Remembering James Nichols

nicholsJames Nichols, the brother of convicted Oklahoma City bombing conspirator, Terry, died last week and that brought back all sorts of memories, since I got to know James a bit, covering his case for CNN. Indeed, covering James Nichols ranged from boring to blasphemous to hilarious.

I was on my way back from vacation when news that the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed. At the time, it was the worst case of domestic terrorism in the U.S.

The next day I returned to work as CNN Detroit Bureau Chief and Correspondent and was catching up on story planning and paperwork when late that afternoon we got a call that the FBI had raided a farm in Decker, Michigan and that the raid was connected to the OKC bombing. We dropped everything and drove the 90 minutes up to Michigan’s Thumb area to what amounted to a four-corners surrounded by farms. We quickly found out the farm on the northeast corner was owned by James Nichols, brother of Terry, who  was arrested in connection with the bombing and that they were both friends with Timothy McVeigh, who was eventually convicted and executed for carrying out the bombing. The feds were looking for bomb-making materials on the farm and found some, since it also came out McVeigh stayed at the farm on and off and actually exploded some small bombs there. 

They laid siege on the Nichols farm and while the scores of media staking out the place from a short distance it came out they arrested James Nichols as a material witness. Of course, every news organization was anxious to learn more about him.

We landed an interview with a guy who ran the local grain silo and knew Nichols. This was big stuff so Larry King’s producers booked us. I was told “just take your time with the guest. Find out as much as you can about Nichols. Don’t rush the interview.”

Right.

I get on the air during King’s show and start to lead the guest through how he knew Nichols and could he tell us about him and what we had heard were strong anti-government views. It couldn’t have been more than a minute or two before Larry King broke in and barked, “yeah, but sir…just tell me. Is this guy a nutcase?” The next time I spoke was 20 minutes later to thank the guest. King took over the interview with the one  motive…to find out if James Nichols was a nutcase. The guest insisted he wasn’t but King didn’t believe it.

In further pursuit of the story we contacted Nichols’s friend Phil Murawski who lived down the road. He said he’d be glad to do the interview but “first I have to be interviewed by the FBI and eat a sandwich.”

Nichols was arrested and taken to Milan Federal Prison in Milan (MY-lan), Michigan. That’s where I first got a look at him. I was one of the pool reporters covering his arraignment, held in a prison day room. What struck me was his voice. I expected a growling, angry voice and what I heard was a high-pitched squeaky squawk. Book, cover, no match. Honestly, the most memorable aspects of that day were being treated to a prison lunch of de-boned chicken wings–we were told prisoners could make weapons out of the bones..and meeting AP reporter Brian Akre who was also in the coverage pool. Over the years we would always joke “we met in the joint.”

The feds finally dropped the charges and I caught up with him again at his farm. This time we had an actual conversation. He had written a book alleging his it was the Federal government and not his brother or McVeigh who had carried out the OKC bombing. That’s why he agreed to the interview..to help publicize the book that no publisher would touch.  It was during that interview he uttered a phrase that stuck with me and my crew to this day. In his screechy voice he hollered, “we was frauded upon!”

He seemed to enjoy speaking with us, especially because he was enamored with our rather attractive female sound tech. This worked to our advantage because we were dying to get inside that farmhouse the feds had been so interested in. So….our sound tech flashed a big smile and asked if she could use the washroom. No problem! She did use the washroom and took a quick peek around but there really wasn’t anything worth noting. If anything, James was very neat.

After that day, we pretty much forgot about James Nichols. He was just another character you run into as a reporter, but every once in awhile when we thought we’d been screwed somehow a member of the crew would smile and announce, “we got frauded upon!” 

Thanks for that, James Nichols. RIP

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