supremacist group. One Marine testified that he had supplied the White Patriot Party, a white supremacist group, with explosives and weapons. In 1991 an Army Green Beret sergeant pleaded guilty to stockpiling weapons and explosives and funneling them to white supremacist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan. Pentagon officials admit they are troubled by the existence of two underground newsletters circulated in military bases, the Resister and the Groundhog, which espouse some of the same radical antigovernment beliefs as the controversial militias linked to the Nichols brothers.

Indeed, the militias appear to derive much of their firepower from Pentagon arsenals. "Physical security on the base was a joke," said Mark Carter, a supply clerk with the Michigan National Guard, who testified before a congressional panel in November 1993 after he was caught peddling stolen military weapons. "I just drove home with whatever I wanted." Time has learned that investigators believe the fertilizer bomb in Oklahoma City was set off by nonelectric igniters and blasting caps used in some military demolition work. These devices do not require batteries and can be tossed into a backpack and safely carried into the field. Investigators are trying to determine whether the bombers obtained the devices from a military base, either by theft or through the black market. To date, however, no explosives, fuses or blasting caps have been determined to be missing from Fort Riley.

The one Army link established in the case so far is the bond shared by McVeigh and Terry Nichols. The two men joined up on the same day in May 1988 and went through basic training together at Fort Benning, Georgia. They were then stationed together in the same company at Fort Riley-the famed "Big Red One," whose troops were among the first to land at Normandy in World War II and to enter Iraq during the Gulf War. Nichols was discharged for undisclosed reasons in May 1989, but McVeigh rose to sergeant and went on to serve in Operation Desert Storm, where he won several medals, including a Bronze Star. Although the awards were described by Pentagon officials as "typical" for those who served in the theater, one officer notes, "Some captains and majors didn't get Bronze Stars, so he must have been a half-decent soldier."

That is an understatement, says Robin Littleton, McVeigh'sArmy roommate and one of his closest friends in the service. "Tim was the perfect soldier," Littleton told TIME. "I swear to God he could have been sergeant major of the Army -- he was that good of a soldier." One of his former commanders, Captain Terry Guild, 28, now stationed in Hawaii, agrees: "He was a very normal, good American serving his country." He was also a loner who never seemed to have a girlfriend, never talked about his family, and kept to the barracks reading Guns & Ammo and watching TV. His closest bond appeared to be with Terry Nichols. Says Littleton: "You could have put them with a million people, and they still would have connected right away."

McVeigh was obsessed with guns. He often kept a 9-mm Glock pistol in the barracks with him -- not locked up in the arms room, as rules require. His personal arsenal, including a Czech machine gun and assorted pistols, shotguns and rifles, was stashed in the trunk of his car. Still, neither Littleton nor Guild would have pegged McVeigh as a terrorist. "Something happened to Tim McVeigh between the time he left the Army and now," Guild says.

The turning point may have been when he failed to get into the Special Forces. "Before this, I'd never heard Tim talk bad about the military," says Littleton, now an Indianapolis steelworker. "I think he felt he got a raw deal, and he wanted out." A letter McVeigh wrote Littleton shortly after both left the Army spooked him. Illustrated with a cartoon showing a pistol painted with skulls and crossbones, it read: "So many victims, so little time."

McVeigh left active duty on Dec. 31, 1991, and for the next six months served with the New York National Guard. According to an Army official, McVeigh then left the military four years into his eight-year hitch, writing a letter to his commander claiming that his civilian job required his presence. "But the letter was real vague-it didn't say just what this new job was," the official says. Though he worked off and on as a security guard, both near his hometown of Pendleton, New York, and in Arizona, Terry Nichols has said the two also worked together selling Army surplus at shows around the country.

So far, Nichols has proved to be a key source for authorities. Although he, like McVeigh, has adopted something of a bunker mentality -- refusing to sign a card acknowledging that he understands his Miranda rights, for instance -- he did provide a chronology of McVeigh's alleged activities prior to the bombing. According to the affidavit, on the Sunday before the blast, McVeigh called Nichols at his home in Herington, Kansas, and asked Nichols to pick him up in Oklahoma City and drive him 270 miles to Junction City. During this drive, McVeigh allegedly told Nichols, "Something big is going to happen." Nichols asked, "Are you going to rob a bank?" McVeigh responded only by repeating, "Something big is going to happen."

Two days later, McVeigh again called Nichols and asked to borrow his buddy's truck. The two men drove to a storage shed in Herington, and McVeigh said, "If I don't come back in a while, you'll clean out the storage shed." When authorities searched a locker believed to have been rented by McVeigh in September 1994, it was empty. Nichols' home, however, yielded a 60-mm antitank rocket, 33 firearms and nonelectric detonators, four 55-gal. plastic drums, literature about Waco, antitax and antigovernment pamphlets and three empty 50-lb. bags of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, the material used in Oklahoma.

Meanwhile, two letters that McVeigh wrote to his hometown newspaper in upstate New York have come to light. For the most part, they resemble many missives from cranky citizens published in small-town papers. But they also contain ominous passages. "Is civil war imminent?" he wrote the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal in February 1992. Some of McVeigh's views are apparently shared by his younger sister Jennifer, 21, who wrote a letter to the paper herself last month, raging about Waco. Authorities are now questioning Jennifer, a student at Niagara County Community College and a former barmaid at the Crazy Horse Saloon in Buffalo, New York, which features Jell-O wrestling, where women, dressed in shorts and a top, wrestle male customers in a vat of lemon gelatin. She apparently told friends earlier this year that "something big is going to happen in March or April, and Tim's involved."

For a time last year, McVeigh lived in Michigan, with the Nichols brothers. However, in the past couple of years, his home base appears to have been Kingman, Arizona. For at least part of his time there, he lived with Michael Fortier, another Army buddy; although fbi agents have questioned him, they say Fortier is not John Doe No. 2. But Kingman residents mostly express surprise that a man so unobtrusive should now be so notorious. Bob Ragin, the owner of the Canyon West Mobile & RV Park, where McVeigh lived in a blue-and-white 40-ft. trailer for four months in 1993, recalls feeling sorry for McVeigh. He seemed to have few friends, says Ragin. "He struck me as someone just out of the service who was trying to figure out what to do with his life."

Nevertheless, according to the Anti-Defamation League last week, McVeigh in 1993 ran an ad to sell a military launcher in the Spotlight, a publication put out by the right-wing Liberty Lobby. Though the notice ran under an alias, T. Tuttle, it listed a Kingman address, and authorities say McVeigh has been known to use Tuttle as an alias. Dressed in combat boots and fatigues, McVeigh picked up his mail at the Mail Room in Kingman with noticeable regularity. However, Mail Room manager Lynda Willoughby recalls that during a two-week period in late February and early March of this year, Michael Fortier picked up McVeigh's mail. Furthermore, Willoughby says, a second man -- who appears to match the description of John Doe No. 2 -- came in once for the mail. Given McVeigh's wide travels, why target Oklahoma City? TIME has learned that McVeigh may have visited federal buildings in Omaha and Dallas, asking people there a number of questions about the buildings' occupants and whether they were armed. In the end, investigators wonder if McVeigh settled on the building in Oklahoma City because it was a "target of convenience" -- closer than Omaha to McVeigh's presumed base of operations in Junction City. Perhaps it was also easier to park in front of the Murrah building than the federal building in Dallas. Whatever the bombers' calculations, investigators on the scene have felt their grief turn to anger and grim resolve. "I'm not too old for this one," says a veteran of the World Trade Center investigation. "I'm not going to retire until we put these people away."