May 08, 1995 12:00 PM

KERRY KLING STARED AT HIS Television in amazement as the image of a tall, slim young man with a sandy crew cut flashed across the screen. Surrounded by FBI agents, the square-jawed prisoner wore an orange jailhouse jumpsuit; his wrists were handcuffed, and he shuffled along in shackles. “I thought, ‘Wow! That looks like Sergeant McVeigh,’ ” recalls Kling, a 23-year-old Army veteran studying mechanical engineering at the University of Alabama. When an anchor identified the man in custody as Timothy James McVeigh, Kling swore to himself. “I wondered if it was the McVeigh I knew. But damn, I knew it was,” he says. “Right before they said his name, they called him the most wanted man in American history. He’ll go down in the books with John Wilkes Booth. Everybody knows his name now. Everybody.”

So they do: Just hours after that televised scene in front of the Noble County courthouse in Perry, Okla., McVeigh (who had attracted the attention of a state trooper by driving without license plates on nearby I-35) became the first suspect charged in the April 19 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. In the days that followed, authorities would step up their manhunt for “John Doe No. 2,” the man believed to have accompanied McVeigh, 27, on his mission of horrific destruction. They also arrested two brothers who are friends of McVeigh’s—Terry and James Nichols—on federal charges of conspiring to build and possess explosives.

Put under heavy guard at El Reno Federal Correctional Center, 20 miles west of Oklahoma City, McVeigh steadfastly refused to provide more than his name, Army rank and serial number. To investigators he declared that he was a prisoner of war. The implication was clear: He saw himself as a revolutionary in the hands of the government he allegedly hoped to destroy.

Before the bombing, McVeigh had never made a secret of his political views. “He was fanatical about guns,” says Kling, who served in McVeigh’s infantry squad at Fort Riley, Kans., in 1991. “He was gung ho about protecting the Second Amendment.” In two 1992 letters to the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal near his hometown of Pendleton, N.Y., McVeigh had vented his rage about crime, taxes and corrupt politicians, among other things. “Do we have to shed blood to reform the current system?” he wrote. “I hope it doesn’t come to that! But it might.”

Although the charges against McVeigh have yet to be heard in court, it is clear that he and his cohorts have emerged from America’s most chilling microculture—homegrown resisters who believe the federal government is bent on destroying the very people from whom it derives its power. Reactionaries who have organized themselves into paramilitary units like the Michigan Militia, which claims over 12,000 members, they share the belief that the Justice Department is determined to stamp out individual liberty and the right to bear arms. Their battle cry: “Remember Waco.” Like McVeigh, who made a bitter pilgrimage to the ruins of the Branch Davidian compound in Texas, the most radical are convinced that the cultists who died in the attack initiated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms on April 19,1993 were martyrs targeted by Big Brother. In fact government investigators believe that the massacre in the federal building in Oklahoma City, headquarters for some of the agents who stormed the Davidians’ compound, was timed for the second anniversary of the Waco disaster—and intended as a payback.

As unfathomable as his motives may seem to strangers, many residents of Pendleton (pop. 5,000), where McVeigh was raised, say they find it impossible to believe he is responsible for the carnage in Oklahoma. The son of Mildred “Mickey” McVeigh and her husband, William, who works at General Motors’ radiator plant in Lockport, N.Y., is remembered as “the kind of kid you’d want your own son to grow up to be,” according to a neighbor who trusted him as a babysitter.

For all of that, McVeigh and his sisters, Jennifer, now 21, and Patty, 28, had their troubles. Their parents split when McVeigh was 10; Mickey eventually left for Pensacola, Fla., with the girls, while Tim stayed with his father, a volunteer fireman active in the Catholic church. Neighbors recalled that young McVeigh was always trying to make money—at one point setting up a backyard roulette wheel to rake in pocket change from kids in the neighborhood. Fascinated with guns, he often went target-shooting in the backyard.

A taciturn sort who impressed teachers at Starpoint Central School as “polite and respectful,” in the words of principal James Allen, McVeigh did little to distinguish himself before graduating in 1986. Apparently his radical notions didn’t take hold until after 1988, when he joined the Army. Although McVeigh earned several medals for his service in the Persian Gulf and eventually reached the rank of sergeant, his failure to qualify for the Special Forces reportedly sent him into a tailspin. By the time he left active duty in 1991, he was a full-blown paranoid who reportedly told a friend that the Army had placed a computer chip in his buttocks to keep him under surveillance.

McVeigh’s obsessions fit right in with the notions espoused by Terry Nichols, an Army buddy from Fort Riley. Another loner who stockpiled guns and loathed the government, Terry, now 40, had been raised with his brother, James, 41, in rural Lapeer Township, Mich. Like McVeigh’s, the Nicholses’ parents had divorced in the 1970s; Terry, James and their sister Suzanne, 35, remained on the family farm with their mother, Joyce, while their older brother Les left with their father, Robert.

