The anniversary of America's worst act of home-grown terrorism, the Oklahoma City bombing, was observed Sunday with solemn ceremonies at the site where 168 people were killed on April 19, 1995. Each year on the anniversary, I recall the connection of the event to this area, though it was somewhat tenuous.
That connection is explored in a chapter of my book, The Turner Report, entitled "Two Drunks in a Motel Room."
I have always prided myself on my news judgment, but there was one time when it failed me completely.
On the morning of April 19, 1995, Publisher Jim Farley, back from his morning trip to the Carthage Police Department headquarters and coffee with Chief Ed Ellefsen, popped his head into the newsroom and said there was a major story, an explosion at a federal building in Oklahoma City. What my problem was, I cannot tell you, but it didn’t click me with me for some time that morning, that this was a major story. At first, before I saw the stories coming over the Associated Press wire, I did not realize that this was deliberately set, an act of homegrown terrorism. The Carthage Press did it give the story the full page-one treatment it deserved, but as Jim reminded me for the rest of the time we worked together, my judgment on that story was lacking.
I made up for that lack of judgment less than two weeks later when the Oklahoma City bombing story made its way to Carthage.
It was mid-afternoon May 1 when two men in a white Thunderbird with Arizona license plates wheeled into the Kel-Lake Motel parking lot, jumped out of the car and headed to the motel office. One of the men was in his 50s, a tall, slender gentleman wearing a dark red cap and a blue flannel shirt. The other man, was in his late 20s, and had a stocky build, long black hair and a thin mustache. He wore a dark blue polo shirt.
The men were smiling as they entered the office. Wanda Jackson, who owned the motel with her husband Norman, greeted them.
“We’re looking for a room,” the older man said.
“We have some rooms.”
“Great. We would like to pay for a week,” the older man said, “but we would like to see the room first.” The men introduced themselves. The older man was Robert Jacks, while the younger one was Gary Allen Land.
“Do you have cable?” Land asked.
Assured that the rooms had cable, Land asked, “How about HBO?”
“Yes, we have HBO?”
As Mrs. Jackson led the men to a room on the far end of the property, she struck up a conversation with the men. “What brings you to Missouri?” she asked.
“We’re looking to stay somewhere for a spell,” Jacks said. “We’re hoping to buy a place somewhere around here.”
As they approached the room, the men were surprised to see ducks and geese strolling through the property as if they owned it.
“Do you have those all the time?” Jacks asked.
“They come over from Kellogg Lake,” Mrs. Jackson explained.
She turned the key and opened the room, a plain-looking room with two beds and a television. After they looked over the room for a couple of moments, they agreed to take it, returned with Mrs. Jackson, signed the register and paid for a
A few moments later, the two jumped into the Thunderbird and drove off, returning about a half hour later with large boxes from Pizza Hut and what appeared to be enough beer to get them through the evening and maybe a few more evenings.
The next morning well before dawn, motel owner Norman Jackson glanced at the register and saw the names. “Gary Allen Land, Robert Jacks,” he said aloud,
and the names were immediately familiar to them. He told his wife, “These are the guys on CNN. These are the ones they are looking for about the Oklahoma City bombing.” The CNN report had not only included the names of Land and Jacks, but had also given a description and license number of the white Thunderbird with Arizona license plates, the same car that was parked in front of the motel.
Seeing a Missouri Highway Patrol car in the parking lot of the Flying W convenience store across the street, Jackson, taking extra care not to look like he was doing anything out of the ordinary, walked across the street and approached the trooper.
“I think the guys at the motel are the ones the FBI is looking for in the Oklahoma City bombing,” he said.
“What makes you think that?” the trooper asked.
After Jackson described the car and the names the men had written on the register, the trooper was convinced. The trooper checked the car, which was registered to Land. Two men in that same car had checked into a Vinita, Oklahoma motel the afternoon of the bombing, left the next morning, and returned later in the afternoon.
After the trooper called in, it was not long before state, federal, city and county law enforcement were in the area, using the Flying W as a command post.
The moment, the FBI arrived, it took charge and agents quietly went to the rooms of other guests to evacuate them and protect them in case anything went wrong with the arrest of Land and Jacks.
