Dropping the bomb
J.D. Cash looked at me incredulously. He couldn't believe that anyone bought into the supposed confession of Timothy McVeigh.
"People in Dallas believe it?" he asked, speaking from the living room of his buddies, the Wilburns, in Oklahoma City last Saturday night.
Yes, I insisted. Not only that, but any journalist I know would have killed to have had reporter Pete Slover's enormous scoop in The Dallas Morning News--if, indeed, the "confession" documents on which his February 28 story was based are genuine.
"So it's only the Dallas people? OK. OK," said Cash, sounding somewhat reassured that acceptance of the story appears to be confined to just one benighted city, Dallas. "Everyone outside of Dallas is going, 'poor guy.' He has created one of the stupidest things in the world.
"I call it the 'mystery of the purloined hoax,'" he said with a wheezing chuckle, between drags on a cigarette. "It's really a shame, because it's taken everyone's eye off the ball."
That it has. And while Oklahoma City bombing aficionados like Cash, who consume every article generated on the subject, believe it's a hoax, most people--presented with little evidence to the contrary--do have faith in the story.
It's been nearly two weeks now since the Morning News dropped its bomb on the Internet, posting a story purporting to detail McVeigh's confessions of guilt to a member of his defense team. According to Pete Slover's copyrighted story, McVeigh, the prime suspect in the Oklahoma City bombing, told a defense team member that he'd bombed the federal building in the daytime because a "body count" would get his message across to the government. McVeigh also insisted that he alone drove the Ryder truck containing the explosives that blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people.
Slover's scoop was based on "confidential defense reports,"documents that had been "culled from summaries of several 1995 interviews with a defense team member," according to the March 1 newspaper story that followed the posting on the Morning News' Web site.
One such document, quoting a defense team member's notes of a July 1995 interview, stated, "Mr. McVeigh looked directly into my eyes and told me, 'That would not have gotten the point across to the government. We needed a body count to make our point.'"
McVeigh's lead attorney, Stephen Jones, has labeled Slover's story a "hoax" published by "the most irresponsible paper in the country."
Slover's original story--as well as follow-ups by Slover and other Morning News reporters--have not named the source or sources for the defense documents, nor described how they were obtained.
No confirmation of the documents' validity has ever been offered, either, except for the Morning News' assurance, through editor Ralph Langer, that "Clearly, we would not publish a story if we weren't confident of the quality of information we have."
Today, reverberations from Slover's story are still being felt all over the country.
While Stephen Jones immediately denounced the "confession" and speculated that it might delay McVeigh's federal trial, set for March 31 in Denver, the Morning News stood behind its story--while agreeing not to print any other stories based on the documents.
Then, in a matter of days, new developments in the story began to revolve around a mysterious, unorthodox investigative reporter named John D. Cash. The same day the Morning News' story hit the paper, in fact, Cash surfaced seemingly from nowhere, claiming that Slover had been snookered--and offering a simple explanation for what McVeigh's "confession" documents really were.
It was Cash whom I tracked down late last week in Oklahoma City, trying to figure out who he was, and whether his explanation was credible. I spent some three hours interviewing Cash on the phone and in person during a quick trip to Oklahoma City, and spoke to several of Cash's friends, acquaintances, and colleagues--from former 20/20 associate producer Roger Charles to Paul Hall, editor of the Jubilee--chief chronicler of the white supremacist Christian Identity movement.
Through all of these conversations, I found that the answers to both of my questions about Cash remained maddeningly elusive.
What's clear, though, is that Cash deserves a hearing in the press--and not, as the Morning News did in a March 5 story, merely for the purposes of knocking him down.
Pete Slover may have pulled down the scoop of the year. If he did, more power to him; we applaud any evidence of gutsy, aggressive journalism in the Morning News. But if J.D. Cash is credible, and if there's any truth to what he's saying, Slover and his editors probably aren't sleeping very well these nights.
