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Oklahoma City Bombing: Two Fathers and Forgiveness

Knowledgeable roofers begin the roofing process.
Photo by Jeanne Devlin

Bud Welch stands next to a memorial statue, "Jesus Wept," dedicated by Oklahoma City Archbishop Eusebius J. Beltran in May 1998.

When the father of a bombing victim visited the father of a convicted bomber, an experience of peace and reconciliation resulted.

By Sandy McPherson Carrubba


Waiting for Julie-Marie's Call

'Vengeance Solves No Problems'

Fathers Carry Children's Pain

Was the Suspect Tim?

Resents Being Misquoted

Jury's Foregone Conclusion

Talking Together

The Road to Forgiveness

Before the men sat in the kitchen, a humble place for such an event, they had walked in the garden. Two fathers, both raised in Catholic schools, both divorced from their children’s mothers, both who helped raise a son and a daughter, talked for more than an hour.

That the meeting took place seems miraculous. One man owns a business and had traveled from middle America. The other, in whose house they met, works in a New York state factory. They want the same thing: to save the son of the New York man from execution.

The father from Oklahoma, Emmett E. “Bud” Welch, had buried his daughter, Julie-Marie, on a 1995 spring day.

New York state resident William McVeigh is the father of the man sentenced to die for killing Julie-Marie and 167 others on April 19, 1995, in the Oklahoma City bombing of the Murrah Federal Building.

Waiting for Julie-Marie's Call

The morning of the bombing Bud was still home thinking about lunch with his daughter. Every Wednesday they met at a Greek restaurant across from Julie’s workplace. Shortly after 9 a.m., his brother-in-law telephoned and said, “Turn on the television, Bud.”

Bud says, “I spent two days near the telephone, waiting after the bombing. Julie always telephoned me. I didn’t go to the bomb site. I wouldn’t have been allowed to get close, so I stayed near the telephone.” He hoped to receive her familiar telephone call. Instead, he was told her body had been found the Saturday after the bombing.

“The first five weeks after the bombing are a blur to me. I wanted McVeigh and Nichols hanged, no trials necessary. I suffered from a temporary insanity. I would have killed them with my bare hands if I could have reached them.

“Then, the realization hit me that trials were necessary. We didn’t know beyond a doubt that they [McVeigh and Nichols] were truly guilty.

“In January 1996, I asked myself, ‘What is it going to do for me if McVeigh and Nichols are executed?’ I repeated the question for about three weeks and kept getting the same answer: Their deaths wouldn’t help me one bit.”

Bud has written articles for Time and other magazines and newspapers about his wanting Tim McVeigh to live. He has been interviewed on television and for María Ruiz Scaperlanda’s book, Their Faith Has Touched Us.

'Vengeance Solves No Problems'

Sometimes Bud becomes emotional as he speaks about Julie-Marie. Usually talking about her makes him smile. Born seven weeks premature, she was given a 10-percent chance of survival. Her early difficulties, though, did not cause any permanent physical defects.

In seventh grade Julie-Marie Welch met a non-English-speaking Mexican girl who quickly became bilingual, which made Julie long to speak a foreign language. She mastered Latin, German, Spanish and French in Catholic high school and spent 11 months of her junior year studying in Spain. She returned there during her Marquette University undergraduate days.

In August 1994 she began work as an interpreter for the Social Security Administration in Oklahoma City. That April morning, Julie had walked to the waiting room to meet a client when the bomb detonated.

“I know I should forgive Timothy McVeigh. I hope I do before he dies,” Bud says.

For now, he travels throughout this country, urging that Timothy McVeigh live. Julie-Marie would want that, he insists.

Despite his average build, Bud dominates a room. He says, “I still have moments of rage in which I say he [Timothy McVeigh] shouldn’t be allowed to live. But those moments don’t last long, thank goodness.” Smoothing his white hair, he quietly adds, “I was surprised by the people who celebrated when McVeigh’s sentence of death was announced. Vengeance solves no problems. The criminal commits a violent act. Then we, as a society, ratchet it up; we do him violence. Next, we ask ourselves, ‘Why are we such a violent society?’”

His college campus audience nods as he adds, “People talk about how coddled prisoners are. We take away everything from them and teach them to hate. They come out with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in criminology!”

Bud notes that, in the first 72 hours after the bombing, President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno promised to seek out, find the people responsible and apply the death penalty. “That was the big fix,” he says. “My government was going to fix this horrible crime by causing more death. And I bought into that.

“I don’t anymore,” he explains. “The main countries that have the death penalty are Libya, Iran, Iraq, China and the United States—not very good bedfellows.”

Fathers Carry Children's Pain

Julie-Marie Welch had lived her faith. Each day she attended Mass at Our Lady of Mount Carmel/St. Thérèse Little Flower Church. At the Oklahoma City parish where Mexicans worship, she ran a children’s program. Often, she telephoned Bud and asked him to meet her there for Mass. When she came for Mass, her father says, “Kids would come running across the street yelling her name. I wish I had the faith Julie had.”

