The man who helped Pendleton native Timothy McVeigh build the bomb that killed 168 people in Oklahoma City often spends time in his prison cell trying to reach out to his troubled son.
But Joshua “Josh” Nichols wants nothing to do with Terry Nichols, who is serving 161 consecutive life sentences for his role in the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
Terry Nichols writes letters urging his 37-year-old old son to contact him so they can reestablish a long-broken relationship, according to Lana Padilla, the woman caught in the middle as Josh’s mother and Nichols' ex-wife.
“Terry’s letters are lengthy, written on the front and back of pages. He tries to be a parent from a distance. I try to get Josh to read the letters but Josh won’t,” Padilla said.
Josh Nichols – who was 12 when the bombing occurred and today is in a Nevada jail awaiting trial on kidnapping, armed robbery and burglary charges – could be counted as one more victim of the Oklahoma City bombing, thanks to his father's involvement.
Terry Nichols’ failed attempt to be a father to his oldest son also provides a window into his life at the nation’s most secure federal prison in the remote, desert country of southern Colorado.
In the 25 years since the bombing, few details have emerged on Nichols’ life behind bars. He has written letters to bombing victims who have reached out to him and, early on, reportedly complained about prison conditions.
Padilla says he is fond of quoting or paraphrasing scriptures from the Bible to make a point in his letters. Nichols has also portrayed himself as a spiritual individual in letters to other individuals.
In a letter to Mike Nations, who lived a block away from the Murrah building, Nichols wrote:
"...may He bring to your heart the peace & comfort which only He can do. Be well. And keep your faith & hope in God. Your friend, Terry."
In another letter, Nichols told Nations that his "work" in prison includes letter writing and "Bible study."
Nichols did not respond to a letter from The Buffalo News seeking an interview. U.S. Bureau of Prisons officials declined to release any information on whether he has visitors, makes phone calls or if he has violated rules at the Administrative-Maximum Security Penitentiary in Florence, Colo. They cited privacy and safety issues.
Nichols has kept a low profile, after having been spared the death penalty twice by juries in federal and state trials for his role in the worst act of domestic terrorism committed by an American citizen.
After one of the biggest law enforcement investigations ever in American history, the government charged three co-conspirators in the bombing, McVeigh, Nichols and Michael Fortier.
McVeigh, who drove the truck bomb to Oklahoma City and ignited it, was convicted in 1998 and executed in 2001. He was found guilty of first-degree murder of eight federal law enforcement officers, use of a weapon of mass destruction and conspiracy.
Fortier cooperated with the government and testified against McVeigh and Nichols. After serving more than 10 years of his 12-year prison sentence, he and his family disappeared from public view. It is believed that they entered the government's witness protection program, but his lawyer said he is not at liberty to confirm or deny that.
In another of Nichols’ letters from prison, the 65-year-old former Michigan resident expressed his belief that the bombing involved a wider conspiracy, according to the letter’s recipient, Jannie Coverdale, who lost two young grandsons in the bombing.
Coverdale said that Nichols wrote her that explosives were still stashed in the Kansas house where he had lived during the time of the bombing. If investigators checked, they would not only find the unused explosives but the fingerprints of another individual on them, Coverdale said in recounting the letter.
Acting on a tip in 2005, the FBI found blasting caps buried in a crawl space beneath Terry Nichols' Herington, Kan., residence, but the agents did not make any additional arrests.
In a conversation with Padilla, Nichols also shed some light on how McVeigh operated, according to his former wife of 10 years.
“One thing Terry did say is that McVeigh was very, very secretive and he never brought everybody all together,” Padilla said.
In one of Nichols' letters to Nations, who believes there were more people involved in the bombing than charged, Nichols asked him to pray "that the full truth will be revealed & the coverup exposed."
A betrayal of trust
Padilla moved with Josh to Las Vegas after her marriage to Nichols ended before the 1995 bombing. She is willing to speak about her former husband and the impact the bombing has had on her and her son, but with reluctance.
She says the bombing victims in Oklahoma City have suffered much more than them.
For years, Josh believed his father’s claim that he was innocent, Padilla said. He loved his father and endured insults. Other kids in school, she said, started calling him “bomber,” a nickname that has stuck.
In his late teens, Josh started breaking the law and getting involved in drugs, according to police.
But things went from bad to worse in 2005 after Terry Nichols’ two trials were completed and his fate was sealed, Padilla said.
During a prison visit, Nichols admitted his role in the bombing to her, his mother and sister, Padilla said.
When Padilla broke the news to her son, she said he was devastated.
“Josh said to me, ‘We really believed in his innocence, mom. You and I had cried and cried,’ ” Padilla said.
His drug addiction and criminal behavior increased, she said. “Josh has been in jail more than he has been out of jail.”
Sympathy for Nichols' son
Bud Welch, who lost his daughter in the bombing, has described Josh Nichols as one of its victims.
“Josh was a victim in as much that he was betrayed by his father when he was 12 years old,” Welch said.
A Las Vegas police detective who has investigated Josh Nichols, said it could not be easy to be the son of a co-conspirator in the bombing.
“I think of Josh as a 12-year-old boy and what he had to go through growing up. The struggle with his identity, school kids calling him ‘bomber,’ and his father’s claims of innocence. I have tremendous sympathy for that boy who wasn’t mentally able to cope with the stresses,” said Detective Bradley Nickell.
But the detective said he draws a line when it comes to the safety of the community.
“He is a grown man and knows the difference between right and wrong and chooses to continue doing wrong anyway,” said Nickell, who is also an author of true crime books. “When not in custody, Josh is often a one-man crime wave.”
Josh Nichols’ crimes include burglaries, auto theft, unlawful use of credit cards and high-speed police chases in which an officer was once injured, according to Nickell.
Padilla says her son’s addiction to drugs has resulted in many admissions to rehabilitation programs.
“He has been in all kinds of programs and he could teach them,” she said. “All his different attorneys have told Josh, ‘You are paying for your father’s sins.’ ”
Efforts to reach Josh Nichols for an interview were unsuccessful. His mother said she rarely has contact with him and that he has been homeless at times.
Two views of Terry Nichols
Coverdale, whose two grandsons were among the 15 children killed in the Murrah building’s day care, said Terry Nichols does not deserve to be in prison for life.
“I don’t think Terry Nichols should have gotten all that time. He wasn’t here that day. He didn’t help blow up that building,” said Coverdale, who believes there was a broader conspiracy of people involved in the bombing.
“It wasn’t just a Terry Nichols-Timothy McVeigh thing,” Coverdale said.
But Padilla says she remains upset at how her former husband behaved.
Before the bombing, Nichols provided McVeigh with a lift back to Kansas after McVeigh parked a getaway car near the Murrah building.
“How can someone eat Easter dinner, get up and go to Oklahoma,” Padilla said.
“Then he asked to keep our son for another week for an alibi,” Padilla said.
Josh Nichols had been in Kansas visiting his father for the Easter break when the bomb exploded.
Terry Nichols also has two other children from a second marriage. They could not be reached for comment.
Saving a box of letters
Dr. Charles P. Ewing, a University at Buffalo distinguished service professor emeritus who specialized in criminal law and child psychology, says incarcerated parents often try to patch up broken relationships with their children.
“It is not uncommon for parents who have gone to prison for much less heinous offenses to be rejected by their children,” Ewing said.
Padilla says she is saving Nichols’ unread letters to their son.