As Timothy McVeigh's execution nears, two parents who lost children in the bombing take different paths to the end of a tragedy: One says killing McVeigh isn't the answer; the other wants to watch him die.
By SUSAN ASCHOFF
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 15, 2001
Bud Welch remembers standing on the porch of the house near Buffalo, N.Y., wondering what he would say to the man inside. It had been three years since Welch's only daughter died in the Oklahoma City bombing. He was here to meet the man whose son had killed her.
A picture played in Welch's head, a TV interview he had seen of Bill McVeigh. McVeigh was in his garden pulling weeds, his shoulders bowed. When he finally turned his head, what Welch saw in his face was unbearable grief.
Welch knocked on the door, and McVeigh answered. In the kitchen, they stood awkwardly for a few minutes before each took a seat at a table. The wall above was covered with family snapshots. Welch's eyes kept returning to an 8 by 10 photo of a handsome young man.
"That's Tim's high school graduation picture," said McVeigh.
For almost two years, Welch had traversed the country, talking about his 23-year-old daughter Julie, so beautiful and bright, fluent in languages, a world traveler working as a translator for the Social Security Administration in Oklahoma City. When Bill McVeigh meets a stranger, Welch thought, he cannot talk about his son. He cannot brag about the boy who babysat neighbor kids, who received a Bronze Star, and who killed Julie and 167 others when he blew up a building because he was angry at the government.
He probably doesn't tell people he has a son, thought Welch.
What Welch told the father was that they were both trapped in this pain for the rest of their lives. And that he did not want McVeigh's son to die.
Five weeks before the scheduled execution of Timothy McVeigh, Welch has come to the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg to say he should not be put to death.
The death penalty is immoral and vicious, Welch believes. Vengeance will not bring peace to the victims. "After we take Timothy McVeigh out of his cage to kill him," says Welch, "what we end up with is a staged political event."
Welch is midway through a 10-city tour of Florida, a day spent in each, with Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. On Tuesday, the day of the USF speech, he takes phone calls on WTVT-Ch. 13's Your Turn and on WMNF-FM 88.5. His cell phone constantly rings with people seeking comment on Timothy McVeigh's scheduled execution May 16 in Terre Haute, Ind. After his speech on campus, he will rush to WEDU-Ch. 3's Tampa studio to appear on Rivera Live.
Host Geraldo Rivera believes this is not the case to debate the death penalty.
"We're talking about a baby-killer," Rivera says. McVeigh, a 32-year-old Army veteran, was sentenced to death by lethal injection for detonating a bomb at the Alfred P. Murrah federal building on April 19, 1995, killing 149 adults and 19 children. He has asked that there be no appeals.
At USF, Welch, 61, wants to tell the 100 people in the audience how much he loved his daughter.
He has operated a Texaco station in Oklahoma City for 37 years. When Julie had "something she really wanted, she called Dad at the Texaco during his busy time so she'd get more yeses than nos."
Julie spent her sophomore year in high school as an exchange student in Spain and later won a scholarship in foreign languages to Marquette University in Milwaukee. After graduation, she got the translating job at the Murrah building. She and her father met for lunch every Wednesday at the Greek restaurant across the street.
It was a Wednesday when Julie walked down the hall to escort a Mexican man to his appointment. They were 18 feet away from the bomb when it exploded.
"The first four or five weeks were temporary insanity," Welch says.
After the arrest of McVeigh and co-conspirator Terry Nichols, Welch, a Roman Catholic who had always opposed the death penalty, railed that trials were a waste of time.
"Had I thought I had the chance, I would have tried to kill them myself," he says.
Every night he came home from the gas station and drank. Every day he would go to the bomb site. "I watched people as they walked the fence (enclosing the site). They would come and cry. I had a headache from drinking the night before. I knew I could not go on like this."
He asked himself, "What do I need? Do I need the trials to begin? Do I need convictions? Do I need executions?"
He thought about why Julie and 167 others were dead: "Revenge and rage."
He could not let the same emotions embitter him. Julie wouldn't want that.
So he began to share his story. He testified in Washington against proposals to speed executions. He asked lawmakers in Illinois, California, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania to impose moratoriums on the death penalty. On a speaking trip to New York at the invitation of an order of nuns, he asked if he could meet McVeigh's father.