The agents did not rush making sure everyone was set up in their proper places before they even started the orderly evacuation of the other motel guests. George and Jacque Williams were sound asleep when two FBI agents knocked on their door at about 5:30 a.m. A groggy George Williams answered the door.
The agents flashed their badges and said, “You need to leave this room as quickly as possible.”
“What’s going on?” George Williams asked.
“I’m afraid we can’t tell you that, but you have to leave and you need to leave quietly.”
Williams said he would and in a few moments, he and his wife were on their way. One more guest was moved out of his room before the FBI contacted Land and Jacks. An agent called the motel room, where the men, surrounded by empty Bigfoot Pizza Hut boxes and beer cans that were just as empty, were wide awake, watching movies on HBO.
“You need to come out of the room with your hands over your heads,” the FBI agent said to Land, who had answered the phone. “Don’t make any sudden moves.”
More than 50 Missouri Highway Patrol troopers and federal agents were blanketing
the Kel-Lake Motel parking lot, aiming weapons at the motel room from every angle. It was a few moments before the door opened, and Land and Jacks exited the room, their hands over their heads.
FBI agents patted them down, handcuffed them, put them in a burgundy
patrol car, and they were back on their way to Carthage.
Though Carthage Press Publisher Jim Farley did not write any stories for The Press, he served up a consistent flow of scoops for his reporters, from the police department and from other sources in government and business during the seven years I worked with him.
On the morning of May 2, 1995, Farley called me at home. He had received a tip that suspects in the Oklahoma City bombing were being arrested in Carthage.
“No, I’m not kidding. This is on the level,” he said.
I told him I would be right there. I was already almost out the door anyway and I only lived about six blocks from The Press. Shortly after I arrived, Ron Graber, the staff photographer, entered the office. I explained the situation and told him to be ready. We were going to offer comprehensive coverage of this story. For once, we would have the advantage over the morning newspaper. A few moments later, Lifestyles Editor Mary Guccione, a former Joplin Globe reporter who had worked for the Press for about two months, came in. Mary was an ambitious reporter who always tried to work her way into big stories, even though those did not always come with her job description. I told her she was going to play a big part in this one.
That left me with one more person to call. “I need to call Kaiser,” I said, referring to our police reporter Randee Kaiser (now a Carthage policeman).”
“You can’t call him,” Mary said. “He’s on vacation.”
“If I don’t call him, he’s never going to forgive me. He’ll want to be in on this
When I called, his wife answered the phone and it appeared Randee was having a heck of a vacation. “He’s fixing the roof,” his wife said. She finally agreed to let me speak to him and either Randee’s scoop instincts immediately went into overdrive or he really didn’t want to spend his vacation working on the roof. I told him not to bother to come into the office. “Get out to the motel and work from there,” I said. “Have you got your camera and some film?”
I told Mary to get out to Kel-Lake and work with him. Ron was developing the rest of the film we had for that day’s newspaper, though we probably would not be using much of it. He and I stayed at the paper for the moment, while Randee and Mary worked the motel and the Flying W.
At that point, the men had not been brought into Carthage. I told Mary to make sure we had advance notice and we would have someone at the police station.
As you might expect, by this time The Carthage Press had company on this story, including representatives from just about every radio and television station
in the Joplin/Carthage area, and reporters from Kansas City, Tulsa, and Springfield
were on their way.
But we did have a jump on the competition and this was our home area. As Randee interviewed the motel owners and the other guests, Mary Guccione was across the street at the Flying W.
This was an odd couple of reporting if ever one existed. Randee stood well over six feet, with dark black hair and a fastidiously-groomed mustache, while Mary, a woman in her late 20s, stood only four feet 11 on tiptoes, spoke with an energetic Alvin and the Chipmunks type voice, and had an appearance of looking ready for the junior prom. It didn’t matter. They were both excellent reporters.
As Mary interviewed people at the Flying W, there was a feeling of relief that two of the Oklahoma City bombers had been captured, and astonishment that it happened in Carthage.