Once father and daughter listened to a news report about an execution. “All they’re doing is teaching children to hate,” Julie said to her father. And Bud now refuses to be a part of that hate. He realized, “I was a physical and mental wreck because I was stuck on April 19, 1995. I smoked one and a half packs a day before the bombing. Afterward, I started smoking three packs a day. I was drinking three or four rum-and-Cokes a night. I’ve cut that out, and in July 1998 I stopped smoking.”

He had seen glimpses of the McVeigh family on TV news programs and, from a distance, at the trial. “Timothy’s father’s pain has to be incredible,” says Bud. “As best I can tell, he did everything right. He raised his kids as Catholics. I think the U.S. military screwed up Timothy McVeigh. There are some people who are not fit for military service. I think Tim was one. He couldn’t separate the trained killer instinct he had been taught during his years with the military from civilian life when he got out.

“I can’t imagine what it must be like for Bill McVeigh. I’m not sure I could survive if my son had participated in causing death like that.” Bud believes that Timothy McVeigh was suicidal. Asked to explain, he answers, “No person who isn’t [suicidal] drives a truck from Kansas loaded with 4,000 pounds of explosives just a few feet from your head!”

Bud currently spends less time in Oklahoma City than on the road addressing church and secular groups. “I speak out more for myself than for Julie. First I was doing it more for her,” he explains. “So many people have told me once the accused is executed, it’s horrible for the victim. Victims have said when the criminal is alive, they might want him dead. I don’t want the guilt and emotional difficulties I would suffer over a state execution.

“I’m focusing on one person, Timothy McVeigh. I do not want him executed.”

Was the Suspect Tim?

On Wednesday, April 19, 1995, William McVeigh had worked until about 6:30 a.m. He attended a bowling meeting at 9 a.m. and later took his car for service. That evening, he worked Bingo at his parish. Sometime in the afternoon he had seen TV coverage of the bombing. “We talked about the bombing at Bingo,” he says. “I remember thinking it was just another terrorist attack.”

Two days later, the F.B.I. phoned. “I was supposed to go to Reno on April 23, which is Tim’s birthday. I was going to the American Bowling Congress (ABC) tournament held in Reno every three years. That Friday the F.B.I. woke me up. I had worked until 10:30 a.m. that day. They were down the street and wanted to talk to me.

“It really hit me when I saw all the cars in my yard. The two guys who called had a car. Some cars were across the road. The F.B.I. brought a SWAT team. I suppose they didn’t know what to expect.”

Slowly, Bill shakes his head as if to erase the memory or perhaps to clear it. “They showed me a picture [the suspect sketch] and asked if that was Tim. I said, ‘It probably could be. He was really upset about Waco [the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms’ raiding of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas] and not happy with the government.’ I had no idea the 19th of April was the anniversary of Waco.”

The F.B.I. wanted Bill to go to Oklahoma City and talk to his son, who had already been arrested and taken to jail. Since he is a man who deals with the concrete, he told them, “I can’t. I’m going to Reno to go bowling.” His pastor convinced him he should forgo Reno. “I told them I’d cooperate. They took me to prison to talk to Tim. Tim knew I was coming. He knew what I’d ask him. He knows me, and I know him. He knows that I don’t hide nothing.”

They didn’t visit for long. “We asked each other the same questions five times. Finally, Tim said, ‘I think you better go, Dad.’”

Bill found later visits with his son more satisfying. He visited Tim several times during jury selection and the later penalty phase for his Denver trial.

Resents Being Misquoted

Bill talks quietly. “This article you’re going to write will help Tim?” he asks. He turns down invitations to TV talk shows.

Part of his reticence with the press may stem from the week immediately following his son’s arrest. “There would be 40-50 media people outside. They’d leave their garbage and I’d clean it up before they came the next day.” He resented being misquoted. In Denver, he couldn’t leave his hotel without being besieged. Now he keeps his distance.

“I’m not outgoing like my kids.” He laughs and adds, “Tim could stand in a line at a grocery store and, before you knew it, he’d be talking to everybody.”

Bill McVeigh golfs and bowls. He gardens and relaxes with his daughter, Jennifer, and her two cats. He helps run a regional bowling tournament. His family comes first. “I first went on this shift [working nights] in 1984 when I got divorced, so I’d work while Tim slept.”

He tells how 11-month-old Tim broke his wrist climbing out of his crib, then chuckles about how often his son went to the emergency room. “He was all boy—always into or up to something.

“Tim never did drugs or drank. He was never arrested. I had trouble getting him out of bed.” Bill chuckles at the memory.

“He didn’t always do his schoolwork. He was very busy. Despite working at Burger King, he never missed a day in high school and got an award. He even passed up a Confirmation class trip.” Bill says the DRE called Tim’s school when the boy insisted on maintaining his perfect school attendance, thus missing the CCD trip.

