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The words "I am sorry" do not come easily for Timothy J. McVeigh. Nor do they come without conditions.

When he speaks those three words about his victims in the Oklahoma City bombing, he attaches a strong statement of defiance.

"I am sorry these people had to lose their lives," McVeigh said in a recent letter to The Buffalo News.

"But that's the nature of the beast. It's understood going in what the human toll will be."

The bombing, he wrote, was "a legit tactic" in his war against what he considers an out-of-control federal government.

In a series of letters written from his death row prison cell before and after the postponement of his original execution date, the condemned mass murderer declared that his terrorist act was in defense of Americans' rights to personal freedom and a reaction to government atrocities at Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho.

Though he recognizes that millions of Americans despise him, the decorated Persian Gulf War veteran said he hopes his countrymen eventually will come to view him as a "freedom fighter" who died for his cause. He compares his bombing to the actions of John Brown, who protested slavery in the mid-1800s by leading raids that killed men, women and children.

Joseph Hartzler believes McVeigh will be remembered as something else: a heartless villain and traitor who wore earplugs and fled the scene after igniting a bomb that killed innocent people.

"I think he'll be remembered as an evil person who murdered 168 innocent people," said Hartzler, the chief government prosecutor in the trial that put McVeigh on death row.

In Hartzler's view, McVeigh will be remembered as anything but a hero or a freedom fighter.

In fact, the prosecutor believes McVeigh's actions give a bad name to people who speak out against big government.

"People who oppose the federal government don't typically support violence," Hartzler said. "The country is richer when we have people who are comfortable criticizing policies and practices they don't like. Otherwise, we won't improve as a nation."

Oklahoma City bombing victim Patti Hall, a former government employee who has endured 16 surgeries for the injuries she suffered in McVeigh's blast, believes the Pendleton native will go down as one of the most hated villains in American history.

"He says he is proud of what he did. He says he isn't afraid to be executed. But to me, it all seems like false bravado," Hall said. "I think he's a scared little kid inside."

Though courtrooms have been abuzz from the highly publicized controversy over missing FBI documents from the bombing investigation, McVeigh's last weeks on death row have been quiet. He recently told The News that he is "shutting down operations" -- cutting off communications with all but a few people.

But before he cut off communications, McVeigh contradicted his lawyers' contention of a wider conspiracy theory in their last-ditch efforts to delay his execution.

McVeigh's recent letters to The News definitively restated that he, Terry Nichols, Michael Fortier and his wife, Lori, were the only people aware of the bombing before it occurred.

"The three people who knew something were Mike, Lori and Terry," McVeigh said. "They all knew most details. . . . No one knew them all but me.

"For those die-hard conspiracy theorists who will refuse to believe this, I turn the tables and say: Show me where I needed anyone else. Financing? Logistics? Specialized tech skills? Brainpower? Strategy? . . . Show me where I needed a dark, mysterious 'Mr. X'!"

Those few who remain close to McVeigh say that his last days are being spent in managing what will happen after his death.

"He's been taking care of a lot of last-minute details, like trying to figure out where all his papers and letters will be archived," said Cate McCauley, a Rhode Island woman who is one of McVeigh's few confidants. "I last heard from him a week ago, and he was very businesslike."

McVeigh continues to maintain he did the right thing when he bombed the Murrah Building, said McCauley, who spent years investigating the bombing as the executive director of a citizens committee in Oklahoma City.

"I don't think he has any regrets," McCauley said. "He sees himself as a soldier. He committed himself to this course of action. Sometimes he wishes he didn't have to do it, but he felt he had no other choice."

McVeigh has told McCauley and Buffalo News reporters that he might have chosen another tactic for expressing his hatred of the federal government. McVeigh said he sometimes wishes that, instead of a bombing, he had used his gunnery skills for a series of assassinations against police and government officials who crack down on the rights of gun owners.

If the anti-government novel "Unintended Consequences," by John Ross, had come out before the bombing, McVeigh said he might not have bombed the Murrah Building. Ross' book, published in 1996, tells the story of a man who protests gun laws by murdering law enforcement and government officials.

"He has told me that, in hindsight, he might have done things differently if 'Unintended Consequences' had come out first," McCauley said. "But I don't think he regrets the bombing."

McVeigh has turned down hundreds of reporters' requests for interviews in recent weeks. He said he also turned down a request from the FBI for a "final debriefing." Agents wanted to conduct a "progressive interview," meeting McVeigh in federal prison and asking about the political views that led to his crime.

McVeigh said he was concerned that the FBI agents would somehow use whatever information he gave them to hurt people who stood up against the government.

"I will not be doing a progressive (aka repressive) interview with the FBI," McVeigh wrote. "I would hate for my insights to be used to kill more people, when they eventually abuse their power."

Among the other issues touched on by McVeigh in recent letters and phone interviews:

He plans to have his body cremated and the ashes turned over to his attorney Robert Nigh. Ultimately, the ashes will be scattered in a place that McVeigh wants to be kept secret.

"I don't want to create a draw for people who hate me, or for people who love me," McVeigh said.

During one moment of anger toward some of his critics in Oklahoma City, McVeigh briefly considered having his ashes dropped at the memorial where the Murrah Building once stood.

"That would be too vengeful, too raw, cold. It's not in me," he said.

McVeigh has also considered the possibility of having his ashes flown into space, or dropped in Waco or in the Erie Canal, one of the favorite places of his childhood.

McVeigh said he has had a number of requests for organ transplants. He said he would be willing to provide organs, but prison regulations prohibit that.

"I respond personally to every organ request, explaining that I looked into this years ago, and it is not allowed," McVeigh said.

McVeigh continues to get letters in prison from people who admire his political stance, though most do not condone the bombing. Some of the letters are bizarre.

"Timmy even got a letter from a woman who said she would have his baby if he could somehow get his sperm smuggled out of prison," said his father, Bill McVeigh. "She even said her boyfriend told her it was OK."

As McVeigh looks back on his life, he said the deadly 1993 siege at Waco -- more than anything else -- propelled him to action in Oklahoma City.

"If there would not have been a Waco, I would have put down roots somewhere and not been so unsettled with the fact that my government . . . was a threat to me," McVeigh wrote. "Everything that Waco implies was on the forefront of my thoughts. That sort of guided my path for the next couple of years.

"Waco made me decide that you can't lay down roots because you're not even safe in your own room anymore."

McVeigh said his violence was a "last resort" after he spent more than a year writing protest letters to the federal government and handing out pamphlets criticizing the government. Though he said he is sorry that people died, he blames the government, not himself.

McVeigh contends that he used threats and threatening behavior to stop Nichols from abandoning him in the final days before the bombing. He said Nichols was getting "cold feet," and at one point seemed as though he wanted to back out.

Nichols had reason to fear him. At one point in 1994, McVeigh said, he surprised Nichols by spraying pepper spray into his face. He said he did this to show Nichols the effects of the spray.

McVeigh added that he is convinced that an Oklahoma jury will eventually convict Nichols of state murder charges and sentence him to death.

Defiant and unrepentant to the last, McVeigh continues to insist he has no fear of his execution.

An agnostic, he said he will "improvise, adapt and overcome" if it turns out that there is an afterlife, and he winds up in heaven or hell.

"If I am going to hell," he said, "I'm gonna have a lot of company."


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