As Mary talked with everyone in sight, she was competing with the local television stations, which were passing their feeds along to the networks. The news of the arrests had people flocking to the convenience store. “It’s been a crazy morning,”
clerk Crystil Hawkins told Mary. “I had to sneak in the backroads to get to work. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The next stop for Robert Jacks and Gary Land was the Carthage police station and that created an immediate problem … the facility was far too small for the attention it was about to receive.
Jim Farley had enough information to let us know the stop would only be a temporary one and that federal officials were arranging transportation for the duo.
I used the computerized filing system Ron Graber had devised for the newspaper to look up information on progress on the construction of a new police station. One of the arguments for the facility was the limited capacity of the present station and nothing proved that point more than this situation. The Carthage Police Department was under siege from the media and the public.
For a while, until I asked the receptionists to hold the calls, I was dealing with reporters from Newsweek, Time, Associated Press, the New York Times, and many lesser outlets (at least from a circulation standpoint) wanting information about the two men.
Despite the limited size of my staff, I had some resources that many small newspapers did not have. In addition to having a publisher with an unerring nose for news, we also had veteran advertising salesman Stewart Johnson, who was an
excellent photographer. We were able to place two photographers, Stewart and Ron Graber, at the police station awaiting the departure of Land and Jacks. It was not going to be easy to get good photographs. Not only was the police station far too small, but the streets around it were already packed with people who were awaiting the departure of the Oklahoma City bombing suspects, or “material witnesses,” as they were being called.
More than 20 media organizations were represented, including all three Joplin television stations, area radio stations, statewide and national news organizations and Carthage resident Richard Bliss, who was videotaping it for his company, Blissful Memories, which normally sold videotapes of school events, weddings, and parties.
Mayor Don Riley told me, “I would say if anything shows the need for a bigger police station in Carthage, this does.” This was not the first experience the station had with a major media event. At the beginning of January 1994, only 16 months earlier, the station had not been big enough to handle the local-only media onslaught following the arrest of a Carthage man for the murder of eight-year-old Douglas Ryan Ringler. The police station was so small that older incident reports had to be kept in a trailer behind the building.
As we waited outside the station, most of the crowd was in the street, effectively keeping traffic away. I worked the crowd, doing something I have always felt was the most overused and overrated segments in newspapers and television— the man-on-the-street interview. This time was a definite exception to my philosophy.
Debbie Parker, Carthage, had been at the scene of the Connor Hotel collapse in Joplin in November 1978, when rescue workers saved a man who had been buried beneath the rubble. “Before this,” she told me, “that was the biggest thing I had ever seen in person. This is something that everybody is interested in. Nobody can believe that such a thing could happen in the United States.
“And who would ever think that someone who might be involved with it would be in Carthage?”
Ms. Parker had been keeping a watchful eye, she said. “I saw the FBI going in there with two big, green bags. I don’t know what was in them.”
Many of those in the crowd wanted to be somewhere where a piece of history was taking place. One of those was 19-year-old Stacey Wecker, a 1994 Carthage Senior High School graduate whose high school volleyball career I had covered (I also covered a considerable amount of sports for The Press, including Carthage High School volleyball and girls basketball games, some junior high games, and some area contests.) “I just wanted to see if they really had John Doe,” Stacey said. Despite the friendly conversations I was having with Ms. Parker and Stacey, there was a definite undercurrent of hate and resentment from this crowd. America had been angered by the deaths of 168 people in the Oklahoma City bombing and two of the men who might be responsible for that brutal act were only a few feet away from the crowd.
As I was talking with Stacey, one of the onlookers shouted, “They’re coming out, they’re coming out! I can see them!” Whatever the woman saw, it was not the FBI with Land and Jacks. It was a false alarm. The crowd was growing impatient, especially those of us who were already past their deadlines, but also those who were supposed to be somewhere else. “I’ve got to go back to work,” Stacey said, but she didn’t move an inch. “I really want to see this.”
A few minutes after she said that, she received her opportunity. Everyone at 213 Lyon Street in Carthage thought they were seeing history in the making and perhaps they were.
FBI agents walked out of the building, with Land and Jacks in tow. The Carthage community, which like the rest of America had been stunned that something like the bombing could take place in our heartland, let the two suspects know what they thought of them in no uncertain terms.
