It happens a few times each year to William “Bill” McVeigh, and it never fails to amaze him.
He will be walking somewhere – perhaps at his favorite Tops Market in Lockport, or at the annual lawn fete at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Pendleton – and a stranger will nervously approach him.
“Are you Mr. McVeigh?” the stranger will ask.
“I tell them, ‘Yes, I am,’ and they’ll put their hand out and shake my hand,” McVeigh said. “They usually ask me if I’m all right and tell me that they are thinking about me or praying for me. Some of these people, I’ve met in the past. Some, I’ve never seen before in my life.”
Such encounters are a part of life for the father of Timothy J. McVeigh, the Army veteran from Niagara County who killed 168 people on April 19, 1995, in the worst act of homegrown terrorism in American history.
Bill McVeigh, a retired factory worker who recently turned 80, has learned to take the good with the bad.
“I don’t hide from what happened,” he said in a recent interview as the 25-year anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing approached. “I don’t go around wearing a jacket saying, ‘I’m Bill McVeigh.’ But if people ask me, I tell them. … It’s just something that happened, and I’ve never tried to hide from it.”
A tall, athletic and shy man who rarely speaks with the news media, he said he thinks every day about the families in Oklahoma City who were devastated by his son’s act of hatred. He wishes he could change what happened, but knows it is impossible.
McVeigh realizes he is in a unique situation among 329 million Americans. He’s not a celebrity and would never want to be. But his name is known to millions because of the crime committed by his son, who was executed in 2001.
“I think about that bombing all the time, not just on the anniversaries. … Pretty much every day. Sometimes, in the middle of the night,” he said. “The people in Oklahoma City, they know how I feel. I have no enemies there.”
The Pendleton man never stopped loving his son, even after Timothy McVeigh became one of the most reviled killers in American history.
Also an Army veteran, Bill McVeigh still lives in the same small, beige ranch home that was searched by an FBI SWAT team on April 21, 1995, two days after the bombing.
He showed a reporter a small hill in the big backyard, which “Timmy” used to use for shooting practice. Pointing to two blue plastic 55-gallon barrels in the basement, McVeigh recalled that his son kept the barrels full of water in preparation for some catastrophic event, including an attack that he anticipated the American government would unleash on gun owners.
McVeigh also pointed out a metal locker that his son decorated with some rather shocking stickers. “WARNING!! TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT,” reads one of the stickers. “SURVIVORS WILL BE SHOT AGAIN!”
“The FBI was interested in those; they took pictures of all those stickers,” McVeigh recalled.
An unexpected phone call
McVeigh said he remembers “every second” of his encounter with the FBI, including the phone call from a Buffalo agent that changed his life forever.
“I had just gone to bed after working the midnight shift and running some errands. The agent called and asked if they could come over,” McVeigh recalled. “I told him I wasn’t dressed for company, but come on over.”
Within a minute or two, agents were at his door, asking for permission to search and telling him they had evidence that his son was a terrorist.
McVeigh didn’t call a lawyer, and he allowed agents to search his home. The next day, the shell-shocked father flew with FBI agents to an Oklahoma jail, where his son was being held. The elder McVeigh tried – unsuccessfully – to get his son to cooperate with investigators.
“To me, the way Bill handled himself during those days, and all these years after, was heroic,” said Michael Liwicki, an FBI retiree who was one of two Buffalo case agents heading the Western New York portion of the bombing investigation. “He’s been a model citizen.”
Liwicki said he can only imagine what kind of emotional pain Bill McVeigh was going through. “But Bill cooperated totally … he did everything he could to help us,” Liwicki said. He said Bill McVeigh clearly “felt that was the right thing to do.”
Because authorities feared possible violence against Bill McVeigh, Liwicki said his home was guarded around the clock by state troopers for a couple of weeks.
In 1997, Liwicki accompanied Bill McVeigh to Denver for part of his son’s trial, which ended in Timothy McVeigh’s conviction for mass murder and a death sentence. Liwicki said it was painful to watch what the father had to endure.
Bill McVeigh remembers sitting alone at a hotel bar after a long day in the courthouse.
“Three or four ladies walked up to me. They were family members of some of the victims,” McVeigh said. “At first, they didn’t know what to say, but they were nice to me. They just wanted me to know they didn’t feel like it was my fault.”
Similar things have happened to him over the past 25 years. In the early days after the bombing, he received a few letters in which people insulted him, calling him the father of a baby killer.
“But around that same time, I received more than a thousand letters and cards from people, just saying they felt sorry for my family,” he said. “Throughout this whole thing, most people have been very kind.”
Two Buffalo News reporters who have visited Oklahoma City several times since the bombing have encountered many people who despise Timothy McVeigh, but none who had anything but sympathy for his father.
“I cried when I saw that picture of Mr. McVeigh from the 20th anniversary” of the bombing, said Jannie Coverdale, 82, an Oklahoma City woman who lost two young grandsons in the blast. “I feel so bad for Mr. McVeigh. He didn’t raise his son to be an animal blowing up all those people and then to be executed.”
Retired from Lockport’s Harrison Radiator plant, McVeigh loves to golf and bowl with his many friends. He enjoys visiting his two daughters, who live out of state, and three grandchildren. He spends many hours volunteering at church and veterans events, golf tournaments and bingo fundraisers. He said he is almost always put in the position of treasurer, entrusted to handle thousands of dollars.
“People know me, and I guess they trust me, and they know I’m good keeping figures in my head,” he said.
An angry son
Did Bill McVeigh ever see any signs that his son was on the road to becoming a terrorist?
His son was a fierce advocate of the right to own guns, and he became convinced in the early 1990s that then-President Bill Clinton and his attorney general, Janet Reno, were planning a war against gun owners. Like many Americans, he was enraged over an April 19, 1993, assault by federal agents on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, where 76 people, including 20 children, were killed.
McVeigh’s bombing came exactly two years later.
“Tim would stand in front of the TV, yelling about Clinton, Janet Reno and Waco,” McVeigh said.
But the father, a patriotic man who flies an American flag on his front lawn, never imagined his son would display his anger toward the government by exploding a 7,000-pound truck bomb and killing innocent people.
Bill McVeigh said he knew his son was angry but thought he was just blowing off steam.
“A lot of people say angry things in this country,” McVeigh said. “If I knew he was planning something like that, I’d do everything I could to stop him.”
He did not attend his son’s execution. “Tim did not want the family there, and I didn’t want to be there,” he said. “It would have been just too much to handle.”
He will never be able to visit his son’s final resting place, because he has no idea where his son’s ashes were scattered. Timothy McVeigh had his remains scattered at a secret location, which remains unknown to this day. An investigator who served on McVeigh’s defense team has never publicly disclosed the location.
“I think about Tim often, but not about where his ashes are,” Bill McVeigh said. “He didn’t want any of us to know. Those were Tim’s wishes.”
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