J.D. Cash settled into Glenn and Kathy Wilburn's comfortable living room last Saturday night and reeled out his story. Cash, a tall, lean man with combed-back gray hair and a neatly trimmed beard, wore a starched, blue-striped button-down shirt and jeans, with ostrich-skin cowboy boots. He chain-smoked throughout our conversation, despite the admission that his father died of emphysema shortly before the Oklahoma City bombing.
At one point, Cash pointed out a sad remembrance of that horrific day--twin photos on the mantelpiece of chubby-cheeked toddlers Chase and Colton Smith, the Wilburns' grandsons, both of whom were killed in the federal building's daycare center.
Cash, 44, is a roving, full-time reporter for the daily McCurtain Gazette of Idabel, Oklahoma, in the state's southeast corner. The tiny Gazette, with a Sunday circulation of 8,400 and a news staff of seven, has published dozens of controversial stories by Cash on the Oklahoma City bombing, some of which have scooped the national media.
Cash says he was staying at the Wilburns' house, as he always does when he's in Oklahoma City, on February 28, when the McVeigh confession story first appeared on TV.
"Glenn [Wilburn] and I were sitting in the kitchen, and I looked up--I heard something about McVeigh on the TV, and they were rolling a picture of the [DMN's] Web site," Cash recalls. "I'm thinking, 'What in the fuck is that?' And then there's Stephen Jones on there saying it's a hoax. 'Goddamn sure is a hoax,' I said."
How did Cash know? He claims he saw the so-called "confidential defense reports" a year ago, and knows who concocted them and why.
His explanation involves a private investigator from Conroe, Texas named Richard Reyna. It was Reyna--who has worked for Jones' team---who wrote the phony confession in order to fake out a potential witness and encourage him to talk, Cash says. (Reyna did not return phone calls from the Dallas Observer and makes it his practice never to speak to the media, Cash says.) Stephen Jones, in fact, has supported Cash's version of events, and stated last week that both Reyna and Cash "were familiar with the document."
Cash and Reyna had become buddies while seeking out leads on the bombing, and often traveled together to various centers of neo-Nazi activity--including Elohim City, the white supremacist community in eastern Oklahoma that McVeigh reportedly visited before the bombing. Once the two reached their destination, they'd split up, with Reyna doing his work for the defense team, and Cash pursuing his investigative stories for the McCurtain Gazette. Clearly, this is an unorthodox arrangement for any journalist and has led to accusations that Cash is too cozy with Jones' team.
Cash says Reyna showed him the fake confession while they were driving together one day. "We were on the highway [in Oklahoma], going to visit a group that we visited pretty regularly for a long period of time," Cash recalls. "It was a group of terrorists--neo-Nazis. I was doing research on these people."
Cash says he scanned the document, which he recalls as being several pages long and typewritten, and ribbed Reyna for a few of the clumsy flourishes he'd written in.
"I just skimmed down through the highlights, the different funny things in it," Cash says. "I told Richard his creative juices weren't flowing--because obviously an investigator wouldn't write a report like that. 'He looked into my eyes...' It's a Mickey Spillane kind of thing. I read Mickey Spillane in high school, and it reminded me of that."
Cash specifically recalls reading the "body count" statement that was quoted in Slover's story.
"It has to be exactly what I saw because of the quotes that [Slover] has," Cash says. "The obvious one I remember is the 'body count.' There was another one in there that [the Morning News] didn't print that should have tipped them off that something was screwy."
When asked why Reyna was sharing the document with Cash--a reporter--Cash says, "It was just a fun thing. We were telling war stories, and he said, 'look at this.' And he told me what the game plan was, and that's what it was about."
The game plan, Cash says, was to use the document to lure a witness--Cash won't say who--into talking. "It was to get them to understand that there was an opportunity for them to visit openly and freely--that the client [McVeigh] was gonna do this Patrick Henry thing, the 'silent brotherhood' act," Cash says, referring to McVeigh's willingness, as revealed in the document, to take the fall for the bombing. "It was meant to show them that they were in the clear, and that they could discuss some other matters, and they could show their respect [to McVeigh] and return some favors."
