When I saw 23-year-old Jerry Drake Varnell’s mugshot on my Facebook newsfeed, I didn't know there'd be a single degree of separation between us.
Federal authorities arrested Varnell early Saturday, Aug. 12. He's charged with plotting an attack on one of the largest banks in downtown Oklahoma City. He also wanted to blow up a Bank of America data center in Dallas and the Federal Reserve Building in Washington, D.C. His method: detonate what FBI officials say he thought was a vehicle bomb similar to the one Timothy McVeigh used in 1995 to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. McVeigh's attack killed 168 people.
FBI officials claim Varnell had been planning his bombing since December 2016. He met with an undercover FBI agent in June and said he wanted to start the next revolution. Officials say he identified as a “3 percenter,” an ideology based on historical myth that only 3 percent of colonists fought in the Revolutionary War.
“I’m out for blood,” he wrote in a text message to a confidential informant. “When militias start getting formed, I’m going after government officials when I have a team.”
On Saturday, Varnell parked a van loaded with what he thought were explosives in an alley next to the bank. He then took out his cellphone and dialed a number that he thought would ignite the blast. But it didn’t work because the FBI joint terrorism task force had provided the materials.
“There was never any concern that our community’s safety or security was at risk during this investigation,” FBI special agent Kathryn Peterson said in a statement. “I can assure the public, without hesitation, that we had Varnell’s actions monitored every step of the way.”
I wish I could say I was surprised when I discovered that my 23-year-old cousin Phelecia had been dating and living with this wannabe bomber until a month before federal officials claim he hatched his plan. But nothing truly surprises me when it comes to my family.
“I thought he was the most beautiful thing in the whole world,” she says in a thick Oklahoma drawl.
They met in high school in Shawnee. He was a “super intelligent” skater kid with gauged ears and a pierced septum, she says. He was known to wear skinny jeans and listen to rap, metal and country. Phelicia had similar tastes and fell hard for him, but she says she hid her feelings and simply remained friends with him in high school.
They connected several years later on Facebook. They started messaging each other after one of their friends killed himself in the dorms at boot camp for the Air Force. A graduate of Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford, Varnell was separated from his wife and heading back to school to get a welding certification. He'd originally wanted to work in science, but his family was concerned he wouldn't be able to do it because of his mental illness, Phelecia says.
Phelecia was a single mother who lived with her aunt in the small town of Dustin. She says she didn't really know what she was doing with her life. She says she thought about nursing, but then she reconnected with Varnell and moved in with him in two houses that had been made into one on his parents' property in Sayre, a small town in western Oklahoma, in April 2016.
Varnell didn't work, but Phelecia found a job at Flying J and, six months later, landed one as a prison guard. "It was the highest-paying job around here that I could get," she says.
Phelecia says she didn’t have much experience with paranoid schizophrenia before she dated Varnell. She had heard stories of what he was like when he didn’t take his medications. She knew he had been arrested in 2013 for trying to strangle his ex-wife, and she says part of the reason was that he hadn’t been taking his medications. He pleaded no contest and received five years probation.
“He thought he was Jesus, his mother was Mary and his now ex-wife was the Devil,” Phelecia says. “He told his mom that they needed to kill her.”
Phelecia’s father wasn’t fond of Varnell.
“He was weird,” he says. “He would also go out and look for gold and leprechauns… . I’m not kidding. If he did not take his meds, he was twisted. I told Phelecia that I would kill him if my grandson got hurt.”
Phelecia called Varnell’s leprechaun excursions “a scavenger’s hunt for gold,” but she says she made sure that he took his medications every day until they separated in November 2016.
During their year together, Phelecia says, he never mentioned blowing up any buildings, but he was political and didn’t trust the government. He discussed revolution and what he would do if the world fell into chaos.
He also told her that he knew how to make pipe bombs. “I didn’t think he would go as far as making 1,000 pounds" of the explosive, she says.
Their love fell apart, she says, mostly because he was lazy. “He didn’t want to work,” she says. “He would just lay around. I was paying all the bills. Then I met Redman, and I cheated on him and his mom kicked me out.”
A month later, Varnell began planning to blow up the BancFirst headquarters in downtown Oklahoma City, federal officials say.
Phelecia learned of her ex-boyfriend's arrest on Facebook. Then her family started calling her. She says she couldn’t believe it and that it was something she would have never expected from him. “I was speechless,” she says.
Varnell’s parents, Clifford and Melonie, said in a statement to HuffPost that the FBI should have known about their son’s mental illness and that he “is extremely susceptible to different types of ideology that normal people would deem immoral.
“What the public should be looking at is the fact that the FBI gave our son the means to make this happen,” they added. “He has no job, no money, no vehicle and no driver’s license due to the fact that he is schizophrenic."
The Varnells say a court had found their son mentally incompetent and given them legal guardianship. "The mental health system has consistently failed us due to the lack of establishments and health coverage for a person like him,” they said.
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They also pointed out that the FBI fed into his paranoia by sending an agent to pick him up from their home and giving him a vehicle and a fake bomb. The FBI never comments on ongoing criminal cases.
Phelecia agrees with Varnell’s parents and says that some of the information appearing in news stories isn’t exactly as it appears in print.
For example, she says Varnell’s hideout was simply an extra room built in the master closet in a house that his parents built. They used money that Varnell received when his a finger was cut off in accident when he was 3 or 4 years old. Based on her recollections, there is no bunker on the property. It’s simply a trashed-out semitrailer.
Phelecia says that when Varnell is having a schizophrenic episode, "he will go far with whatever it is. If the FBI hadn’t went along with it, it probably wouldn’t have gone as far as it did. ... He can’t reason.”