“Tim was very likable,” says his father. “One day, I came home from work and found Tim giving chips and drinks to about 15 kids, kids of all ages, out on our pool deck.”

Jury's Foregone Conclusion

Looking back, Bill McVeigh didn’t see anything unusual in his son’s behavior regarding the Persian Gulf War. Tim never complained about going to Iraq. After his return, they dined with close friends. No one mentioned any difference in Tim. He remained the person whom neighbors favored as a babysitter, the boy who loved animals and cars.

But, Bill says, “I got the feeling that it was the company he kept that turned Tim. Remember that Terry Nichols was anti-government when Tim met him. Tim volunteered so the Army guaranteed him the infantry. He wanted that because he loved guns. He met Terry Nichols in infantry class.”

When this tall man stands, his shoulders slump. When he sits, he casts his eyes downward. Even when not asked questions about Tim or the bombing, his eyes look pain-wracked.

“When the F.B.I. asked me [after Tim’s arrest] if anyone else might have been involved, I said, ‘I’m not sure. It might be Nichols.’ The F.B.I. man asked, ‘Which Nichols?’

“I said, ‘There’s only one—Terry.’ And he said, ‘No. There’s James and Terry.’” Bill stares ahead when he says, “I met Terry Nichols. He came to help Tim move. After Tim left the service, he came home and stayed for over a year. In January 1993, he traveled to Arizona. While he was there, Terry Nichols came here and retrieved Tim’s things. I don’t know how Tim got them. I didn’t know a James. Yet Tim stayed with James when he went there, I found out during the trial.”

About that trial, Bill says, “I was hoping we could get out of the death penalty. I did not like the way the trial went. He shouldn’t have been convicted by sentiments. Before anything, the jury had him convicted. I felt it was a foregone conclusion.”

He manages to find solace. “I don’t go to Mass every week, but I stay active in the parish. For 20 years, I’ve worked Bingo. Since Tim’s arrest, I guess I pray more privately. I don’t go to Mass more than I did before.”

And he does read everything he finds about the trial. “I had read that Bud was speaking out against the death penalty.”

Talking Together

Bill’s former neighbor helped arrange a meeting between him and Bud in September 1998, three years after the bombing.

“Bud came early,” Bill says and chuckles. “I didn’t have my shoes on.” But he greeted his guest before searching for his shoes. “He [Bud] stayed for two hours. It’s hard for me to believe a man whose daughter got killed could be that friendly and nice. He’s a great guy.”

Bud continues to telephone Bill occasionally, but Bill does not phone back. “I wouldn’t know what to say.”

On his part, Bud says he felt nervous all the way to the McVeigh home. He started by telling Bill he didn’t think there had been a government conspiracy connected to the bombing. They shared their views of the Nichols brothers. When Bud prepared to leave, Tim’s sister, Jennifer, hugged him and cried.

At that meeting, Bud told the McVeighs that they were all in this together for the rest of their lives. Then he cried all the way back to Buffalo where two friends waited for him. “I couldn’t stop sobbing,” he says. “I drove 85 miles per hour because I needed to get to people I knew. When I pulled up at the house, I was still crying.”

He can’t explain why, but Bud says, “Since I met Bill McVeigh, I feel closer to God. I’m not a real religious person, but that was an unforgettable experience!”

Bill McVeigh does not express what the meeting did for him, but is obviously happy to hear from Bud. Bud has asked him to do joint interviews, but Bill has refused. In his quiet way, he prays that Bud’s mission meets success.

“If Timothy McVeigh is permitted to stay alive,” Bud says, “he might tell the truth. I don’t think he and Terry acted alone. But dead men don’t talk.”

The Road to Forgiveness

When the McVeigh jury came to Oklahoma City after the Denver trial, Bud Welch felt horrified. “That was a bad thing and never should have happened,” he says. “Nobody has brought the Terry Nichols’ jury because he got a life sentence.” Bud questions whether justice was served and wonders who actually was the ringleader.

Bill McVeigh is careful about making statements concerning the case: “I might say the wrong thing.” He remembers Tim’s extreme anger with Terry Nichols.

Bill McVeigh and Bud Welch have found the road to forgiveness and compassion difficult but possible to traverse.

Bud, the still-grieving father, says that “revenge is nothing but hate and anger. We have to stop the carnage, stop ratcheting up the violence, stop all the killing. Execution is no solution.”

Sandy McPherson Carrubba, throughout her life, has heard God call her to ministry—even if it has been in her own backyard. That, she remarks, is where community begins. As an adult, she joined the Catholic Church, a great treasure that she says is underappreciated by its members. Carrubba, who is the married mother of two grown daughters, is an advocate for children whom she believes are undervalued in this nation. She resides in Buffalo, New York.

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