Although they are remembered by classmates at Lapeer High School as “regular guys,” James and Terry, who moved to a 600-acre farm outside Decker, Mich., in 1975, eventually metamorphosed into hate-filled extremists. Personal troubles stoked their sense of alienation: In the early ’80s, the two wed sisters and had one son apiece, but both marriages were short-lived. In the custody battle that followed their 1987 divorce, James’s ex-wife, Kelly, accused him of sexually abusing their son Chase, but the claim was dropped. According to neighbor Philip Morawski, the court fight turned James against the system. “It was the beginning of his frustration,” he says.

Friends and acquaintances knew him as a voracious reader who studied law books and loathed authority. He refused to renew his driver’s license, declined to use his Social Security number and believed that taxes were unconstitutional. “He said he didn’t want a paper trail that he even existed,” remembers business associate Patrick Whalen. Although he was eager to find a new wife, his political passions were a handicap, says another neighbor, Dan Stomber. Convinced that he could control the weather on his farm with the help of pipes he had placed behind his neat four-bedroom farmhouse, he would share his theories with anyone who would listen—and some who would not. “He would go into that you-don’t-need-a-driver’s-license stuff on a date,” says Stomber. “Who wants to be with someone like that?”

While James devoted himself to growing soybeans, corn and wheat organically, Terry came and went—by turns managing a grain elevator, doing farmwork and dabbling in the real estate business. Fiercely uncommunicative, he revealed little of himself to neighbors. “I don’t even remember Terry talking,” says Karla Houghtaling, whose ex-husband was a high school chum. “He always seemed to be contemplating something else.”

Prominent in his ruminations, apparently, was his hatred of the government. In 1992, he returned his voter registration card to the township clerk with a letter that read, “There is total corruption in the entire political system, from the local government on and up——My status is that of a nonresident alien, non-foreigner, stranger.”

For Terry, the low point came on Nov. 22, 1993. Jason, the 2-year-old son of his second wife, Marife Torres, was suffocated by a plastic bag that he happened upon. (Although the death was ruled accidental, the chief medical examiner has said that he plans to review the case “in light of recent developments.”)

No one in Decker remembers when Tim McVeigh first turned up at the Nichols farmhouse. Most knew him as a Gulf War veteran who wore fatigues and sold guns. Although he had a ready grin and was good with James’s son Chase, McVeigh, like the Nicholses, was full of fury. When federal agents stormed the Branch Davidian compound, he was outraged, according to neighbor Morawski. Hooked on shortwave radio—which carried the messages of antigovernment militants, including Mark Koernke, 37, a University of Michigan custodian known to shortwavers as Mark from Michigan—he began to tap into the radical underground. “He was motivated,” says Morawski. “He wanted to do something about [Waco].”

While James later denied to Morawski that he had joined up, the three reportedly were attending militia group meetings by 1994. “James would tell them they were on the wrong road with their paramilitary style,” Morawski says. “He believed that there were other ways of bringing about change.” Still, the Nicholses and McVeigh continued to rail against the government—and to experiment with explosives. According to Morawski, for fun they constructed bottle bombs and set them off in the fields surrounding the farmhouse.

In the next year, the group was scattered. Despondent over the death of their son, Terry and Marife headed west, where they eventually landed in Las Vegas. McVeigh gravitated to a trailer park in Kingman, Ariz.—a town that has attracted more than its share of right-wing radicals. According to investigators, McVeigh used the desert as a proving-ground for his bombs; a series of mysterious explosions, they say, occurred less than a mile from the trailer park where he lived.

By last November, McVeigh apparently met up with Terry and James in Michigan. Together they attended several meetings of the Sixth Brigade of the Michigan Militia in the southeastern portion of the state. Two months ago, Terry—along with Marife and their infant daughter Nicole—moved into a house in Herington, Kans., about 200 miles north of Oklahoma City. It was there, authorities say, that McVeigh and possibly others may have constructed the bomb that was loaded into a truck rented in Junction City, Kans., on April 17 and parked outside the Murrah Federal Building two days later.

Although the FBI moved swiftly in the week after the bombing—fanning out across the country to explore McVeigh’s links with the militia and investigating the bomb blasts on the Nicholses’ farm—much of the story has yet to unfold. John Doe No. 2—a man who reportedly spoke broken English and used a foreign name—was still being sought at the end of last week, and McVeigh himself remained mute. “If he bombed these people, I don’t know why he did it,” says Army compatriot Kling. “I’m still appalled anybody could kill that many people. War was one thing, but this is tragic.”