"If there was a confession document, it's gonna be in Stephen Jones' safe," he says. "It would probably never be reduced to writing, anyway. It wouldn't be scanned into the computer system period. It wouldn't be available. You would have to take a welding torch to the safe."
While the Morning News has made much of Jones' seeming attempts to change his explanation for the documents, Cash insists the defense attorney's story never changed. "I felt real sorry for [Jones]," Cash says. "He knows there's something wrong, because he knows there's no legitimate confession document, period. So he knows it's a hoax, but he doesn't know what it is--it's the Hitler Diaries."
Later on, Cash says, as Jones figured out what Slover had obtained, his statements to the press became more specific, and he identified the document as a phony confession designed to provoke a certain witness--whom The New York Times has reported is Aryan Nations leader Louis Beam.
One rumor going around after release of the Morning News' story was that Cash himself had slipped the document to Slover.
Cash says Stephen Jones told him Slover was pinning the blame for the leak on Cash, who, in turn, supposedly got the document from Reyna. (Slover refused to comment for this story. The Morning News, however, has never revealed Slover's sources.) The McCurtain Gazette responded to the rumor on Sunday, March 2, with a plainspoken front-page headline: "Cash: He's Not Source of Hoax in Dallas Newspaper."
"There is no fucking way I would give that guy anything," Cash says about Slover. "I've only met him one single time in my life. Once. I've never even talked to him on the phone."
Cash's editor at the Gazette, Bruce Willingham, who also owns the paper, immediately rallied around his star reporter, who has become popular in McCurtain County for his stories on the bombing.
Willingham proudly recites some of the highlights in Cash's clip file. His most recent triumph was a story on Carol E. Howe, a confidential Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms paid informant who supposedly warned ATF officials in writing months before the bombing that people in the white supremacist movement were targeting the Murrah building for destruction. According to Cash, the ATF had set up a sting to snag the bombers. "The ATF had a sting operation on this building, and it went sour," Cash explains. "And this, I assure you, will come out in the [McVeigh] trial."
Then there are Cash's reports on Elohim City, the white supremacist compound in eastern Oklahoma that Cash says serves as a training site for terrorists. "The Switzerland of the neo-Nazi movement--a terrorist training community--is just two hours north of here," Cash says, "and nobody figured it out. Even after the bombing, there were these glowing stories, saying 'Well, these people are a little bit different. But they're religious people, and we shouldn't pick on them.' But it's what's going on behind the scenes--that's what's important, as well as McVeigh's connection to Elohim City."
Cash's groundbreaking work on Elohim City has since been confirmed, in part, by several other media outlets, from Time magazine to the Tulsa World. These are striking accomplishments for a man who only became a journalist after the bombing, and whom many dismiss as an addled-brain conspiracy theorist--a term Cash calls a "cheap fucking shot."
"Early on, [Cash] was coming up with stuff nobody else was coming up with, and I'm personally verifying it, and it's accurate," Willingham says. "But nobody else is carrying it, and I can't understand why.
"He's so thorough in everything he does. He's aware that his work is going to be scrutinized a lot. All the interviews are tape-recorded; lots and lots of documents all the way through. Maybe the legal background is part of that."
Cash did, in fact, earn a law degree from the University of Tulsa in 1988, according to school records. He never sat for the bar exam or practiced law, though.
But details of Cash's life before he became a journalist are sketchy, and Cash himself doesn't offer much illumination. It's one of the faintly odd things about him--you spend hours talking to him, but still get the sense you don't know who he is.
A few pieces do emerge from conversations with Cash and some friends, most of whom he's gotten to know since the bombing: He's divorced, and has no children. He was raised in Oklahoma City and Tulsa; his father was in the oil business.
Cash says he's worked in banking and real estate, including serving, at the age of 19, as a loan officer for Tulsa's now-defunct Sooner Federal Savings and Loan. He moved to the tiny McCurtain County community of Battiest in 1992 to nurse his ailing father and still maintains a home there, in a mountain cabin.