“You bastards!” one man screamed at the top of his lungs, while others called them killers.
“I hope you die,” one mousy, brown-haired woman who did not look capable of such a statement, shouted.
A Carthage police officer on a megaphone shouted, “Get back.” His words were accompanied by the honking of horns from the federal agents’ cars. The agents quickly circled the suspects to keep the crowd from doing any harm to the men. At that point, my only concern, a selfish one, was that The Carthage Press capture that history in the making. The efforts to protect the suspects might keep us from getting the photos we needed … the photos which already had guaranteed that our paper would be at least two hours late in hitting the streets that afternoon … and if we did not get them, it would mean that might not sell enough papers to make that delay worthwhile.
I did not have to worry. Ron Graber and Stewart Johnson did not miss anything. Ron, the best photographer in southwest Missouri (and most other places), caught the photo that ran later that day at the top of page one of The Carthage Press—an FBI agent helping Robert Jacks into a car, surrounded by other federal agents.
It took a while for the crowd to clear enough for the motorcade to leave the station. Land and Jacks were the targets of more verbal attacks, obscene gestures, and waved fists, but no one approached the car. After the crowd was cleared to the point where the federal motorcade could pass through, The Carthage Press contingent zipped back to office, which was about five blocks from the station. We had the material, now we had to write, get film developed, and somehow get our paper printed.
In about a six-hour time period, The Carthage Press staff put together a newspaper that turned out to be one of our best-selling editions of all time. The entire front page was devoted to the story, with Ron’s photo, along with Mary’s story
about the scene at the police station at the top, above the banner. Randee Kaiser’s account of the capture was featured above the fold, as well as a photo he took at the motel of law enforcement officers at work. We had four more stories and a Ron Graber photo on page three, including Mary’s interviews at the Flying W, Randee’s interviews with the motel owners, my account of the reaction at the police station, and my background story on the problem with the size of the police station.
An AP account of the developing story, was also included, which featured some background on the bombing. We used the back page for photos by Ron, Randee, and Stewart Johnson, including a photo of Jacks in the car, covering his face with his cap, a picture of Land and Jacks’ identification, Carthage Police Chief Ed Ellefsen addressing the media, FBI agents searching Room 1 at the Kel-Lake Motel, and onlookers shouting derogatory comments and more than a few obscenities at Land and Jacks as they left the station.
It was one of the biggest stories to ever happen in Carthage … and it was also one of the biggest wastes of time.
As it turned out, neither Robert Jacks nor Gary Allen Land had anything to do with the Oklahoma City bombing, so there was no reason for them not to sign their real names on the register. The two were traveling across the country, mostly following old Route 66, staying in motels, drinking beer, and eating Bigfoot Pizza from Pizza Hut…all on the disability checks Jacks was receiving from the federal government.
Even though it turned out not to be as big a story as we initially thought it was, the capture of Land and Jacks at the Kel-Lake Motel turned out to be one of those days that remind reporters why they got into the business in the first place.
We had the chance to thoroughly cover a local story with national significance and the Carthage Press staff made the most of it.
(One ironic sidebar to the story, the only member of The Press news staff who was not able to participate in the coverage was our sports editor, who attended classes at Missouri Southern State College during the daytime. That sports editor was John Hacker, who has since become the best spot news reporter in this area of the state (and maybe in the whole state) working for The Joplin Globe, the Joplin Daily, and as of this writing, once more on the staff of The Carthage Press.)
Two years after Carthage’s brief brush with fame, a bizarre coincidence put the beer-guzzling, Bigfoot pizza eating dynamic duo back in the pages of The Press. National news sources printed a story about a man named Robert Jacques (pronounced Jacks), who had visited a Cassville, Missouri, real estate office with the two men convicted in the Oklahoma City bombing case, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. The Cassville real estate broker said he contacted federal agents after he saw the arrest of Land and Jacks on television. He also said that the Robert Jacks who was arrested in Carthage was not the man who was with McVeigh and Nichols.
The story was dropped soon thereafter, and so was Carthage’s connection tothe Oklahoma City bombing.