After the meeting, he sat on a couch and sobbed for a half-hour.
"What I found that morning in western New York was a bigger victim of the Oklahoma City bombing than me," he says.
"May 16 may be the largest media event in United States history," Welch tells the USF audience. "It won't bring Julie Marie Welch back or the other 167. It won't bring me peace.
"It won't bring you peace."
Welch is preaching to the choir. Most of his listeners belong to groups opposing the death penalty. Many wear buttons reading "Killing Is Wrong."
What would you say to Timothy McVeigh if you had the chance to talk to him? a young man asks Welch.
"I'd take some pictures to show him what Julie looked like. I'd hope I'd put a crack in him some way, so that he would ask for forgiveness."
Four-year-old Ashley Eckles was with her grandparents the morning McVeigh parked a Ryder truck loaded with 2 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, fuel oil and detonation cords, then walked away.
Ashley's grandfather, 62-year-old Luther Treanor, had a 9 a.m. appointment in the Social Security Administration office on the first floor of the Murrah building. He wanted to check on his retirement benefits with his wife, 56-year-old LaRue Treanor.
At 9:02 a.m., their lives were over.
Ashley's mother, Kathleen Treanor, waited three days for word, grasping a photo of her smiling daughter and praying she was alive in a pocket of the rubble.
"If McVeigh doesn't deserve to die," says Treanor, "nobody does."
She wants to watch.
"I don't expect to get any peace or satisfaction. I'm more realistic than that.
"I'm looking for an end."
She has long grieved in public. One of the last witnesses in the 1997 trial of Nichols, Treanor sobbed, then screamed from the stand in a voice that transfixed jurors, reported the Daily Oklahoman.
"I buried a little white box . . . and I wanted to die because my daughter was gone." A bailiff led her from the courtroom.
"Everybody says, "Get over it,' " she says now. "How can we?"
More than 500 were injured in the bombing. Survivors lost a leg or an eye, walk with a cane, breathe through a tube, struggle to make damaged brains function.
Almost 250 victims and family members have said they want to witness McVeigh's execution. Attorney General John Ashcroft Thursday said they will get an encrypted, closed-circuit feed to an undisclosed location in Oklahoma City on execution day. It will be the country's first closed-circuit broadcast of a federal death sentence.
Treanor says she respects the right of each victim and relative to heal in his or her own way. Bud Welch is a friend, she says. "You can go through the holy Bible and make a pretty good argument on either side of the coin" regarding capital punishment, she says.
She found her justification in the New Testament. "It says we live in man's world and we live under man's laws. McVeigh knew the United States had the death penalty. We are socially and morally responsible" for what we do.
After the tragedy, Treanor had a tubal ligation reversed in a procedure partly funded by donations from people across the country. She had a daughter. Two-year-old Kassidy resembles her grandparents and her sister, her mother says.
Treanor's sons, 12 and 15, work as docents at the Oklahoma City National Memorial. The wreckage has been cleared for a reflecting pool and museum. There is an open space with 168 empty chairs, 19 of them smaller to commemorate the children. They align in nine rows, one for each floor of the federal building.
Recently, a visitor to the memorial approached Treanor and a bombing survivor. He told them how the place moved him, then burst into tears.
"I have three chairs across the way," Treanor told him. "I come here to be closer to the ones I love."
If McVeigh dies, she will be rid of the one she hates.
"I need visual confirmation that this man has drawn his last breath."
Bud Welch says he has never felt closer to God than he did the day he met McVeigh's father. He believes that with compassion and forgiveness comes healing.
"Executing Timothy McVeigh is not part of the healing process," he says. "I think what might happen to those who want to watch is that they may feel victimized later."
A nation writing an ending to the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history will only reopen its wounds if it kills McVeigh, Welch says. Julie and Ashley and all the other victims will still be gone. So will another man's son.
Welch says he will go to Terre Haute three days before the execution to continue speaking out.
"I will not be demonstrating at the prison," he adds. "I will not be holding a candle. I will not watch it on a TV. I hope there are no arrests.
"I hope we all respect one another."