Cash started sniffing around on news stories after meeting Glenn Wilburn, who dropped in his consciousness the intriguing tidbit that no ATF field agents were present in the Murrah building at the time of the bombing. (Cash believes they were purposely avoiding the building because of Howe's warnings.)
From there, Cash and the Wilburns began working in tandem, interviewing numerous witnesses to the bombing. The Wilburns' own loss of their grandchildren opened many doors to interviews, Cash says. "They walk in and say, 'look, we've paid the price, we buried our grandkids, the FBI didn't bury our grandkids. You need to talk to us, too.' And how can you say no?"
Cash has managed to develop an outstanding network of sources among journalists, witnesses, and even far right-wingers through his work for the McCurtain Gazette. What started as freelance work has now become a full-time pursuit, with Willingham offering Cash a spot on his news staff.
"If you've met some people who've been involved in covering the bombing, everyone will tell you it's like quicksand," Cash says. "You get into it, and there are just so many things. And it's just now getting interesting. I think the trial is gonna be dramatic."
But the hours of quality time Cash has spent with various fruitcakes have yielded a peculiar result: the odd note of sympathy that occasionally slips into his conversations about right-wing extremists such as Louis Beam and Jubilee editor Paul Hall.
Make no mistake: There is nothing benign--or Christian--about the Christian Identity movement, despite the protestations of some of its adherents. These "true believers," as Cash calls them, preach that white people are the Israelites of the Old Testament, and that Jews are the literal descendants of Satan. They also claim that non-whites are an entirely different species from caucasians.
It could be the mark of a man who's simply trying to gain a genuine understanding, but Cash is strangely mild in his assessments of Christian Identity. "It would not be me to say these guys are wrong about the sources of the tribes of Israel," he says. "And I don't even care. That's not important to me. Where I get offended and pissed off...is when I see people using that in the pulpit to whip up hatred that turns to mass murder."
Cash's ambivalent statements about Christian Identity were what I found slightly disturbing about the man: You can't tell exactly where the professional distance ends and the personal interest begins.
All of his work as a reporter is marked by that blurring of distinctions. Cash has little regard for the constraints of mainstream journalism, and employs some tactics that many journalists, including myself, would never touch. His explanation for how he's obtained such extraordinary access to figures within the Christian Identity movement, indeed, would be no small cause for controversy.
That story eventually came out during my face-to-face interview with Cash--when he explained why he'd sold his stories to Jubilee.
Cash admits he basically misrepresented himself to Paul Hall, editor of the Jubilee, who evidently assumed Cash had an affinity for Christian Identity beliefs. (When asked about that, Hall dodged the question and launched into a rant about sneaky reporters who look for any opportunity to slam Christian Identity.)
"It was absolutely imperative that I had access and a quick education in this Aryan Nations/neo-Nazi movement," Cash says. "I was provided that access in many ways, from many different people. And one of the ways was the Jubilee. And I hope that doesn't give them any ill feelings toward me, but when there's 168 murdered people involved, all avenues and options are open, and this was one of them that I took."
Cash says he does not believe in the Christian Identity movement's ideals.
Several of Cash's friends and colleagues support him, saying he hasn't been tainted by his inside contacts with the far right.
Jeff Holladay, a reporter who worked with Cash on some of his stories for the Gazette, goes further. "You should dispel the notion that John Cash is some kind of extreme right-wing radical," he says. "The body of work is ample and abundant proof that J.D. Cash is not some right-wing apologist. In fact, probably they hate him now."
Cash claims they do. Though Elohim City once offered him the presidency of its all-white university--which hadn't been built yet--while Cash was undercover, he has since received death threats from figures on the far right, he says, and believes that some day, he'll pay.
"That's the way this deal works," he says, darkly. "There's a rule--and I broke the rule. Inside the movement, it's a death sentence."
In journalism, the penalty for breaking the rules--for printing conjecture, not facts--isn't so dire.
But if the Morning News' nightmare has indeed materialized in the form of some obscure out-of-town reporter with supposedly first-hand knowledge about the veracity of those sexy, top-secret documents, the newspaper would be wise to impose its own penalty--in the form of one more story that tells the whole truth.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.